“Critical Thinking” — A Let-Down

“Critical thinking” is a philosophy course that I did not take in college.  A college professor recently told me that it is a course in basic logic and skepticism, and I thought it sounded terrific.  I asked him to recommend a book on it, and he recommended “A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense”, by Normand Baillargeon.

I found most of this book to be OK.  I’ve been in Skeptics societies for over 20 years, and am a subscriber to “Skeptic” magazine, so most of what was in book was not new to me, though I felt it was good stuff.

But in Chapter 5 “The Media” Baillargeon goes completely off the rails.  Firstly he says the whole news media is owned by only a few entities.  To back this up, he gives a chart copied from Mother Jones that is too zoomed out to read (at least on my iPad) and leaves it at that.  I can believe that the major newspapers and TV news channels are owned by a few entities, but there are so many magazines, small newspapers, and especially websites and blogs, that I have trouble believing that they are centrally controlled.  More evidence to back this up is needed.

Throughout this chapter, Baillargeon complains exclusively about conservative bias in the media.  The perception of liberal bias in the mainstream media long preceded the founding of Fox News, and indeed Fox News was a reaction to that perception.  Baillargeon does not refute this claim, he never even acknowledges that anyone makes such a claim.  It is well known that most people employed in the field of journalism are more liberal than the population at large.

Baillargeon talks about “5 filters” on the media.  Regarding the 5th filter, he says “Herman and Chomsky call the fifth and final filter anticommunism.  In fact it refers more broadly to the media’s hostility to any perspective that is left, socialist, progressive, etc.”.

I’m not sure what he means by such a claim.  When he says “left”, my question is “How left does he mean?”.  I think of moderate liberal views as “left”, and “progressive”, and I perceive the mainstream media (for example The New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or CBS) to be extremely friendly to such views.  While I think such media are hostile to leftist extremists, leftist extremists are hostile to most of society, so that’s not surprising.  Furthermore, tens of millions of innocent people were murdered through execution or agricultural incompetence during peacetime under the extreme leftist governments of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, so it’s no more unreasonable for anyone to be hostile to extreme leftists than it is for them to be hostile to Nazis.  Hostility to the extreme left can be defended as a matter of learning from history rather than as a form of “bias” or a “filter on the media”.

To support the idea that certain viewpoints are “censored” from the media, he gives the example of the head of a congressional committee that I had not heard of, who had a financial conflict of interest with his participation in the committee.  If I had seen the committee talked about on the front page of the papers many times, I might be surprised not to hear of that conflict of interest, but it wasn’t that important a committee.  Furthermore, the press never tired of talking about Dick Cheney’s connection with Haliburton, or Hank Paulson’s connection with Goldman-Sachs, or in the old days, Charles Shultz’s connection with Bechtel.

He goes on to list a website called “Project Censored” that lists stories that the authors of the website feel didn’t get adequate press attention.  Again, I didn’t find these stories that earth-shaking.

Baillargeon goes on to give a lot of advice about how to deal with the media in a “critically-thinking” fashion, but he never in the whole chapter gives a crucial piece of advice (probably one he does not follow): make sure you read from sources across the political spectrum, including sources with which you disagree.

He finishes the chapter with a list of recommended news sources.  For one thing, if the whole media are controlled by an evil conspiracy, doesn’t that also go for these recommended sources?  For another thing, while he mentions a few purely skeptical publications, pretty much all of the political publications he mentions are left-leaning.

Overall, I would recommend against this book as an introduction to critical thinking, since the author demonstrates such an appalling lack of critical thinking when we get to the final chapter.

I am reminded of the one philosophy course I took in college.  We read Descartes, Locke, and Hume, during which the professor treated the authors with healthy skepticism and the class was interesting.  Then, the last author we read was Marx, and suddenly all the healthy skepticism completely disappeared, replaced by extreme reverence.  I was really disappointed in that teacher.

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