Do you want to be able to say ’You are making the truth claim, you have the burden of proof’, or ‘I hold this idea as a provisionary conclusion and I am waiting for further information’? Then you’ve come to the right place. Below we dive deeper into some terms and concepts that will help you deal with tricky customers.

  • 1. Connotate/Denotate

    Language is a blunt instrument. While we use words in order to designate objects in the real world, they are abstract, vague and imprecise, and often evoke emotions, both positive or negative. Words change meaning depending on the context. The choice of which words to use amongst available options, can be used as a device to persuade others for or against a particular point of view. Two words can denote the same thing but have very different connotations.

    Denotations are the literal meanings of words. Connotations are the meanings or emotions that they elicit. For example, consider the words: war, intervention, conflict, assault, crusade, campaign, mission and operation. Each denotes a military action, but each also carries connotations which elicit different emotional reactions.

    Always keep in mind when words are used with connotations that could influence your views. Try as an exercise, to substitute connotations used with denotations to see if you see the argument differently. Does it have more weight behind it or was it a vacuous argument in the first place?

    "When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom."Confucius
  • 2. Deductive/Inductive

    Inductive and deductive reasoning both use premises to reach a conclusion. However, how each type of reasoning gets to the conclusion is different.

    Deductive reasoning is when use general principles as premises and arrive at a specific conclusion. Deductive reasoning is also known as ’top down reasoning’. In the case of deductive reasoning, the conclusion must be true if the premises are also true. For example, 'All cars have engines. I have a car. Therefore, my car has an engine.' We know that the conclusion is true because it is based on generalised premises that are true without any exceptions.

    Inductive reasoning is when you use specific examples or instances as premises and arrive at a general conclusion. Inductive reasoning is also known as ‘cause and effect reasoning’ or ‘bottom up’. Because inductive reasoning is based on specific instances, it can often produce weak and invalid arguments. For example:

    “My older sister is good at chemistry. My friend's older sister is good at chemistry. My neighbour's big sister is a chemistry tutor. Therefore, all older sisters are good at chemistry.”

    It is good if you can tell the difference so you can combat a argument that is fallacious in some way. If your interlocutor has formulated a deductive argument and you think it is ant quite right than check the premises. A deductive argument is only necessarily right if the premisses are right, remember. If your opponent is offering a Inductive argument, although perfectly acceptable, they are already on shaky ground because even if the premisses are right the inferences is not necessarily right. There is always a degree of probability with an induced argument. Try it out your self.

    "The slumber of reason breads monsters."Francisco De Goya
  • 3. Good Faith Arguments

    Good faith, also known as the principle of charity, is about engaging with people in a fair, open, sincere and honest way. When making assumptions about others’ motives, we should assume that an argument is being made in good faith, i.e that the person is not deliberately trying to deceive us. Try to understand what your opponent’s argument is accurately and honestly. The reason why it is important to argue in good faith is because when you do so, you are making your best attempt at seeking the truth. This doesn’t mean you should put up with other people taking liberties and using your good faith argumentation against you. If this happens, pointing out your their bad faith argumentation can help you.

    Remember, the goal of a critical thinker is not to win a debate. The goal is to seek out the truth. Don’t follow the winner; follow the evidence. The media often portray debates as a contest, but it is not important who is considered to have won a debate, especially when the winner is considered as the one who has used the better rhetoric, longer words or made more putdowns over the other person.

    "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to route the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion."John Stuart Mill
  • 4. Interlocutor

    An interlocutor is simply the name for a person who is involved in a conversation or dialogue. You can have multiple interlocutors in a conversation. It is important to know the term in case someone uses the word. Other words can be used interchangeably with interlocutor, such as conversation partner, hearer or addressee.

    "Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession."Kingman Brewster, Jr
  • 5. Parsimony/Occam’s Razor

    Parsimony colloquially can be referred to as being frugal with one’s money or resources. In science, critical thinking and other related fields it has a different meaning. In science parsimony means to choose the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence. For example, following the parsimony principle would guide us in choosing one hypothesis over another one that explains the same thing but in a more unnecessarily complicated or longer way.

    It is also known as Occam’s Razor: ‘The simplest explanation is usually the right one’. We use this principle widely in many different areas in order to make decisions and problem solve. Doctors use it to make a prognosis, Detectives use it in solving crime, Astrophysicists apply it when investigating the universe, and so on.

    Parsimony can also be meant as the shortest way of explaining something. For example in mathematics you can express an equation in many different ways but the shorter one is always better: 5+5=10 is better than 2+18=20 20/2=10.

    Why is this useful? Well, when some people talk they are often verbose and use many unnecessary extra words then they need to. It is important to try to identify and filter out the redundant aspects of what a person is saying and to focus on the actual argument. Redundant aspects could include poisoning the well, connotations, red herrings, jargon and more. This can be done on purpose or due to ignorance. Next time when someone makes an argument try and reduce what they are saying down to it’s simplest form. This can be pretty funny sometimes when you encounter a person talking for minutes and you can sum up what they said in one sentence.

    "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."Albert Einstein
  • 6. Provisionary Conclusion

    Often people hold positions they carry as being part of their identity so when information comes along that challenges their point of view, they find it hard to exert an amendment to that view. It is like a belief and it doesn’t feel good admitting you had it wrong in the first place.

    A good critical thinker understands that a particular conclusion is only relative to the information they have at a particular point and could change at any moment in light of new data. It is important to know that your points of view are neither you or the person you may happen to be talking to. So when it comes time to changing your point of view it is a lot easer to do so.

    When someone asks you what you think about a certain position it is good practice not to commit your self in either way. You can say “My provisional Conclusion is…” or “at this point in time the information available to me suggests that…”

    In some way you could say a person who always has provisional Conclusions could never be wrong because they never commit to anything in the first instance.

    If you are making a decision about something you can only base it on information you currently have. When you do so it is the best decision at that particular point in time.

    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it"Aristotle
  • 7. Scientific Method

    The scientific method is a method or procedure for answering questions about observed phenomena. The steps include:

    1. Propose a question

      If you’ve ever observed something in the natural world and asked: why does it do that? or, why is it like that and not something else? Being inquisitive and asking questions is the first step in starting to explore answers and to finding out the underlining principles of the natural world.

    2. Construct a Hypothesis

      A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomena as a starting point for further investigation. Sometimes theory and hypothesis are used interchangeably; however, they are different. A hypothesis only becomes a theory once it has passed rigorous testing. To construct a hypothesis about how something works, you start by researching existing information and experiments, using logic and arguments to develop a possible explanation. The hypothesis is used to devise an experiment. A good hypothesis should:

      • be fair - account for all factors, leaving one variable which is the question you are testing.
      • not contradict itself - be internally consistent.
      • be falsifiable - be able to be proved wrong.
      • repeatable - be able to be tested by anyone over and over again.
      • make predictions - e.g. if x happens then y will happen.

    3. Test the Hypothesis

      An experiment is carried out under controlled conditions. An experiment could include placebos or double blind tests, and could be laboratory, natural or field based. Empirical measurements are taken or observed.

    4. Draw a Conclusion

      Analyse your data. What did the experiment show? Was it in line with the hypothesis’s predictions? Or did the predictions not come true? A negative result is still a result because you can rule x out and deduce something is incorrect.

    5. Publish Results

      Once the analysis is finalised it’s time to share it with the world. Scientists publish the results on online journals and publications to communicate the results to the scientific community. Anyone can view the findings, query them or repeat the experiment themselves. Other experiments can also be devised that are more accurate or a different in some way.

    6. Becoming a Theory

      Only once many vigorous experiments and a lot of querying has taken place can a hypothesises become a theory (a theory is not proof. It is a best explanation of an observed phenomena. Only mathematics uses proofs, in common language we use the word fact). Only if it has passed the many experiments and after it has been subjected to thorough scepticism and query can a hypothesis become a theory.

    7. Beyond the theory
    8. It doesn’t stop there. Although once a hypothesis becomes a theory and is considered pretty robust, it is still subject to change in light of new data. A theory has explanatory power so as long as it is explaining observed phenomena well. However if a theory isn’t explaining new observations, it needs to be revisited and looked at again. This doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bath water. It could be there is a new underling principle acting or a part of the theory needs to be amended in some way.

    Notice how the scientific theory uses critical thinking tools such as skepticism, burden of proof, provisional conclusions, etc.

    "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know."Robert M. Pirsig
  • 8. Skepticism

    Skepticism is about applying a questioning attitude to common knowledge or beliefs stated as facts. Skeptics use the scientific method and apply reasoning and critical thinking to determine whether something is true or not. The scientific method requires evidence, ideally derived from validated testing. Skeptics are comfortable holding conclusions as probabilities and would rather accept not knowing something however uncomfortable, than accepting a belief just because it is comforting or beneficial.

    People often confuse skepticism with negativity or being deliberately incredulous; however, this is incorrect. Skeptics are simply following the scientific method in questioning the evidence for a stated claim in an honest search for the truth.

    If someone is trying to make you believe or convince you of something and you think something is not quite right or you want more information, you can say to the person ‘I am sceptical of that’ and that allows you not to commit to anything straight away. If someone is really being a really tricky customer and is accusing you of being purposefully disbelieving and difficult, you can respond by clarifying that you mean that you will be taking more time to think it through, gathering more information and looking at the evidence in more detail.

    We are born into a world where dominant beliefs prevail which we often take for granted as common knowledge. Think of a dominant belief that we hold as true, and apply skepticism to it to see if it really holds up.

    "To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection."Heni Poincare
  • 9. Syllogism

    A syllogism is the smallest logical structure an argument can be, which uses two premises which are asserted to be true to arrive at a conclusion. It comprises of a general statement (major premise), a specific statement (minor statement) and one inference. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first that we know of who hit upon this and who coined the term syllogism. A common example of a syllogism is:

    All men are mortal
    Socrates is a man
    Therefore, Socrates is mortal

    Syllogisms are usually written in three lines without fullstops. You can also use letters to represent the premises and the inference.

    all M is C
    all B is A
    therefore all B is C

    There are 256 possible types of syllogisms; however there are only 24 are valid types (a valid type is when the conclusion does logically follow from the premise).

    "It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well."Rene Descartes
  • 10. Thought Terminating Cliche

    In 1961, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton released his book ‘Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China’ where he coined the term "thought-terminating cliché”. In his book, Lifton identifies six characteristics of a totalitarian society. One of the characteristics is the common use of thought terminating cliches to neutralise dissent. A thought terminating cliche is a commonly heard or accepted phrase that is used in justifying fallacious logic as a substitute for a well reasoned argument. One can be fooled at first because they are so common and sound reasonable on the face of it, however closer examination shows that they carry no information and are completely vacuous of any real argument or content.

    Lifton said: "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis."

    "A doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away."Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

    Here is a short list. There are many more. What is your ‘favourite’ TTC?

    • “Because”
    • “That’s a given”
    • “Its common sense”
    • “Everyone is entitled to their opinion”
    • “To each his/her own”
    • “When you get to be my age”
    • “It works in theory but not in practice”
    • “There are always two sides to an argument”
    • “Such is life”
    • “Because It is what it is”
    • “What can you do?”
    • “Whatever”

  • 11. Truth Claim/Burden of Proof

    An argument usually starts by someone making a truth claim. That is a claim about the world that we live in that they are saying is really true or exists in some way. When some one makes a truth claim the burden of proof is on them to justify what they are saying with evidence and good sound arguments. It is not up to someone else to justify why it is incorrect. If some one tells you that they must be right because you can’t prove them wrong this is called an “appeal to ignorance”. It is also “shifting the burden of proof” on to you.

    Many of the things we here today people claim to be true without any challenge. Sometimes they use claims of truth as premises for other arguments. Watch out for whenever someone tries to shift the burden of proof on to you or someone else. You can get back on topic by stating that they have made the truth clam and that it is up to them to justify it.

    "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."Nietzsche