Fish and Porn

I was standing in line chatting with some people when the topic of fish came up.   “You know that they have made the category so broad that either everything can be called a fish, or nothing can.   They’ve stopped using it.”    The thinking was that they were trying to come up with things that unified the idea of ‘fishness’ in order to classify them, but the factors named were either so broad that nearly nothing was excluded or were so narrow that almost everything was.

Something very similar was said about the fuzzy definition of pornography:   I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.

While it sounded plausible at the time, I admit that it seemed a little … ahem… fishy after the fact.   When I went in search of citations, I found some lively debate by many amateurs.   Interestingly enough, there is some ongoing taxonomy debate regarding what can and can’t be regarded as a fish.

This is one of the reasons why I am careful when I use the words “always” and “never” with a student.   It makes their life harder when they have to change their perceptions again.   One of the things I do say frequently is that there are almost always exceptions, but they depend on the context of the situation.    “Hard rules” will change when the situation changes.   And there is almost always more than one way to look at a math problem.    Or aquatic life… or erotic photography for that matter.

Hmmm…. “I know it when I see it” can look like a pretty good definition.    But critical thinking isn’t just about thinking about categories and definitions, it is thinking about broader context.   At its core, critical thinking is thinking about your quality of thoughts.   Which means that you can NEVER settle on a hard definition.   It all depends on context.   Whether it be how to solve an algebra problem, or figure out how to deal with complex numbers, or even what counts as a fish.   Or what qualifies as porn.

Experts know when conventional definitions don’t work, they need to reexamine the questions.   Those are the questions that are interesting, and worth asking.

From Simpsons, Season 7 Episode 19 - "A fish called Selma"

Stay curious.   And don’t be afraid of asking questions about what qualifies as a fish.  Or porn.   Fish-porn is too weird for my taste, but I won’t judge you.

Teachable Moments

I’ve heard it said that every moment is a teachable moment.

Yeah, right.   Although one time I convinced a pair of proselytizers to read the Tao Te Ching.

Something that I find harder to deal with than another person’s ignorance is a persons unwillingness to examine their own evidence.   I realize that everyone has their own journey, and we have to make our own tools as we go along.   Teachers, parents, and others try to help smooth the path and offer up some alternate tools, ideas, and strategies for dealing with the world.   What isn’t always clear is whether those tools work for every situation.   Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are harmful.

Everyone can use some more tools.  I like the communities that question ideas, because it means that sooner or later bad ideas can be thrown out and replaced with better ones.   Surrounding yourself with like minded people may be comforting, but it doesn’t help with this process.

People are good at recognizing patterns, but they suck at statistics.

When someone hands you an idea (right or wrong) it is really easy for confirmation bias to creep in.   It feels good to have an answer.   This is why people think that horoscopes are true, or think that vaccines cause autism.   Having a bad day?   Mercury may be in retrograde.   Or you may be cursed.   Or fluoride in the water is making you feel sick.

When people spot a pattern, they look at things that confirm their hypotheses and often ignore things that go against their new found pattern.   Critical thinking isn’t easy.   Which is why people feel threatened when you tell them otherwise.

How often to people change their minds?

So… back to teachable moments.  No matter what, you cannot change another person’s mind.   You can only lay the groundwork for them to change their own mind.  Also remember: fear talks louder than reason for most folks.   Acknowledging the fear is good, and it can open the door to reason.

One of the things that is necessary is to get them thinking.  As much as we may want to say “You’re wrong, here is why,” that isn’t productive.   “I’d be happy to talk about that,” is a statement that actually opens people up.   Talking with people can have unintended consequences.   I’ve had to reevaluate some of my own beliefs… and I wouldn’t have if I had talked at people than with people.

 Learning from mistakes

I have an odd juxtaposition.   In private, or in writing I find myself aggressively going after another persons ideas and beliefs.   I’m relentless and sarcastic.    When I’m arguing with the phantom idea, I am loaded with weapons-grade-snark.   In person, manners and civility reign.

It is okay to change what you believe.   No one is immune to bad ideas.   I look on it as weeding my own garden of thoughts… bad ones will choke good ones if you let them.

Every moment is a teachable moment, but sometimes we are the ones who need to learn a lesson.


Going Critical: Bias

The hardest thing with encountering bias is forgiving the person who holds it, especially if it is yourself.

It isn’t easy for people to look at their own prejudices.   It also is hard to think of ourselves as believing in something that isn’t true.  This is why folks surround themselves with like-minded people, and before long find that they are living in an echo-chamber of their own ideas.   It feels good to belong, and so people (myself included) will avoid looking at things that clash with our ideas and ideals.

Eventually there comes a point where you may find yourself in a loop of rationalization, twisting facts and memories to better suit you.   At this point, you have an opportunity.   You can do nothing, continue on as you have before, and retreat to your echo-chamber.   Or you can question your own ideas, challenge them and see if they hold up under scrutiny.

There is a thin line between being committed to an idea, and dogma.

The notion of looking at things dispassionately, without outside influences can seem cold and heartless at first.   It can  open your mind to new ideas however, and give you perspectives different from what you are used to.   Intellectual honesty comes with the price of eating a healthy portion of crow from time to time.   It is embarrassing to admit that you have been wrong, or deceived.

Recognizing bias in others

Spotting bias is like spotting a toupee.   There are some really horrible and obvious ones that stick out!   The subtle ones are harder to spot.

So here are some to the ways to spot bias, and how to evaluate their statements.

  • Look for hidden premises.   Facts are easily checked, but often times people will replace or suppositions or hypotheses for other evidence.     These can be as subtle:  “if rich people have more money, they will spend more and make the economy better.”   The premise may sound plausible, but is untested or untestable.   Which brings us to…
  • Unfalsifiable beliefs.   I find that an important question to ask is “what will change this person’s mind?”  If there is nothing that will change a persons mind about a topic, then you are likely dealing with a dogma rather than a rational belief.
  • Controversial ideas.  Is the idea widely accepted?  Does it go against conventional wisdom?    If it does, it doesn’t mean that it is wrong, but people love to play the underdog.   With these, there will likely be an underlying hypothesis that needs to be examined or tested.  In these cases you may find that they have cherry-picked evidence from disreputable sources, and outright ignore what scientific consensus says.  (For example:  anti-vaccination movement trusts Jenny McCarthy rather than the American Medical Association)
  • Underlying investment.   This is a pretty broad category.   Would you trust a study denying cancer cases from a tobacco company?   How about a parent defending the innocence of their child?   Emotional involvement is a tough nut to crack, and you may find that people will reject anything that goes against it.

Overcoming personal bias

Very few people choose what they believe.   Rather, they take what they were handed by their cultures/parents/peers and then they rationalize it to themselves.   It is easy to distort other positions in support of your own ideology. Personally, I don’t think that it is possible to completely strip away bias and look at the world without any expectations.


It is possible to start to strip away some of the bias that is handed to us.  Start with something small, because the more you have invested in something, the harder it will be to change your mind.   Start asking questions, and make sure you look from answers from both sides of the debate.    As you do this longer and longer, you will find that you are starting to spot logical fallacies more easily.    A word of caution:  everyone slips up  from time to time, and you will find bad arguments and evidence on any side of a debate.

We are all moved to protect ourselves.   Try to notice when you are protecting an idea, rather than improving on your understanding.   Changing your mind isn’t easy.   You will end up feeling embarrassed as hell, but making mistakes is part of being human.   You will be a better person for the effort.

Going Critical: Cognitive Distortions

The process of becoming a critical thinker starts in different places for different people.  Part of the job of teachers is to challenge the way that people think.   Why?   Because without being challenged periodically, we won’t be able to distinguish our good ideas from the bad ones.  Often times the worst of our thinking is about our selves.

How often do we lie to ourselves?    Being able to look at yourself rationally will help to deal with the rest of the world more reasonably as well.   When examining truth claims from others, examining their evidence/reasoning and checking for fallacies is a good idea.    So here are some common cognitive distortions that people often use on themselves.      The roots of these things are harder to sort out… they can be anything  from attempting to make yourself look good to yourself (we all self-edit to a certain degree) to more serious issues like trying to cope with abuse or mental illness.

Please note:   these are all things we all engage in to one degree or another.   Don’t freak out if you recognize that you have done these things, but do think about how to address them.

  • Emotional Reasoning–   Judgments based on your feelings aren’t necessarily true.   Emotions are not actually evidence.  People will justify things to themselves based on feelings rather than facts.   This gets to be a bad thing when we throw in some poor reasoning or justifications for other people’s actions.   “I feel bad, so I’m a bad person.”   Or “I love her, so whatever she does is okay”  (abusers exploit this).    Put together with some of the other cognitive distortions, this type of cognitive distortion can be devastating to a persons self-image.   For instance, people can discount the positive information about themselves and minimize their own needs to their own detriment.   Conversely they can develop a vastly exaggerated opinion of themselves and their abilities and hurt others by inflating their own wants and needs (narcissists do this).


  • Control/Causal Fallacies – These are areas where we try to assume control outside of our influence, or try to assign control to people or events where it doesn’t really belong.   How often do you hear the phrases “you made me jealous” or “they made me angry?”    A person is responsible for their own actions and reactions (and jealous/angry is not the only possible response to the behaviors of others).   Personalization is taking responsibility for the actions of another – like a child or a spouse.    The opposite of this is blame.  Then there are the times when people base their expectations on arbitrary rules of fairness, or expectations that other people will change to make you happy (i.e. basing your feelings entirely on the actions of others is both illogical and dangerous!).   If you find yourself “should”ing all over yourself, be very careful.


  • Categorization Errors  – One example of sloppy thinking is categorization errors.   Categorization is a normal and healthy thing for people to do – it helps to organize data, as well as come up with general responses to things.   But what happens when we mislabel or make hasty categorizations?     A VERY common thing to do is in dichotomous thinking (or sometimes black and white thinking).   This removes any spectrum or nuanced approach to things.   “Either you are with us, or you are against us.”   (Trust me, more people will be indifferent to you).   When used in conjunction with emotional reasoning,  it can be incredibly damaging.   For example, any bad experience can lead to a hasty categorization of yourself as bad, stupid, unlovable, or unskilled.


  • Jumping to conclusions –  Often times we want answers.   Sometimes people will invent answers in the absence of information, which is a good example of jumping to conclusions  or simply faulty reasoning.   Ever known a parent who immediately thought that when a their child was late it meant that they were dead in a ditch?    When used with some other cognitive errors you can make some terrible categorizations:   “Any male over the age of 35 playing with a child is either a father, or a pedophile.”   Yikes!     Another type of behavior that falls under this category is mind readers fallacy, where you can make assumptions about what another person is thinking or feeling.   Note:  what you think they are thinking is more of a reflection on yourself than what the other person is actually thinking!


Again, this is not a comprehensive list of thinking errors that people can make in their day-to-day life.   Once you are able to spot some of these cognitive distortions in yourself, then you can start to address them.    I will say that it takes some humility to admit that you have some flaws in how you think.   Sometimes it is even harder admitting to yourself that you have more worth than you thought.

Yes, it isn’t easy.   Worthwhile things rarely are.

Remember:   we judge ourselves based on our thoughts, we judge others based on their actions.

Think about it.

Going Critical: Logical Fallacies

Teaching does not begin and end at the classroom doors.   It also doesn’t begin or end at our subject matter.   So often we are mentors and guides on people’s larger journeys… and which people so often don’t have the tools for.   And let me be clear:  this isn’t strictly a teachers responsibility, except that part of our jobs to show people how to think.

We live in an era where we have access to more information than in any other time in history.   The interesting things that have come out of this isn’t that people have all moved to become more enlightened, but that they have chosen how to insulate their beliefs.    Critical thinking is essential to this sort of culture, because it allows us to test whether our own ideas/beliefs or those of others have merit.   Critical thinking is necessary tool for people, and often gets overlooked because it is personally painful.    It is difficult have the intellectual and emotional honesty to admit that you are wrong.

We need to weed the damned garden, people.   Remember that you control your thoughts and ideas, not the other way around.

So:   will be the first in an ongoing series of posts about critical thinking.Straw Man

The first thing I would like to introduce are some common logical fallacies that you can use when reviewing a persons arguments.     Just to let you know, there are TONS of ways for people to make bad/misleading claims, and this list of fallacies is far from exhaustive.

  • Ad hominium – This is attacking a person rather than their argument.   “You’re stupid, so you idea sucks”
  • Post hoc ergo proper hoc – “After this therefore because of this.”   For example:   think of a study where they were cutting the legs off of frogs to see if they grew back.   The researchers then were trying to get the (legless) frogs to move around, so they were coaxing them trying to get them to move.   The frogs didn’t move.   The erroneous conclusion:   “cutting the legs off of frogs makes them deaf.”
  • Argument from authority – This is the error that having some authority or knowledge means that the person MUST be correct.   “Uncle Bob has lived in town for years.    His directions have to be right.”
  • Straw man –  This is a technique where someone counters a VERY weak (and often false) counterargument, and uses this to try to validate their own argument.
  • Ad ignorantium –  Argument from ignorance is where technique where if someone does not know that something ISN’T true, then it must be true.   “I don’t know for certain that elves are stealing my socks from the dryer.   I can’t find my socks.   I wish I could find those sock stealing elves!”
  • No True Scotsman- This is where you immediately exclude anyone who does not meet your criteria.    (Sad, but true example in my life)  When discussing (read:  I was cornered and being talked at) what made someone be saved by Christ, I was told that it was “believing in the salvation of Christ.”   When I asked if Vlad Tepesh (aka Vlad the Impaler, or count Dracula) who was devout in his beliefs was saved the reply was:   “Well, he must not be a REAL Christian.”
  • False Dichotomy – Presenting only two possible choices for an explanation or belief.    The truth is there are often MANY different possibilities, not limited to the extreme views.     For example:   Juan wanted to get a pet badly.   He was a sensitive boy, who enjoyed the quiet but who also loved to be gone all day adventuring.   Did he get a cat or a dog?   Both would make sense…    (Answer:   He got a fish).
  • Tu Quoque – Literally it means “you too.”    This is trying to validate or excuse one’s own mistakes by the mistakes of others.  “I know that beating my spouse is wrong, but Karen does it too!”


This is just a few of the ways that people mislead or are misled.   One of the best discussions I have found for the subject is “The Skeptic’s Guide:  Logical Fallacies“.

So – read a paper or listen to the news.   Especially listen to politicians or someone trying to convince you of something – and see if you can spot some bit of flim-flam that they are selling.    Oh, one important piece of information to keep in mind:   just because someones argument or reasoning is unsound doesn’t mean that their conclusion is wrong.

Now:  go forth and use your powers.