In Episode 10 Nick and Dave discuss two of the most common mistakes that careless thinkers make.
Nick: Back again with Critically Minded 101, the podcast for English learners who want to improve their critical thinking skills.
Dave: Or critical thinkers who want to improve their English. We’re your hosts David and Nick. By the way, Nick, is it raining out?
Dave: Oh! But you are all wet.
Nick: Oh, yeah. Your neighbor is washing his car, and he accidentally sprayed me with water.
Dave: Oh, I see. I just…
Nick: Assumed it was raining?
Dave: Well, yes. I did.
Nick: Excellent! Because that is what this week’s podcast is all about – assumptions. But unlike the many assumptions we make in our daily lives, assuming things when thinking critically can cause all kinds of problems.
Dave: So what do we mean by assumptions? Are you assuming everyone know what you’re talking about here?
Nick: Good point David. Yes, I was. I was assuming that most of our listeners are already familiar with the word “assumptions.” Assumptions are part of your belief system. They are something you don’t usually question. Your mind takes for granted that what you expect to be true is true.
Dave: For example, I was on a train one day in Tokyo a year or two ago and there was a Japanese couple sitting across from me. The train stopped and there was an announcement that I didn’t hear. So I asked the couple, in Japanese, if they had heard the announcement. But they stopped me and said, “We’re not Japanese. We’re from Toronto. I felt so stupid because I had just made the kind of assumption about them based on their race that many Japanese make about me because of my race.
Nick: Right, and this has probably happened to many of us before. So we pass it off as just another mistake.
Dave: But this is why we should question our assumptions. Questioning our assumptions helps to prevent mistakes or at least to understand our mistakes better and to admit that we’re wrong.
Nick: Exactly. While there is nothing wrong with making assumptions in our general lives, doing so when trying to think critically about something can mean that we completely misunderstand the question or point or issue.
Dave: So as critical thinkers what are some of the things that we should be aware of.
Nick: Well, first off, all humans have acquired faulty thinking habits. We all make generalizations without any proof to back up what we think or know. We just acquire information and beliefs from our daily interaction with everyone around us. The trouble is that the number of people we interact with is small in comparison with the number of people in our school, our town, our country or, indeed, the world. And thus our experience is limited.
Dave: Yes and we are all prejudiced or biased in some way. We find it easier to let stereotypes guide our thoughts and actions.
Nick: That’s right. We all have false beliefs. Some are either through ignorance or because we are too lazy to check the facts. Or because we have decided to accept the myths and illusions as a kind of truth even when we know that they conflict with the way we know the real world works.
Dave: Educated people used to believe that the Earth was the center of the solar system and that the sun and the planets went around the Earth. Then later when Copernicus and Galileo challenged this explanation everybody got upset and angry about it, even though one could observe through a telescope that everything did not revolve around the Earth. People still refused to believe the evidence.
Nick: If you read about how Copernicus and Galileo’s ideas were received, you can see how stubbornly people will hold onto their beliefs even when they’re provably wrong.
Dave: Earlier you were talking about how we make assumptions about the premises of an argument just because it fits the conclusion, even though there is no evidence to back up the truthfulness of the premises. We base our assumptions on what is normally true, what is usually so. Our past experience tells us what is most probably true about what happening now and what is going to happen in the near future.
Nick: So when a Japanese woman who had studied English for years with teachers from Scotland, Australia, California, Connecticut and Minnesota and who had a high TOEIC score decided to spend six months in Alabama and Georgia she had a rather big surprise when she found that she could not understand most of the English she heard.
Dave: Of course. The spoken English in America’s southern states is very different from the spoken English in the northern, western and eastern states. I had a similar experience myself when I moved from my native state Missouri to New England. I assumed that it would be easy to find a job at a restaurant. But when I began working as a waiter, I found that I could barely understand many customers’ orders. Some of them even lost patience and got angry with me.
Nick: I’m sure you got over that in a few days didn’t you?
Dave: No, it took about three weeks before I began to pick up on the different accents there and some of the different words and expressions. I never imagined that I would have that kind of trouble in my own country! If you think of it in terms of premises and conclusions my weak and flawed argument would run thus:
Premise 1: I have a lot of experience working in restaurants.
And Premise 2: I’m a good waiter.
Premise 3: I am a native English speaking American.
Premise 4: Rhode Island is in America.
Conclusion: Therefore, I should have no trouble working at a restaurant in Rhode Island.
Nick: Nice one and that would have been a good argument. The premises are true, but the conclusion turned out to be incorrect. Because you made an incorrect assumption when you over-generalized the population of the United States. You assumed what was true in one area would be true in another distant area.
Dave: And that assumption, the assumption that things are the same within a given area could be described as a hidden premise. If I had thought about it, I probably would have seen my error. Our listeners will remember that we covered hidden premises back in Episode Six.
Nick: Of course, assumptions when they come in the form of hidden premises, are often just points that we haven’t though about enough yet.
Dave: And many times that’s because we are in a high stress situation and thinking about some points may make us uncomfortable.
Nick: But surely you must have known that people in different parts of the country speak differently.
Dave: Of course I did. I knew from watching movies that people in the east have quite a different accent. But then again, I’ve never seen a movie that takes place anywhere in the United States where I couldn’t understand the English. I’ve never needed English subtitles!
Nick: And there’s one more assumption. Filmmakers want to make money. Actors want to become famous. So they must speak English, which, although accented, is still understandable to the general population of America, and for that matter, English speakers all over the world. We should not assume that movies represent the real world. We should not assume that actors in movies speak the same kind of English as the real people in those locations.
Dave: But you know I found that the native New Englanders were making equally flawed generalization. When some people in Rhode Island met me for the first time they said, “You don’t sound like you’re from the south.” And I told them “Well that’s because I’m not. Sure, I’m from the south–of New England, but I’m not from THE South. No one in Missouri would consider themselves geographically to be a southerner. And you can be sure that few people in Alabama and Georgia would claim Missouri as part of The South either! To me the south is just as foreign as New England was. I’ve never been there. But people in New England often over-generalized nearly all the states south of them.
Nick: You know I often visit Texas with my students and let me tell you, it’s not always easy to understand what a Texan is talking about. But asking questions to confirm understanding helps prevent mistakes. You know another good example of this, is what happened to me a year ago or so. A teacher at my university told me that student X would do well in my exam because he had been working so hard.
Dave: Well, generally speaking that’s true isn’t it? Student X worked hard so he’ll pass the exam. It seems like a good deductive argument to me.
Nick: Well, yes, it is a deductive argument, but what is inferred here is that student X is intelligent; that he has a good teacher; and that he has a good memory. My colleague was also assuming that the questions on the exam would be those that student X knew a lot about and was confident of answering. What if the exam was about vegetables, and student X had spent all his time concentrating on apples and bananas?
Dave: Mmm, I see. So if all the assumptions are true then we could conclude that student X would do well, but if one or two is false then the conclusion could be wrong. So? How did the student do on the exam?
Nick: Well if he had turned up on time he could have taken the exam, but he was so late I couldn’t let him into the examination room. Ask me again next year. Well David, do we have time for one more example?
Nick: It’s one of my favorites. It’s about swimsuits. Technology has for a long time limited the design of women’s swimsuits. It’s very difficult to find material that is strong enough to be used in salty sea water and the chlorinated water found in swimming pools, because the material has to be light in weight; able to stretch around the body and able to hold printed patterns or dyes.
Dave: I guess the manufactures spent quite a lot of money trying to develop suitable materials that were inexpensive so that people could afford to buy them.
Nick: Well, yes, you are right. They did spend a lot of time and money on developing new materials. Until that was, when someone decided to do some basic research. One of the questions asked was how many times a season do you swim in your swimsuit? It was then that the manufactures discovered that 90% of women’s swimsuits never got wet (except in the laundry). Most women only ever used their swimsuits for sunbathing and not for swimming.
Dave: You mean to say 90% of women didn’t go swimming at all in their swimsuits?
Nick: Yep! Our assumptions were wrong. I guess the word swim in swimsuits so strongly suggested that that is what they are used for that no one ever challenged the assumption. No one ever questioned whether women wore swimsuits for swimming. Which is why we see more and more women’s swimsuits with labels inside marked: “Not for swimming. Dry clean only”.
Dave: Huh. I did not know that. Amazing! Well, I guess it’s time for our quiz. Listeners are you ready for this week’s quiz? The first 5 questions are true or false questions. They are kind of easy and are just to warm you up for question number six, which is a little more difficult.
Nick: Right, so if you are ready. Number 1. True or false? The toilet seat has more bacteria than any other place in your house.
Dave: Number 2. The sun is white.
Nick: Number 3. Cave men used to hunt small dinosaurs for food.
Dave: Number 4. Microwave ovens cook food from the inside out.
Nick: Number 5. An electric fan will cool a room.
Dave: And now question number 6. Is the following statement good news or bad news? Whatever your answer make a note of why you think it is good or bad news. Here we go. Number 6. The good news is that rape is on the decline – there are 20% fewer police reports this year than when compared to last year.
Nick: So until next time this has been, Critically Minded for 2nd Language Learners.