Critical Thinking

I have been getting a kick out of the latest conspiracy to hit the political discourse. Of course, I am talking about the “birthers” who claim that Obama doesn’t meet the Constitutional qualifications for being president because he is not a natural born citizen. These nut-job theories are not the exclusive domain of the far right, of course. During the Bush Administration, the whacky left proffered a theory that Bush materially participated in, or at least knew in advance, about the 9/11 attacks.

The point of this post isn’t to credit or discredit the birther conspiracy or any other theory. It’s to get people to try and exercise critical thinking and minimal research on political issues. I received one of those oft-forwarded e-mails this morning that went on a right-wing rant about illegal aliens. Snopes[1] gave it an “undetermined” rating, so the only response was to research was could be researched and apply critical thinking skills to the arguments that couldn’t be easily proven. Both research and critical thinking take some time and work. The work is worthwhile if you care about being informed more than incestuously reinforcing your own preconceived notions.

Using the birther conspiracy as a case study, the first step is to do some research. In an interview between Stephen Colbert and conspiracy theorist Orly Taitz on The Colbert Report, she stated that Obama was not a citizen because his father wasn’t a citizen. We know his father wasn’t a citizen, so it seems like she made a good point. However, we all know from the outrage of some conservatives that all you have to do to qualify as a natural born citizen[4] is to be on American soil at birth. Neither of your parents have to be citizens.

Another claim that Orly made during the interview was that the Social Security Number that Obama used most often would make him 190 years old. A critical thinking approach asks us what the implications of that are. If the person to whom that SSN was issued was born 190 years ago (1819), then how old would they have been when the first Social Security Numbers were issued? A little research[2] turned up that the first numbers were issued in November 1936. Therefore, this person’s identity that Obama supposedly stole would have been 117 years old when his SSN was issued.  As a side note, in fairness other websites and references state that the SSN was issued to a 119 year old person and that math works, so Orly may have just misspoken or may have been heard wrong. The other question is whether SSNs are reused. If they are, then Obama’s SSN may just may be the second issuance of the same number. I thought SSNs were reused, but a little research[3] shows that they are not. The point isn’t whether these specific claims are true, but that we should ask ourselves what the implications of the assertions are, not just accept them at face value because we want to. That is the essence of critical thinking.

I challenge readers to question political assertions, especially coming from those with whom they have idealogical similarities. Think about them in an unemotional, preaching-to-the-choir context. Ask if they make sense. Ask if the assertions are true, then what are the secondary implications of the assertion. Then try to do some research to support or refute those implications. Question the motives of the places at which you conduct your research to try and uncover their motivations. It’s in that implication research that you will often find the lack of credibility.

This approach needs to be done, not just for the nut case conspiracies, but for all public policy.

[1] http://www.snopes.com is an urban legend debunking site

[2] http://www.ssa.gov/history/ssn/firstcard.html

[3] http://www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_born_citizen_of_the_United_States (It’s interesting reading and more complex than you might think)

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3 Responses to “Critical Thinking”

  1. Thor Says:

    My daughter had to submit her original BC just to get a passport. But when the Champion of Transparency is asked to provide the ‘Long” form, the short is provided is all that’s provided. Guess her request to travel is of more important from a validation perspective then say…the highest office.

    But, the tactics for making this issue seem like a farce is a coordinated and successful one. Marginalize the issue by only parading the kooks (Orly), isolate it, etc etc. Sound like a familiar tactic. Not one developed by the right, no matter how much you want to attribute it to Bush/Cheney.

    It only fuels suspicion when something as simple as an original birth certificate (Long form) is not released, especially when most all his past records are not available. Makes it seem like he’s got something to hide. I know I know, I’ll just read his book about himself to get an understanding of who you voted in.

    Glad we have SNOPEs as the authority to validate constitutional compliance. It’s the only media that matters so let’s move on to what’s important.

    Regardless, I have zero doubt he was born in the states.

    I’m Thirsty

    • Gary Murphy Says:

      I put in my first post and headed off to the gym. It dawned on me that Thor didn’t READ my posting, he REACTED to it.

      The blog was about critical thinking. I used the “birthers” as a case study. (I even stated that explicitly). It’s about how to look past the statements made in a political argument and look at the implications of the argument, not just the argument. In fact, the two examples of critical thinking regarding the birthers turned out to be dead ends. That’s ok, too. I really THOUGHT about it and researched it.

      If Thor did indeed simply react to the “birther” topic, then he could be a poster child for what is wrong with political discourse in this country. We are conditioned by Fox and MSNBC to assume that ALL political discourse is an attack that needs a counter-attack. Real, thoughtful political discourse IS POSSIBLE. We have to demand it. I hope to be doing it here.

  2. Gary Murphy Says:

    Sarcasm aside, there’s no one BUT kooks who believe this one. The rest of the story is that the long form was destroyed in 2001 after the records were computerized. Then there’s the issue of the two separate newspaper announcements of his birth.

    As for marginalizing an issue through an ad hominem argument, that existed long before the U.S. existed, let alone the political parties. That is the opposite of critical thinking and the whole point of the article.

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