Last time, I talked about the role language plays in critical thinking, specifically the need to translate normal human language into unambiguous statements that can be used in logical arguments that can be tested for quality.
While this translation process, like any translation process, is as much art as science, there are some principles that can be applied to maximize clarity when creating statements that will serve as the premises or conclusion of an argument.
The first principle is accuracy. By this, I don’t mean that statements must be factually true. Rather, I mean that our translation of someone else’s prose, whether written or spoken, needs to correctly reflect what the person who made the original statements was trying to say.
Once those statements have been accurately translated and placed into a logical argument, we can then check their veracity as part of logic-checking the argument for validity and soundness. At this stage of the process, however, we just want to make sure that our translated (often simplified) version of someone else’s prose captures what they were trying to say without distortion (accidental or intentional).
Continuing with examples from the recent US killing of Qassem Soleimani, Major General of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, this was an answer to a question Presidential candidate Joe Biden gave during an interview after Soleimani’s death:
Iran now is going to be the person occupying and influencing Iraq, which is clearly not very much in our interest,
That answer can be translated into the following statements:
The killing of Soleimani will increase Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Increasing Iran’s influence in Iraq is not in the interest of the United States.
Notice that our translation ignored irrelevant errors (such as Biden referring to Iran as a “person” rather than a nation), while focusing on the key points the former Vice President was trying to make.
Biden continued by saying:
We have to face this alone, without our allies. The (Trump) administration didn't consult or warn them, even though their interests are at stake, too — even though NATO countries have forces in the region as well. NATO countries now are telling both — our allies, NATO — are telling both the United States and Iran, treating us both as part of the problem. Not Iran. Not us. Both of us.
Those lines can be accurately translated to the following more-streamlined statements:
The Trump Administration did not warn US NATO allies about their plan to kill Soleimani.
NATO allies are treating the US and Iran as equally part of problems resulting from the killing of Soleimani.
We can perform the same exercise on President Trump’s comments on Soleimani’s killing, delivered (as he often does) via tweet, starting with:
While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!
Turning from Twitter-speak to language more useful in a logical argument:
Soleimani was hated and feared by the people of Iran who are not saddened by his death.
The Iranian government is hiding the fact that the people of Iran are glad Soleimani was killed.
Soleimani should have been killed many years ago.
We can do the same for a second Trump tweet on the topic:
Over the last 15 years, Iran has gained more ... and more control over Iraq, and the people of Iraq are not happy with that. It will never end well!
This translates to:
Iran has gained more and more control over Iraq in the last fifteen years.
The Iraqi people are not happy with the control Iran has over Iraq.
Iran’s attempt to control Iraq will not end well.
Once again, we do not have to debate whether these statements are true or false (yet). Rather, we just have to be sure that before we decide an argument is valid or invalid, sound or unsound, strong or weak, that we are critiquing what Biden or Trump (or anyone else) actually said, rather than wasting our time debating arguments that were never made.