Anyone who has followed two weeks of impeachment hearings will have been exposed to dozens of arguments, all of which can be analyzed using the tools you have learned about so far on this site. Because most of the hearings consisted of lawyers reading carefully prepared statements, the arguments they delivered were structured in ways that should allow you to determine whether they are valid, sound, strong or weak.
As mentioned last time, you already have the tools to use material thoughtfully provided by House Managers and the President’s defense team to practice the craft of logic-checking. As you do so, you are likely to encounter seemingly complex arguments that turn out to be multiple smaller arguments chained together. If you stick with this site over the next few weeks, you will learn additional methods for analyzing complex arguments that branch in multiple directions. For now, however, I suggest you simply break complex arguments into small enough pieces to apply logic checking techniques you have already learned.
As you go through this exercise (and even if you don’t), I’d like to introduce another set of topics having to do with human psychology.
In looking at different disciplines that have impacted development of critical thinking (such as philosophy, science and psychology), researcher Emily R. Lai points out that while philosophy and science focus on how human beings should think in order to reason well, psychology is interested in how people actually think in the real world.
Despite frequent analogies between brains and computers, the human mind does not learn and make decisions based entirely on data fed into algorithms. Rather, our reasoning is impacted and informed by other parts of our mental makeup, such as emotion and instinct. As you will read next time, emotion and instinct get a bum rap when they are fingered as the leading culprits behind bad reasoning, especially since human reason itself turns out to not be very sturdy.
Historically, philosophers and psychologists considered reason to be what separated humans from lower animals and believed that whenever our reasoning went astray it was because it was overwhelmed by non-cognitive factors such as uncontrolled emotion or animal instinct. But in the 20th century, researchers demonstrated that our minds take mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to help us more easily navigate the world.
For example, one thing all of us routinely do is form stories about how the world works and then fit new information into one or more of those pre-existing narratives.
Getting back to impeachment, if you listened to the House Managers trying to remove President Trump, all of their arguments were in service of a story regarding a renegade Commander-in-Chief who used the power of his office to pressure foreign leaders to help him cheat to win the next election.
That story invokes much older stories about corrupt monarchs who have abused their power throughout history, even stories of fictional tyrants ranging from the evil queen in Snow White to King Geoffrey and Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones. Because these stories are so familiar to us, arguments Trump’s critics delivered were chosen to convince you that it is the story of the wicked king you should look to when trying to understand contemporary events.
In contrast, Donald Trump's defense team build their arguments in such a way as to convince you to accept an entirely different story, this one about a just ruler harassed by powerful, corrupt enemies committed to his destruction. In history and literature, these enemies might be jealous nobles or aristocrats furious over being out of power. While the recent impeachment variant on this story involves elites trying to undo an election they lost, the fundamental storyline persists.
When politicians try to get you to buy into a story, they are not simply making arguments that the world works in a certain way. Rather, they are trying to take advantage of the human mind’s tendency to create and hold onto stories to fix a narrative in your head in hope that you will then be more ready to accept arguments that fit their preferred narrative and reject arguments that do not.
You can experiment with this concept yourself as you go through arguments presented by each side of the impeachment debate. Do you find yourself gravitating towards agreeing with one side’s arguments over the other’s? Perhaps this is because their masterful arguments won you over, but perhaps you were already inclined to agree with them because you came to this exercise already accepting that Trump is a tyrant or his critics corrupt elitists.
If it helps, you should not feel bad just because you may have already bought one story or another without sufficiently analyzing facts and reasons pertaining to the case since this simply proves you are a human being.
But if we are to better grasp how the world really works and make the best decisions, we need to control for tendencies to short-circuit reason. The first step towards gaining control over flaws in our mental wiring is to be aware that they exist in all people, starting with ourselves.