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My Big New Educational Project


It’s been a while since I posted something here at Critical Voter, primarily due to a new project I’m working on that I recently decided deserves its own web site (which you can find starting this week at

Degree of Freedom actually grew out of that Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) in logic and argumentation that I mentioned the last time I posted here on the Critical Voter blog.

While taking that course (and scrutinizing its positives and negatives vs. other methods of learning, including traditional classroom courses), it dawned on me that I might not be giving MOOCs a fair shake, especially since they are likely to vary widely in terms of teacher and video production quality, as well as the scope and quality of course material not related to lectures (such as homework, reading and examinations).

And so I started looking around to see what other courses might be available to enroll in (at least to kick their tires).  This led me into a month long evaluation of course offerings, followed by a second month of research into what educators were saying about this latest craze in high tech education.

Some fans of the phenomenon (including New York Times columnist Tom Friedman) see MOOCs as a revolutionary step forward in open education for a flat world that will eventually turn brick-and-mortar colleges into piles of rubble.  (OK, maybe I’m exaggerating their enthusiasm a bit, since most MOOC advocates still refer to these classes as “experiments,” meaning they admit that the jury is still out on the results of such an experiment.)

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got critics who highlight some of the obvious shortcomings of courses taught to tens or hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously (lack of connection between professor and student, limited ways of evaluating learning, etc.), and others who have tried to run the numbers and see just how many of the jillions of people enrolled in these courses are actually doing anything.

Like boosters, critics can sometimes go over the top (my favorite being this Marxist analysis which determined that MOOCs were the new opiate of the masses).  But in all my reading, it dawned on me that all of these reviews and critiques were based on extremely limited information (at most, statistics or anecdotes related to taking or teaching one particular course).  What seemed to be lacking was the experience of someone taking ALL of the courses needed to learn the equivalent of a full-blown degree program (ideally someone with some background in the various elements that make up a class, including curriculum, lectures and assessments).

And then those dreadful words bubbled to the top of my consciousness: Why not me?  After all, Critical Voter is a wrapped project (even though I’m still hoping to use some new tools to create an e-learning track on this site), and I’m interested in applying what I learned through that effort to a new activity.  And while I’ve toyed with the idea of going back to school on and off for years, it dawned on me that what I really wanted was to study broadly in liberal arts (rather than specialize by getting an advanced degree in this or that subject).

And so I have begun the process of trying to pack four years of undergraduate classes into the twelve months of 2013 (and get this entire education entirely through free educational resources).

The Degree of Freedom blog will document observations about this experience, including analysis of what’s working and what still needs worth throughout the wider MOOC enterprise.

I’ll also be publishing a weekly newsletter that tracks my progress through the One Year BA program, as well as providing reviews of individual courses and links for further reading on the subject.

So please stop by, subscribe to the newsletter, and follow along.  It promises to be an interesting twelve months.

Oh, and by the way… I’m going to major in philosophy.

Wish me luck!

MOOC – Friend or Foe?

Happy New Year to all you Critical Voter readers and listeners.

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted, weeks spent doing the whole holiday thing, such as learning about truth tables and how to organize arguments into standard form.

Yes, I have become one of the hundred thousand plus people to partake in the educational experiment that’s been making news lately: The Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC, for short).

This is a phenomenon that hit public consciousness when one of the companies promoting a free, online course (in this case, on a hot computer science topic) received over a 100,000 subscriptions, surpassing its developer’s estimates by more than an order of magnitude.

The factor separating the MOOC phenomena from other sources of online learning (such as this site) is that courses given by MOOC providers such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX are taught by professors at some of America’s most prominent universities, giving students living anywhere in the world the chance to partake in classes taught in the Ivy’s and other big-name institutions at no cost.

In order to kick the tires of this newly popular educational modality (as well as compare it to other alternatives for online learning, such as iTunes U), I enrolled in a Coursera’s popular course entitled Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.

The course is organized along twelve weeks, with a new set of video lectures (usually totaling 1.5 hours in length) released weekly, alongside exercises accompanying each video lecture and other course materials (syllabus, reading recommendations, graded quizzes released every three weeks, etc.).  I’ve got some catching up to do since I enrolled late, but one of the benefits of the MOOC phenomenon is the ability to join up mid-steam (if you’re willing to cram).

And how is the experience so far?  Well instruction by the two professors teaching the course is solid and clear and since video lectures were shot outside the classroom, they avoid some of the problems associated with many iTunes classes where a professor is simply miked while teaching their regular class (problems such as pauses to answer student questions that you cannot hear off-mike).

That said, the videos are definitely home made with audio, lighting and focus levels doing whatever they want whenever they want, which can be distracting.  And I strongly suspect that these videos were shot at different times and out of sequence (given that at least one of the lecturer’s beard keeps appearing and disappearing, sometimes in the same video).

These distractions are somewhat mitigated by the fact that most of the talks can be just listened to, rather than watched (at least if you can hold the image of text-based syllogisms or truth tables in your head).  And given that most live lectures involve watching a professor pace while talking, I’ve never thought video (or audio) compares that unfavorably with the traditional lecture class (at least with regard to communicating content).

I’ve only gone through the weekly exercises so far, which consist of standard, auto-graded multiple-choice questions of decent quality (I’ll see how they – and I – do on the graded quizzes later this week). And the professors just announced a “contest” involving students submitting and voting on arguments constructed and shot on video, which seems like a creative means of engaging students in a process where manual grading of complex assignments is impossible due to the huge number of students enrolled in the class.

I’ll report more on the experience as I get to the end of the class, as well as comparing this MOOC to other free resources available for learning the tools of critical thinking.  But for now, Think Again provides a nice mechanism for learning more of the formal methodology described but not taught in great detail in Critical Voter, so feel free to join the other 150,000 of us in class sometime.

Aristotle vs. Toulmin

I’ve been introducing readers of my Huffington Post column on how to use Aristotle’s syllogisms and Toulmin’s diagrams to analyze the arguments that can be extracted from negative TV ads.

Regular Critical Voter readers and listeners will be familiar with this material, since it’s repurposed from (and links to) work we looked at during the election campaign.  But if you’re looking to revisit these tools, you can start with;

Negative Ads vs. Aristotle


followed by…

Negative Ads vs. Toulmin


And speaking of Toulmin, I’ve just picked up a copy of his 1990 book Cosmpolis, which was urged on me by a interesting fellow I via Critical Voter earlier this year. It promises to be an interesting read, so keep your eyes open for some thoughts on the subject after the holidays.


Test Yourself

I’ve been playing around with a program that allows me to add automated quizzing to the site, and just posted an online version of one of the quizzes I created for a Critical Voter lesson (the one on bias).  You can try it out by clicking on the new Test link in the top-level menu.

The program seems a bit clunky, especially with regard to collecting test-taker information and outputting individual results.  So, for now, I’ve just set it up to provide automatic grading and details to anyone who takes the quiz.

I’m going to continue playing around with it (as well as look at other options), before automating more than this one sample.  And I’m interested in any thoughts (which you can send me via the Contact Form) if you decide to give the current “test test” a whirl.

Why I Like Negative Ads

I decided to give my Huffpo readers a chance to walk through some of the syllogism and Toulmin analyses we did during election season. Here’s the draw-in:

My suggestion last week that developing the critical thinking skills of the electorate could be a solution to the country’s campaign finance woes was met with a reasonable objection that advertisers have always been able to manipulate the public and always will.  For just as decades of knowledge regarding the health hazards of smoking has not immunized people from the marketing lures of the tobacco industry, so too negative ads will continue to be effective, and thus our only solution is to choke off funding for such ads through legislation or the courts.

One response to this argument is that the country did experience a cultural shift between the Mad Men era when smoking was considered as natural as eating (or drinking at work), and today where tobacco companies are forced to try to get people to start smoking (as opposed to just convincing an automatically smoking public to switch brands).  While part of this social change was driven by coercion (in the form of smoking bans at restaurants, for example), for the most part legislation ostracizing smokers was only put in place after shunning smoking and smokers became a societal norm.

Obviously, the switch to a non-smoking society wasn’t total.  But arguing that changes which took place over the last 30 years are irrelevant, given that people are still addicting themselves to tobacco and smoking themselves to death, is an example of the “Nirvana Fallacy,” the fallacy which states that if a solution isn’t perfect then it can’t be treated as a success.

Similarly, I would never claim that 100 percent of the American public must learn and internalize the critical thinking skills covered in Critical Voter before such a project can begin to bear fruit.  For even if more people started looking at political advertising in a new light, that could lead to some of the social changes we seek (including limiting the effectiveness of monetary campaign donations which could thus limit the ability of money to drive ideas from the public square).

Another commenter liked my suggestion and recommended that it be implemented by simply voting against any candidate that does too much advertising.  But such a shortcut faces a problem if all the major candidates flood the airwaves with comparable amounts of ads (something that happened quite a bit last election).  In such cases, a straight “Damn the Advertisers” strategy would leave us with no option but to vote for marginal candidates whose campaigns do no advertising (which could lead to some long-term benefits, but only at the cost of turning ourselves into one-dimensional voters — in this case the dimension being who advertises vs. who doesn’t).

I also have a personal problem with this suggestion since I actually like negative ads.

I know this might seem counterintuitive, given that negative ads suffer from so many shortcomings critical-thinking wise. For example, negative ads often play loose with the facts (or substitute snippets of information — such as quotes taken out of context or newspaper headlines unrelated to accusations being made in the ad).  Then you’ve got those devices such as ominous music and lighting tricks, all designed to short circuit reason in favor of an emotional reaction.

But negative ads (unlike positive ones which generally just show a candidate smiling at his or her children or talking to a crowd of voters with a concerned look on his or her face) at least present an argument: some kind of case that the candidate is making to try to convince the public. And once we’ve got an argument, we’ve got something to work with.

Now I’m first to admit that the arguments inside a negative ad can sometimes be hard to find, encrusted as they are with manipulative imagery, sound effects and breathless rhetoric.  But I don’t think I saw a single negative ad broadcast during the last election that didn’t contain a central argument that could be extracted and analyzed.  And such analysis can lead to genuine knowledge.

The problem is that most of us are not trained in the use of critical thinking tools (such as syllogisms and argument maps) that could help us turn those manipulative ads into sources of understanding.  But as I mentioned previously, it doesn’t require a Ph.D. in philosophy to utilize these techniques.  In fact, I suspect that everyone reading this piece does more complex things every day.

But there is an art to the process, an art which has largely been lost in our modern age when few people study logic and argumentation, and rhetoric (once a cornerstone of education) is only understood as “mere rhetoric” (an abandonment which has left us at the mercy of those who have not forgotten how to use these powerful tools of persuasion).

So let’s take a look at a couple of negative ads and see what we can do with them if we treat them not with disgust (if they attack the candidate we like) or with indifference or glee (if they attack the guy we hate), but instead as a potential source of enlightenment.

To be continued…

Resources: Media Literacy

Critical Voter included a foray into the subject of Media Literacy, with a focus on how media play off our senses (particularly those of sight and hearing) to propel logical, emotional or authority/empathy- (i.e., ethos-) based arguments.  We also took a look at how changes in media technology (notably the Internet) tend to transform the users of this technology (i.e., all of us).

While I pointed to a couple of resources useful for those interested in delving into the subject of media literacy further, Frank Baker – the creator of this web site – recently alerted me to the wide collection of material he has developed and curated on the subject.

Frank’s site includes lesson plans and teaching suggestions, as well as links to articles on and examples of campaign ads during this and previous campaign seasons.  It’s well worth a visit for anyone teaching (or just interested in learning more) about this important component of critical thinking.

Campaign Finance – Solved!

Republished from Huffington Post:

In addition to trying to calculate the amount of time needed to achieve sufficiency with regard to critical thinking knowledge and skill, I’ve also been curious about how to calculate the cost of not doing so.

And because the Critical Voter curriculum focuses on the recently completed U.S. election, a number that jumped out as worthy of analysis was $2.6 billion. For that is the combined sum both presidential candidates (and associated direct and indirect support organizations) spent trying to get their man into the White House.

Now no one in his or her right mind would spend over a billion to win an election unless the value of victory was much higher than that, which in the case of winning the presidency includes influence over trillions in spending (not to mention the other extraordinary powers and perks of office).

Hollywood movies tend to make news when their budgets break through to previously unheard-of levels, at which point that extraordinary number becomes the new normal.  For example, take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1993 Last Action Hero (please) which was the first film to crack the $100 million mark, after which any film costing under a hundred million was no longer considered worthy of being called a “blockbuster.”

In a similar fashion (and despite countless efforts to “get money out of politics”), somehow the candidates managed to reach a new record of $1+ billion each which we can now assume to be the spending floor for the next presidential race.

It may be that previous efforts to reform the system simply failed to apply the right regulatory, legislative or judicial formula to ensure vast sums don’t flood the political marketplace, and with a little more cleverness and will we can get the formula right sometime during the next four years. Or perhaps new shaming rituals can be devised (possibly facilitated through the Internet) that will cause candidates to stop taking the millions upon millions of dollars constantly being offered them.

But given that each attempt to regulate campaign spending simply creates incentives for new inventive ways to drive donations higher and higher (and given that most of us demonstrate a tendency to want to shame our political opponents while ignoring — or even celebrating — the fund raising creativity of those we support), perhaps we need to look elsewhere for a solution to the dilemma of dollars driving out ideas in politics.

One place to look is at where those billions of dollars are being spent.  And by any measure, a bulk of those funds are being put into political advertising; especially expensive video ads (which now flood not just our TVs, but also our computers, tablets and phones) designed to persuade the public.

But what if this public had obtained sufficient understanding of the tools of persuasion to know what the persuaders are doing?  In other words, what if we the people possessed the critical thinking skills required to see through efforts to manipulate us?

After all, the techniques persuaders use to push us this way or that are neither mystical nor esoteric.  In fact, a quick browse through job listings for political ad agencies indicates that most people working in this field have no more education than most of the people reading this piece.

And regardless of what degree you possess (or whether or not you even went to college), as the Critical Voter experiment demonstrates, anyone (including my eighth grade son) can — in less than eight hours — learn what is needed to avoiding falling for the tricks these persuaders use against us.

Even if you pursue other methods for learning this material (such as taking a course, reading a book, or studying independently), the most expensive of these would barely represent a rounding error compared to the cost of making a bad decision in your life (never mind the billions or trillions associated with not thinking critically about a U.S. election).

As I mentioned during the last Critical Voter podcast, while the cost of learning these vital skills is zero (or close to zero), there is a price to pay in terms of putting these skills to work and using the tools of critical thinking to challenge your own biases (rather than just subject your opponent’s views to scrutiny). But these steps should also be considered a small price to pay, especially given that they are central to becoming an independent and truly free critical thinker.

And if enough of us can learn these skills and put them to work, then our campaign finance problems are solved! For who but a fool would donate, raise or spend millions or billions on ads that no longer work on a public that took the cost-free option of learning to think for ourselves?

Back in Business

After a brief hiatus (and recovery period), it’s time to kick back into gear here at Critical Voter.

While I’ve been reposting pieces written on other sites regarding the Critical Voter project (and will continue to do so), I’m also planning to start adding new material to this site over the coming weeks, including new blog entries, resources and some updates to the curriculum materials.  I may also experiment with an online assessment which I’d love to test out with anyone using the Critical Voter materials in their classrooms.

Drop me a note via the Contact page if you fall into this category, and meanwhile stay tuned for what comes next.



Critical Thinking – How Long Does it Take?

My latest HuffPo piece:

One of the questions I wanted to answer while creating the Critical Voter curriculum (which used the 2012 presidential election to teach practical critical thinking skills) was how long it would take to cover all of the subjects needed to provide students with sufficient skills to be useful in the context of a complex event, such as a presidential race.

Unlike other cultural experiences many Americans share (such as a popular TV show or major sporting event), the things that take place during an election campaign (such as frequent use of argumentation and persuasive rhetoric) make elections an ideal case study for applying various elements of critical thought.

For instance, when studying persuasive language (such as the use of rhetoric) an election provides ample material in the form of speeches and debates where rhetorical devices of various types are deployed in almost every sentence. And arguments can be found everywhere (from party platforms and presidential proposals, to TV ads — especially the negative ones) which students can use to learn tools such as logic maps and Information Literacy.

Key to understanding the answer to my original question (how long it takes to teach this stuff) is the notion of sufficiency. For while it is certainly possible to spend one’s entire life learning about subjects such as logic, rhetoric and cognitive science, the subset of these subjects one needs to master in order to become a critical thinker can be learned in a far shorter time period.

How short?  Well, as it turned out, the time needed to teach this curriculum (which was delivered in the form of audio-based lectures delivered as a podcast) was less than eight hours, during which the following subjects were covered:

Bias — Both the reasons behind it (derived from the study of cognitive science) as well as techniques for identifying and controlling for it


The Modes of Persuasion that underlie most arguments and human communication including logos (logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (authority, or connection with the audience)

Argumentation, including how arguments are organized and can be diagrammed

Rhetorical devices and other persuasive techniques

Media and Information Literacy

Several subtopics were also included in these lessons, including fallacies, mathematical deception and the appropriate use of factual information.

I’ll admit that this timing surprised me (especially since those seven+ hours also included ample time spent on examples from the campaign, as well as input from various guests who provided additional perspectives on what it meant to be a critical thinker).

But upon reflection, I can think of a few reasons why such an important skill seems to take a relatively modest time to teach:

First off, the podcast format taps into the fact that hearing is our most efficient sense for taking in logos (i.e., fact-and logic-) -based information.

Second, the skills needed to achieve sufficiency in critical thinking are indeed finite and relatively simple. This might seem counter-intuitive, given that these skills originate within complex areas such as philosophy and cognitive science. But remember that we are not talking about learning enough to achieve a degree in philosophy or brain science (or any other subject).  Rather, we are talking about incorporating a small subset of practical skills that derive from these admittedly vast subjects into routine activities such as the analysis of information and decision making we do every day.

But this observation provides the third and most important reason why a subject (critical thinking) that can be taught in less than eight hours seems to be in such short supply. For critical thinking skills are similar to other practical skills such as carpentry or mastery of a software program in that they are a mix of knowledge and practical application. And unless those skills are put to use immediately and repeatedly, to the point where they become part of our “muscle memory” (with our brain being the “muscle” in need of training with regard to critical thinking), they will quickly be lost (just as skills obtained by training  on a computer program quickly dissipated if not put to use immediately.

So while one can learn these skills quickly, they do take longer to master. Not a lifetime, but more than the time needed to listen to seven to eight hours of lectures. Fortunately, critical thinking (unlike other subjects) can provide immediate practical value in the form of better grades, shorter (and more constructive) arguments, and better life choices.

For instance, one student (my son, as a matter of fact) learned the importance of primarily using the future verb tense when trying to convince, something that earned him a high grade on a history paper, as well as moderating fights with friends and parents.  And having gained a “win” through use of this one critical thinking technique, he has been motivated to learn, use and (one hopes) internalize more of them.

So far from being some form of esoteric knowledge, critical thinking turns out to be one of the more easy-to-learn and pragmatic skills available to all.  Or at least all those willing to put in the reasonable amount of work needed to achieve success.

How Ignorant Are We

Republished from Huffington Post:

There’s been a bit of hubbub about this piece that tries to make a distinction between different types of ignoramuses that make up the American voting public.

While I find the distinction between belief-ignorance (in which someone — after reviewing facts and data — ends up believing something that is not true) and believer-ignorance (which assumes a false belief despite being aware of accurate information to the contrary) philosophically interesting, the authors might have gotten further had they thought more about the measures they use to separate the ignorant from the non-ignorant.

The starting point for the author’s discussion is the apparent lack of knowledge most Americans have about their own governing structures, which implies a populace that cannot act as informed citizens able to cast votes responsibly. Surveys apparently support these assertions, which are also reinforced by the routine condemnation of the populace by whichever party lost the most recent election.

I would tend to challenge this starting point on several counts. First, the notion that Americans are ignorant (regardless of the type of ignorance they allegedly manifest) is based on survey data that confirms a lack of understanding of our civic institutions. This phenomena is summed up by the accusation that most of us would fail the naturalization exam (a test given to immigrants applying for citizenship), implying that the average American knows less about how their country works than does a foreigner trying to come here.

But this brings up the question of who gets to decide which civic knowledge provides sufficient understanding to qualify as an informed citizen (i.e., which questions get to be on the exam?).  And if the naturalization exam is to be the yardstick for measuring civic competence, might a group of randomly chosen Americans score as well or better on this exam if they were given the same amount of time to prepare as does the average person applying for naturalization?

After all, if eighth graders, on average, demonstrate more understanding of America’s governing institutions than 40-50 year olds, is this because we have become more stupid as we age? Or have more years passed since we last studied civics (during which time our minds might not have emptied, but have been busy learning how to perform brain surgery or understand quantum mechanics)?

As for accusations of stupidity directed at the public by those the public did not vote for, I would guess this involves a biased set of evaluators using selective data (i.e., their own electoral failure) to help them find ways to look outward, rather than inward, when trying to explain their most recent political catastrophe.

After all, it was not that long ago that the question of “How Can They Be So Dumb?” was directed at Americans for voting differently than they did during the last election. So either every decision the electorate has ever made was equally stupid (which would certainly reflect poorly on both current and past office holders), or the knowledge people bring to voting has to do with more than the questions they might find on a civics exam (not to mention the questions asked during a TV comic’s man-on-the-street, “Aren’t-Americans-Chowderheads” routine).

For instance, Americans may vote on “pocketbook issues” based on either liberal or conservative economic philosophies. And even if they are not well read on the works of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill, chances are many of these voters have more direct experience working in economic enterprises and making real-life economic decisions than cloistered scholars who have written books on these and other philosophers.

Similarly, political ideologies (such as Internationalism or anti-Communism) provide reasonable frameworks that can be used to make political judgments regarding international affairs.  Again, many people may cast votes based on blind adherence to such ideologies (or other ideologies wrapped up in party affiliation), but such blinkered behavior hardly correlates with intelligence.

In fact, voting ideologically and — most importantly — rejecting information that does not reflect ideological preference, seems to transcend levels of intellect, which is why we see just as much (if not more) biased behavior in the halls of academia as we do in the bowling alley.  For confirmation bias (not to mention other cognitive biases) are a feature of our species, not a reflection of brainpower. And we humans (of any intelligence level) can (and do) tend to use whatever brainpower we have to erect walls around our unshakable beliefs, rather than put those beliefs to the test.

In other words, perhaps we do not face a crisis of ignorance in this country but a crisis of bias, bias which can make the Ph.D just as impervious to new information as the fry chef. So rather than decry or mock the foolishness of an American on a street corner who cannot name a single Supreme Court Justice, perhaps we should reflect on the ignorance both the Ph.D and chef may be inflicting on themselves due to their (i.e., our) refusal to think about things we all would rather not think about.