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by David Barnhill last modified Oct 12, 2011 07:41 AM

Positions on environmental and social issues are shaped by assumptions, values, and beliefs that are often unstated. Learning how to discern bases--yours or someone you disagree with--is crucial to clear and effective thinking.

Developing your ability and propensity to engage in critical thinking is one of the central goals of the ES program. Most any environmental program can teach basic vocational skills. What the world needs is more critical thinkers. Otherwise we will never adequately deal with complex environmental issues or discover new directions.

Usually conceptions of critical thinking focus on the evaluation and proper use of evidence, and the application of clear logical thought. But just as important, and far more difficult, is discerning the unstated bases by which the use of evidence and logic is shaped (or warped).

If you want to know your own positions—and challenge and deepen them--you need to examine your bases. Similarly, if you want to analyze and critique another person’s position—Governor Walker’s or Al Gore's—you need to discern these implicit factors. (Believe me, Walker and Gore have very very different bases.) Because these crucial factors are usually unstated, debates about environmental and political issues often are unproductive because the fundamental differences are found in these fundamental bases that nobody is considering.

So, what the heck are bases? Here are just a few examples.
* When you are analyzing an issue, are you thinking in terms of the next few years or the next 50 years? Which time frame you are applying will greatly affect your thinking.
* Is your fundamental goal economic efficiency, growth, and materialistic affluence, or social justice and environmental sustainability?
* Is your notion of sustainability limited to the ability to indefinitely continue some practice (such as periodic clear-cutting) or does it include social justice and economic security?
* Do you give greater authority to corporate scientists or the Union of Concerned Scientists?
* Do you think we have some environmental problems that need improvement, or do you think we are heading toward an ecological collapse if we don’t make dramatic changes?
* Are we autonomous individuals with no inherent responsibility to other people, or are we members of a family with responsibility to all?
(You can bet Governor Walker and Al Gore answer those questions differently. But in a debate these issues may never come up.)

Here is a rather abstract list of some bases that are shaping your thought, as well as Walker's and Gore's. Some of these will be directly relevant to your thesis, others not so much. Some will be easy to recognize, others nearly impossible to discern. But in working on your thesis, keep these in mind. Begin to make a list as you go along, and you will start to be able to recognize them more easily. When you read someone else's position on an issue, spend time trying to think of what assumptions or unstated values or unspecified definitions are at work.

When you hand in the first and final drafts of your thesis, you must include a separate list of the bases that are at work in your thesis. This is merely a list. Put down just enough to get the point across.

To give you an idea of what a list of bases can look like, I've put together my own list. This will give you a sense of what someone's bases can look like and what a list you hand in with your paper could look like. If we were to engage in a debate about environmental and social issues, the most important thing to debate would be these bases. Then we could examine evidence and apply logic.

Happy digging.

As an example of an idiosyncratic set of bases, see a list I have made of my perspective.

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by David Barnhill last modified Oct 12, 2011 07:41 AM