Reflection 3

Reflection #3 

Movie: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Pages: 3 to 4


To relate the material in Chapter Four, “Perceiving and Believing” to the assigned film. Your paper (3-4 pages) will consist of three sections as follows.

Introduction Paragraph (2 pts.)

Briefly summarize the film in five sentences or less.

Thinking (6 pts.)

What was the event that inspired the film

What caused the event

What was the response

How did different points of view include factual reports, inductive inferences, evaluative judgements

How do perceptions and beliefs of others influence awareness of our “lenses?”

Conclusion Paragraph (2 pts.)

Briefly explain how the text relates to the text in Chapter Four, “Perceiving and Believing.”

Reflection #3

Movie: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Pages: 3 to 4



To relate the material in Chapter Four, “Perceiving and Believing” to the assigned film. Your paper (3-4 pages) will consist of three sections as follows.


Introduction Paragraph (2 pts.)

Briefly summarize the film in five sentences or less.


Thinking (6 pts.)

What was the event that inspired the film

What caused the event

What was the response

How did different points of view include factual reports, inductive inferences, evaluative judgements

How do perceptions and beliefs of others influence awareness of our “lenses?”


Conclusion Paragraph (2 pts.)

Briefly explain how the text relates to the text in Chapter Four, “Perceiving and Believing.”






Chapter 4


Things aren’t always what they seem! This “Mae West Room” in the Salvador Dali museum illustrates the complex and surprising nature of the process of perceiving and making sense of our world. How do we develop clear and accurate perceptions of the world that are not biased or slanted toward one perspective?


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david pearson/Alamy Stock Photo

Perceiving is the act of actively selecting, organizing, and interpreting sensations: selecting sensations to pay attention to, organizing sensations into a design or pattern, interpreting what this pattern or event means. Experiences shape our perceptions. We view the world through our own unique, lenses, which shape and influence our perceptions. We construct beliefs based on our perceptions. We construct knowledge based on our beliefs. Thinking critically involves understanding how, lenses, influence perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge.

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© 2019 Cengage

Thinking is how you make sense of the world. By thinking in an active, purposeful, and organized way, you are able to solve problems, work toward your goals, analyze issues, and make decisions. Your experience of the world comes to you by means of your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. These senses are your bridges to the world, making you aware of what occurs outside you; the process of becoming aware of your world through your senses is known as perceiving.

In this chapter, you will explore the way your perceiving process operates, how your perceptions lead to the construction of your beliefs about the world, and how both your perceptions and your beliefs relate to your ability to think effectively. In particular, you will discover the way you shape your personal experience by actively selecting, organizing, and interpreting the sensations provided by the senses. In a way, each of us views the world through a pair of individual “eyeglasses” or “lenses” that reflect our past experiences and unique personalities. As a critical thinker, you want to become aware of the nature of your own lenses to help eliminate any bias or distortion they may be causing. You also want to become aware of the lenses of others so that you can better understand why they view things the way they do.

At almost every waking moment of your life, your senses are being bombarded by a tremendous number of stimuli: images to see, noises to hear, odors to smell, textures to feel, and flavors to taste. The experience of all these sensations at once creates what the nineteenth-century American philosopher William James called “a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion.” Yet to us, the world usually seems much more orderly and understandable. Why is this so?

In the first place, your sense equipment can receive sensations only within certain limited ranges. For example, animals can detect many sounds and smells that you cannot because their sense organs have broader ranges than yours do.

A second reason you can handle this sensory bombardment is that from the stimulation available, you select only a small amount on which to focus your attention. To demonstrate this, try the following exercise. Concentrate on what you can see, ignoring your other senses for the moment. Focus on sensations that you were not previously aware of and then answer the first question. Concentrate on each of your other senses in turn, following the same procedure.

1. What can you see? (e.g., the shape of the letters on the page, the design of the clothing on your arm)

2. What can you hear? (e.g., the hum of the air conditioner, the rustling of a page)

3. What can you feel? (e.g., the pressure of the clothes against your skin, the texture of the page, the keyboard against your fingers)

4. What can you smell? (e.g., the perfume or cologne someone is wearing, the odor of stale cigarette smoke)

5. What can you taste? (e.g., the aftereffects of your last meal)

Compare your responses with those of the other students in the class. Do your classmates perceive sensations that differ from the ones you perceived? If so, how do you explain these differences?

As you perform this simple exercise, it should become clear that for every sensation you focus your attention on, countless other sensations are simply ignored. If you were aware of everything that is happening at every moment, you would be completely overwhelmed. By selecting certain sensations, you are able to make sense of your world in a relatively orderly way. The activity of using your senses to experience and make sense of your world is known as  perceiving .

Actively Selecting, Organizing, and Interpreting Sensations

It is tempting to think that your senses simply record what is happening out in the world, as if you were a human camera or tape recorder. You are not, however, a passive receiver of information, a “container” into which sense experience is poured. Instead, you are an active participant who is always trying to understand the sensations you are encountering. As you perceive your world, your experience is the result of combining the sensations you are having with the way you understand these sensations. For example, examine the following collection of markings. What do you see?

FIG 04.02

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© 2019 Cengage

If all you see is a collection of black spots, try looking at the group sideways. After a while, you will probably perceive a familiar animal.

From this example, you can see that when you perceive the world, you do more than simply record what your senses experience. You are also actively making sense of these sensations. That is why this collection of black spots suddenly became the figure of an animal—you were able to actively organize these spots into a pattern you recognized.

When you actively perceive the sensations you are experiencing, you are engaged in three distinct activities:

1. Selecting certain sensations to pay attention to

2. Organizing these sensations into a design or pattern

3. Interpreting what this design or pattern means to you

In the case of the  figure  , you were able to perceive an animal because you selected certain of the markings to concentrate on, organized these markings into a pattern, and interpreted this pattern as representing a familiar animal.

Of course, when you perceive, these three operations of selecting, organizing, and interpreting are usually performed quickly, automatically, and often simultaneously. Also, you are normally unaware that you are performing these operations because they are so rapid and automatic. This chapter is designed to help you slow down this normally automatic process of perceiving so that you can understand how the process works.

Let’s explore more examples that illustrate how you actively select, organize, and interpret your perceptions of the world. Carefully examine the following figure.


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Mary Evans Picture Library

Do you see both the young woman and the old woman? If you do, try switching back and forth between the two images. As you switch back and forth, notice how, for each image, you

· Select certain lines, shapes, and shadings on which to focus your attention

· Organize these lines, shapes, and shadings into different patterns

· Interpret these patterns as representing things that you are able to recognize—a hat, a nose, a chin

Another way to become aware of your active participation in perceiving your world is to consider how you see objects. Examine the illustration that follows. Do you perceive different-sized people or the same-sized people at different distances?

The same man seems to get smaller the further he stands.

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© 2019 Cengage

When you see someone who is far away, you usually do not perceive a tiny person. Instead, you perceive a normal-sized person who is far away from you. Your experience in the world has enabled you to discover that the farther the things are from you, the smaller they look. The moon in the night sky appears about the size of a quarter, yet you perceive it as being considerably larger. As you look down a long stretch of railroad tracks or gaze up at a tall building, the boundary lines seem to come together. Even though these images are what your eyes “see,” however, you do not usually perceive the tracks as meeting or the building as coming to a point. Instead, your mind actively organizes and interprets a world comprising constant shapes and sizes, even though the images you actually see usually vary, depending on how far you are from them and the angle from which you are looking at them.

In short, your mind actively participates in the way you perceive the world. By combining the sensations you receive with the way your mind selects, organizes, and interprets these sensations, you perceive a world of things that is stable and familiar, a world that usually makes sense to you.

The process of perceiving takes place at a variety of different levels. At the most basic level, the concept of “perceiving” refers to the selection, organization, and interpretation of sensations—for example, being able to perceive the various objects in your experience, such as a basketball. However, you also perceive larger patterns of meaning at more complex levels, as when you are watching the actions of a group of people engaged in a basketball game. Although these are very different contexts, both engage you in the process of actively selecting, organizing, and interpreting what is experienced by your senses—in other words, “perceiving.”

People’s Perceptions Differ

Your active participation in perceiving your world is something you are not usually aware of. You normally assume that what you are perceiving is what is actually taking place. Only when your perception of an event seems to differ from others’ perceptions of the same event are you forced to examine the manner in which you are selecting, organizing, and interpreting the events in your world.

In most cases, people in a group will have a variety of perceptions about what is taking place in the picture in Thinking Activity 4.1. Some may see the couple having a serious conversation, perhaps relating to the baby behind them. Others may view them as being in the middle of an angry argument. Still others may see them as dealing with some very bad news they have just received. In each case, the perception depends on how the person is actively using his or her mind to organize and interpret what is taking place. Because the situation pictured is by its nature somewhat puzzling, different people perceive it in different ways.

Thinking Activity 4.1

Analyzing Perceptions

1. Carefully examine this picture of a couple sitting on a bed with a baby. What do you think is happening in this picture?


Viewing the World through “Lenses”

To understand how various people can be exposed to the same stimuli or events and yet have different perceptions, it helps to imagine that each of us views the world through our own pair of “lenses.” Of course, we are not usually aware of the lenses we are wearing. Instead, our lenses act as filters that select and shape what we perceive without our realizing it.

Thinking Critically About Visuals

The Investigation

Explain why each witness describes the suspect differently. Have you ever been involved in a situation in which people described an individual or event in contrasting or conflicting ways? What is the artist saying about people’s perceptions?


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John Jonik/The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank

To understand the way people perceive the world, you have to understand their individual lenses, which influence how they actively select, organize, and interpret the events in their experience. A diagram of the process might look like this:

Persons Ay and person B participate in an event. They select, organize and interpret the information. Person Ay has perception Ay, and person B has perception B of the same event.

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© 2019 Cengage

Consider the following pairs of statements. In each of these cases, both people are being exposed to the same basic stimulus or event, yet each has a totally different perception of the experience. Explain how you think the various perceptions might have developed.


1. That chili was much too spicy to eat.


2. That chili needed more hot peppers and chili powder to spice it up a little.



1. People who wear lots of makeup and jewelry are very sophisticated.


2. People who wear lots of makeup and jewelry are overdressed.



1. The music that young people enjoy listening to is a very creative cultural expression.


2. The music that young people enjoy listening to is obnoxious noise.


To become an effective critical thinker, you have to become aware of the lenses that you—and others—are wearing. These lenses aid you in actively selecting, organizing, and interpreting the sensations in your experience. If you are unaware of the nature of your own lenses, you can often mistake your own perceptions for objective truth without bothering to examine either the facts or others’ perceptions on a given issue.

What Factors Shape Perceptions?

Your perceptions of the world are dramatically influenced by your past experiences: the way you were brought up, the relationships you have had, and your training and education. Every dimension of “who” you are is reflected in your perceiving lenses. It takes critical reflection to become aware of these powerful influences on our perceptions of the world and the beliefs we construct based on them.

Your special interests and areas of expertise also affect how you see the world. Consider the case of two people who are watching a football game. One person, who has very little understanding of football, sees merely a bunch of grown men hitting each other for no apparent reason. The other person, who loves football, sees complex play patterns, daring coaching strategies, effective blocking and tackling techniques, and zone defenses with “seams” that the receivers are trying to “split.” Both have their eyes focused on the same event, but they are perceiving two entirely different situations. Their perceptions differ because each person is actively selecting, organizing, and interpreting the available stimuli in different ways. The same is true of any situation in which you are perceiving something about which you have special knowledge or expertise. The following are examples:

· A builder examining the construction of a new house

· A music lover attending a concert

· A cook tasting a dish just prepared

· A lawyer examining a contract

· An art lover visiting a museum

Think about a special area of interest or expertise that you have and how your perceptions of that area differ from those of people who don’t share your knowledge. Ask other class members about their areas of expertise. Notice how their perceptions of that area differ from your own because of their greater knowledge and experience.

In all these cases, the perceptions of the knowledgeable person differ substantially from the perceptions of the person who lacks knowledge of that area. Of course, you do not have to be an expert to have more fully developed perceptions. It is a matter of degree.

Thinking Activity 4.2

Thinking Critically About My Perceiving Lenses

1. This is an opportunity for you to think about the unique “prescription” of your perceiving lenses. Reflect on the elements in yourself and your personal history that you believe exert the strongest influence on the way that you view the world. These factors will likely include the following categories:

· Demographics (age, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, geographical location)

· Tastes in fashion, music, leisure activities

· Special knowledge, talents, expertise

· Significant experiences in your life, either positive or negative

· Values, goals, aspirations

2. Create a visual representation of the prescription for your perceiving lenses, highlighting the unique factors that have contributed to your distinctive perspective on the world. Then, compare your prescription with those of other students in your class, and discuss the ways in which your lenses result in perceptions and beliefs that are different from those produced by other prescriptions.

Thinking Activity 4.3

Analyzing Different Accounts of the Assassination of Malcolm X

1. Let’s examine a situation in which a number of different people had somewhat different perceptions about an event they were describing—in this case, the assassination of Malcolm X as he was speaking at a meeting in Harlem. The following are five different accounts of what took place that day. As you read through the various accounts, pay particular attention to the different perceptions of this event each one presents. After you finish reading the accounts, analyze some of the differences in these perceptions by answering the questions that follow.

Five Accounts of the Assassination of Malcolm X



The New York Times, February 22, 1965

Malcolm X, the 39-year-old leader of a militant Black Nationalist movement, was shot to death yesterday afternoon at a rally of his followers in a ballroom in Washington Heights. The bearded Negro extremist had said only a few words of greeting when a fusillade rang out. The bullets knocked him over backwards.

A 22-year-old Negro, Thomas Hagan, was charged with the killing. The police rescued him from the ballroom crowd after he had been shot and beaten. Pandemonium broke out among the 400 Negroes in the Audubon Ballroom at 160th Street and Broadway. As men, women and children ducked under tables and flattened themselves on the floor, more shots were fired. The police said seven bullets struck Malcolm. Three other Negroes were shot. Witnesses reported that as many as 30 shots had been fired. About two hours later the police said the shooting had apparently been a result of a feud between followers of Malcolm and members of the extremist group he broke with last year, the Black Muslims.

Life, March 5, 1965

His life oozing out through a half dozen or more gunshot wounds in his chest, Malcolm X, once the shrillest voice of black supremacy, lay dying on the stage of a Manhattan auditorium. Moments before, he had stepped up to the lectern and 400 of the faithful had settled down expectantly to hear the sort of speech for which he was famous—flaying the hated white man. Then a scuffle broke out in the hall and Malcolm’s bodyguards bolted from his side to break it up—only to discover that they had been faked out. At least two men with pistols rose from the audience and pumped bullets into the speaker, while a third cut loose at close range with both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun. In the confusion the pistol man got away. The shotgunner lunged through the crowd and out the door, but not before the guards came to their wits and shot him in the leg. Outside he was swiftly overtaken by other supporters of Malcolm and very likely would have been stomped to death if the police hadn’t saved him. Most shocking of all to the residents of Harlem was the fact that Malcolm had been killed not by “whitey” but by members of his own race.

New York Post, February 22, 1965

They came early to the Audubon Ballroom, perhaps drawn by the expectation that Malcolm X would name the men who firebombed his home last Sunday. . . . I sat at the left in the 12th row and, as we waited, the man next to me spoke of Malcolm and his followers: “Malcolm is our only hope. You can depend on him to tell it like it is and to give Whitey hell.”

. . .

There was a prolonged ovation as Malcolm walked to the rostrum. Malcolm looked up and said, “A salaam aleikum (Peace be unto you),” and the audience replied, “We aleikum salaam (And unto you, peace).”

Bespectacled and dapper in a dark suit, sandy hair glinting in the light, Malcolm said: “Brothers and sisters. . . .” He was interrupted by two men in the center of the ballroom, who rose and, arguing with each other, moved forward. Then there was a scuffle at the back of the room. I heard Malcolm X say his last words: “Now, brothers, break it up,” he said softly. “Be cool, be calm.”

Then all hell broke loose. There was a muffled sound of shots and Malcolm, blood on his face and chest, fell limply back over the chairs behind him. The two men who had approached him ran to the exit on my side of the room, shooting wildly behind them as they ran. I heard people screaming, “Don’t let them kill him.” “Kill those bastards.” At an exit I saw some of Malcolm’s men beating with all their strength on two men. I saw a half dozen of Malcolm’s followers bending over his inert body on the stage. Their clothes were stained with their leader’s blood.

Four policemen took the stretcher and carried Malcolm through the crowd and some of the women came out of their shock and one said: “I hope he doesn’t die, but I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

Associated Press, February 22, 1965

A week after being bombed out of his Queens home, Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X was shot to death shortly after 3 [p.m.] yesterday at a Washington Heights rally of 400 of his devoted followers. Early today, police brass ordered a homicide charge placed against a 22-year-old man they rescued from a savage beating by Malcolm X supporters after the shooting. The suspect, Thomas Hagan, had been shot in the left leg by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards as, police said, Hagan and another assassin fled when pandemonium erupted. Two other men were wounded in the wild burst of firing from at least three weapons. The firearms were a .38, a .45 automatic and a sawed-off shotgun. Hagan allegedly shot Malcolm X with the shotgun, a double-barreled sawed-off weapon on which the stock also had been shortened, possibly to facilitate concealment. Cops charged Reuben Frances, of 871 E. 179th St., Bronx, with felonious assault in the shooting of Hagan, and with Sullivan Law violation—possession of the .45. Police recovered the shotgun and the .45.

Amsterdam News, February 27, 1965

“We interrupt this program to bring you a special newscast . . .,” the announcer said as the Sunday afternoon movie on the TV set was halted temporarily. “Malcolm X was shot four times while addressing a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom on 166th Street.” “Oh no!” That was my first reaction to the shocking event that followed one week after the slender, articulate leader of the Afro-American Unity was routed from his East Elmhurst home by a bomb explosion. Minutes later, we alighted from a cab at the corner of Broadway and 166th St. just a short 15 blocks from where I live on Broadway. About 200 men and women, neatly dressed, were milling around, some with expressions of awe and disbelief. Others were in small clusters talking loudly and with deep emotion in their voices. Mostly they were screaming for vengeance. One woman, small, dressed in a light gray coat and her eyes flaming with indignation, argued with a cop at the St. Nicholas corner of the block. “This is not the end of it. What they were going to do to the Statue of Liberty will be small in comparison. We black people are tired of being shoved around.” Standing across the street near the memorial park one of Malcolm’s close associates commented: “It’s a shame.” Later he added that “if it’s war they want, they’ll get it.” He would not say whether Elijah Muhammad’s followers had anything to do with the assassination. About 3:30 p.m. Malcolm X’s wife, Betty, was escorted by three men and a woman from the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Tears streamed down her face. She was screaming, “They killed him!” Malcolm X had no last words. . . . The bombing and burning of the No. 7 Mosque early Tuesday morning was the first blow by those who are seeking revenge for the cold-blooded murder of a man who at 39 might have grown to the stature of respectable leadership.

Source: (1) From The New York Times, February 22, 1965. © 1965 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this Content without express written permission is prohibited. (2) “On Death and Transfiguration,” Life magazine, March 5, 1965. Copyright Time Inc. Reprinted/translated by permission. Time is a registered trademark of Time Inc. All rights reserved. (3) Excerpt from the New York Post, February 22, 1965. Reprinted by permission. (4) Associated Press. (5) The Amsterdam News, February 27, 1965. Reprinted by permission of N.Y. Amsterdam News.

Questions for Analysis

1. What details of the events has each writer selected to focus on?

2. How has each writer organized the details that have been selected? Bear in mind that most news organizations present what they consider the most important information first and the least important information last.

3. How does each writer interpret Malcolm X, his followers, the gunmen, and the significance of the assassination?

4. How has each writer used language to express his or her perspective and to influence the thinking of the reader? Which language styles do you find most effective?

Thinking Critically About Visuals

Witnessing a Martyrdom

Have you ever been a witness to an event that other people present described in contrasting or conflicting ways? Why do you think this happens? What are the responsibilities of bearing witness?


Thinking Passage: Experiences Shape Your Perceptions

Your ways of viewing the world are developed over a long period of time through the experiences you have and your thinking about these experiences. As you think critically about your perceptions, you learn more from your experiences and about how you make sense of the world. Your perceptions may be strengthened by this understanding, or they may be changed by it. For example, read the following student passage and consider the way the writer’s experiences—and his reflection on these experiences—contributed to shaping his perspective on the world.

by Luis Feliz

I shuffle through a pile of photos on my desk and draw out one of my father. In this picture, he looks like Tito Rojas—thick mustachio, not one hair out of place, boyish and expectant eyes with wrinkles sprouting from the sides, gentle smile with big, square Chiclet white teeth overwhelming the brown earth of his face. He wears a yellow, black, and red striped turtleneck with long sleeves. The zipper of his black jeans has faded slightly. He is putting all his body weight on his left leg. He doesn’t look much different in this photograph than he does today.

Sun up, he sleeps. Sun down, he works. He is a taxi-driver. He fades into the shadows. He becomes shadowy, no mark left behind, itinerant. The residue that remains is his absence. I recall the award ceremony he didn’t attend because he was sleeping, the Christmas party cut short because he had to work. The fast stream of the highway allows two modes of existence: forward and backward. His foot is always pressed against the gas pedal. The taxi-cab roves. Forward. Reverse. Life rushes forward and recedes simultaneously. It’s not that the driver doesn’t pull to a curb to rest or park the car and get out to stretch or talk with friends. He claws out of the cab with a limp spine, but his mind remains belted in the seat his body occupied. He walks into relationships mentally immobilized. When I see my father, I see a man trapped behind a steering wheel.

Sleep and work triumph over family. When I was 7-years-old, I was reunited with my father after five years of separation. It was difficult to overcome the awkwardness of being separated for so long. So whenever I found him sleeping, I edged into the room and peered down at his toes. He lay wrapped up in blankets as if he were in a sack and his curled toes jutted out through a small tear.

Then, at 6 p.m., when he awoke, we sat down to eat. I never met his gaze at the dinner table. My eyes scoured the words on the magnets on the refrigerator door. I shuffled my feet. My moist hands clutched the toy in my pocket. I wanted to bolt out of there. Instead, I curled my toes into hooks and firmly latched myself to the floor. When the food was brought, I sucked my stomach in. I hated the food, and I would drop the fork to delay eating. The brown beans smelled like rotten eggs. The yellow rice filled with meat looked like gnarled flesh. I pleaded with my eyes. O, Papi por favor. Dinner was the hardest part of living with strange people. I couldn’t venture into their intimacy.

My step-mother approached. I bent down and snuck under the table. I prayed. Overhead, the conversation abruptly ended. My father yelled. I rose. I leaned over the table and looked at my father. He terrified me when he looked me in the eye. Without me realizing it, he had shamed me into eating; he began to tell of the hardships of his yola trip from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico.

In front of me I have a picture of him and Mami dancing at a family party after they got back together. He wears a white shirt with light gray stripes, top button undone, and those pointy white shoes that Mami always gives him hell about. The ring on his right hand gleams as light strikes it’s [sic] fake diamonds. He raises the Corona bottle to his lips before he gets up to dance. His hair is jet black and gelled up. He is well-groomed, unlike me. He wears blue H&M pants.

I recall how after they finish dancing he withdraws into his inner-cellar and the boyish dark almond eyes dim. A man’s eyes hold not only the mountains he has climbed, but also the ditches into which he has fallen. My father’s aspirations sag—the unfinished house in the Dominican Republic, the denied loan for a house here in New York, the incessant calls from bill collectors—his dreams wilt.

I remember his story of leaving for Puerto Rico on a yola again: “The morning before I leave I get a bill from the doctor. I owe 3,000 pesos. My son’s health doesn’t improve. I can’t afford the bills anymore. The night before I depart a gentle breeze scatters some leaves into my room. I bend down and throw them out. I kiss my wife on the forehead. She moves, but doesn’t rise. No one knows that I am leaving. In the center of town, I get into a van and then a man puts me into a boat. I lean over the wooden side of the turquoise blue boat and look up at the sky. I see so many stars. Below the water stirs. The boat sways from side to side. The men to my side are young like me. They are scared too. A woman wrinkles her forehead as the boat pulls away from the shore. She doesn’t want to cry in the company of men. Shortly after, the men fall asleep. Just the woman and me remain awake. The silence of the sea terrifies me. I am alone, and although I don’t know it yet, I will never be the same person, and I will never accept it; today I have scraped off the rust marks of security.”

My father’s words bind us to each other. He drenches me in the music of his voice. The bare language allows me a glimpse of his pain: “We had nothing to eat for weeks and weeks.” I gazed at my father as he retold his hardships, and I loved him. I wanted to reach with outstretched arms and embrace him. An onrush of guilt propelled me forward. I attempted to rise from the chair, yet I slipped back. I guess that is the intent. Immigrant parents propagate the lie that the world is ours for the taking, and sometimes, the children believe it. I am here at Amherst College because I believed that lie. Graduating from high school at nineteen didn’t stop me from pursuing my dreams. Having an accent does not prevent me from shouting my opinions in a crowded room.

I am here at Amherst College because my imperfect father taught me through his struggle to pursue my crooked path. The obstacles he braved for me to sit here and share his story and mine jolt me forward and sustain my hopes in days when I fear that I might tumble down and break a few bones.

I didn’t want to understand my father’s optimism because I saw him as a failure; someone to set up as a foil to a “successful” person. I grasped the lesson from the stories about his hardships. Through the concept of nosostros, we, I started to see my father. Like Richard Rodriguez, I see nosostros as the horizontal and the communal vantage point. My father fell, got up, and shook it off, because it was never about him. He subsumed the individual into the collective. It was always about us, his family. If the bedrock of his dreams was solely his own progress, he would have quit the struggle long ago. Then, a naive child, I overlooked the power of my father’s story, his effort to spin struggle into wisdom, his desire to share his most profound perceptions. I knew that my father had struggled, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that he was the bearer of all his family’s dreams. Once I realized this, I began to plumb the depths of his sorrow. I started to really understand the nature of his pain and struggle. Just as my father’s dreams were fueled by love for us, so too I am fueled by the love I have for the people in my community. I meet a new daybreak with the voices and stories of a multitude. I am because of we.

Source: Reprinted with permission of Luis Feliz.

Thinking Critically About Visuals

The Roots of Violence

If our experiences shape our perceptions, is it possible that our experiences can influence our actions as well? In the wake of increased numbers of mass shootings in the past decade, including the horrific massacre of nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, there have been renewed efforts to understand the roots of gun violence so that we can better limit or even eradicate it from our lives. Although research studies have not yet established a definitive link between violent movies and video games on the one hand, and gun violence on the other. Many people believe that these graphically violent experiences do in fact contribute to creating a culture of violence. Examine carefully these two photographs depicting images from violent video games. Do you find any of the elements disturbing? Do you think that repeated exposure to games like these, particularly in young children, contributes to “numbing” them to violence, or helps make violence more socially acceptable? Or do you believe that these sorts of games provide harmless entertainment that in no way contributes to making people more violent? Do you still hold this opinion when it comes to fully immersive, virtual reality games? Dylann Roof, the Charleston murderer, spent untold hours playing violent video games. Does this fact influence your opinion regarding the potential threat of violent video games? Why or why not? If you were in a position to dictate public policy on video games for children, what policies would you recommend? For example, like movie ratings, do you think the ratings given to video games prevent young children from playing the most graphically violent ones? Why or why not? What experiences and beliefs do you have that led you to this conclusion?

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Thinking Activity 4.4

Describing a Shaping Experience

1. Think of an experience that has shaped your life. Write an essay describing the experience and the ways it changed your life and how you perceive the world. (The essay by Luis Feliz that starts in Thinking Passage: Experiences Shape Your Perceptions is an example of a response to this activity.) After writing, analyze your experience by answering the following questions:

1. What were your initial perceptions of the situation? As you began the experience, you brought into the situation certain perceptions about the experience and the people involved.

2. What previous experiences had you undergone? Identify some of the influences that helped to shape these perceptions. Describe the actions that you either took or thought about taking.

3. As you became involved in the situation, what experiences influenced you to question or doubt your initial perceptions?

4. In what new ways did you view the situation that would better explain what was taking place? Identify the revised perceptions that you began to form about the experience.


Perceiving and Believing

As should be clear by now, perceiving is an essential part of the thinking process and of your efforts to make sense of the world. However, your perceptions, by themselves, do not provide a reliable foundation for your understanding of the world. Your perceptions are often incomplete, distorted, and inaccurate. They are shaped and influenced by your perceiving “lenses,” which reflect your own individual personality, experiences, biases, assumptions, and perspective. To clarify and validate your perceptions, you must critically examine and evaluate them.

Thinking critically about your perceptions results in the formation of your beliefs and ultimately in the construction of your knowledge about the world. For example, consider the following statements and answer yes, no, or not sure to each.

1. Humans need to eat to stay alive.

2. Smoking marijuana is a harmless good time.

3. Every human life is valuable.

4. Developing your mind is as important as taking care of your body.

5. People should care about other people, not just about themselves.

Your responses to these statements reflect certain beliefs you have, and these beliefs help you explain why the world is the way it is and how you ought to behave. In fact, beliefs are the main tools you use to make sense of the world and guide your actions. The total collection of your beliefs represents your view of the world, your philosophy of life.

What exactly are “beliefs”?  Beliefs  represent interpretations, evaluations, conclusions, or predictions about the nature of the world. For example, this statement—“I believe that the whale in the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville symbolizes a primal, natural force that men are trying to destroy”—represents an interpretation of that novel. To say, “I believe that watching ‘reality shows’ is unhealthy because they focus almost exclusively on the least attractive qualities of people” is to express an evaluation of reality shows. The statement “I believe that one of the main reasons two out of three people in the world go to bed hungry each night is that industrially advanced nations have not done a satisfactory job of sharing their knowledge” expresses a conclusion about the problem of world hunger. To say, “If drastic environmental measures are not undertaken to slow the global warming trend, I believe that the polar ice caps will melt and the earth will be flooded” is to make a prediction about events that will occur in the future.

In addition to expressing an interpretation, evaluation, conclusion, or prediction about the world, beliefs also express an endorsement of the accuracy of the beliefs by the speaker or author. In the preceding statements, the speakers are not simply expressing interpretations, evaluations, conclusions, and predictions; they are also indicating that they believe these views are true. In other words, the speakers are saying that they have adopted these beliefs as their own because they are convinced that they represent accurate viewpoints based on some sort of evidence. This “endorsement” by the speaker is a necessary dimension of a belief, and we assume it to be the case even if the speaker doesn’t directly say, “I believe.” For example, the statement “Astrological predictions are meaningless because there is no persuasive reason to believe that the position of the stars and planets has any effect on human affairs” expresses a belief, even though it doesn’t specifically include the words “I believe.”

Describe beliefs you have that fall into each of these categories (interpretation, evaluation, conclusion, prediction) and then explain the reason(s) you have for endorsing the beliefs.

1. Interpretation (an explanation or analysis of the meaning or significance of something)

· My interpretation is that . . .

· Supporting reason(s):

2. Evaluation (a judgment of the value or quality of something, based on certain standards)

· My evaluation is that . . .

· Supporting reason(s):

3. Conclusion (a decision made or an opinion formed after consideration of the relevant facts or evidence)

· My conclusion is that . . .

· Supporting reason(s):

4. Prediction (a statement about what will happen in the future)

· My prediction is that . . .

· Supporting reason(s):

Main content

4-3Believing and Perceiving

The relationship between the activities of believing and perceiving is complex and interactive. On the one hand, your perceptions form the foundation of many of your beliefs about the world. On the other hand, your beliefs about the world shape and influence your perceptions of it. Let’s explore this interactive relationship by examining a variety of beliefs:

1. Interpretations (“Poetry enables humans to communicate deep, complex emotions and ideas that resist simple expression.”)

2. Evaluations (“Children today spend too much time on the Internet and too little time reading books.”)

3. Conclusions (“An effective college education provides not only mastery of information and skills but also evolving insight and maturing judgment.”)

4. Predictions (“With the shrinkage and integration of the global community, in the future Americans will increasingly need to speak a second language.”)

These beliefs, for people who endorse them, are likely to be based in large measure on a variety of perceptual experiences: events that people have seen and heard. The perceptual experiences by themselves, however, do not result in beliefs—they are simply experiences. For them to become beliefs, you must think about your perceptual experiences and then organize them into a belief structure. This thinking process of constructing beliefs is known as cognition, and it forms the basis of your understanding of the world. What perceptual experiences might have led to the construction of the beliefs just described?

EXAMPLE: Many times I have seen that I can best express my feelings toward someone I care deeply about through a poem.

As we noted earlier in this chapter, your perceptual experiences not only contribute to the formation of your beliefs; the beliefs you form also have a powerful influence on the perceptions you select to focus on, how you organize these perceptions, and the manner in which you interpret them. For example, if you come across a poem in a magazine, your perception of the poem is likely to be affected by your beliefs about poetry. These beliefs may influence whether you select the poem as something to read, the manner in which you organize and relate the poem to other aspects of your experience, and your interpretation of the poem’s meaning. This interactive relationship holds true for most beliefs. Assume you endorse the four beliefs previously listed. How might holding these beliefs influence your perceptions?

EXAMPLE: When I find a poem I like, I often spend a lot of time trying to understand how the author has used language and symbols to create and communicate meaning.

The belief systems you have developed in order to understand your world help you correct inaccurate perceptions. When you watch a magician perform seemingly impossible tricks, your beliefs about the way the world operates inform you that what you are seeing is really a misperception, an illusion. In this context, you expect to be tricked, and your question is naturally, “How did he or she do that?” Potential problems arise, however, in those situations in which it is not apparent that your perceptions are providing you with inaccurate information and you use these experiences to form mistaken beliefs. For example, you may view advertisements linking youthful, attractive, fun-loving people with cigarette smoking and form the inaccurate belief that smoking cigarettes is an integral part of being youthful, attractive, and fun loving. As a critical thinker, you have a responsibility to continually monitor and evaluate both aspects of this interactive process—your beliefs and your perceptions—so that you can develop the most informed perspective on the world.


Types of Beliefs: Reports, Inferences, Judgments

All beliefs are not the same. In fact, beliefs differ from one another in many ways, including their accuracy. The belief “The earth is surrounded by stars and planets” is considerably more certain than the belief “The positions of the stars and planets determine our personalities and destinies.”

Beliefs differ in other respects besides accuracy. Review the following beliefs, and then describe some of their differences.

1. I believe that I have hair on my head.

2. I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow.

3. I believe that there is some form of life after death.

4. I believe that dancing is more fun than jogging and that jogging is preferable to going to the dentist.

5. I believe that you should always act toward others in ways that you would like to have them act toward you.

In this section you will be thinking critically about three basic types of beliefs you use to make sense of the world:

· Reports

· Inferences

· Judgments

These beliefs are expressed in both your thinking and your use of language, as illustrated in the following sentences:

1. My bus was late today.

Type of belief: reporting

2. My bus will probably be late tomorrow.

Type of belief: inferring

3. The bus system is unreliable.

Type of belief: judging

Now try the activity with a different set of statements.

1. Each modern atomic warhead has more than 100 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Type of belief:

2. With all of the billions of planets in the universe, the odds are that other forms of life exist in the cosmos.

Type of belief:

3. In the long run, the energy needs of the world will best be met by solar energy technology rather than nuclear energy or fossil fuels.

Type of belief:

As you examine these statements, you can see that they provide you with different types of information about the world. The first statement in each list reports aspects of the world that you can verify—that is, check for accuracy. By doing the appropriate sort of investigating, you can determine whether the bus was actually late today and whether modern atomic warheads really have the power attributed to them. When you describe the world in ways that can be verified through investigation, you are said to be  reporting factual information  about the world.

Looking at the second statement in each list, you can see immediately that each provides a different sort of information from the first one. These statements cannot be verified. There is no way to investigate and determine with certainty whether the bus will indeed be late tomorrow or whether there is in fact life on other planets. Although these conclusions may be based on factual information, they go beyond factual information to make statements about what is not currently known. When you describe the world in ways that are based on factual information yet go beyond this information to make statements regarding what is not currently known, you are said to be  inferring  conclusions about the world.

Finally, as you examine the third statement in both lists, these statements are clearly different from both factual reports and inferences. They describe the world in ways that express the speaker’s evaluation—of the bus service and of energy sources. These evaluations are based on certain standards (criteria) that the speaker is using to judge the bus service as unreliable and solar energy as more promising than nuclear energy or fossil fuels. When you describe the world in ways that express your evaluation based on certain criteria, you are said to be  judging .

You continually use these various ways of describing and organizing your world—reporting, inferring, judging—to make sense of your experience. In most cases, you are not aware that you are actually performing these activities, nor are you usually aware of the differences among them. Yet these three activities work together to help you see the world as a complete picture.

Thinking Critically About Visuals

Observing a Street Scene

Carefully examine this photograph of a street scene. Then write five statements based on your observations of the scene. Identify each statement as reporting, inferring, or judging, and explain why you classify each one as such.

Reporting Factual Information

The statements that result from the activity of reporting express the most accurate beliefs you have about the world. Factual beliefs have earned this distinction because they are verifiable, usually with one or more of your senses. For example, consider the following factual statement:

· That young woman is wearing a brown hat in the rain.

This statement about an event in the world is considered to be factual because it can be verified by your immediate sensory experience—what you can (in principle or in theory) see, hear, touch, feel, or smell. It is important to say in principle or in theory because you often do not use all of your relevant senses to check out what you are experiencing. Look again at your example of a factual statement: You would normally be satisfied by seeing this event, without insisting on touching the hat or giving the person a physical examination. If necessary, however, you could perform these additional actions—in principle or in theory.

You use the same reasoning when you believe factual statements from other people that you are not in a position to check out immediately. For instance:

· The Great Wall of China is more than 1,500 miles long.

· Large mountains and craters exist on the moon.

· Your skin is covered with germs.

You consider these to be factual statements because, even though you cannot verify them with your senses at the moment, you could in principle or in theory verify them with your senses if you were flown to China, if you were rocketed to the moon, or if you were to examine your skin with a powerful microscope. The process of verifying factual statements involves identifying the sources of information on which they are based and evaluating the reliability of these sources, topics that we will be examining in the next chapter, “Constructing Knowledge.”

You communicate factual information to others by means of reports. A report is a description of something experienced that is communicated in as accurate and complete a way as possible. Through reports you can share your sensory experiences with other people, and they can share their experiences with you. This mutual sharing enables you to learn much more about the world than if you were confined to knowing only what you experience. The recording (making records) of factual reports also makes possible the accumulation of knowledge learned by previous generations.

Because factual reports play such an important role in our exchange and accumulation of information about the world, it is important that they be as accurate and complete as possible. This brings us to a problem. We have already seen in previous chapters that our perceptions and observations are often not accurate or complete. This means that what we think are true, factual reports are actually often inaccurate or incomplete. For instance, consider our earlier “factual statement”:

· That young woman is wearing a brown hat in the rain.

Here are some questions you could ask concerning the accuracy of the statement:

· Is the woman really young, or does she merely look young?

· Is the woman really a woman, or a man disguised as a woman?

· Is that really a hat the woman/man is wearing, or something else (e.g., a paper bag)?

Of course, you could use various methods to clear up these questions with more detailed observations. Can you describe some of these methods?

Besides difficulties with observations, the “facts” that you see in the world actually depend on more general beliefs that you have about how the world operates. Consider the question, “Why did the man’s body fall from the top of the building to the sidewalk?” Having had some general science courses, you might say something like, “The body was simply obeying the law of gravity,” and you would consider this to be a “factual statement.” But how did people account for this sort of event before Newton formulated the law of gravity? Some popular responses might have included the following:

· Things always fall down, not up.

· The spirit in the body wanted to join with the spirit of the earth.

When people made statements like these and others, such as “Humans can’t fly,” they thought that they were making “factual statements.” Increased knowledge and understanding have since shown these “factual beliefs” to be inaccurate, and so they have been replaced by “better” beliefs. These “better beliefs” are able to explain the world in a way that is more accurate and predictable. Will many of the beliefs you now consider to be factually accurate also be replaced in the future by beliefs that are more accurate and predictable? If history is any indication, this will most certainly happen. (Already Newton’s formulations have been replaced by Einstein’s, based on the latter’s theory of relativity. And Einstein’s have been refined and modified as well and may someday be replaced.)

Thinking Activity 4.7

Evaluating Factual Information

1. Locate and carefully read an article that deals with an important social issue.

2. Summarize the main theme and key points of the article.

3. Describe the factual statements used to support the major theme.

4. Evaluate the accuracy of the factual information.

5. Evaluate the reliability of the sources of the factual information




Imagine yourself in the following situations:

1. Your roommate has just learned that she passed a math exam for which she had done absolutely no studying. Humming the song “I Did It My Way,” she comes bouncing over to you with a huge grin on her face and says, “Let me buy you dinner to celebrate!” What do you conclude about how she is feeling?

2. It is midnight and the library is about to close. As you head for the door, you spy your roommate shuffling along in an awkward waddle. His coat bulges out in front like he’s pregnant. When you ask, “What’s going on?” he gives you a glare and hisses, “Shhh!” Just before he reaches the door, a pile of books slides from under his coat and crashes to the floor. What do you conclude?

In these examples, it would be reasonable to make the following conclusions:

1. Your roommate is happy.

2. Your roommate is stealing library books.

Although these conclusions are reasonable, they are not factual reports; they are inferences. You have not directly experienced your roommate’s “happiness” or “stealing.” Instead, you have inferred it based on your roommate’s behavior and the circumstances. What clues in these situations might lead to these conclusions?

One way of understanding the inferential nature of these views is to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Have you ever pretended to be happy when you weren’t? Could other people tell?

2. Have you ever been accused of stealing something when you were perfectly innocent? How did this happen?

From these examples you can see that whereas factual beliefs can in principle be verified by direct observation, inferential beliefs go beyond what can be directly observed. For instance, in the examples given, your observation of certain of your roommate’s actions led you to infer things that you were not observing directly—“She’s happy”; “He’s stealing books.” Making such simple inferences is something you do all the time. It is so automatic that usually you are not even aware that you are going beyond your immediate observations, and you may have difficulty drawing a sharp line between what you observe and what you infer. Making such inferences enables you to see the world as a complete picture, to fill in the blanks and round out the fragmentary sensations being presented to your senses. In a way, you become an artist, painting a picture of the world that is consistent, coherent, and predictable.

Your picture also includes predictions of what will be taking place in the near future. These predictions and expectations are also inferences because you attempt to determine what is currently unknown from what is already known.

Of course, your inferences may be mistaken, and in fact they frequently are. You may infer that the woman sitting next to you is wearing two earrings and then discover that she has only one. Or you may expect the class to end at noon and find that the teacher lets you go early—or late. In the last section we concluded that not even factual beliefs are ever absolutely certain. Comparatively speaking, inferential beliefs are a great deal more uncertain than factual beliefs, and it is important to distinguish between the two.

Consider the following situations, analyzing each one by asking these questions: Is the action based on a factual belief or an inference? In what ways might the inference be mistaken? What is the degree of risk involved?

· Placing your hand in a closing elevator door to reopen it

· Taking an unknown drug at a party

· Jumping out of an airplane with a parachute on

· Riding on the back of a motorcycle

· Taking a drug prescribed by your doctor

Having an accurate picture of the world depends on your being able to evaluate how certain your beliefs are. Therefore, it is crucial that you distinguish inferences from factual beliefs and then evaluate how certain or uncertain your inferences are. This is known as “calculating the risks,” and it is very important to solving problems successfully and deciding what steps to take.

The distinction between what is observed and what is inferred is given particular attention in courtroom settings, where defense lawyers usually want witnesses to describe only what they observed—not what they inferred—as part of the testimony. When a witness includes an inference such as “I saw him steal it,” the lawyer may object that the statement represents a “conclusion of the witness” and move to have the observation “stricken from the record.” For example, imagine you are a defense attorney listening to the following testimony. At what points would you make the objection “This is a conclusion of the witness”?

I saw Harvey running down the street, right after he knocked the old lady down. He had her purse in his hand and was trying to escape as fast as he could. He was really scared. I wasn’t surprised because Harvey has always taken advantage of others. It’s not the first time that he’s stolen either, I can tell you that. Just last summer he robbed the poor box at St. Anthony’s. He was bragging about it for weeks.

Finally, you should be aware that even though in theory facts and inferences can be distinguished, in practice it is almost impossible to communicate with others by sticking only to factual observations. A reasonable approach is to state your inference along with the observable evidence on which the inference is based (e.g., John seemed happy because . . .). Our language has an entire collection of terms (seems, appears, is likely, and so on) that signal when we are making an inference and not expressing an observable fact.

Many of the predictions you make are inferences based on your past experiences and on the information you presently have. Even when there seem to be sound reasons to support these inferences, they are often wrong because of incomplete information or unanticipated events. The fact that even people considered by society to be “experts” regularly make inaccurate predictions with absolute certainty should encourage you to exercise caution when making your own inferences. Following are some examples of “expert predictions”:

· “So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”—the advisory committee to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, before Columbus’s voyage in 1492

· “What use could the company make of an electrical toy?”—Western Union’s rejection of the telephone in 1878

· “The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future in spite of many rumors to that effect.”—a 1902 article in Harper’s Weekly

· “The [atom] bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.”—Vannevar Bush, a presidential adviser, 1945

· “Space travel is utter bilge.”—British astronomer Dr. R. Woolsey, 1958

· “Among the really difficult problems of the world, [the Arab-Israeli conflict is] one of the simplest and most manageable.”—Walter Lippmann, a newspaper columnist, 1948

· “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.” Denny, Grand Ole Opry manager, firing Elvis Presley after one performance, 1954

Examine the following list of statements, noting which statements are factual beliefs (based on observations) and which are inferential beliefs (conclusions that go beyond observations). For each factual statement, describe how you might go about verifying the information. For each inferential statement, describe a factual observation on which the inference could be based. (Note: Some statements may contain both factual beliefs and inferential beliefs.)

· When my leg starts to ache, that means snow is on the way.

· The grass is wet—it must have rained last night.

· I think that it’s pretty clear from the length of the skid marks that the accident was caused by that person driving too fast.

· Fifty men lost their lives in the construction of the Queensboro Bridge.

· Nancy said she wasn’t feeling well yesterday—I’ll bet that she’s out sick today.

Now consider the following situations. What inferences might you be inclined to make based on what you are observing? How could you investigate the accuracy of your inference?

· A student in your class is consistently late for class.

· You see a friend of yours driving a new car.

· A teacher asks the same student to stay after class several times.

· You don’t receive any birthday cards.

So far we have been exploring relatively simple inferences. Many of the inferences people make, however, are much more complicated. In fact, much of our knowledge about the world rests on our ability to make complicated inferences in a systematic and logical way. However, just because an inference is more complicated does not mean that it is more accurate; in fact, the opposite is often the case. One of the masters of inference is the legendary Sherlock Holmes. In the following passage, Holmes makes an astonishing number of inferences upon meeting Dr. Watson. Study carefully the conclusions he comes to. Are they reasonable? Can you explain how he reaches these conclusions?

“You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on our first meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan.”

“You were told, no doubt.”

“Nothing of the sort. I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He is just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.”

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet





Identify and describe a friend you have, a course you have taken, and the college you attend. Be sure your descriptions are specific and include what you think about the friend, the course, and the college.

1.  is a friend.

He or she is . . . .

2.  is a course I have taken.

It was . . . .

3.  is the college I attend.

It is . . . .

Now review your responses. Do they include factual descriptions? For each response, note any factual information that can be verified.

In addition to factual reports, your descriptions may contain inferences based on factual information. Can you identify any inferences? In addition to inferences, your descriptions may include judgments about the person, course, and school—descriptions that express your evaluation based on certain criteria. Facts and inferences are designed to help you figure out what is actually happening (or will happen); the purpose of judgments is to express your evaluation about what is happening (or will happen). For example:

· My new car has broken down three times in the first six months. (Factual report)

· My new car will probably continue to have difficulties. (Inference)

· My new car is a lemon. (Judgment)

When you pronounce your new car a “lemon,” you are making a judgment based on certain criteria you have in mind. For instance, a “lemon” is usually a newly purchased item—generally an automobile—with which you have repeated problems.

To take another example of judging, consider the following statements:

· Carla always does her work thoroughly and completes it on time. (Factual report)

· Carla will probably continue to do her work in this fashion. (Inference)

· Carla is a very responsible person. (Judgment)

By judging Carla to be responsible, you are evaluating her on the basis of the criteria or standards that you believe indicate a responsible person. One such criterion is completing assigned work on time. Can you identify additional criteria for judging someone to be responsible?

Review your previous descriptions of a friend, a course, and your college. Can you identify any judgments in your descriptions?

When we judge, we often express feelings of approval or disapproval. Sometimes, however, we make judgments that conflict with what we personally approve of. For example:

· I think a woman should be able to have an abortion if she chooses to, although I don’t believe abortion is right.

· I can see why you think that person is beautiful, even though she is not the type that appeals to me.

In fact, at times it is essential to disregard your personal feelings of approval or disapproval when you judge. For instance, a judge in a courtroom should render evaluations based on the law, not on his or her personal preferences.

Differences in Judgments

Many of our disagreements with other people focus on differences in judgments. As a critical thinker, you need to approach such differences in judgments intelligently. You can do so by following these guidelines:

· Make explicit the criteria or standards used as a basis for the judgment.

· Try to establish the reasons that justify these criteria.

For instance, if I make the judgment “Professor Andrews is an excellent teacher,” I am basing my judgment on certain criteria of teaching excellence. Once these standards are made explicit, we can discuss whether they make sense and what the justification is for them. Identify some of your standards for teaching excellence.

Of course, your idea of what makes an excellent teacher may be different from someone else’s, a conclusion you can test by comparing your criteria with those of other class members. When these disagreements occur, your only hope for resolution is to use the two steps previously identified:

· Make explicit the standards you are using.

· Give reasons that justify these standards.

For example, “Professor Andrews really gets my mind working, forcing me to think through issues on my own and then defend my conclusions. I earn what I learn, and that makes it really ‘mine.’”

In short, not all judgments are equally good or equally poor. The credibility of a judgment depends on the criteria used to make the judgment and the evidence or reasons that support these criteria. For example, legitimate disagreements may occur about judgments on the following points.

· Who was the greatest US president?

· Which movie deserves the Oscar this year?

· Which is the best baseball team this year?

· Which music is best for dancing?

However, in these and countless other cases, the quality of your judgments depends on you identifying the criteria used for the competing judgments and then demonstrating that your candidate best meets those criteria by providing supporting evidence and reasons. With this approach, you can often engage in intelligent discussion and establish which judgments are best supported by the evidence.

Understanding how judgments function also encourages you to continue thinking critically about a situation. For instance, the judgment “This course is worthless!” does not encourage further exploration and critical analysis. In fact, it may prevent such analysis by discouraging further exploration. Because judgments are sometimes made before you have a clear and complete understanding of the situation, they can serve to prevent you from seeing the situation as clearly and completely as you might. However, if you understand that all judgments are based on criteria that may or may not be adequately justified, you can explore these judgments further by making the criteria explicit and examining the reasons that justify them.

Thinking Activity 4.10

Analyzing Judgments

1. Review the following passages, which illustrate various judgments. For each passage:

1. Identify the evaluative criteria on which the judgments are based.

2. Describe the reasons or evidence the author uses to support the criteria.

3. Explain whether you agree or disagree with the judgments and give your rationale.


. One widely held misconception concerning pizza should be laid to rest. Although it may be characterized as fast food, pizza is not junk food. Especially when it is made with fresh ingredients, pizza fulfills our basic nutritional requirements. The crust provides carbohydrates; from the cheese and meat or fish comes protein; and the tomatoes, herbs, onions, and garlic supply vitamins and minerals.

—Louis Philip Salamone, “Pizza: Fast Food, Not Junk Food”

. Let us return to the question of food. Responsible agronomists report that before the end of the year millions of people, if unaided, might starve to death. Half a billion deaths by starvation is not an uncommon estimate. Even though the United States has done more than any other nation to feed the hungry, our relative affluence makes us morally vulnerable in the eyes of other nations and in our own eyes. Garrett Hardin, who has argued for a “lifeboat” ethic of survival (if you take all the passengers aboard, everybody drowns), admits that the decision not to feed all the hungry requires of us “a very hard psychological adjustment.” Indeed it would. It has been estimated that the 3.5 million tons of fertilizer spread on American golf courses and lawns could provide up to 30 million tons of food in overseas agricultural production. The nightmarish thought intrudes itself. If we as a nation allow people to starve while we could, through some sacrifice, make more food available to them, what hope can any person have for the future of international relations? If we cannot agree on this most basic of values—feed the hungry—what hopes for the future can we entertain?

—James R. Kelly, “The Limits of Reason”Source: © 2013 Commonweal Foundation, reprinted with permission. For more information, visit

Thinking Critically About New Media

Distinguishing Perception from Reality

How can people have vastly different understandings of the basic facts of a situation? For example, when accounts from eyewitnesses and aerial photos failed to agree when it came to estimating the size of crowds at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration, people on both sides of the political spectrum accused the other of manipulating images to distort viewers’ perceptions. How could a simple question of fact become so hotly debated? The problem may in part lie with social media. Consider the following three problems associated with uncritical social media habits:

The Echo Chamber

In 2016, 62% of American adults got their news through social media, with Facebook being their primary source. If you are one of these people, what shows up on your individual Facebook or Twitter news feed is determined by an algorithm the site uses to tailor your experience as closely as possible to what you have clicked on, relinked, and liked in the past. While this is a boon for advertisers, it can create a false perception of reality where everything you see agrees with you, hiding any contrasting ideas and perspectives. Your news feed becomes a metaphorical “echo chamber” in which your beliefs become amplified and reinforced through repetition. Inside the echo chamber, sources often go unquestioned and competing perspectives are marginalized, decreasing the chance of critical discourse across differences.

1. What problems might arise from many people living their lives in an echo chamber?

2. What are your news sources and how do you know that they are fair and accurate?

Confirmation Bias Bubble

Echo chambers are the social media manifestation of an unconscious tendency humans have to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, and expectations. The term confirmation bias was coined by the English psychologist Peter Wason when he noticed that instead of trying to falsify a hypothesis to test it, people tend to try to confirm it. This unconscious tendency makes judging the veracity of the news and information we receive via the Internet more difficult. Driven by our biases to accept uncritically reports of examples of behavior that conform to our expectations, we selectively pay attention to information that is consistent with our existing viewpoints and feelings, creating a “bubble” for ourselves and our like-minded friends on social media. For example, if we believe that a political party or candidate is generally bad for the country, we might selectively pay attention to negative news and commentary about that party or person. Researchers link this occurrence to a marked increase in political polarization that has encouraged extremism on both sides of the political spectrum and made bipartisan problem solving more difficult to achieve.

1. Do you ever read or listen to news articles that do not align with your pre-established beliefs? Why might doing so be a valuable, if sometimes frustrating, experience?


Advertisers and hyper-partisan organizations on social media can exploit confirmation bias through the use of so-called clickbait articles that play to our hopes and fears instead of simply reporting unvarnished facts. Clickbait uses exaggerated, salacious titles—often phrased as cliffhangers—to encourage users to click on a particular link that generates online advertising revenue. Examples such as:

· “When She Looked Under Her Couch Cushions and Saw THIS . . . I Was SHOCKED”

· “He Put Garlic in His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe”

· “The Dog Barked At The Delivery Man And His Reaction Was Priceless”

intentionally leave out relevant information to drive the reader to click on the link. The sensationalist nature of clickbait is often capitalized on at the expense of accuracy and quality. Since clickbait is designed to attract clicks and encourage forwarding over social media, it is also the source of much of our viral misinformation. For example, during the 2016 election season Conservatives read that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump, whereas Liberals read that he endorsed Hillary Clinton. The Pope, however, did neither.

1. What examples of clickbait have you seen recently? Have you or one of your friends ever shared a link that you later discovered was full of misinformation? What did you do about it?

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US Air Force Photo / Alamy Stock Photo


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Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

Given the pervasiveness of clickbait, our tendency to uncritically accept information that confirms our biases, and the algorithmic encouragement of echo chambers, how do we tell the difference between information that is relatively accurate, objective, and factual from information that isn’t? The short answer is that we need to come armed with our full array of critical-thinking abilities combined with a healthy dose of skepticism. The following Thinking Activity offers some practice.


Thinking Passage: Perception and Reality in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

On the morning of December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, age 20, shot and killed his mother as she lay sleeping. Then, armed with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic assault rifle and two handguns, he drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Wearing black clothes, earplugs, and a utility vest for carrying extra ammunition, he shot his way through a locked glass door and then proceeded to shoot and kill the principal, school counselor, four teachers, and twenty first-grade students ranging in age from 6 to 7. With the police approaching, he fatally shot himself.

These are the basic facts of this horrific catastrophe, about which there is fundamental agreement. However, in trying to understand why this event occurred and how to prevent events like this from occurring in the future, many competing points of view exist, reflecting different perceptions of reality. Some view this primarily as the act of a deeply emotionally disturbed individual who had been taught to shoot by his gun-loving mother. Others view this as the symptom of a culture that is obsessed with guns and whose lenient laws make it possible for virtually anyone to secure virtually any kind of weapon. For example, on the day before the Sandy Hook massacre, lawmakers in Michigan passed a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in schools, and Ohio lawmakers passed a bill that would allow concealed guns in the statehouse. Still others view this as the product of a society in which gun violence is made to seem sexy and exciting in graphically violent movies, television shows, music, and hyperrealistic video games. Since the 1980s, firearms manufacturers have reacted to declines in demand for hunting rifles by increasingly focusing their production and marketing on pistols and “assault weapons.” Those who view this as more than an isolated event point to similar events that have occurred on a regular basis in the United States, making schools the killing fields of our time:

· On July 20, 2012, the suspect James Eagan Holmes killed twelve people and wounded fifty-eight in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight.

· On January 11, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner used a nine-millimeter Glock semiautomatic pistol with a high-capacity magazine to shoot nineteen people, including US Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords; six died.

· On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech University, shot and killed thirty-two fellow students and wounded seventeen others with a nine-millimeter Glock semiautomatic pistol before committing suicide.

· On April 20, 1999, two high school students at Columbine High School in Colorado, using a Hi-Point 995 Carbine and a shotgun, killed twelve students and one teacher, and injured twenty-one, before committing suicide.

The world’s perception of these events was framed, shaped, and communicated through the media’s reporting. And this reporting influences the beliefs we form regarding our understanding of what occurred and what, if anything, can be done to diminish the likelihood of similar events occurring in the future. As you read the following accounts, reflect on the interpretations that they are presenting, the reasons and evidence that support their interpretations, and the perceptions that you are forming (and have formed) as a result of these and other responses. Then consider and respond to the questions that follow the articles.

The Price of Gun Control

by Dan Baum

When you write about guns, as I do, and a shooting like the one in the Aurora movie theater happens an hour from your house, people call. I’ve already done an interview today with a Spanish newspaper and with Canadian radio. Americans and their guns: what a bunch of lunatics.

Among the many ways America differs from other countries when it comes to guns is that when a mass shooting happens in the United States, it’s a gun story. How an obviously sick man could buy a gun; how terrible it is that guns are abundant; how we must ban particular types of guns that are especially dangerous. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence responded to the news with a gun-control petition. Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times has weighed in with an online column saying that “Politicians are far too cowardly to address gun violence . . . which keeps us from taking practical measures to avoid senseless shootings.”

Compare that to the coverage and conversation after Anders Behring Breivik murdered sixty-nine people on the island of Utøya in Norway, a year ago next Sunday. Nobody focused on the gun. I had a hard time learning from the news reports what type of gun he used. Nobody asked, “How did he get a gun?” That seemed strange, because it’s much harder to get a gun in Europe than it is here.

But everybody, even the American media, seemed to understand that the heart of the Utøya massacre story was a tragically deranged man, not the rifle he fired. Instead of wringing their hands over the gun Breivik used, Norwegians saw the tragedy as the opening to a conversation about the rise of right-wing extremism in their country.

Rosenthal is wrong, by the way, that politicians haven’t addressed gun violence. They have done so brilliantly, in a million different ways, which helps explain why the rate of violent crime is about half what it was twenty years ago. They simply haven’t used gun control to do it. Gun laws are far looser than they were twenty years ago, even while crime is plunging—a galling juxtaposition for those who place their faith in tougher gun laws. The drop in violence is one of our few unalloyed public-policy success stories, though perhaps not for those who bemoan an “epidemic of gun violence” that doesn’t exist anymore in order to make a political point.

It’s true that America’s rate of violent crime remains higher than that in most European countries. But to focus on guns is to dodge a painful truth. America is more violent than other countries because Americans are more violent than other people. Our abundant guns surely make assaults more deadly. But by obsessing over inanimate pieces of metal, we avoid looking at what brings us more often than others to commit violent acts. Many liberal critics understand this when it comes to drug policy. The modern, sophisticated position is that demonizing chemicals is a reductive and ineffective way to address complicated social pathologies. When it comes to gun violence, though, the conversation often stops at the tool, because it is more comfortable to blame it than to examine ourselves. . . .

. . . 40 percent of Americans own guns, and like it or not, they identify with them, personally. Guns stand in for a whole range of values—individualism, strength, American exceptionalism—that many gun owners hold dear. Tell a gun owner that he cannot be trusted to own a firearm—particularly if you are an urban pundit with no experience around guns—and what he hears is an insult. Add to this that the bulk of the gun-buying public is made up of middle-aged white men with less than a college degree, and now you’re insulting a population already rubbed raw by decades of stagnant wages.

The harm we’ve done by messing with law-abiding Americans’ guns is significant. In 2010, I drove 11,000 miles around the United States talking to gun guys (for a book, to be published in the spring, that grew out of an article I wrote for this magazine), and I met many working guys, including plumbers, parks workers, nurses—natural Democrats in any other age—who wouldn’t listen to anything the Democratic party has to say because of its institutional hostility to guns. I’d argue that we’ve sacrificed generations of progress on health care, women’s and workers’ rights, and climate change by reflexively returning, at times like these, to an ill-informed call to ban firearms, and we haven’t gotten anything tangible in return. Aside from what it does to the progressive agenda, needlessly vilifying guns—and by extension, their owners—adds to the rancor that has us so politically frozen and culturally inflamed. Enough.

President Obama, to his credit, didn’t mention gun control in his comments today. Maybe that was just a political calculation; maybe, during an election year, he didn’t want to reopen a fight that has hurt his party so dearly in the past. But maybe it’s a hint of progress, a sign that we’re moving toward a more honest examination of who we are.

Source: © 2012 Harper’s Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduced from the July issue by special permission.

Response to the Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut by Wayne La Pierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, on December 21, 2012

As reflected in the articles in this box on the massacre of students and teachers of Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, many people believe that the absence of meaningful gun control laws has at least some responsibility for gun violence in this country. From this perspective, gun violence can be reduced by banning guns like military assault weapons, outlawing high-capacity magazine clips, and instituting meaningful background checks for all people seeking to purchase guns. One of the most vocal opponents of any gun control restrictions is the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA), citing Article 1 of the Constitution, which grants citizens “the right to bear arms.” (Contrary to the NRA leadership, the rank-and-file members of the NRA overwhelmingly support more restrictive background checks.)

Following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the leadership of the NRA did not issue a public statement until December 21, 2012, one week after the shooting. During those prepared remarks, Wayne La Pierre, the CEO of the NRA, did not make any reference to gun control initiatives or legislation. Instead, he advocated for having armed guards in every school, arguing that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” From his perspective, the gun violence in this country is caused by a number of factors unrelated to gun control restrictions, including the following:

· “. . . an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”

· “. . . a national media machine that rewards them [copycat killers] with the wall-to-wall attention and sense of identity that they crave . . . .”

· “. . . violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse . . . and . . . Kindergarten Killers.”

· “. . . blood-soaked slasher films like ‘American Psycho’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’ that are aired like propaganda loops on ‘Splatterdays’ . . . .”

· “. . . a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life.”

The answer to this gun violence, according to La Pierre, is to hire some of the “millions of qualified active and retired police; active, reserve and retired military; [and] security professionals” to be deployed, fully armed, in every school in the country in a “National School Shield Program.” After all, La Pierre reasons, we protect other valued institutions in our country with armed protection, shouldn’t we also protect our most valuable institutions—our schools?

Why Gun ‘Control’ Is Not Enough

by Jeff McMahan

Americans are finally beginning to have a serious discussion about guns. One argument we’re hearing is the central pillar of the case for private gun ownership: that we are all safer when more individuals have guns because armed citizens deter crime and can defend themselves and others against it when deterrence fails. Those who don’t have guns, it’s said, are free riders on those who do, as the criminally disposed are less likely to engage in crime the more likely it is that their victim will be armed.

There’s some sense to this argument, for even criminals don’t like being shot. But the logic is faulty, and a close look at it leads to the conclusion that the United States should ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.

One would think that if widespread gun ownership had the robust deterrent effects that gun advocates claim it has, our country would be freer of crime than other developed societies. But it’s not. When most citizens are armed, as they were in the Wild West, crime doesn’t cease. Instead, criminals work to be better armed, more efficient in their use of guns (“quicker on the draw”), and readier to use them. When this happens, those who get guns may be safer than they would be without them, but those without them become progressively more vulnerable.

Gun advocates have a solution to this: the unarmed must arm themselves. But when more citizens get guns, further problems arise: people who would once have got in a fistfight instead shoot the person who provoked them; people are shot by mistake or by accident.

And with guns so plentiful, any lunatic or criminally disposed person who has a sudden and perhaps only temporary urge to kill people can simply help himself to the contents of Mom’s gun cabinet. Perhaps most important, the more people there are who have guns, the less effective the police become. The power of the citizens and that of the police approach parity. The police cease to have even a near-monopoly on the use of force.

To many devotees of the Second Amendment, this is precisely the point. As former Congressman Jay Dickey, Republican of Arkansas, said in January 2011, “We have a right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms we have.” The more people there are with guns, the less able the government is to control them. But if arming the citizenry limits the power of the government, it does so by limiting the power of its agents, such as the police. Domestic defense becomes more a matter of private self-help and vigilantism and less a matter of democratically-controlled, public law enforcement. Domestic security becomes increasingly “privatized.”

There is, of course, a large element of fantasy in Dickey’s claim. Individuals with handguns are no match for a modern army. It’s also a delusion to suppose that the government in a liberal democracy such as the United States could become so tyrannical that armed insurrection, rather than democratic procedures, would be the best means of constraining it. This is not Syria; nor will it ever be. Shortly after Dickey made his comment, people in Egypt rose against a government that had suppressed their freedom in ways far more serious than requiring them to pay for health care. Although a tiny minority of Egyptians do own guns, the protesters would not have succeeded if those guns had been brought to Tahrir Square. If the assembled citizens had been brandishing Glocks in accordance with the script favored by Second Amendment fantasists, the old regime would almost certainly still be in power and many Egyptians who’re now alive would be dead. . . .

The logic is inexorable: as more private individuals acquire guns, the power of the police declines, personal security becomes more a matter of self-help, and the unarmed have an increasing incentive to get guns, until everyone is armed. When most citizens then have the ability to kill anyone in their vicinity in an instant, everyone is less secure than they would be if no one had guns other than the members of a democratically accountable police force.

The logic of private gun possession is thus similar to that of the nuclear arms race. When only one state gets nuclear weapons, it enhances its own security but reduces that of others, which have become more vulnerable. The other states then have an incentive to get nuclear weapons to try to restore their security. As more states get them, the incentives for others increase. If eventually all get them, the potential for catastrophe—whether through irrationality, misperception, or accident—is great. Each state’s security is then much lower than it would be if none had nuclear weapons.

Gun advocates and criminals are allies in demanding that guns remain in private hands. They differ in how they want them distributed. Criminals want guns for themselves but not for their potential victims. Others want them for themselves but not for criminals. But while gun control can do a little to restrict access to guns by potential criminals, it can’t do much when guns are to be found in every other household. Either criminals and non-criminals will have them or neither will. Gun advocates prefer for both rather than neither to have them.

But, as with nuclear weapons, we would all be safer if no one had guns—or, rather, no one other than trained and legally constrained police officers. Domestic defense would then be conducted the way we conduct national defense. We no longer accept, as the authors of the now obsolete Second Amendment did, that “a well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state.” Rather than leaving national defense to citizens’ militias, we now, for a variety of compelling reasons, cede the right of national defense to certain state-authorized professional institutions: the Army, Navy, and so on. We rightly trust these forces to protect us from external threats and not to become instruments of domestic repression. We could have the same trust in a police force designed to protect us from domestic threats. …

Gun advocates will object that a prohibition of private gun ownership is an impossibility in the United States. But this is not an objection they can press in good faith, for the only reason that a legal prohibition could be impossible in a democratic state is that a majority oppose it. If gun advocates ceased to oppose it, a prohibition would be possible.

They will next argue that even if there were a legal prohibition, it could not be enforced with anything approaching complete effectiveness. This is true. As long as some people somewhere have guns, some people here can get them. Similarly, the legal prohibition of murder cannot eliminate murder. But the prohibition of murder is more effective than a policy of “murder control” would be.

Guns are not like alcohol and drugs, both of which we have tried unsuccessfully to prohibit. Many people have an intense desire for alcohol or drugs that is independent of what other people may do. But the need for a gun for self-defense depends on whether other people have them and how effective the protection and deterrence provided by the state are. Thus, in other Western countries in which there are fewer guns, there are correspondingly fewer instances in which people need guns for effective self-defense.

Gun advocates sometimes argue that a prohibition would violate individuals’ rights of self-defense. Imposing a ban on guns, they argue, would be tantamount to taking a person’s gun from her just as someone is about to kill her. But this is a defective analogy. Although a prohibition would deprive people of one effective means of self-defense, it would also ensure that there would be far fewer occasions on which a gun would be necessary or even useful for self-defense. For guns would be forbidden not just to those who would use them for defense but also to those who would use them for aggression. Guns are only one means of self-defense and self-defense is only one means of achieving security against attack. It is the right to security against attack that is fundamental. A policy that unavoidably deprives a person of one means of self-defense but on balance substantially reduces her vulnerability to attack is therefore respectful of the more fundamental right from which the right of self-defense is derived.

In other Western countries, per capita homicide rates, as well as rates of violent crime involving guns, are a fraction of what they are in the United States. The possible explanations of this are limited. Gun advocates claim it has nothing to do with our permissive gun laws or our customs and practices involving guns. If they are right, should we conclude that Americans are simply inherently more violent, more disposed to mental derangement, and less moral than people in other Western countries? If you resist that conclusion, you have little choice but to accept that our easy access to all manner of firearms is a large part of the explanation of why we kill each at a much higher rate than our counterparts elsewhere. Gun advocates must search their consciences to determine whether they really want to share responsibility for the perpetuation of policies that make our country the homicide capitol of the developed world.

Source: © 2013 The New York Times.

The (Terrifying) Transformative Potential of Technology

by Lisa Wade

When Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School, he was carrying a Bushmaster .223 caliber Remington semiautomatic. This is the frightening weapon he used to take the lives of 27 people:


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Richard Green/Commercial/Alamy Stock Photo

The refrain—”guns don’t kill people, people kill people”—does an injustice to the complicated homotechnocultural phenomenon that we call a massacre. Evan Selinger, at The Atlantic, does a wonderful job taking apart this phrase. It assumes an instrumentalist view of technology, where we bend it to our will. In contrast, he argues in favor of a transformative view: when humans interact with objects, they are transformed by that interaction. A gun changes how a person sees the world. Selinger writes:

To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets.

In other words, if you have a hammer, suddenly all the world’s problems look like nails to you (see Law of the Instrument). The wonderful French philosopher Bruno Latour put it this way:

You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.

So, that’s the homotechnological part of the story. What of the cultural?

At Sociological Images, Michael Kimmel observes that the vast majority of mass killings in the U.S. are carried out by middle-class, white males. “From an early age,” he writes, “boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired.” While the vast majority of men will never be violent, they are all exposed to lessons about what it means to be a real man:

They learn that if they are crossed, they have the manly obligation to fight back. They learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement. . . . They learn that “aggrieved entitlement” is a legitimate justification for violent explosion.

Violence is culturally masculine. So, when the human picks up the object, it matters whether that person is a man or a woman.

Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the weapon used by Lanza, was explicit in tying their product to masculinity. Though it has now been taken down, before the shooting visitors to their website could engage in public shaming of men who were insufficiently masculine, revoking their man card and branding them with the image of a female stick figure. . . .

[Their] man card is “revoked” and Bushmaster has just the solution[, which is to “reissue” a man card once a weapon is purchased].

Manliness is tied to gun ownership (and, perhaps, gun use). Whatever it is that threatens his right to consider himself a man, a gun is an immediate cure.

Many people are calling on politicians to respond to this tragedy by instituting stricter gun control laws and trying to reduce the number or change the type of guns in American hands. That’ll help with the homotechnological part. But, as Kimmel argues, we also need to address the cultural part of the equation. We need to change what it means to be a man in America.

This post was co-written with Gwen Sharp and originally posted at Sociological Images.

Source: © 2013 Sociological Images.

Morning Joe


Joe Scarborough began his show Morning Joe Monday, December 17, 2012, addressing the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Today, we as a nation grieve. Today, we as a people feel helpless. Helpless to stop these random acts of violence that seem to be getting less random by the day.

It may the geographic proximity of Newtown to my hometown, or the fact my children’s ages average those of the 20 young children tragically killed on Friday, or the fact my second son has Aspergers, or the fact that too many other facts associated with Friday’s nightmare strike so close to home . . . that for me, there is no escaping the horrors visited upon the children and teachers of Sandy Hook.

The events that occurred in a short, violent outburst on Friday, December 14, 2012, were so evil that no words that I know of have yet been invented to sufficiently describe the horror experienced by 20 precious first grade students, their heroic principal, their anguished parents or the shocked New England town that will never be the same.

There is no way to capture the final moments of these children’s short lives or the loss and helplessness their parents must feel today. There is nothing they can do, there is nothing any of us can do, to ease their pain this morning, or to cause these little children to run back into the loving arms of their family members this Christmas season.

Soon, we will watch the burials of these babies. We will hold up their parents in prayer. And we will hold our own children tighter as we thank God every afternoon watching them walk off their school bus and into our arms.

But every American must know—from this day forward—that nothing can ever be the same again.

We have said this before: after Columbine, after Arizona, after Aurora, after so many other numbing hours of murder and of massacre.

But let this be our true landmark; let Newtown be the hour after which, in the words of the New Testament, we did all we could to make all things new.

Politicians can no longer be allowed to defend the status quo. They must instead be forced to protect our children.

Parents can no longer take “No” for an answer from Washington when the topic turns to protecting children.

The violence we see spreading from shopping malls in Oregon, to movie theaters in Colorado, to college campuses in Virginia, to elementary schools in Connecticut, is being spawned by the toxic brew of a violent pop culture, a growing mental health crisis and the proliferation of combat-styled guns.

Though entrenched special interests will try to muddy the issues, the cause of these sickening mass shootings is no longer a mystery to common-sense Americans. And blessedly, there are more common-sense Americans than there are special interests, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Good luck to the gun lobbyist or Hollywood lawyer who tries to blunt the righteous anger of ten million parents by hiding behind a twisted reading of our Bill of Rights.

Thinking Critically About Visuals

The Aftermath of the Newtown Massacre

What are some of the elements of this simple memorial for those massacred at Newtown that make the photograph so profoundly heart-breaking?


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Gina Jacobs/

Our government rightly obsesses day and night over how to prevent the next 9/11 from being launched from a cave in Afghanistan or a training base in Yemen. But perhaps now is the time to begin obsessing over how to stop the next attack on a movie theater, a shopping mall, a college campus or a first grade class.

The battle we now must fight, and the battle we must now win is for the safety and sanity of our children, and that is the war at home.

It’s not all about guns, or all about violent movies and videogames. But we must no longer allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And we must not excuse total inaction by arguing that no single action can solve the problem and save our children.

I am a conservative Republican who received the NRA’s highest ratings over 4 terms in Congress. I saw the debate over guns as a powerful, symbolic struggle between individual rights and government control. In the years after Waco and Ruby Ridge, the symbolism of that debate seemed even more powerful to my colleagues and me.

But the symbols of that ideological struggle have since been shattered by the harvest sown from violent, mind-numbing video games and gruesome Hollywood movies that dangerously desensitizes those who struggle with mental health challenges. Add military-styled weapons and high capacity magazines to that equation and tragedy can never be too far behind.

There is no easy ideological way forward. If it were only so simple as to blame Hollywood or the NRA, then our task could be completed in no time. But I come to you this morning with a heavy heart and no easy answers. Still, I have spent the past few days grasping for solutions and struggling for answers, while daring to question my long held beliefs on these subjects.

. . .

Abraham Lincoln once said of this great and powerful nation . . .

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

For the sake of my four children, I choose life. And I choose change. It is time to turn over the tables inside the temple, for the sake of our children and for the sake of this great nation that we love.


· We construct our world by actively selecting, organizing, and interpreting our sensations.

· We view the world through our own unique “lenses,” which shape and influence our perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge.

· The “prescription” of our lenses has been formed by our experiences and our reflection on those experiences.

· We construct beliefs based on our perceptions, and we construct knowledge based on our beliefs.

· Thinking critically involves understanding how perceiving lenses—ours and those of others—influence perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge.

· Different types of beliefs include reports, inferences, and judgments.

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