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Covid-19 and Critical Thinking

Posted on 5/1/2020 4:48:36 PM

Written by Sharon Schwarze, PhD, from Cabrini's Department of Philosophy and Liberal Studies

The covid-19 crisis is very upsetting to all of us, you and me.  It has us upset because we do not know how to anticipate the future -- the world's future and our own personal futures.  We can't make plans.  Our expectations are thwarted.  We are very unhappy not knowing what the future will bring and not knowing what consequences our own actions will bring.  We want to have pleasant experiences, not unpleasant ones.  But we do not know what to anticipate.  

This is because our inductive reasoning that helps us to anticipate the future is confounded.  Remember the principle of induction: that the future will be like the past?  The problem is that we have never had a past like this!  You should also remember that that principle has no non-circular justification.  Just because in past the future was like the past does not guarantee that the coming future will also be like the past.  And now it isn't.  We have never had a corona virus like this one, one that makes people so sick.  We do not know what to anticipate and therefore we do not know how to make decisions or to make plans.  It makes us anxious and unhappy.  To put it another way, we have a present that is sufficiently unlike any recent past such that our ordinary expectations for the future have been upset and we are upset.

So how can critical thinking help us in these times?  Certainly, critical thinking cannot make covid-19 and the chaos it is causing go away. What it can do is help us to understand what has happened and suggest ways to cope and improve the current situation.  Inductive reasoning is at the heart of the problem – and is the tool our leaders and scientists are using to anticipate and improve the future.  They are collecting the traces, that is the marks they find on the world that indicate something (new) is going on.  These include the deaths and the number of deaths, the pathogens (germs) they find on those bodies, the bodily changes in those who are sick (difficulty breathing, sore throats, fever), and the places the disease strikes.  Then they look for patterns among these traces.  They see that people tend to get sick after touching something that the sick person has come in contact with.  They need to know the patterns so they can interrupt those patterns and stop the spread of the disease.

They then use induction, namely the three types of inductive reasoning:  

  • They reason by using generalizations.  They see the pattern that older people die from covid-19 more frequently than younger people and draw the generalization that covid-19 is more dangerous to older people or to people with underlying conditions.  They generalize that people can catch the disease from people without symptoms, etc. These generalizations are not necessarily universal (they are not about all, but about some).
  • They reason using analogy.   They look at past pandemics to see how they spread.  They see that this event has similar properties to other pandemics and reason that it will share other properties as well.  They look at other corona viruses (they cause the common cold) and examine their known behavior.  They reason by analogy that this corona virus will behave somewhat similarly.  Of course, they also have to look at where the similarities stop.  For example, why does this corona virus kill more people than does the common cold?  Microscopic analysis shows some differences.  Those differences will help lead to an antidote or vaccine for covid-19.
  • They reason using causal reasoning.   That is, they reason that the virus covid-19 causes the symptoms that give so much suffering.  There is a necessary connection between the virus and the illness.  Whenever A happens, B happens.  Now we know that not everyone who carries the virus gets sick, but we do know that everyone who carries the virus can pass it on to someone else who will most probably get sick.  We do not know exactly why some (lucky) people do not experience symptoms but we do know that the virus is the cause of the disease.  (Just as cigarettes cause cancer but not everyone who smokes gets cancer.)   We also know that good hygiene and disinfecting can cause the death of the virus.  That is just as important for us to know.

We also know using all three of these reasoning processes that a future vaccine is a must for overcoming this scourge.  We know that most people who are vaccinated against other diseases do not get those disease or get very light cases of them.  That's using generalization and analogy and causal reasoning.  We all look forward to that day!!

Now let's use this example to talk more generally about correlations.  A correlation is when two events repeatedly happen together, like being exposed to a sick person and later getting sick yourself.  Some correlations happen necessarily because, we assume, there is a causal relation between them.  If the first event happens then the second event has to happen.  E.g., if you are exposed to covid-19 you will get sick or you have a very strong immune system that can fight off this invader.  One of those two things has to happen.  There is a necessary connection between them. 

Some events happen together by accident.  These are accidental correlations.  There is an accidental correlation between you're being a Cabrini University student and being healthy (at least I hope so).  It's not that you couldn't get sick, but you just happen to be both a Cabrini student and not sick.  And we hope that there continues to be a fairly high correlation between these two! This distinction is important for understanding causal reasoning.  When researchers look for a vaccine, they want to make sure that the vaccine causes the lack of sickness and it is not just an accident that those who received it stayed healthy.

The material in this announcement should help you to understand why inductive reasoning is so important and why critical thinking is so important.  We hope that our scientists have good inductive reasoning.  They are known for it.  Our politicians are not!

You should also keep in mind that inductive reasoning is always about confirmation, not proof.  We will have to wait for scientists to confirm that a vaccine works.  There is never proof.  We can confirm, over and over again, that hand washing and staying away from sick can keep a person healthy.  But we cannot prove it.  Some people who ignore these prescriptions will not get sick, but they are lucky, not smart.  They are not thinking critically.