All posts by Gary C. Woodward

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Moving Through The World With the Shades Down

We now expect that Hollywood will feed us all the environmental thrills we want. But the real thing requires only a small effort from us.

Anyone like me who flies infrequently will be surprised to experience the new normal on most flights where travelers sit for hours with the window shades pulled down. Airplane makers need not have bothered to pull off the complex engineering to create safe viewing locations within a plane. People seem to prefer to sit in the near-dark with 100 other strangers. Leaving a very sunny Denver the other day, it might as well have been in the evening. Only the weird blue lighting in the cabin cast a dim glow. Everyone around and in front of me were on tablets or phones: mesmerized by their small electronic tethers. I only had an old book to pass the time, confident that it was already in airplane mode.

Here’s the thing: passing over a large stretch of the United States on a clear day can be a fine experience. We don’t need a geographer onboard to marvel at the passing views of towns, rivers, mountains and forests that stretch into the distance. Even prairie farmland that can be monotonous on the ground reveals striking features at 38,000 feet. Small towns that are marked but rarely delineated on maps take on rich detail from the air. If we would only look, there is much to see from a perspective granted by impressive height:  traditional commercial centers, quiet streets and homes that were probably laid out in neat grids in the 1800s, sometimes unexpected sprawl, and even some dead zones from extractive industries that are normally hidden from view.

No one should believe that a nation can be known just by a panoramic view of its geography. But our problem is the reverse; the minutia of individual lives can make us overlook the imprints of our collective presence on the landscape. Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s meditation on amazing views from the cockpit (Skyfaring, 2015) is a reminder that even the clouds that show up in the lower atmosphere offer their own unique canyons and high passes.

Today we tend to expect that Hollywood will feed us environmental thrills. But the experience of taking in the real thing requires only a small effort from us. A tour through clouds let us experience the fantasy of being our own vanishing acts. Clouds are mixtures of water vaper that can appear to have both mass and or sudden transparency. It is a new experience to view them at eye level.

One memorable flight for me years ago was a routine trip from the east coast to the upper Midwest. In most respects the trip was normal, but somewhere over Cleveland an amazing drama of atmospheric beauty began to unfold. The lower altitude of the flight required the pilot to thread his way between thunderheads that show up in that part of the world in the summer. They were enormous, towering thousands of feet above our tiny speck of a plane that made its way between them. Bellowing up against the blue sky on one side but black in their own shadows, these where Cleveland’s impressive answer to Monument Valley in the southwest. As we passed near their late afternoon shadows we could see under us faint flashes of light glowing in the darkest corners. The effect was of a fireworks show seen through a shroud, as if Thor had decided to toss off some reminders of our own fragility. It was an experience I would not have wanted to miss.

Sadly, the synthetic experience of a small screen with the resolution of 60s television set seems to be our preoccupation. Nothing is too inconsequential to hold our interest. The living landscape in real space requires a bit more curiosity, a little more willingness to take in the vastness of the earth and its atmosphere. That’s a  first step to reach the awe that Vanhoenaker recorded in his book. If they were around today, those engineers who had to figure out ways to make airliner windows that would not blow out of a pressurized cabin might have wondered why they bothered. They might also wonder when we lost our interest in being astonished by the real.

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A Necessary First Lesson in Civics

                                       AI Image

Social media usually strip claims of their evidence. Somehow, Americans must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.

In a recent post I noted that in culture that needs to thrive, we need to be sure we are teaching our children the basic tools of critical thinking. They need to know what solid arguments look like. They also need to know the rudiments for judging the credibility of the sources that make them. In open societies these two benchmarks are universal: applying to those who testify in courtrooms as well as the rest of us who want to make compelling claims  others will consider. A middle schooler must understand these tests. Virtually no social media forms have the inclination or time to explain complete ideas. So it is no exaggeration to note that the fate of the nation depends upon having these two benchmarks top of mind.

Recognizing Credible Arguments

In any exchange about the ways thing are or the way they should be we assume that some compelling evidence will be offered, especially beyond the empty banter of opinion-giving. A judge would expect evidence that is more than just hearsay, in addition to rejecting truth claims from those not in a position to make them. In all but the most casual settings we it to everyone in the room to do more than make an unsubstantiated claim and call it a day. We hear enough wild and unsubstantiated claims, many passed on by journalists who treat them as viable. But a listener with expectations that ideas should be backed up know that the world is not flat, Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and our weather is affected by human activity. There is substantial evidence for all of these claims. Truth is still the truth even if an individual does not believe it. And most truths come with clear evidence to anyone who will listen.

An argument considered in isolation can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons.

That’s it. In its most basic form it is an assertion of fact supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on. The asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. Somehow, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim about an important issue is, by itself, insufficient.

For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud.” If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA person, I’m uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.”

What what makes it true? Where is my evidence? I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the President does with its counter-argument—by offer a rewording of the claim to make it seem like a reason. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right. Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

Claim: “The Election was free of fraud.”

(Because. . .)1

  1. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
  2. The administration’s cyber-security head said so.

III. No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.

  1. Virtually all respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
  2. A vast array of American courts couldn’t even find enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he “believes” many dead Democrats “voted?” You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of grammatically converting what he “believes” into what he “knows:” perhaps that “slaves benefited from their enslavement” or “most federal prosecutors are communists.” That’s dishonest because these kinds of claims affirm what can easily be denied, even if telling him so probably will not keep him up at nights. People uttering belief statements are best left to their magical thinking, but only after you point out that they have  sometimes made an elemental error of reasoning.

Recognizing Credible Sources

All evidence in an argument is testimony of one kind or another. Details in support of a claim have to come from someone. And that individual or group must meet some elemental standards of credibility. In general a credible source is (1) in a position to know, and (2) able to render evidence that comes without an overriding bias. For example, I can claim that Russia is behind many instances of computer sabotage in the United States. But I don’t know that.  I haven’t researched the evidence I would expect to find. Add in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and I have a heavy bias against the Russian regime. In short, my opinion is not worth as much without convincing evidence.

Let’s add one more twist that any student must learn. Sources can be labeled “willing” or
“reluctant.”  Willing sources are those who offer statements that conform to their biases. Reluctant sources offer statements that tend to be contrary to their own views. This sometimes happens, and is the gold standard for taking a source seriously. An example dealing with the 2020 election could be include Attorney General William Barr’s own words, made in point “A” in the above outline: “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is affirming what would have been easier for a member of the Trump administration to deny. We wouldn’t expect him to say make the statement unless it was probably true.

These are all elemental components of critical thinking. They are not difficult to learn and apply.  More than ever, we need these components to be taught and retaught.


1 This is one of the secret sauces of practical reasoning. If you can put "because" between a genuine claim and the good reasons that you have for it (A, B, etc.), the whole completed thought should make sense. Your life experience should flag a "reason" that simply does not follow after stating the claim. This "does not follow" test is not an infallible guide, but it is pretty reliable. If Uncle Fred asserts that "The U.S. is a Christian nation," add "because" for the reasons he may offer. There are roughly 100 million Americans that identify with a belief tradition other than Christianity. So claims for this identifying label are not likely to sound right or make sense. He's entitled to his belief, but it cannot be easily substantiated with corollary claims.