Facing a Decision as a Critical Thinker
Imagine this situation. You are on a four-day backpacking trip in a national wilderness area with your friends Juanita and Emilio.
The summer weather’s great, the scenery is exotic, and you’ve been having a good time. Yesterday you drove several hours into the area and parked in the main parking lot. Then you hiked four hours to your present campsite. The three of you carried all your food, water, sleeping bags, and tents.
Last night you discovered that somebody had accidentally cracked the large water container. Now you are stuck with no water. Although there is a stream nearby, you wouldn’t normally drink from a stream, and you remember that your packets of water-sterilization tablets are in the pocket of your other coat—the one you left at home at the last minute. The three of you are thirsty and have only dehydrated food left, except for four apples. You wish you had bothered to haul in that twelve-pack of Dr. Pepper you decided to leave in the car’s trunk.
What do you do? Nobody brought cell phones. You could yell, but that is unlikely to help; you haven’t seen any other hikers since the trip began. You try yelling, but all you get is an echo. You briefly think about snow, but realize there isn’t any. Emilio says he has an idea: Boil the water from the stream. When it cools, you could drink it and make breakfast and continue with your good times. Then Juanita mentions seeing a sign back in the parking lot:
Warning, Giardia has been found in many streams in the area. Sorry, but we are out of sterilization tablets.
“Giardia is a microorganism that makes you sick,” she says. You and Emilio have never heard of it. Emilio says he’s willing to bet that boiling the water will kill the critters. “Besides,” he says, “our stream might not have Giardia. I’ll take the first drink.” Juanita winces. “No, don’t do that,” she says. “Let’s just pack up and go home.” When you ask her why, she explains that a friend of hers got Giardia and had a bad experience with it. She doesn’t want to risk having the same experience. When you hear the details, you understand why. The symptoms are chronic diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating, and fatigue. “Also,” she says, “the park signs about Giardia are probably posted because the organisms cannot be killed by boiling.”
However, she admits that she isn’t sure of her interpretation of the sign, and she agrees with Emilio that the nearby stream might not even contain Giardia, so she decides to do whatever the majority wants. She adds that the three of you might get lucky while you are hiking out and meet someone who can help, maybe a hiker who knows more about Giardia or has extra watersterilization tablets. Then again, you might not be so lucky; you didn’t pass anybody on the way in. Hiking out while you all have a bad case of Giardia might even be life threatening.
Emilio agrees to go along with the majority decision, too. He wants to stay, but not by himself. Still, he isn’t convinced by Juanita’s reasons. “Look,” he says, “if the stream were poisonous, everything in it would look dead. There are water spiders and plants living in the stream. It’s no death trap.”
At this point you are faced with one of life’s little decisions: What do you do about the water situation? Go or stay? Someone else might make this decision by flipping a coin. A logical reasoner is more rational.
A first step in logical reasoning is often to get some good advice. You already have some advice, but how do you decide whether it’s any good? There is one best way to identify good advice: It can be backed up with good reasons. Juanita’s advice to go back home is backed up by these reasons: (1) the consequences of getting giardia are pretty bad, and (2) the posted signs probably indicate that boiling won’t work. Unfortunately, she is not sure about the boiling. So the burden falls on your shoulders. Can you back up her reasoning even if she can’t? Or can you show that her reasoning isn’t any good?
One way to support a statement is to point out that the person making it is an expert. So you think about Juanita’s and Emilio’s credentials. Let’s see—Juanita is a student majoring in psychology, and Emilio is a communications major and works at a pet store. Does that make them authorities on Giardia and the safety of drinking water? No. So if you need an expert, you will have to search elsewhere.
But you ask yourself: Is it really worth your trouble to search for more information from an expert? That search will probably require a hike back to the ranger station near the parking lot. Rangers ought to be relative experts on drinking from their streams. If the expert’s advice is to avoid drinking the boiled water unless you have sterilization tablets, then you’ll have to hike all the way back to camp to tell the others and then start the process of packing up and hiking out. It would be a lot easier just to follow Juanita’s advice to pack up and leave now. So what do you decide to do? Let’s say you decide not to search for more advice, and you recommend boiling the water and drinking it when it cools. You now owe it to Juanita and Emilio to give them the reasons behind your decision.
Your first reason, let’s say, is that you discounted Emilio’s remark that if the stream were poisonous then everything in it would look dead. Deadly things can be alive and look healthy. You mention salmonella on delicious turkey burgers. You are certain that there are microbes that harm humans but do not harm plants and fish; you mention to Juanita and Emilio that crabgrass and catfish do not catch cholera.
Your second reason comes from reconsidering that sign at the ranger station. If nothing works to kill Giardia, then the warning probably would have been more serious; you wouldn’t even have been allowed into the park or at least you would have been warned in person. The sign said the station is out of sterilization tablets, implying that sterilizing the water will make it safe. Safe in what sense? Sterilizing means killing or removing all the living organisms, but not necessarily all the harmful chemicals. If you were to sterilize water containing gasoline, that wouldn’t make it safe to drink. So, the problem is definitely the microorganisms. Now surely the rangers know that hikers are apt to try to sterilize water by boiling it. You reason that if boiling wouldn’t work, the sign would have said so. Then you vaguely remember hearing that people in Africa were told to boil drinking water to prevent cholera, and you think cholera is caused by a parasite or bacteria or something living in the water. Could cholera be that different from Giardia, you wonder. Thinking about all this you conclude it is likely that boiling will do the trick. So, Juanita’s worry about the danger of getting a bad disease such as Giardia is more than offset by the low probability of actually getting the disease if you boil the water. So, you recommend that your group stay in the mountains, boil the water and drink it after it cools.
That’s how you have made your own decision. Is it a reasonable one? Yes, because it is based on high-quality reasoning. Is it the best decision—the one an expert would have made in your place? You don’t know this, but yes, the experts do say that stream water will be safe if you boil it for a minute or two. Giardia is caused by protozoa which can’t live for long at high temperature. Other micro-organisms can survive this heating, but they usually won’t cause any human illness. The reason people use water-purification tablets instead of boiling is for convenience; using the tablets avoids all the extra time for the water to boil and then later to cool to drinking temperature. Now let’s turn to the principles of logical reasoning that have been used in this situation. The principles, which are the focus of the next section, are neither rules nor recipes; they are pieces of advice that must be applied flexibly. They are called “principles” only because it sounds odd to call something “piece of advice eleven” or “thing to do seven.”