It was Dachson’s turn to buy drinks and he suggested their local favorite pub “The Cloven Cup”. It was a busy night and the bar had a lively and energetic crowd. As local celebrities, Sheeplock and Dachson could always count on getting seats right at the bar. They ordered a couple of pints and settled back to enjoy the night. As celebrities (and as a talking sheep and dog) they are always recognized and pulled into some kind of debate. This night, a group of bickering friends approached them with the offer of covering their tab for the night if they settled an argument. The two liked that proposal.
They were arguing over a phrase one had heard “Go Vegan, Drink More Beer” with some thinking beer is actually vegan while the others saying no it isn’t. Dachson looked happy knowing he wasn’t paying a dime tonight. Sheeplock took a long drink and then said “This is intriguing as typically beer is made from agricultural products: wheat, grain, barley, hops, fruits, spices, etc. Therefore, we can consider it vegan by the strict definition. However, this statement greatly oversimplifies the message. Deciding to eat vegan is about more than just drinking beer, it is a choice to change one’s lifestyle to what some see as healthier and less impactful on the environment. There are many other vegan friendly drinks as well: good old water, coffee (without cream of course), seltzers, hard liquors, etc. So, I would say that while beer is technically vegan, all of you have entirely missed the point here.” The group looked sullen for a minute, but then laughed and saluted Sheeplock and Dachson with a drink.
This is a critical thinking concept which I often call “the bumper sticker problem”. In it, a complex issue is distilled down into a single quote, which fits easily on a bumper sticker, but removes all the nuance and necessary knowledge. We live in a world where our attention is up for grabs so there is a desire to over-simplify everything that reaches our eyes and ears. This simplifying comes at the cost of understanding. Many issues cannot be distilled into a single phrase. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the other big social media sites are where much of this bumper sticker knowledge is propagated. You can probably recall several things you saw just before reading this.
A famous bumper sticker that is still in circulation is “186,000 MPS. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law!” Obviously, we’re talking about the speed of light here. However, from reading this can you tell me why light travels at this speed? Do you know any of the history surrounding the discovery of the speed of light? Are you aware that the statement is actually rather misleading? I’m not a physicist, I don’t even play one on TV, but I do like to read about scientific topics and I watch a good number of educational internet content. So, I was surprised to learn that the speed of light isn’t really about light, it’s about causality, or the fastest that any two parts of the universe can talk to each other, and the fastest any massless item can move. Since light is massless, it travels at this speed. It also involves research from Galileo and Newton, plus the creation of a pivotal piece of mathematics called The Lorentz Transformation. All the real knowledge is lost in such a simple statement.
Another oldie but goodie was a short commercial routinely played in my younger days that went like this … “Camera shows a frying pan on a stove, narrator says This is your brain. Then eggs are cracked into the pan and start to cook as the narrator says This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Um, yes, several, actually. First, why is my brain a delicious breakfast food? Is there bacon too? I love bacon. This commercial was trying to tell people not to take drugs, but has no nuance whatsoever. For starters, your brain won’t actually cook while on drugs. The commercial makes you believe that any drug has the same effect on the brain. We know, though, that different drugs have different actions on the brain. Some can cause severe changes and create addictions while others are milder and non-addictive. Certain mood-altering drugs are now in use as treatment for some psychological issues because of how they do affect the brain. Please note I don’t condone the use of drugs, only a thorough understanding of both anti- and pro- drug claims.
I’ve seen a number of bumper stickers that are similar to “Buy Local, Feed a Friend” or “Support Local Business” and while I don’t mind purchasing from local businesses, these phrases really don’t explain the larger issue well at all. If you think about local produce, buying from a nearby farmer may not help that person as much as you think. It’s likely that the farmers need to ship their goods to large cities in order to sell enough volume. Consider that my town has a little under 9,000 people which means this is the maximum client base a local farm can have. But if that farm ships to a nearby large city, like Philadelphia, their market goes up to around 1.5 million people. Also be aware that in order to better serve their market some farmers will buy produce wholesale and then sell it at markup, meaning your vegetable may not be as local as you think – especially if it’s something not in season where you live. This is just one paragraph and I’ve scratched the surface of this issue, so the bumper sticker was missing a lot.
These are just 3 examples of why bumper sticker knowledge is really lacking. I’m not saying that simplifying a matter is always bad, or that you must have deep knowledge of every subject you come across. What I want to convey is that using the simplistic statements as the absolute truth is not a good idea. One good practice to improve your critical thinking is to take a bumper sticker statement and question it. What insightful lines of reasoning would you like to pursue for a given statement? Ask yourself if the phrase is making an emotional argument. Consider what information it is missing. Instead of “punch buggy” play “critique bumper” instead. Funny, I just got a call from Sheeplock who told me to meet him for free drinks!