Critical Thinking Skills 101: The Danger of Perceived Expertise

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If you have taken English 102, here at Prairie State College, then chances are that you came down for a Library Session, and learned about applying critical thinking when doing research. One of the major topics covered is the Expertise of the Author and agendas that they or a company publishing their material may have.

When doing research, finding sources that demonstrate Expertise is very important because it can lend credibility to your argument.  However, when you are performing research, determining the answer to whether or not an argument made by an author is credible is not always black and white.  Here is an example …

The Kefauver Hearings and the Birth of the Comic Book Code

Perhaps, if you have long been a fan of comics, you’ve already heard this tale, but if not then let me introduce you Dr. Frederic Wertham and his mission to get comic books out of the hands of children.

Wertham’s tale begins in the mid to late-1940s when he began counseling juvenile delinquents in New York. At this time, comic books were all the rage with kids and an average of 15 million issues were sold each month. Now, Wertham,  a cognitive psychiatrist who studied violent behavior and the effects of mass media, began to notice that a large percentage of these the juvenile delinquents he worked with read comic books (he also may have noted that they all drank Coca-Cola, but that did not fit with his narrative, and was thus ignored). Previous to this there was a growing national rebuttal to comic books and editorials were written in magazines such as Catholic World, The National Review, and Reader’s Digest which singled out comics as being distasteful and contributing to increased cases of illiteracy. These cases, it is important to note, were not scientific and did not purport to be, but instead built their cases strictly in regards to taste.  So, Wertham, capitalizing on this growing criticism of the medium, published a book entitled The Seduction of the Innocent, which was a full-length psychiatric exposition of the damaging effects of comic books on children. In the book, Wertham presented out-of-context clips of violent and sexual images and concluded, without any scientific backing, that these images aggravated emotional problems of children.

Here are some of Wertham's more notable claims. Credit to Mar Bors www.mattbors.com Here are some of Wertham’s more notable claims. Credit to Matt Bors http://www.mattbors.com

Like previous commentators, he was shocked and offended by the comic books; his critique lined up neatly with the taste-oriented concerns of early critics. Unlike those critics, however, he was a certified expert who addressed a popular audience. And despite the lack of any scientific connection made in Seduction, the fact that Wertham could put MD on the front of the book granted him symbolic power because of the specialized knowledge a doctor possesses. By making clear his professional status in his writings, Wertham was effectively staking claim to the authority granted to doctors. This introduction of medical authority into the debate over comics would bring the comics onto center stage.

And this stage would be set up in the United States, during the Kefauver Hearings on the effects of mass media on children. During these hearings congressmen set out to find out why youngsters were turning toward a life of delinquency. And on day one of the hearings they investigated comic books. For this they brought in several of experts, but the day was led off by Dr. Wertham, who began with his famous pronouncement …

“Well, I hate to say that, senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read.”

He then went into his usual spiel that “comic books warped the readers’ sense of right and wrong” and that children would no longer look at their hard working parents as heroes, but now turn to Superman for moral guidance. Again, all of this was conjecture and not based off scientific evidence, despite Wertham’s use of medical and scientific jargon when presenting his case. When the dust settled on these hearings the senators used Wertham’s expertise to recommend that the publishing companies needed to self-regulate their industry by creating a Comic Book Code that all comics would have to adhere to before publications. Each comic that was intended to be published would have to go through a review process to make sure they lived up to the standards of decency outlined by the code. I’ve cherry-picked my favorites but if you want you can find all of the standards here.

hearing 2

The code effectively killed Horror and Crime comics and infantilized the medium.  It has only been over the last decade that those genres along with westerns have come back. And it was all do to perceived expertise of an author by an audience who did not critically look at what was being presented to them. So to help you avoid this issue in your own research I will leave you with some things to note when you are trying to determine the credibility of an author.

Tips for determining credibility

  1. Determine who the author and what is their background: In the case of Wertham , his background as an employee of John Hopkins and as a medical doctor actually, not to mention his extensive work with juvenile delinquents actually earns him some credence in this department.
  2. Determine the purpose of the author. Do they present a bias are they representing a point of view or are they coming at it objectively: In the case of Wertham, his purpose is clearly stated, in that he wants to make it impossible for children less than 13 years of age to buy or read comics.
  3. Is the author’s claim scientifically backed and if so does the author provide information or references to prove this: In the case of Wertham the answer is no, all he provides is speculation and conjecture (correlation without causation). Never did he present or cite a scientific study to back up his claims.
  4. Did the article go through the peer-review process: To counteract instances such as this one, the academic community relies on peer-review process, wherein a resource, before publication is placed before a peer-review panel of experts who judge whether it contains flaws. One of the most important things that this panel looks for is bias and conclusions that are drawn unscientifically because of this bias. When doing research, be aware of papers that are peer-reviewed when supporting a claim.

This article is based off previous articles. If you would like more information on the topic please check out …

Bors, M (2004). Frederic  Wertham. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 84(3), 15-21. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete.

Park, D. (2002). The Kefauver comic book hearing as show trial: Decency, authority and the dominated expert.Cultural Studies16(2), 259-288.

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