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A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense

by Normand Baillargeon; Andrea Schmidt, trans.

The idea behind this book is explained in an epigraph from Noam Chomsky: “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control.” So it’s no surprise, then, to find that among book’s “thirty-one strategies for fostering a critical approach to the media,” is one that advises us to “Read Chomsky.” This short course is a prophylactic guide geared toward people who want to stay independent of the corporate or mass media’s barrage of advertising and propaganda.

Author Normand Baillargeon, a professor of education fundamentals at the Université du Quebec à Montreal, has written what is essentially a textbook for a first-year university course in logic and critical thinking. He includes plenty of graphics, cartoons, sidebars, practice problems, and the like. It’s not a book to read from beginning to end, but it is easy to pick up and rummage through and makes for a decent reference.

The first two sections, on language and mathematics, explain basic concepts. Unfortunately, the mathematics chapter is not a model of clarity. Even a relatively simple matter like calculating an average is made to seem confusing by introducing the formula in scientific notation and then attempting to explain it, an approach that laypeople with not find very helpful. But most of the discussion is kept at an introductory level. Later chapters deal with problems of perception, science, and the media, and demonstrate some of the “indispensable tools” learned earlier. Frequently drawing from recent news stories and case studies helps make the discussion seem all the more relevant, if not quite urgent.

As one might expect, there is a definite political slant to all of this. Baillargeon urges readers to keep in mind his own anti-authoritarian belief system, and how it may colour his values and presuppositions. Of course, most students of such a course will likely share these views, but even general readers will likely find this book a useful overview of the fundamentals of critical thinking.