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How I Introduce Skepticism Into The Classroom

by Alison Hudson

February 8, 2013

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Donate I don't teach science classes, or philosophy classes, or any of the kinds of classes where one would traditionally teach critical thinking skills. I teach composition. But that doesn't mean I can't try to inject some skepticism into my class lessons. One of the classes I routinely teach is a sophomore-level writing course that uses argumentation as its mode for writing. And even though skepticism is not my focus, I do enjoy using the subject matter of the class as a vehicle for challenging the way my students think. Here's how I do it.

In the early part of the quarter, I challenge my students to re-examine the positions they hold. The textbook we use includes as a reading an excerpt from Deborah Tannen's excellent The Argument Culture. Tannen's essay is a critique of the way in which "debate" in American Discourse has devolved into angry talking heads "going to war" for their positions but never actually listening to one another. I pair this reading with an older QualiaSuop video about critical thinking; the video's discussion of black and white thinking fits nicely into Tannen's notions about the "us vs. them" mentality in modern discourse.

Between these two readings, I can usually get a good class discussion going about the sorts of things people believe to be true regardless of the evidence. I find this to be a great way to introduce critical thinking via self-criticism -- challenging students, as they write essays that feature their own opinions, to subject their own views to critical analysis.

Critical thinking rests quietly in the background for the next few weeks while they work on their first essays. But after the first big writing assignment is done, I like to change the pace a bit and introduce an in-class essay. And a little bit of skepticism.

By now, we've had several conversations about good arguments, bad arguments, and argumentative fallacies. We're also entering a unit on argument analysis. So as a class activity, I screen Brian Dunning's Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Not only is it a compact way to slip in a lot of skeptical material about false claims, statistical probability, and homeopathy; but the film also works great for an in-class essay prompt. I ask them: What was the strongest part of the film's argument? What was the weakest? And, has the film changed the way they will evaluate extraordinary claims in the future?

I must say, the responses I get to this film can be quite amusing. There are always some students in class who are fans of alternative medicines or fad diets, and they're usually rankled by the film's sharp critique of their sacred cows. On the other hand, by now they've learned a little something about critical thinking and they're aware that, in general, the film's points are sound. So they usually struggle to put together some form of special pleading -- "The movie's right about all the stupid claims, but not about homeopathy; I think that in that part Dunning didn't do good research, because it's helped me get over illnesses super quick."

Through the rest of the quarter, I look for opportunities to introduce alternative pop cultural topics into the discussion, just to keep them on their toes. Selections from Skeptoid assist in this, and I'm always assigning at least a few articles every semester (Organic Food Myths and How Dangerous is Cell Phone Radiation are regular reads for my classes). My goal is never to shoot student opinions down; instead, I'm there to facilitate their own thinking. Ideally, I want them to shoot their own ideas down.

And sometimes, they do. My favorite moment in student critical thinking came a few years ago, when a student wanted to write an anti-vaccination paper: how they could be harmful, how parents needed to get better educated, how children were at risk. As we were discussing it, I made a single suggestion to him: if he was going to write about it, he had to talk about Andrew Wakefield; since the whole vaccine controversy began with Wakefield, the paper wouldn't be complete without some background. The student agreed, and he went off to do his research.

Three weeks later, he submitted his final paper. I looked at it, and realized that he'd taken a pro-vaccination stance. And yes, he included a section about Wakefield, and about how Wakefield had been exposed as a fraud.

That was a good day to be a teacher.

by Alison Hudson

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