The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Logic & Persuasion
May 16, 2007
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Today we're going to do something a little bit different. Rather than talk about
any one specific phenomenon, I want to talk in general terms about the importance
of teaching critical thinking to young people, and how and why it can and should
be done better. A skeptical approach to life leads to advances in all areas
of the human condition; while a willingness to accept that which does not fit
into the laws of our world represents a departure from the search for knowledge.
We had a critical thinking class at my high school as an elective, and I think
it was generally considered to be the most boring and useless class you could
take. If memory serves, the bulk of the class involved reading and studying
Plato's Socratic dialogues. If you read them as a teenager, you may recall
your reaction was to find them pretty darn dry. They were dialogues between
Socrates and other people about such riveting subjects as ancient politics,
philosophy, and even mathematics. I don't mean to criticize Socrates; it's
just that studying the man and his 2,400-year-old writings is about the least
interesting and relevant way for a modern young person to get excited about
what Socrates was communicating. Nobody I knew who walked out of that class
ever remembered a single concept, or applied it to their life. You can disagree
with me and say that you find the Socratic dialogues to be brilliant and fascinating.
My point is that the average teenager does not.
But the concepts Socrates introduced, such as the Socratic questions, are brilliant
and fascinating when we apply them to things that interest us. More significantly,
they become relevant. Take a few Socratic questions:
- What is the source of your information?
- What assumptions are you making?
- Is a different conclusion more consistent with the data?
- What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?
What if we encouraged young people to ask these questions not of early Greek
politics, but of the issues they're hit in the face with every day? Global
warming. Television psychics. Alternative medicine. New Age religions. Popular
assumptions about alternative fuels. Alternative foods. Alleged correlations
between Xbox violence and actual violence. Magnet therapy. Isn't it more useful
to encourage better ways to think about the subjects that people are already
I have a favorite example of an older, less interesting critical thought exercise
that was made more relevant and interesting. The philosopher Bertrand Russell,
in criticizing major religions, conceived of what became known as Russell's
Teapot, a small china teapot allegedly orbiting the sun. Since nobody could
disprove its existence, Russell argued that the only reason its existence shouldn't
be taken for granted is that there are no ancient texts written about it. He
applied Socratic reasoning to point out that ancient texts do not constitute
proof of an unprovable concept. Russell's Teapot was freshened when a grad
student named Bobby Henderson wrote to the Kansas Board of Education in 2005,
which had just mandated that the Christian story of creation should be taught
instead of science. He insisted that by the same logic, his non-disprovable
Flying Spaghetti Monster deity's myth of creation should be taught with equal
time. Fans appreciative of Henderson's logic have since formed the parody religion
known as Pastafarianism. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is goofy and glib, but
it is a valid example of using critical thinking to analyze the value of a
real phenomenon that we face today.
Teachers, what would your students come up with if you asked them to apply
similar reasoning and invent an alternative to television psychics, founded
upon the same assumptions that Sylvia Browne asks us to make?
Finding fault with television psychics or the Kansas Board of Education is
not, by itself, a positive contribution. Skepticism should not be merely a
negative influence. Skepticism is not about debunking, disproving, or ruining
anyone's faith. Skepticism is about applying the scientific method to arrive
at a conclusion that is evidenced to be beneficial, like curing cancer. If,
during this process, it first becomes necessary to debunk an unsupported alternative
that's in the way, such as treating cancer with magnets, then that debunking
serves as a stepping stone to the final solution. Debunking should never be
an end in itself, because that alone creates nothing useful. As scientists,
we are interested in learning, and often that involves replacing an older hypothesis
that's found to be wrong.
Some people criticize science by pointing out that it does not know everything
and doesn't have all the answers. Case in point: the popular movie What
the Bleep Do We Know. Obviously, this criticism is true. Science is all
about the fact that we don't know everything. Science is the learning
process. There are ideologies that do offer all the answers, often divine
in nature or based on ancient philosophies. When you have all the answers,
there is no longer any need to learn, and thus no use for science. If we want
to improve the world, improve the human condition, improve technology; learning,
and thus science, is the essential way forward. Ideologies that offer all the
answers are the essential route to developmental stagnation. When your hear
someone criticize science because it doesn't have all the answers, don't argue
with them; instead point out that that's the strength of science.
We couldn't be learning more every day if we presumed to already know everything.
Some people criticize skepticism because it doesn't leave well enough alone.
Many paranormal beliefs and alternative systems, even though they may lack
hard scientific evidence, bring comfort to those who practice them and are
a positive force in many peoples' lives. There is value and enlightenment to
be found in life that isn't necessarily found in a science book. It is often
argued that skepticism is not merely unimportant, it can even be harmful. Young
people should not complacently accept this short-sighted argument. First of
all, happiness and enlightenment are all around us in our world; they are not
found only within a given pseudoscience. But moreover, once we begin investing
our faith in unsubstantiated or supernatural phenomena, we are contributing
to the redirection of attention, influence, and funding away from
technologies and concepts that have been evidenced to be beneficial
to humanity and to our world. As my good friend says: "If once you start
down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny; consume you, it
will." The choice between pseudoscience and science is the choice between
stagnation and progress: Progress toward long life, health, happiness, a cleaner
planet, bountiful food, knowledge, and peace.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
16 May 2007. Web.
1 Dec 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4045>
References & Further Reading
Clayton, Chuck W. The Re-Discovery of Common Sense: A Guide to: The Lost Art of Critical Thinking. Bloomington: iUniverse, Inc., 2007.
criticalthinking.org. "The Critical Thinking Community." criticalthinking.org. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <http://www.criticalthinking.org/>
Federal Trade Commission. "Bureau of Consumer Protection." Bureau of Consumer Protection. Federal Trade Commission, 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/index.shtml>
Jones, Debra. Exploring the Internet Using Critical Thinking Skills: A Self-Paced Workbook for Learning to Effectively Use the Internet and Evaluate Online Information. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1998.
Kaminer, Wendy. Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety. Hopkinton: Vintage, 2000.
Lord Moran. "On credulity." Lancet. 23 Jan. 1954, Volume 263, Issue 68: 167-172.
Pierce, Charles P. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
Wiseman, R., Watt, C. "Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution hypothesis: a qualitative review." British Journal of Psychology. 1 Aug. 2006, Volume 97, Part 3: 323-338.
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