The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking
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 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 thinking about?
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.
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