Mar 23 2017

The Need for Critical Thinking

thinkers_cartoon-26nmykqOne of the (perhaps) good things to come out of the recent political climate in the US is a broader appreciation for the need to teach critical thinking skills. I hope we can capitalize on this new awareness to make some longstanding changes to our culture.

For example, a recent NYT article is titled: “Why People Continue to Believe Objectively False Things,” and begins:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” goes the saying — one that now seems like a relic of simpler times.

The article also discusses recent evidence showing that belief in the “birther” Obama conspiracy decreased after Trump admitted that Obama was born in Hawaii. Shortly after that admission 62% of people stated they believed Obama was a US citizen, but a more recent poll shows the number dropped to 57%. (Over that period of time fewer Republicans believed he was a US citizen, while more Democrats did.) The authors conclude that over time people forget specific information while they revert to old tribal beliefs.

A recent study looking at Twitter activity also reinforces the evidence that people generally follow their instincts rather than critical thinking. They showed that people will rate the believability of a tweet as higher, and are more likely to share that tweet, if it already has a high number of retweets. This creates a positive feedback loop in which retweets beget retweets, regardless of the inherent reliability of the information.

This is just one example of the social media echochamber effect, which magnifies the tribalism effect discussed in the NYT article. (To be clear, social media did not create tribalism, it just gave it rocket boosters.)

There’s Hope

We seemed to have dug ourselves into a deep hole of fake news, partisanship, echochambers, and alternative facts. The good news, however, is that we already know what the solution is – critical thinking skills.

We now know very well that facts are not enough. If someone is invested in a belief, you will not dissuade them from that belief by fixing their deficit of facts. You may actually cause them to dig their heels in even deeper. You will make them more partisan, and they may even start to reject science or the very concept of expertise and knowledge just to maintain their counterfactual belief (I offer as a source of copious evidence the comments to this very blog).

Science education helps, but not as much as it should. People only start to reject pseudoscience when they get to the highest levels of science education (post-graduate), which a very small percentage of the population do.

It is now pretty clear that in order for people to rise above our inherent cognitive biases, our penchant for partisanship, the allure of magical beliefs and pseudoscience – we need to cultivate specific critical thinking skills, and culturally value those skills.

Yet another study supports this conclusion. Researchers looked at three classes of college students, one taking a course in psychological research methods, and two taking a course on the history of frauds and mysteries. The psyhology class did not specifically teach critical thinking, while the history courses did. They taught about logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and used specific examples of historical frauds.

All the students were evaluated at the beginning and end of their course with a standardized test of belief in pseudoscience (rated on a scale from 1-no belief to 7-strong belief for a variety of pseudoscientific beliefs.

Students in the psychology course did not change from the beginning to the end. Students in the honors level history course dropped a full point with respect to topics covered in the course, and a half a point with respect to topics not covered in the course. Students in the non-honors history course also decreased their pseudoscientific beliefs, but not as much.

Of course – this is one study, and there was no long term follow up. It does suggest, however, that explicitly teaching critical thinking skills is superior, at least in the short term, to just teaching scientific methodology to reducing belief in things that are clearly false.

But also keep in mind – this was just one course. Imagine if explicitly teaching critical thinking was part of most courses, and not just in the sciences but in the humanities.

I think that this is what it is going to take – a significant reform of our entire educational system so that explicit education in real critical thinking is woven throughout the curriculum.

Think about what students learn in their k-12 education. Once they get passed basic reading, writing,  and mathematical skill, most of what they learn will be forgotten as adults (just watch the gameshow, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader). What they are really learning is how to learn, study habits, the nature of knowledge itself, and hopefully some basic facts about their world will stick with them.

My point here is that (after the basics like reading) teaching critical thinking skills would probably be the most useful thing to teach students. Critical thinking is a skill and a habit that will stick with them for life, and be endlessly useful. Critical thinking should have an extremely high priority in education, at every level, much higher than it has now. (Do not interpret this as disparaging any class or subject – my only point is that critical thinking should have a relatively high priority.)

My hope is that there will be sufficient backlash from this era of fake news to create the political will to really increase explicit education in critical thinking. Researchers showing the value of such instruction is useful.

But we also need to make sure this does not become a partisan issue. Teaching critical thinking cannot be seen as an attack against one tribe. Critical thinking is non-partisan. It is a universal skill that everyone should learn.

63 responses so far

63 Responses to “The Need for Critical Thinking”

  1. MWSlettenon 23 Mar 2017 at 8:59 am

    >People only start to reject pseudoscience when they get to the highest levels of science education (post-graduate), which a very small percentage of the population do.

    Hmmm. It sounds like you are saying only people with post-graduate science degrees reject pseudoscience, but that can’t be right. Can you elaborate?

    >But we also need to make sure this does not become a partisan issue.

    Good luck with that…

  2. mumadaddon 23 Mar 2017 at 9:21 am

    MWSletten,

    Statistically, magical / pseudoscientific beliefs don’t fall off with more education (iirc they increase) until you get to post graduate level.

  3. Steven Novellaon 23 Mar 2017 at 9:28 am

    Right – this is a statistical statement.

  4. TheTentacleson 23 Mar 2017 at 10:30 am

    For someone with a little human (2 years old, never too young!!!) who I have the honour to start helping in this journey, does anyone have any resources and ideas to share. I know Steve and the rogues discussed some of this tangentially a few weeks back (related to death), and Steve gave very solid advice he tried to follow with his daughters about the care we should take about “authority” when answering questions. Any other resources and advice would be very welcome!

  5. Atlantean Idolon 23 Mar 2017 at 10:40 am

    One way to improve critical thinking skills is to reduce authoritarian indoctrination – abolishing the government’s monopoly on K-12 schooling would go a long way in this regard. Educational savings accounts for the win!

  6. Lobsterbashon 23 Mar 2017 at 10:42 am

    Good stuff, Steve. I arrived at the same general conclusion as you, about the dire need and importance of critical thinking, back when I was in high school (I’m 34 now). My fascination with metacognition and the apparent shortcomings of the human brain is a large part of what led to my majoring in psychology in college. It’s likely that I internalized the content of psych more deeply than average, but I’ve always felt that the lessons in psych that illustrate biases and shortcomings in thinking should be part of the core curriculum. Being educated about thinking, and how to think about thinking, is absolutely fundamental to being successful and thriving in an age of overwhelmingly voluminous information.

  7. Rogue Medicon 23 Mar 2017 at 10:58 am

    Atlantean Idol once again demonstrates that he relies on unsupportable claims to try to make his points.

    One way to improve critical thinking skills is to reduce authoritarian indoctrination – abolishing the government’s monopoly on K-12 schooling would go a long way in this regard. Educational savings accounts for the win!

    Why assume that the government providing education is authoritarian indoctrination?

    Why assume that subsidized private schools would not provide authoritarian indoctrination?

    Why deal with facts, when you can just make things up, as Atlantean Idol does?

    By providing examples of the logical fallacies that can mislead us, Atlantean Idol, hardnose, Michael Egnor, and others provide excellent material for teaching critical judgment.

    A great tool for teaching this is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.

    .

  8. Atlantean Idolon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:21 am

    “subsidized private schools” ESAs are property tax refunds, not subsidies. Oh those inconvenient facts!

  9. Rogue Medicon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:31 am

    Atlantean Idol wrote –

    “subsidized private schools” ESAs are property tax refunds, not subsidies. Oh those inconvenient facts!

    You are claiming that providing more money, by taxing less, is not providing a subsidy?

    Have you ever tried to deal with reality?

    You only address this part of my comment.

    Are you admitting that you have no defense for the rest of your original comment?

    .

  10. Fair Persuasionon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:37 am

    Its difficult to assist anyone to critically think about all the world’s issues. When you read it can be like shoveling through a word salad on an unexplored topic. Just like medical diagnosis depends on consensus, humans depend on the groups with power or passion about issues to get them to knowledge.
    I enjoy working with motor skills or physical environments. Simpler issues develop into bigger ones. If a tree is about to fall in the woods, where do you stand? Real consequences for an impending fall.

  11. mutantmooseon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:40 am

    I teach kindergarten. One simple thing that I do to encourage critical thinking is to demonstrate and teach humility in regards to knowledge. When a student asks a question that I can’t answer, I say “I don’t know.” When I teach reading, I inform students that ALL readers make mistakes, but good readers stop and fix them, instead of ignoring them. (I also tell them that I have to go back and reread things all the time.) With as many tasks as possible, we explore how things can go wrong and how we can be fooled.

    Humility is, to me, a great asset and bulwark against psuedoscience and conspiracy thinking. It also needs to be frequently reinforced and revisited, and we need to have humility when it comes to our own humility. It seems that, just when I think I’m being humble enough, I find that once again I’m becoming too sure of myself.

  12. Bob McNamaraon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:50 am

    Barriers to integrating critical thinking into the K-12 curriculum, based on my seven years as a 4th grade teacher in the 1990s (after 25 years in the US Navy):
    – K-12 education is politicized. In order to survive, administrators and teachers have to respond to the *current* ever-changing agenda set by federal, state, and county government politicians, regardless of the the cost to sound education principles. Critical thinking is not acceptable for good evaluations or tenure. In my experience, the US Navy was far more tolerant of questioning authority than the school district in which I worked. My two daughters, one a middle school teacher in Ohio, and one an elementary and high school teacher in Alaska (small school) find their job satisfaction severely reduced by political interference in carrying out their professional duty to assist children in developing their thinking skills.
    – The focus in K-12 education on testing means that there is only one right answer; there is no room for judgement. If the student doesn’t select the “right” answer, the student is wrong. This supports dichotomous thinking and undermines critical thinking, especially in social studies, history, biology, and courses with similar content.

  13. MaryMon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:56 am

    When I saw that study, I thought it was one I had heard about at the last CSICon. The abstract for the one I heard of was here: http://lanyrd.com/2016/csicon/sfmzpx/

    I’ve been meaning to look for a paper by her. I tried earlier and didn’t find anything. I’ll try again. I’d like to hear from folks who have these kinds of courses. I wish they’d interact with the skeptic community more.

  14. hardnoseon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:04 pm

    No. When we can’t discover something directly, we must trust other people. We decide which experts and authorities to trust, or we go along with majority opinion.

    Critical thinking skills have very little to do with it.

    People with more formal education are more likely to trust experts and authorities with similar education.

    People with less education are likely to trust different authorities — for example, they might trust their parents, and religious authorities, and their society’s ancient folklore.

    The more modern scientific education you have, the less faith you might have in folklore and religion (which you call “pseudoscience”). But NOT because of better critical thinking skills. It’s because the tribal allegiance has shifted.

  15. arnieon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Pretty amazing that someone who claims to value critical thinking (AI) could actually believe that private schools, on the whole, are less guilty of authoritarian indoctrination than public schools or that freedom from property taxes is not government subsidy. Beliefs like that can only be explained by ideology induced blindness.

  16. Atlantean Idolon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:16 pm

    @RM:

    You are claiming that providing more money, by taxing less, is not providing a subsidy?

    ESAs explained: http://www.nevadatreasurer.gov/uploadedFiles/nevadatreasurergov/content/SchoolChoice/Parents/Parent_Handbook.pdf

    Why assume that the government providing education is authoritarian indoctrination?

    The self-serving coverage of the Progressive Era and the Great Depression in history classes is just one of countless examples of indoctrination. For more examples I recommend reading Thomas Sowell’s Inside American Education:

    https://www.amazon.com/Inside-American-Education-Thomas-Sowell-ebook/dp/B003L77ZM0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490285109&sr=8-1&keywords=inside+american+education

    Why assume that subsidized private schools would not provide authoritarian indoctrination?

    Bringing up the rear in your third-rate pride parade of naked straw man arguments against me on this blog. I never claimed privatization would eliminate authoritarian indoctrination, only that it would lessen it by giving parents the option of avoiding it.

  17. Kabboron 23 Mar 2017 at 12:16 pm

    I’m generally on board with providing education for critical thinking, but I think there is a potential unintended consequence. When you are educated to be critical of teaching authority, could you be accidentally providing students the tools to dismiss evidence and logic that does not fit into their social or political narrative? Citing the blog commenters here, you demonstrate that there is a need for critical thinking, but this strikes me as a potential argument that goes the other way. It is not that commenters are unfamiliar with the concepts of critical thinking, but that they take the wrong lessons from using critical thinking. If you have the tools to dismiss arguments that would otherwise be persuasive, you are left with your narrative unchecked.

    I don’t have data to back up this hypothesis, but I am curious if there is a potential downside to blanket critical thinking education. At the very least you would want to be careful with how the teaching is implemented.

  18. chikoppion 23 Mar 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I think the problem with ESAs is essentially the same problem with other unregulated for-profit models of managing community resources.

    A school can’t be managed on a per-student budget allocation, as the costs are not merely transactional. There is a price barrier to establishing and maintaining the necessary infrastructure. Did the advent and proliferation of Walmart increase or decrease small community “choice?” Small and rural communities become susceptible to corporate capture, the opposite of choice.

    Also, the proliferation of providers creates a substantial regulatory burden to maintain standards of transparency, quality, and accountability. Not to mention that resources are siphoned from public schools, which are required to take students no matter the performance or behavioral deficits.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/for-detroits-children-more-school-choice-but-not-better-schools.html?_r=0

    I’m not ideologically opposed to providing alternatives to public education, but there are many practical hurdles that, to date, have not been satisfactorily addressed.

  19. Rogue Medicon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Atlantean Idol provided a non-answer to my first question.

    You are claiming that providing more money, by taxing less, is not providing a subsidy?

    ESAs explained: http://www.nevadatreasurer.gov/uploadedFiles/nevadatreasurergov/content/SchoolChoice/Parents/Parent_Handbook.pdf

    You are posting links, rather than providing answers.

    More money, by means of taxing less, is still more money.

    .

  20. Rogue Medicon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Atlantean Idol demonstrated that he is willing to sacrifice critical thinking to his ideology in the second part of his reply.

    Why assume that the government providing education is authoritarian indoctrination?

    The self-serving coverage of the Progressive Era and the Great Depression in history classes is just one of countless examples of indoctrination. For more examples I recommend reading Thomas Sowell’s Inside American Education:
    https://www.amazon.com/Inside-American-Education-Thomas-Sowell-ebook/dp/B003L77ZM0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490285109&sr=8-1&keywords=inside+american+education

    I read The Housing Boom and Bust by Thomas Sowell.

    It is not on the same topic, but it does give a sample of the kind of judgment used by the author.

    Since the topic at hand is critical thinking, Thomas Sowell provides excellent examples of the way logical fallacies are used to support ideological positions.

    Sowell claims that the CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) was an important cause of the housing boom and bust.

    How does one critically evaluate the quality of Sowell’s argument?

    Barry Ritholtz has written about the CRA did it religion and clearly shows the many ways that Sowell, and other acolytes of the CRA did it religion are so far off base, they are ridiculous.

    What would it look like if Sowell were right?

    Here’s what we should have seen:

    Home sales and prices in urban, minority communities would have led the national home market higher, with gains in percentage terms surpassing national figures;

    CRA mandated loans would have defaulted at higher rates;

    Foreclosures in these distressed urban CRA neighborhoods should have far outpaced those in the suburbs;

    Local lenders making these mortgages should have failed at much higher rates;

    Portfolios of banks participating in the Troubled Asset Relief Program should have been filled with securities made up of toxic CRA loans;

    Investors looking to profit should have been buying up properties financed with defaulted CRA loans; and

    Congressional testimony of financial industry executives after the crisis should have spelled out how the CRA was a direct cause, with compelling evidence backing their claims.

    Yet none of these things happened.

    With such a dismal failure of logic from Thomas Sowell, why would I read anything else by him?

    The link for the full article by Barry Ritholtz is –

    http://ritholtz.com/2016/06/no-cra-not-cause-financial-crisis/

    .

  21. Rogue Medicon 23 Mar 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Atlantean Idol continues to choose ideological mantra over reasonable answers.

    Why assume that subsidized private schools would not provide authoritarian indoctrination?

    Bringing up the rear in your third-rate pride parade of naked straw man arguments against me on this blog. I never claimed privatization would eliminate authoritarian indoctrination, only that it would lessen it by giving parents the option of avoiding it.

    OK. My comment was vague and could be construed as suggesting that you are claiming that privatization would eliminate authoritarian indoctrination.

    That was not what I meant.

    Allow me to clarify my point. You wrote –

    One way to improve critical thinking skills is to reduce authoritarian indoctrination – abolishing the government’s monopoly on K-12 schooling would go a long way in this regard. Educational savings accounts for the win!

    Provide some sort of valid evidence that privatization would reduce authoritarian indoctrination.

    .

  22. Atlantean Idolon 23 Mar 2017 at 1:26 pm

    @chikoppi:

    A school can’t be managed on a per-student budget allocation, as the costs are not merely transactional.

    Translation: Bloated administrative bureaucracies and teacher’s union bosses that don’t actually teach anything need their cut.

    Small and rural communities become susceptible to corporate capture, the opposite of choice.

    There are plenty of alternatives to large corporate schools: online courses, home-schooling, tutoring, etc.

    Also, the proliferation of providers creates a substantial regulatory burden to maintain standards of transparency, quality, and accountability. Not to mention that resources are siphoned from public schools, which are required to take students no matter the performance or behavioral deficits.

    You assume that education is the government’s business. I don’t. Government has no business whatsoever in the world of ideas.

  23. BobbyGvegason 23 Mar 2017 at 1:37 pm

    I was fortunate to teach Critical Thinking and “Argument Analysis” at my university for about 4 years as a member of the evening adjunct faculty (my day gig at the time was that of a credit risk analyst/modeler in a bank). The incoming level of unpreparedness was ghastly — 60% of incoming freshmen overall had to be remanded to remedial high school level English. The “a-literates,” they HATED to read.

    Many of my students signed up thinking they were just going to get to argue endlessly about their pet peeves week after week, being contentiously “critical” of each other and whatever political stuff they didn’t like (along with getting an easy “math credit” because of the syllabus logic/set theory/deductive syllogism component). And, of course, they ALL expected at least a “B” just for showing up. I got taken to my Sups a couple of times over “C-” grades that should really have been “F’s.” (apropos, see the Tom Nichols book “The Death of Expertise”)

    One day I used Gould’s Drunkard’s Walk Theory of Evolution as an illustration of the potential difficulty in deciding whether some assertion was “argument” (proffers of unsettled truth claims) or mere Occam’s Razor-ish “explanation” of the way in which some known process works. One of my students, a self-professed “evangelical,” promptly went to the Bursar’s Office and dropped the class.

    In general, I worry about certain key terms and phrases such as “argument,” “critical thinking,” and “ignorance” (which is too frequently conflated with and rhetorically weaponized as “stupidity” and perhaps connotes active disavowal of facts, when lexically it just means “unaware of” certain facts).

  24. BobbyGvegason 23 Mar 2017 at 1:44 pm

    @Atlantean Idol: “Government has no business whatsoever in the world of ideas.”
    __

    See Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.

  25. hardnoseon 23 Mar 2017 at 2:15 pm

    “I am curious if there is a potential downside to blanket critical thinking education.”

    If students stop believing their teachers, then there is no point in teaching. You might as well surf the internet all day to get your knowledge. Oh wait — that’s what they’re doing already.

  26. TheGorillaon 23 Mar 2017 at 2:16 pm

    It’s very easy to say that we should explicitly teach critical thinking skills in classrooms, to demonstrate how such lessons reduce susceptibility to pseudoscience, and to call for action on this (supposedly) non-partisan issue; however, this is no more substantive than an idealistic “if there were no climate deniers, climate change would be addressed.”

    Without questioning the origins and purposes of news, or the origins and purposes of the education system, or the origins and purposes of the political apparatus you end up in this situation: the reasons for these problems are the very same reasons that make education a realizable solution.

  27. chikoppion 23 Mar 2017 at 2:24 pm

    [Atlantean Idol] Translation: Bloated administrative bureaucracies and teacher’s union bosses that don’t actually teach anything need their cut.

    Translating your translation: “I have no idea how markets work.”

    Every business has fixed and unit costs. The cost of providing facilities, attracting and maintaining qualified employees, and maintaining administrative infrastructure is a fixed cost. Fixed costs are a barrier to entry in every industry.

    There are plenty of alternatives to large corporate schools: online courses, home-schooling, tutoring, etc.

    Yeah. No education is also an “alternative.” If parents want to stay at home and educate their kids, great. Not everyone has that option or is capable. Tutors are equivalent to a small business and are just as susceptible to market forces as mom-and-pop stores. How many tutors is a town of 6,000 people going to have qualified to teach multiple subjects K-12? Statistically, there will be about 1,200 kids under the age of 18 in a town that size.

    You assume that education is the government’s business. I don’t. Government has no business whatsoever in the world of ideas.

    Is law an idea? Why don’t we privatize the courts and just leave the justice system in to the benevolent hand of market forces?

    If you want to be taken seriously then be serious. I provided you with real-world, practical concerns and you answered with nonsense.

  28. Rogue Medicon 23 Mar 2017 at 2:38 pm

    chikoppi,

    If you want to be taken seriously then be serious. I provided you with real-world, practical concerns and you answered with nonsense.

    Of course Atlantean Idol wants to be taken seriously.

    However, Atlantean Idol does not want to give up his ridiculous fantasies.

    In the mean time, Atlantean Idol will continue to avoid providing serious answers to questions, while insisting that his easily refuted claims are totally believable.

    After all, Atlantean Idol is a true believer, who cannot be affected by reason.

    .

  29. Ian Wardellon 23 Mar 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Philosophy needs to be taught at school, and from an early age.

  30. Gotchayeon 23 Mar 2017 at 3:12 pm

    It seems to me that it’s going to be very hard to teach critical thinking in schools beyond a pretty basic level, because to do anything really useful you have to get political. Sure, you can cover logical fallacies in the abstract, or with toy examples, but what you really want to do is get students to practice critically thinking about the kinds of things they’re actually going to need to think about. And there’s only limited value in talking about Bigfoot and UFOs. Again, this stuff can be useful, but it’s not going nearly far enough. The main reason that a lack of critical thinking ability in society is concerning is that people can’t come to responsible conclusions on /controversial/ issues. Because those issues are controversial there are going to be people who look like experts on both sides – neutral media coverage will lack a “this is really loony stuff” tone and you won’t be able to easily pick out the clownish side by identifying the clowns. And so on. But of course anything like this is going to be politically fraught, and you’re not allowed to teach this stuff until maybe college.

    I mean, it’d be great if we can teach using Bigfoot and homeopathy as examples and incidentally drive down belief in UFOs and acupuncture, and we should do that, but I’m not sure that this actually helps much in getting people to think carefully about climate change or economics or abortion unless you actually have them practicing guided critical thinking in that sort of context.

  31. Lightnotheaton 23 Mar 2017 at 3:39 pm

    As is often the case with hardnose, at the same time that he makes a ridiculously exaggerated, poorly expressed argument there is a germ in there of an interesting point worth discussing. In this case, regarding heuristics and tribalism, the ridiculousness is suggesting that trusting scientific consensus in the absence of direct knowledge is just a shifting of tribal alliances, having nothing to with critical thinking skills. As in, trusting Infowars regarding the Sandy Hook shootings is no more tribal or less rational than trusting news reports about it from the New York Times. Absurd, and to argue otherwise is to say there is no such thing as truth.
    The germ of the interesting point has to do with the ideology imbedded within any way of looking at reality. This makes your own denialism much harder to recognize than that of others, even if you strive very hard to think critically and avoid fallacies. That’s why I’d describe myself as a “soft-line” skeptic. In practice that means, among other things, being quite a bit less sure of things than most skeptics are when there is a broad consensus outside of my “tribe” that I am wrong. For example, it gives me pause that belief in some sort of deity is so universal, even among a majority of intellectuals and a significant minority of skeptics. From within the framework of my own ideology I can explain this consensus, as psychologically motivated or whatever, but I acknowledge that maybe that consensus is due to something being there that my own ideological blinders prevent me from seeing. Therefore I’d never say that the chances of a deity existing are “vanishingly small”, as I think I recall one poster here saying. Maybe “vanishingly small IF my framework for viewing reality is correct, but the consensus suggests a reasonable possibility that that framework is blinding me to something.”

  32. Johnnyon 23 Mar 2017 at 3:52 pm

    By coincidence, the magazine published by the Swedish Skeptics Association arrived in the mail drop today, touching on much of the same as this blogpost. The editorial, noting that the association turns 35 years this year, also noted that issues surrounding delusions, myths, and pseudoscience are not issues just for a small group of enthusiasts, but in a way the biggest questions of our time. That these issues risk to seriously affect people’s health, and in the longer term, the future of life on our planet.

    The editorial also noted that issues sceintific skeptics care about seem to gain greater appreciation in society.

    So there is definitely hope for the skeptical cause.

    I think that a major issue is identification with ideology, whether political, religious, or otherwise. Study after study shows that ideology makes people resistent to facts, and can potentially undo much of critical thinking efforts. I’m not saying this issue is not talked about, but I think it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And it makes me pithy that the skeptical movement is still rather small. The focus on method rather than on conclusions or beliefs is in a way skepticism’s unique selling point, making us distinct even from related movements such as atheism and humanism.

  33. ccbowerson 23 Mar 2017 at 3:54 pm

    ” It is not that commenters are unfamiliar with the concepts of critical thinking, but that they take the wrong lessons from using critical thinking. If you have the tools to dismiss arguments that would otherwise be persuasive, you are left with your narrative unchecked.”

    I don’t think that there is much danger in teaching critical thinking- in that it could be providing weapons/tools to defend a preferred narrative. People with poor critical thinking skills do that quite well and naturally through tribal commitments, motivated reasoning, and indifference to evidence.

    Critical thinking involves teaching correct process, and should explicitly be taught as such. I guess you are wondering about critical thinking taught poorly and it backfiring. I guess that is possible, but for those who use those skills to protect their own beliefs, I doubt that they would be better off without learning critical thinking. Yes, people can become hyper-skeptical of claims they don’t like, but you don’t need to do that well (i.e. by using critical thinking) to find it personally convincing.

    Put it this way, if there are 2 groups of people: one group with a good understanding of critical thinking and other without such understanding, I’ll take the ones with skills- Even if there were a handful who use those skills as weapons. Having critical thinking skills may not guarantee good results, but it seems to be a prerequisite.

  34. chikoppion 23 Mar 2017 at 3:56 pm

    That’s true. Critical thinking gets thorny when bumping up against competing values.

    There is no single “correct” answer to social or political questions, which entail a prioritization of overlapping virtues. Maybe that’s part of the lesson? Recognizing when and why tangible outcomes are necessarily or unnecessarily being sacrificed for some competing ideal. The objective need not be to “solve” a question, but rather to evaluate and identify the components of the arguments.

    I think the core of ideological thinking is that an answer is presumed for all questions and then the evidence is made to bend to the conclusion through fallacious reasoning. That’s not the same as two people coming to different conclusions due to a difference in the prioritization of virtues. Having the ability to recognize that might lead to more civil and productive conversations.

  35. MWSlettenon 23 Mar 2017 at 4:38 pm

    >I think the core of ideological thinking is that an answer is presumed for all questions and then the evidence is made to bend to the conclusion through fallacious reasoning.

    Are there core principles and values that should be honored when it comes to politics? If so, then it isn’t necessarily presuming an answer, it could be that all other answers one can think of cannot be reconciled with a given principle/value as understood by the individual.

    I like to think I’m as open-minded as the next person, but there are some principles I don’t believe should be bent or broken when it comes to the way people interact.

  36. DickKon 23 Mar 2017 at 5:01 pm

    Critical thinking is greatly needed, but there is a parallel topic that also needs exposition to a wide, wide audience. That is the research of Daniel Khaneman and Amos Tversky (Khaneman won the 2003 Nobel prize for his and Tversky’s work in learning mechanisms people use in reaching judgments). A recent book, “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis spells out their career and work, which needs spreading just as much as critical thinking needs it. K and T discovered the hueristics people use instead of rational computation. Important read.

  37. chikoppion 23 Mar 2017 at 5:17 pm

    [MWSletten] Are there core principles and values that should be honored when it comes to politics? If so, then it isn’t necessarily presuming an answer, it could be that all other answers one can think of cannot be reconciled with a given principle/value as understood by the individual.

    I suppose the point I’m trying to make is about absolutism, to insist that a presumed answer is necessarily true in all cases a priori of evidence, and then to twist the evidence presented in an attempt to make the answer possible.

    Take personal autonomy as an example. Maximal personal autonomy is at odds with any laws that restrict free action. One might insist that any law which limits free action should be eliminated. It would be ideological to then argue, in defense of that position and despite evidence to the contrary, that there would be no consequence to society.

    Sorry…not sure if I’m expressing my thought clearly.

  38. cme2con 23 Mar 2017 at 7:48 pm

    I consider myself fortunate that in the ’70s when I was at the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia) , undergraduates enrolled in science based degrees had to do some units in “General Studies” to broaden our education. I did courses in film, music, economics, gender studies and so on. One of the courses I did was in critical thinking. I have to tell you, getting credit for watching John Ford movies in class time was FANTASTIC but the courses in economics and critical thinking have been invaluable.

  39. Lunaon 23 Mar 2017 at 9:33 pm

    I hate to say this because I do have respect for teachers (became one myself), but teachers have very little exposure to critical thinking in their own education. I have a B.S. degree, and after graduating would have thought I was a critical thinker. Only after doing research for years (and listening to the SGU) did I really become a critical thinker. After finishing a thesis based M.S. I started on an M. Education, and I’m sorry, but it doesn’t even compare. I am in shock that they are even equivalent; my M.S. required so much thought, intellectual effort, and critical thinking, while the M.Ed. I half-tried and still performed better than many of my counterparts. I’ve realized the curriculum for education has little to no critical thinking involved. The university I went to for my M.S. and M.Ed program (not finished the M.Ed because I left for a teaching job) is in the top 75 of US universities, so these are good programs, but there is no real critical thinking involved in education curriculum. The department claims it does, but it really doesn’t. In my experience (anecdotal, I know), in-service and pre-service teachers (in my geographic area, which is heavily conservative and religious) have very little critical thinking ability. I was so disappointed when I observed a 2nd grade class recently and the teacher had a Himalayan salt lamp in the room (facepalm). There is an effort in education to teach critical thinking, but I am rather skeptical until we actually get the teachers to be critical thinkers themselves (which may be better at the coasts, but at least in my area, I feel this is a problem).

  40. Fair Persuasionon 23 Mar 2017 at 9:50 pm

    Blog is quoting a study from two academic departments at NCSU. The hypothesis was to investigate effects of a skill training course in two history class sections, honors and regular. Is the psychology class the appropriate control? Why did the authors not compare an American history class, for example with the other history classes that focused on humanities skill training? Their conclusions don’t make sense.

  41. Kabboron 24 Mar 2017 at 8:42 am

    The point I was failing to make earlier is that you want to be careful how you implement the plan to make critical thinking a part of the curriculum. The only thing worse than not teaching a subject is teaching it badly. If the teachers are not qualified or even worse, hostile to the subject material, they may turn young minds against the subject matter in the same way a bad math teacher can turn students off math in a permanent way. I can imagine that some teachers might take the material as being an attack on some personal belief(s) and treat the subject matter accordingly.

    Ideally this would be material taught by qualified and interested teachers, and the result would be a stark reduction in all sorts of pseudoscience and nonsense for future generations.

  42. Torgoon 24 Mar 2017 at 9:29 am

    @steven novella

    A long time ago you said you were writing a textbook on pseudoscience. Is that still in the works?

  43. Atlantean Idolon 24 Mar 2017 at 9:34 am

    chikoppi:

    Is law an idea? Why don’t we privatize the courts and just leave the justice system in to the benevolent hand of market forces?

    Law is the promise of retaliatory action of one party in the event of some other action of another party. Typically it is government that enforces such promises. Ideally, law is a promise of retaliatory force against those who initiate it. This is the protection of rights. Rights include the right to seek an education for oneself and one’s children, which requires the acquisition and transmission of knowledge, which requires thought. Thought is impossible under the threat of force. If government, which is a legal monopoly on the use of force, is to be the protector of rights, control of educational content and pedagogy is clearly incompatible with its proper function.

    Though generally taken as a proper application of government monopoly power, the justice system may not in fact be a technical monopoly. See The Structure of Liberty by Randy Barnett.

  44. Ryan Martinon 24 Mar 2017 at 9:57 am

    Has anyone seen the recent research published by Dan Kahan? I figure you’ve probably heard of it Steve, since he’s also at Yale. It’s in regards to scientific curiosity and motivated reasoning. The team was originally studying levels of scientific curiosity in order to make more interesting documentaries.

    They ended up finding that a higher scientific curiosity correlates to less partisan thinking. (whether you’re a liberal or conservative)

    There are definitely some things to resolve here and more research needs to be done. It was only one study and they weren’t even trying to test for this effect. One of the other things to look out for would be, do scientifically curious people believe “woo” and other nonsense?

    But, it might prove to be something worth exploring. And if we were able to engender scientific curiosity in school and couple it with critical thinking, who knows?

  45. Ryan Martinon 24 Mar 2017 at 9:58 am

    Meant to post links:

    http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/2/1/14392290/partisan-bias-dan-kahan-curiosity

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pops.12396/full

  46. Atlantean Idolon 24 Mar 2017 at 11:04 am

    Ryan: Thanks for sharing. The study was conducted along the standard, one dimensional “liberal Democrat to conservative Republican” spectrum. I wonder if the results would differ if subjects were instead measured along a libertarian-authoritarian scale, measured by degree of agreement with either of the following statements: A: government should not intervene on behalf of the people so long as they do not physically harm one another B: government should intervene on the behalf of the people to mitigate harm they do to themselves.

    My completely objective non-motivated, non-biased, non-ideological hypothesis is that there is a correlation between an anti-authoritarian attitude and scientific curiosity.

  47. chikoppion 24 Mar 2017 at 11:15 am

    @Atlantean

    Thank you for a thoughtful answer.

    I’m going to anticipate a bit, based on some of your comments thus far, and wager that the welfare clause will soon be invoked. I think we can avoid what would likely be for others a tedious discussion by recognizing that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian reading of this clause in the constitution.

    [wikipedia] The Supreme Court held the understanding of the General Welfare Clause contained in the Taxing and Spending Clause adheres to the construction given it by Associate Justice Joseph Story in his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Justice Story concluded that the General Welfare Clause is not a grant of general legislative power, but a qualification on the taxing power which includes within it a federal power to spend federal revenues on matters of general interest to the federal government. The Court described Justice Story’s view as the “Hamiltonian position”, as Alexander Hamilton had elaborated his view of the taxing and spending powers in his 1791 Report on Manufactures. Story, however, attributes the position’s initial appearance to Thomas Jefferson, in his Opinion on the Bank of the United States.

    Alexander Hamilton, only after the Constitution had been ratified, argued for a broad interpretation which viewed spending as an enumerated power Congress could exercise independently to benefit the general welfare, such as to assist national needs in agriculture or education, provided that the spending is general in nature and does not favor any specific section of the country over any other.

    I understand that you may favor the more narrow Madisonian interpretation of this clause, but that view is not consistent with established constitutional law. Whereas the provision of and access to education is considered a benefit to the general welfare Congress does have the authority to tax and spend in support of a national program of education.

    As I’ve already stated, I’m not opposed to providing alternatives to public schools. The challenge is in implementing such a program in a manner that is non-discriminatory. This means that any market-based program must be implemented in a manner that does not deny an individual in one community access to the same educational quality and affordability as an individual in another.

    We’ve seen various voucher and charter programs implemented in real-world conditions. Thus far they have not produced the improved outcomes that proponents have promised. I advocate for continued, albeit cautious, exploration. I think education is of paramount importance and the issue does not receive nearly the attention or sense of urgency it deserves. If a better system of education can be found then I’m all for it, but a laissez faire market approach does not seem to be a workable solution.

  48. Atlantean Idolon 24 Mar 2017 at 1:23 pm

    @chikoppi: Thank you for providing some historical legal context. I’m not sure whether my view of the Constitution fully concurs with that of any single framer. I take what might be called a conceptualist view: That the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are philosophical documents circumscribing a relationship between the government and the governed. In this case: that individuals may do anything so long as they do not violate any other individual’s rights, and that the government may do nothing but protect the rights of individual citizens. I interpret the General Welfare clause in accordance with its most likely original public meaning: a state of universal, peaceful freedom. I think the “general interest of the federal government” interpretation, to the extent that it deviates from original public meaning is a tragic mistake. I am a fervent advocate of the principles underlying the Constitution but I don’t think the framers articulated or implemented them perfectly. Had this been so I think we would have seen in addition to the separation of state and religion, separation of state and both economy (i.e. government limited to the policing of theft and fraud, strictly voluntary taxation) and intellectual activity (i.e. government limited to the policing of conspiracy to commit murder, terrorism, etc).

    The challenge is in implementing such a program in a manner that is non-discriminatory. This means that any market-based program must be implemented in a manner that does not deny an individual in one community access to the same educational quality and affordability as an individual in another.

    This is the fundamental dividing line between us (perhaps balancing of on the fulcrum of the meaning of the word “deny”). I believe there is a necessary trade-off between equality of outcomes and equality of rights and do not accept any sacrifice of the latter for the former. Absent coercion I don’t care about inequality of outcomes or opportunities (they are inextricably linked because outcomes for parents strongly influence opportunities for their children). I don’t believe that there is a right to education (more generally, a right to raise children at the expense of anyone else and above all, a right to anything that someone else must provide). To one who is concerned with inequality of opportunity I would point out that the current public education system is far from egalitarian, for instance the disparity between the quality of schools in the ghettos of Baltimore and the suburbs of Orange County.

    I oppose vouchers because they give too much purse-power to the goverment over private schools and may not be constitutional under the First Amendment when religious schools are recipients. Charter schools aren’t perfect either but I would urge you to give them another look:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/upshot/a-suburban-urban-divide-in-charter-school-success-rates.html?_r=0

    There’s a reason that inner city parents stand line for hours to get their kids into charters, and it’s not merely perceived superiority.

    To me, school choice programs are transitional measures toward total privatization (unlike some other school choice proponents I am transparent about this). I don’t believe total equality of opportunity in education is achievable, but I do think a free market in education would both raise its average quality due to competitive pressure and reduce the variance due to the law of diminishing returns. Transmitting knowledge and teaching thinking to a classroom of students is not an expensive endeavor. In the day-to-day world of the present I’m willing to make short-term compromises, but my long-term objective of volantarism is, given my values, the immutable ideal: the total ban on the initiation of force from human relationships.

    On the matter of critical thinking, motivated reasoning, etc I think the idea of a necessary dichotomy between “facts” and “ideology” is a false one. I think ideological transparency is the ultimate pragmatism: one’s ideology derives from one’s values, and values are by definition subjective; varying by personality. I believe that one should accept values and their concomitant ideology as fundamental facts of one’s existence and that one should accept all other facts unprejudiced by ideology, because there need not be any contradiction between the two. There is only one reality after all. Conflicts of values and interpretation of empirical reality exist, but in a fundamental philosophical sense contradictions do not.

  49. Fair Persuasionon 24 Mar 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Statically, the history department at Raleigh only needed to compare the 2 sets of data from the two humanities skills training classes to obtain their results based on the hypothesis.

  50. tmac57on 24 Mar 2017 at 1:54 pm

    I have heard that it helps to introduce a bit of humility in people just prior to attempting to get them to understand and appreciate the need for critical thinking.
    For example, for general knowledge, ask them to draw a simple bicycle from memory (most cannot). For political knowledge, ask them who represents them in state, local, and federal positions, or what makes up the branches of the federal government. For science, what makes up our atmosphere, or what’s the difference between fission and fusion. And so on.
    It’s not that those answers need to be fully understood, so much as realizing that we work with a kind of sketchy background of knowledge in at least some if not most aspects of life, and those are objective facts that one can verify.
    Dealing with more subjective information is even more challenging, but ironically we tend to have fairly confident appraisals of our ability to know the ‘facts’ about all sorts of things that we have little direct knowledge of.
    It’s just an inherent problem with functioning in a wildly complex society, that we have to do the best we can with what we think we can know, but we really should exercise caution in our certainty, and try to be seekers of truth rather than slaves to beliefs.
    In the example of the Obama birther question, it is probably easy for someone who dislikes Obama to take that position with little consideration for whether or not it was backed by the facts, but that is because it is of no cost to them to believe it, but is a blow to their ego if it is incorrect. But if you were able to put them in a position of, say, actually betting their life on it, you can be sure that they would research the hell out of it, and would most likely end up going with the mainstream news sources and level headed observers rather than Trump and Alex Jones.

  51. chikoppion 24 Mar 2017 at 2:46 pm

    @Atlantean

    I don’t think yours is a philosophically unreasonable position, though we have differing conclusions as you suspect. The constitutional question is a settled matter, for better or worse. Barring a truly seismic shift in the reading of the constitution Congress has the power to promote education as a matter of national interest. The question is how to achieve the best outcomes.

    I have experience with education. My parents were involved in teaching and public school district administration, I studied, was certified in, and practiced special needs education in college, and I’ve worked with the administration of a state university client for close to a decade. Education is difficult, in both the execution and administration, far more so than most people who have experience as ‘consumers’ of education realize.

    That said, if a free market solution can be demonstrated to produce better outcomes, and is compatible with the provisions established by Congress, great! I have no problem with charter schools, so long as they are transparent, accountable, and provide equal access. Charter schools struggle with the same difficulties as public schools and, to my knowledge, haven’t been shown to produce better outcomes overall. I continue to support the measured implementation of charter school programs because I am hopeful experimentation with different models of administration will yield helpful insights.

    On the matter of ideology and facts, I still don’t think I’m expressing myself clearly. What I’m referring to as ideological is the denial of evidence in support of a predetermined narrative. Maybe I need to rethink my choice of terminology, as you seem to consider yours an ideological position. I appreciate your candor and don’t think you are obscuring facts in support of your position.

  52. Atlantean Idolon 24 Mar 2017 at 3:56 pm

    @chikoppi:

    On the matter of ideology and facts, I still don’t think I’m expressing myself clearly. What I’m referring to as ideological is the denial of evidence in support of a predetermined narrative. Maybe I need to rethink my choice of terminology, as you seem to consider yours an ideological position.

    Ideological commitments to certain empirical positions are unsustainable in the face of scientific advance. An example of this is the old Marxist belief that the human brain is a “blank slate” at birth molded only by the experience of socioeconomic class. Skinner et al. demolished this notion and subsequent research in evolutionary psychology has cleared away the remaining rubble.

    Purely value-based ideologies, by contrast, are impervious to empirical contradiction. Though this attribute is often characterized pejoratively, in my opinion it is a good thing. It permits one to embrace the sum total of empirical reality (which includes one’s own value set) in a manner that minimizes cognitive dissonance.

    For further elucidation of monist value theory I recommend A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic.

  53. Atlantean Idolon 24 Mar 2017 at 4:11 pm

    Monist value theory posits that fact/value dichotomy is illusory and arises only out of linguistic expedience. Values are a subset of facts.

  54. chikoppion 24 Mar 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Hey, there’s something we agree on!

    I’m principly a stoic, which is philosophically monistic naturalism: physics (evidence) > ethics (what is good) > logic (epistemology). Haven’t read Ayer, but I’ll put it on the list.

    I’m not generally opposed to your distinction between “empirical” and “value-based” ideology. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that value-based ideology is impervious to contradiction. Values can and do conflict in practice and narrow devotion to a single value can have consequences detrimental to the exercise of others, resulting in actual harm to well-being. Perhaps it only becomes an unhealthy ideology if one is unwilling to modify precedence when the application is demonstrably detrimental.

  55. tmac57on 24 Mar 2017 at 5:35 pm

    I’m a little confused by the above discussion. Shouldn’t values be based on empirical evidence? Then it becomes a question of what the evidence (facts) are, which brings us full circle back to the subject of this article. Maybe I just missed something here, since I just read the last couple of exchanges.

    Note: I don’t mean to imply that people will always come to value the same things based on the empirical evidence, but rather that we need to strive to agree on what the evidence is and says.

  56. Atlantean Idolon 24 Mar 2017 at 7:23 pm

    Values can and do conflict in practice and narrow devotion to a single value can have consequences detrimental to the exercise of others, resulting in actual harm to well-being. Perhaps it only becomes an unhealthy ideology if one is unwilling to modify precedence when the application is demonstrably detrimental.

    Values derive from individual personality. There is a fairly strong consensus among behavioral psychologists that core personality traits change little post adolescence, barring the odd Phineas Gage type event obviously.

  57. chikoppion 24 Mar 2017 at 8:28 pm

    [Atlantean Idol] Values derive from individual personality. There is a fairly strong consensus among behavioral psychologists that core personality traits change little post adolescence, barring the odd Phineas Gage type event obviously.

    That seems like an overly broad assertion. I’ve certainly modified my values during my adult life, marginally due to intellectual consideration, but also due to the impact I’ve seen my actions have on the people around me. I definitely prioritize virtues differently now than I did a decade or two ago (though not radically so, admittedly).

    [tmac57] I’m a little confused by the above discussion. Shouldn’t values be based on empirical evidence?

    That’s my position. In stoicism values (ethics) are derived from evidence (physics) and epistemology (logic). That’s not to say the inescapable biology of neurology and genetics don’t play a boundary role.

  58. BillyJoe7on 24 Mar 2017 at 10:46 pm

    AI: “Values derive from individual personality”

    That sounds a bit like deriving values from what you want to be true rather than what is objectively true.

    Like playing lotto. You want it to be true that you have a good chance of winning so that you can derive joy out of watching the draw every week and hoping every week that this will be the week that it happens. Whereas your calculated odds of winning are actually vanishingly low. Looking at it objectlvely, you’d put that money away to earn interest and pay for a holiday or whatever else tangible you might want to do with it. But you’d lose that little joy of anticipation every week that is based on a falsity.

    I’ve always had a tendency to root myself in objective reality.

  59. bachfiendon 25 Mar 2017 at 3:38 am

    Billy Joe,

    I’m more bemused about the fact that Atlantean Idol is happy to accept the consensus of behavioural psychologists concerning personality traits, but isn’t happy or prepared to accept the consensus of climate scientists concerning AGW.

  60. tmac57on 25 Mar 2017 at 9:35 am

    BillyJoe-I like the lottery analogy. It takes a disciplined and rational mind to see the difference between what is true vs what we want to be true. It is very easy to fool ourselves.
    Bachfiend- I had the exact same thought. Looks like a bit of cherry picking on AI’s part. In fact, climate science probably lends itself to being better understood than human psychology.

  61. Atlantean Idolon 25 Mar 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Correction: I meant Steven Pinker, not B.F. Skinner. Skinner school behaviorists view the human mind as highly malleable.

  62. chikoppion 25 Mar 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Pinker doesn’t liken genetic personality traits to non-malleable behavioral determination…

    [Steven Pinker] It’s our essentialist mind-set that makes the cheek swab feel as if it is somehow a deeper, truer, more authentic test of the child’s ability. It’s not that the mind-set is utterly misguided. Our genomes truly are a fundamental part of us. They are what make us human, including the distinctively human ability to learn and create culture. They account for at least half of what makes us different from our neighbors. And though we can change both inherited and acquired traits, changing the inherited ones is usually harder. It is a question of the most perspicuous level of analysis at which to understand a complex phenomenon. You can’t understand the stock market by studying a single trader, or a movie by putting a DVD under a microscope. The fallacy is not in thinking that the entire genome matters, but in thinking that an individual gene will matter, at least in a way that is large and intelligible enough for us to care about.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11Genome-t.html

    P.S. I heartily recommend Pinker’s Blank Slate and Stuff of Thought. Both are filled with insightful observations about the construct of the mind. His style is a tad dry and verbose, but very accessible.

  63. TheGorillaon 27 Mar 2017 at 12:06 am

    Atlantean Idol,

    “An example of this is the old Marxist belief that the human brain is a “blank slate” at birth molded only by the experience of socioeconomic class.”

    It’s kind of hilarious that you wrote this, considering the context surrounding it. This is either a **horrible** misreading or something you invented out of thin air.

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