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.

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