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Posted by on Dec 11, 2012 in Critical Thinking, Featured Inc, skepticism | 8 comments

Why teaching critical thinking fails

I’ve often heard the lamentation from educated secular people that if only we taught critical thinking earlier, say in high school, we wouldn’t have so many people falling prey to pseudoscience, alt med, religion and other outlandish wastes of time. Others blame the education system for botching the job when and where it is taught. All of this is almost certainly wrong, or at least incomplete. The unpleasant truth is that some things we’d like to inculcate in young people who are going to be voters and professors and congressman one day, are things that can’t be taught, at least not in the way that we teach history or math. A person’s effective skeptical faculty relies not merely on the intellectual and factual as we seem to suppose, but on character and emotion.

Whence doubt?

The first clue of the insufficiency of education, is the story of my own atheism and skepticism. These two came to me in very different ways. I disclaimed religion at age 13. It isn’t because I was particularly bright, I wasn’t and in fact I’m sure that I was considered a bit dull. I wasn’t much of a critical thinker either- I believed in UFOs, psychics and ghosts for several more years. I wasn’t an atheist because I had been influenced or taught: I didn’t even know the word “atheist” and I wasn’t aware any others existed. I had never seen an atheistic book or publication of any kind. My best friend was Roman Catholic. My family, including my brother who was a year older than I was, were all believers (albeit non-practicing). My home town, Rockford, is known for having a church on every block. In spite of all of this, I rejected religion with extreme prejudice, having had none of the advantages or benefits atheists ten to believe leads to non-belief. Yet, as I said, I was no skeptic, I believed in all sorts of paranormal things. Why was atheism so easy and skepticism much harder? I will come back to this, but first a second example of where atheism succeeds but shouldn’t.

I lived in Germany from 2006 to 2009 and during that time I spent as much time as possible learning about German culture. For at least several decades, the German K-12 education system has read like an evangelical Christian’s dream. Students are required to take 6 years of “religious study” which for a very long time offered both existing religions: Catholicism and Lutheranism. “Study” is here a very loose term; such classes are more like “Bible study” than a world religions class (according to my German friends). In recent years an “ethics” series of coursework has also been an option, but it is only gaining popularity relatively recently. Conversely, there is no mandatory “critical thinking” coursework of such length.

Nonetheless, Germany is a hugely secular country where religion has been withering on the vine for some time. As an atheist, I absolutely loved being in Germany. There are many causes for the relative irreligiosity of a country, but it’s very hard to imagine mandatory K-12 indoctrination could fail so utterly to even tread water for God’s camp- unless it’s actually inadequate, in and of itself.

Pathos
When it came to atheism, I wasn’t like my brother or my best friend the catholic. By 13, I was already a cynical loner.  It didn’t matter to me what my parents, friends, or society thought about God if the god idea seemed nonsensical. In fact, setting myself apart from them was something of an emotional good for my angsty teenage rebel self. Atheism requires no great intellectual leaps, it’s pretty obvious, really. If you just let all the 13-year-olds reason it out for themselves, they would probably mostly decide against the god idea. We don’t do this, of course. Most teens and young adults are like my former peers and sibs— they care deeply about the opinions of their society, parents, and peers and those opinions have been largely religious for eons. They accept them as normal and usually good. Defying them is emotionally difficult.

Education, by itself, changes none of this. Applying critical thinking more broadly has other emotional challenges which I’ve virtually never seen discussed in the skeptical community. Truly applying critical thinking is not confined to debunking ideas one finds a priori ludicrous, such as Bigfoot or telekinesis. To call oneself a skeptic, one must apply the same evaluation to their own ideas, including those which are long-held and perhaps cherished. This is not a mere intellectual exercise, it is a matter of courage. It is a willingness to look and feel foolish when you may turn out to be wrong. When I set about on my career in science, I had been taken in by the romance, the great discoveries and amazing new insights into the natural world. I wasn’t naive, I fully expected such things had required a lot of unglamorous work. What no one ever told me, is that working in science can be emotionally grueling. It’s a non-stop exposure to criticism of almost everything you will ever say about topics your field. People who make a career in science (at least those who regularly publish) are not shrinking violets. They are tough, resilient professionals.

Critical thinking for non-scientists is just as difficult in application. It just isn’t as often or as regimented. There are ways to develop courage in young people, but critical thinking 101 class does not do so. Moreover, there’s still a piece missing. They have to want do it. That is, it needs to be an internalized moral value.

Ethos
Critical thinking is always a practice in morality. Always.  It relies heavily on a suite of moral values such as: discovering falsehood is more valuable than my personal comfort or interests;  examining my beliefs is as important as examining anyone else’s; it is better to be open about my biases and limitations than it is to hide them. A skeptic must be vigilant. We are fallible beings, likely making large or small errors every day. The putting of truth before ego and the internalization of the need for vigilance are not intellectualisms. They are moral truths, and in my experience they are part of no curriculum, nor could they be.

My point in this writing is not that education does not matter. It does, and it is critical (it is the reason I came to be a skeptic when I did- thanks Skeptical Inquirer!) However, without courage, and without a robust moral framework, education is meaningless. Even when it comes to mere education on critical thinking, we’re failing, but that is an essay for another day. So, how do we see to the ethos and pathos?

Doubt begins in the home
How do we develop character in young people? Here, I am no expert. To be sure, it largely falls to parents and to teachers. I would offer the observation that the recent obsession with increasing “self esteem” in children is a mistake, and the loss of focus on competitive endeavors is also an error. Doing worthwhile things in the real world, including doing critical thinking, always entails risks to one’s self esteem. We should teach our children that that is a part of life, that it is normal, and they must learn to deal with it rather than trying to shield them from its vicissitudes.

The Germans are and remain secularist in spite of their forced religious education probably because their wider society has had little public regard for religion, nor has it since the end of World War II (for obvious reasons, I think). There is no domineering public religious ethic telling Germans that they must be religious to be good people. This affords young Germans a measure of objectivity, enough that they reason about religion independently and determine that it is irrelevant. Similarly, we must also remove this culturally-induced emotional barrier to critical thinking. I do not know precisely how this may be accomplished, only that it is necessary to our goal.

 

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I was busy yesterday making a calendar for friends. It required reviewing hundreds of bird photos I have taken this year to decide the ‘very select few’ that were deserving of a place on a calendar page. As I worked, I knew that brutal honesty about the quality of the photos was necessary or I would be unhappy with the final result. (I will still be unhappy because I’m not a great photographer, so it would probably be more accurate to say, “I would be less unhappy with the final result, and my friends would be happy with the final result.” ;-)

    I keep lots of pictures solely because of an oddity in the shot, even though the overall quality of the shot is rubbish. I also keep lousy shots because they serve as a journal for the birds I have seen. Birds are uncooperative subjects and sometimes a somewhat out of focus or badly composed shot is the only shot I have gotten of a particular species of bird before it flew off.

    Every photo that gets professionally published in things like coffee table books or hung on a museum wall, represents thousands and thousands of photos taken by that photographer which were rejected as not good enough. It requires brutal honesty and a willingness to hone one’s skills until reaching that 10% good, 90% rubbish mark (what most professional photographers admit is the best photographers are able to achieve).

    With the advent of digital photography, and the software to process digital photos, we are now capable of cleaning up a great deal of photographic mess. But, to be one of the “greats” it should still be the goal to hone one’s skills to the point where significant amounts of post-processing are unnecessary.

    So, what has any of this to do with this blogpost? This paragraph from your post is the defining factor for what makes a great skeptic and what makes a mediocre or downright awful skeptic:

    Critical thinking is always a practice in morality. Always. It relies heavily on a suite of moral values such as: discovering falsehood is more valuable than my personal comfort or interests; examining my beliefs is as important as examining anyone else’s; it is better to be open about my biases and limitations than it is to hide them. A skeptic must be vigilant. We are fallible beings, likely making large or small errors every day. The putting of truth before ego and the internalization of the need for vigilance are not intellectualisms. They are moral truths, and in my experience they are part of no curriculum, nor could they be.

    The best skeptics look at “photos” of themselves and see the flaws. They accept that basic human nature does not easily lend itself to critical thinking based on evidence. And, to live up to the ideals that the claim of being a skeptic entail requires intellectual rigor and tremendous discipline. The claim of being a skeptic comes with the moral obligation to strive to be in the 10% of great photos, not the 90% mediocre or complete rubbish. And, when we have taken a shot that needs lots of post-processing, we should acknowledge our mistakes, apologize for them, and state what measures we will take to correct them.

    I read your post at 3am this morning and noticed that there were no comments. 12 hours later, I see that there are still no comments and only one reaction. I’m here to say, “Excellent post! It should be receiving lots of positive comments and reactions because it beautifully articulates what is the most essential application of skepticism, ourselves and our own thinking and actions.”

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      Thanks Ardent Skeptic. And thank you for sharing some of your own experiences, I loved hearing about that.

  • Astrokid NJ

    First off, I must say that I loved your Godcast interview.. you should add it to the ‘About’ section.

    To call oneself a skeptic, one must apply the same evaluation to their own ideas, including those which are long-held and perhaps cherished. This is not a mere intellectual exercise, it is a matter of courage.

    Great article Ed. I am an atheist, dont call myself a skeptic (yet).. coz when I spent a little bit of time a few years ago reading about James randi and associated crowd, I knew it takes a lot to call oneself a skeptic. I am as evidence based as the other guy, and in fact the soundest advice I heard from this community comes from a guy who was disliked by all sides. He had the courage to go to places with opposing views, and argue while being completely outnumbered.
    David Byron said this

    I hadn’t really thought in terms of “skepticism” as a concept but it matches a lot of what I have thought independently. It’s a good word. Here is what I think: people are not good at seeing things from different directions. They are very good at one direction. But trying to do two is very hard work. There’s an easy solution which is to get two people together with different views. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. That is how you learn to think better. That is why I go to places to meet people I know I will disagree with because I want to know more stuff and have better thoughts.

    But people apparently just NEVER do this so instead I am a “troll”. Since when does a troll type out ten page comments?

    People ought to do it but they do not. You ought to be on FreethoughtKamapala right now, debating that guy who I am sure is a much nicer person than me and won’t insult you or tell you about his pet theory that predicts you are in a hate movement. OTOH I do have more original material :)

    And I deliver to your door.

    I don’t understand though, why skeptics do not do this already. Is it because there’s too much science not enough philosophy? Maybe you do visit eg. religious boards but just don’t know how to handle being on the other end of things?

    I tell you this because I want you to know that talking to people isn’t easy. It’s hard. It’s very hard. It’s so hard that we are probably not going to be able to pull it off. I happen to think if it’s even 1% likely then I’ll give it a try.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      Thank you Astrokid, and for linking to this wonderful comment by David Byron. I am reminded of being on debate team in high school. At practice and actual debate competitions, the subject and the pro/con was always considered irrelevant- you had to be ready to defend or attack *any* position, very often the pro and con of the same issue. The idea was to refine critical thinking skills, not to suss out truth or to defend a personal viewpoint. Perhaps this could be made to be part of schooling; practice at detaching analytic thought from service to emotional commitments.

      I think that it is no coincidence that one of the most admirable and level-headed secularist leaders I know, Hemant Mehta, used to coach debate teams (perhaps still does? I am unsure).

      There is a lot more to say on this topic. The “Logos” of critical thinking also poses serious challenges we’re failing to address as a society. Also, I think there are good psychological reasons (dare I say it, evolutionary psychology reasons!) why so few Hemant Mehta’s, James Randi’s, and David Byron’s seem to exist.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    The best talk that I have ever heard at a skeptic or atheist conference was given by Spencer Greenberg at Skepticon 4. Unfortunately, it didn’t generate much buzz.:

    Self Skepticism

  • jolie

    “For at least several decades, the German K-12 education system has read like an evangelical Christian’s dream. Students are required to take 6 years of “religious study” which for a very long time offered both existing religions: Catholicism and Lutheranism.”

    I think you misrepresent the situation. First, religious studies are *not* a requirement (source see below). Yet, in particular the young students seem to like these classes, so many of them do attend. Second, the amount of hours per week is comparatively low (I guess it varies between 45 minutes and 2h15). Third, I believe in many or most cases the amount of pure indoctrination in these classes is pretty low. I think it’s far away from what most people would perceive as “an evangelical Christian’s dream”.

    I also don’t get your overall argument: because you found your way without education, therefore education will not help others to get on a similar road? Critical thinking and evidence based reasoning is a methodology and it is hard to see how exercising its application in school on a daily basis, almost as an intellectual reflex, would not change much.

    Sources:
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religionsunterricht_in_Deutschland#Abmeldung_vom_Religionsunterricht

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      There is a difference between what is legal and what is actually done, culturally. As to the level of indoctrination.. I can only report what my German friends who had such classes told me. For them, it was indoctrination-type discourse.

      I must maintain disagreement that a cultural expectation of religious “education”, aka bible study, in schools is in fact an evangelical Christian’s dream. They’ve been trying to cram the Bible and religion into schools for decades, in the form of prayers (until the SCOTUS ruled against it), creationism, and invocations/ceremonies.

      “I also don’t get your overall argument: because you found your way without education, therefore education will not help others to get on a similar road?”

      I think education is necessary, but not sufficient (in the essay, I called it “critical”). Two reasons. One, a tool can be misdirected, misused, and misapplied. Instruction can give a student the tool, it can’t ultimately force them to apply it properly. That is a moral and emotional choice. Second, inside a school, the expectations authority figures influence the students, and all the students (ideally) have the same expectations on each of them. In other words, the student’s social expectation could be toward critical thinking. That’s great… but what happens when that student is in the “real” world and realizes there can be a serious cost to disagreeing with others, even for the sake of critical analysis? Will they be strong enough to defy the larger culture, their family, their friends who tell them “good people believe X and do Y?” Will they also be able to critically evaluate themselves, when not being prompted by an instructor with a gradebook? I do not know, exactly, but I am skeptical.

      • jolie

        “There is a difference between what is legal and what is actually done, culturally.”

        Well, you represented attending religion classes as a requirement, as “mandatory K-12 indoctrination” and “forced religious education”. I just tried to point your critical self to the fact that this was a misrepresentation.

        Cultural wise, you might be right that, say, in rural Bavaria you are expected (not required) to attend, but certainly not, say, in a city like Berlin. I am also pretty sure that as a jew or muslim there was no expectation to go to the Christian religion class ever.

        “As to the level of indoctrination.. I can only report what my German friends who had such classes told me. For them, it was indoctrination-type discourse.”

        Which means they (collectively) detected indoctrination. I guess they either applied critical thinking or went with the majority opinion about religion classes. In either case, this part seems to serve rather as (anecdotal) evidence that education has worked out, against religion. Even more so as I could imagine that what is perceived as indoctrination somewhat differs between german and US american students.

        Here is another anecdote about religious education: already some decades ago you could have learned about the big bang theory in a confirmation class of the evangelic church in Germany, presented as the current prominent idea of how the world came about, without misrepresentations. Certainly there is no public debate in Germany, none, onto whether religious ideas could have a place in the classroom outside of religion classes, let alone science classes, or could be in any way or shape central to school education. Religion is a rather marginal matter in German schools, as far as I know (I grant you few exceptions). You might define as the “evangelical Christian’s dream”, when there is the expectation for some, say, 50% of the young people to attend 1-2h religious class per week. I would rather disagree with this terminology. And it doesn’t seem to suggest of Germany being a counterexample for a (causal) connection between education and religious beliefs.

        On the broader question: I agree that many people float with the current and education won’t change this. It can however change the current. If evidence-based discourse becomes the current, people will stop taking you seriously when you publicly spill out ideologies. Evidence-less opinions like “good people believe X and do Y” or “Elvis is still alive” become publicly marginalized. Most people (including friends and family) will not change most of their opinions during their adult lifetime, but the new generation will tend to not pick up marginalized opinions. Ideologic beliefs won’t entirely disappear though, I am sure.

        You might also have noticed that there can be a culture of disagreement: where it becomes the default position to disagree with someone, regardless of whether one actually does. In this culture it takes no courage or “character” at all to be critical (independent of the actual evidence). I would suggest that this tends to be the case in some European countries, where neither everything is perceived and agreed upon as “great” nor people largely believe to live in “the greatest country of the world”.

        And there is another point to it: as long as evidence-based discourse becomes prevalent and inevitable in public (as it has in science, not so much in politics yet), it does not really matter whether or not the majority of people chooses to apply it privately or to themselves. Applying it to ones personal self is even, I would suggest, more often than not counterproductive. Most of the time it is quite healthy to see oneself in a better light than the world does.