July 18, 2013

Critical Thinking

Student
Student (Photo credit: Anarkee)
Most of the formal teaching I do these days involves graduate students or undergraduates at the junior and senior levels. But this was not always the case. I used to teach the introductory courses aimed at freshman, courses that might have over 300 students per section. There is not much about these courses that I miss, but one of the things I do miss on occasion is that I was often in the position of giving students their first exposure to critical thinking.

The introduction to critical thinking typically started with posing the question of how we know what we think we know (i.e., what are the bases for what we believe?). I would briefly explain the four primary sources of knowledge humans have used over the ages:
  1. Tradition
  2. Authority
  3. Intuition
  4. Reason and Science
When we believe that something is true because it has always been that way, we are basing our belief on tradition. This is one of the reasons why long-enduring beliefs are more resistant to change (e.g., religious belief). They have the weight of tradition behind them. When we conclude that something is true because someone in a position of authority says so, we are basing our belief on authority. In some cases, the authority is a legitimate expert of some sort; most of the time, the authority is a parent, a member of clergy, or someone else whose "expertise" is based solely on his or her authority.

This was always the point where I would see many students smiling and nodding their heads. These were college freshman, many of whom were getting their first taste of independence by living outside their childhood homes. Most were quite receptive to the idea that their parents and church might not be right about everything. A few struggled with these ideas, and they were often those who identified themselves as extremely religious.

Moving to intuition would be more difficult for a larger number of students. When we believe something is true because it feels true, we are basing our belief on intuition. I explained that one of the most important things students would learn in this course involved the sort of errors in thinking we all make and what they teach us about the unreliability of intuition as a means of acquiring knowledge. A key part of what they were going to learn is that their own minds can and often will deceive them.

Tradition, authority, and intuition are all flawed ways of gaining knowledge. The superior alternative can be found in reason and science (i.e., basing beliefs on logic and empiricism). I would provide several examples of how reason and science have shown that beliefs once accepted on the basis of the other three sources were false. And in providing such examples, I would introduce critical thinking as a process in which we examine evidence objectively and unemotionally, considering alternative explanations and using skepticism to minimize the sort of mistakes to which we are all prone. That is, critical thinking involves questioning claims rather than blindly accepting them.

These were science courses, and I would use this material on critical thinking and skepticism to explain the basic foundations and goals of science. And yet, students often reported that it was this introductory material on critical thinking that first made them think seriously about how they know what they think they know. For many, this would be the moment when they first realized that there was something valuable they could learn from science even if they had no intention of becoming scientists. As I would explain, my goal was not to convince them to change their majors and go into science but to help them become informed consumers of science and develop a healthy skepticism for the myriad claims to which they would be exposed during their lives.

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