Archive | February, 2017

Why I dislike ‘Critical Thinking’

27 Feb

You’ll see from the title of this blog that I don’t like the phrase ‘critical thinking’, and think that it activity works against encouraging rational thought in students. Ironically, the only time that I tend to use the phrase ‘critical thinking’ is when I’m talking to other academics, otherwise they don’t know what I’m going on about ! In working on a larger piece of work about my view of developing rational thought I’ve hit upon a great example of what I think is wrong with the current critical thinking literature.

If you grab a select of the critical thinking textbooks that will undoubtedly appear in your nearest library you’ll find that the identification of logical fallacies is a consistently addressed topic. With my ‘teacher’ hat on I’ve always found logical fallacies an appealing topic. There are wonderful on-line resources with many engaging examples that will appeal to students and it’s straightforward to design an assessment to measure whether students recognise logical fallacies. The trouble is that when you delve into the rationale for teaching students to identify logical fallacies things begin to unravel.

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For anyone who spends their life attending meetings with other academics, the rationale for teaching logical fallacies would seem obvious, as phrases like ‘ad hominem attack’ and ‘that’s just a strawman’ are mainstays of academic ‘debate’. However, we can’t really justify curriculum content based on the ability to win an argument in a Faculty meeting. Which leads me to ask what is the utility of understanding logical fallacies for the average undergraduate ? Surely what we want our students to be able to do is to disentangle the evidence for a particular argument from the rhetorical devices being employed to make that argument, after all it would be perfectly possible for a position that has all the evidence behind it to be proposed with an argument entirely riddled with fallacies.

My own view is that the appearance of logical fallacies in so many critical thinking texts is a products of the roots of critical thinking itself, rather than in any belief in it’s utility for students. Critical Thinking was a product of the academic discipline of philosophy, where the understanding of formal logical is a central skill. Thus , we’ve ended up teaching a topic not because it has directly relevance to our students, but because it is a component of a discipline at least once-removed for m that which we are teaching.

In my previous post here I mused on the teaching of rational thought in the new ‘alternate facts’ world, and it occurs to me that in this ‘New world order’, the teaching of logical fallacies might actually be counter-productive. I could see an argument that a book chapter on logical fallacies could easily be read has ‘how to win an argument even if you don’t have any evidence’.

Reflections on teaching rational thinking in 2017

23 Feb

The last year have seen some huge changes in the world, with the arrival of Brexit and President Donald Trump, and it seems to me that these have quite a dramatic impact on how to address rational thinking with students. I’ve long argued to students that the skills of weighing evidence and producing rational argument are the keys to success both in university and in the world beyond, but with the happening of the last year I’m not so sure that that particular argument is going to work
in the coming years. It almost seems like the deployment of irrational argument, and the denial of evidence that doesn’t fit your worldview, is now the route to success.

Last summer, back when Donald Trump was still the candidate we all joked about, the UK’s Brexit referendum produced an extraordinary example of how the world has changed. Throughout the referendum the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign travel the country is a bus, on which was printed the phrase ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’ (NHS =National Health Service).Boris Johnson MP  addresses members of the public in Parliament

In the days following the declaration of the referendum result all of the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign explained that the slogan on the side of their bus didn’t actually mean that the NHS would receive any more money. In a world of rationality you might assume that this ‘interesting’ campaigning technique might have had some consequence for those involved, and yet within days Boris Johnson (pictured above with the bus) was promoted to become the UK’s Foreign Secretary (The UK’s equivalent of the US Secretary of State). So here is a situation where a serious debate has been won by the deployment of an ‘untruth’, and the consequence is promotion for those involved.

If you look at the traditional critical thinking literature, one of it’s central tenets is the teaching of the recognition of logical fallacies, and the understanding that the deployment of logical fallacies is poor argument. Yet, even the briefest of examinations of the Brexit campaign shows the construction of ‘Strawmen’ and the deployment of ‘Ad hominem’ attacks on a daily basis, and those campaigning methods leading to victory.

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Last summer it appeared that Brexit might be a passing threat to rational thinking, but the subsequent arrival of President Trump has raised the threat to a whole new level. Over the last few years I’ve used belief in conspiracy theories, as a mechanism to teach rational thinking and it’s been very successful. One of the earliest attempts an explaining conspiracy belief was what Hofstadter called a ‘paranoid style’ of thinking that was the product of ‘uncommonly angry minds’.  For the last few years I’ve used videos of Alex Jones, the renowned conspiracy theories, to nicely illustrate this idea. Alex Jones broadcasting style looks to an outside observer as ‘paranoia’ i.e. any attempt at gun control by the federal government is a precursor to military dictatorship !! This year’s lecture was rather different, as we now know that the ‘Leader of the free world’ is a fan of Alex Jones, and has appeared on his show. It’s thus rather more difficult to dismiss Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories as the product of paranoia.

This has all left me wondering where teaching rational thinking can go over the next four years, with conspiracy theory belief and ‘alternative facts’ become mainstream in the USA, and UK politicians have no problem with denying their own campaign slogans with days of a vote. I was driven back to looking at what originally inspired me to start teaching rational thinking, and came across a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt :

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

This alone seems to be a good reason to plough on with rational thought, in the face of a changed world, but I then came across a quotation from Carl Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark’ that truly sums up why it’s vital to continue teaching rational thinking.

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Astonishingly, Sagan wrote this over 20 years ago for me it’s a call to continue doing what I’m doing. I just need to figure out how to adjust my teaching materials to the ‘New World Order’ :;

 

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