A Philosopher's Blog

College & Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2013
Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

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With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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Are Facts Dead?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2012
Ideology Icon

Ideology Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Rational Threat Assessment

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2010
SS Leviathan
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A seemingly unbreakable law of nature is that all things die. This seems to apply to individuals as well as collectives, such as nations and empires. As history shows, empires rise, stumble, and then fall. Perhaps the end comes in war (as WWI spelled the end of some empires), due to environmental changes or some other means. But, the end has always arrived.

While the United States is regarded by some as being exceptional, we do not seem to be imbued with a special immunity against the death of empire. In fact, it seems certain that some day the dawn shall come and there will be no United States. While this end, like the death of any one of us, seems inevitable, it need not come soon. Just as a person can hold death with good choices and some luck, so can the collective that is the United States.

The first step in doing this is recognizing the real dangers that we face. This requires doing a rational threat assessment rather than following the usual methodology of the pundits and the politicians.

This usual method involves presenting as a serious threat whatever they happen to think people will fear the most or what will result in the greatest profit for those whose interests they serve. Obviously, those on the left and the right do this. Folks on the right tell us that the shabby terrorists who come up with shoe and underwear bombs, who have no warships, tanks, or standing armies are the supreme threat. Well, almost supreme. There are, after all,  the illegals who want to cross the border to steal our jobs, commit crimes and drop anchor babies. Folks on the left tell us that we face sure destruction from climate change, warn of the infinite evil of all corporations (by posting on Facebook using their iPhones), and think we should be rid of guns once and for all. Obviously, I do exaggerate a bit. But just a bit.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am naturally inclined to want people to use the methods of critical thinking and logic when assessing threats. As with assessing anything, it is rather important to attempt the assessment in an objective manner. This does not mean setting aside one’s values or feelings. But it does mean being aware of how these values and emotions impact the assessment. To use an analogy, it is like knowing that you are looking through lenses that are tinted and a bit distorted. Knowing this, you can do a better job of determining what you are really looking at. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remove our emotional and value lenses. But we can learn to correct for any distortions they might create in our perceptions.

Doing this also means being able to take into account one’s biases, interests and prejudices. For example, someone who can profit greatly from their being a war on terror would be rather motivated to see terrorism as a huge threat that requires very expensive countermeasures. As another example, someone who has invested heavily in “green” technology would be rather motivated to push the idea of climate change. Being aware of these factors can be difficult. Being able to set them aside when making assessments is even more challenging.

Being able to see how these factors impact one’s assessment is a difficult thing. Being able to regulate their impact is even harder. However, it can be done. To use an easy and obvious example, I (and many other educators) can grade papers in a very objective manner. To use another example, although I am sometimes accused of being horribly biased, I seem to do a reasonably good job considering the various sides to issues and their merits and problems. In any case, I obviously consider views that oppose my own and do not, for example, delete replies that criticize me or my arguments.

An obvious question is, of course, why do we need to have rational threat assessments? Can’t we just muddle along as we have, dragged left and right by the pundits and politicians?

Well, we can. But that is like being aboard a ship where the wheel is pulled left or right not based on where the rocks really are, but based on where the folks with the loudest voices say they are. Or, even worse, having the wheel pulled based on fears of imaginary sea monsters or by those who see a minnow as the Leviathan come to devour the ship. This is, obviously enough, a recipe for disaster.

While I generally disagree with Glenn Beck, I do agree that the United States does need some repairs. However, the first repair must be to the way we judge the threats and dangers. We face real dangers, big and small. However, we need to properly sort out the real from the unreal and the big from the small. Then we can do the rational thing and address the real problems based on how serious they really are.


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