Critical Thinking - What we need to combat faith
Posted: 06 April 2005 01:53 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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There has been a lot of talk about rationality on this
board and how that is a basis for people rejecting
religious beliefs.  What occurred to me was that we haven't
given much thought to another element of intelligence,
which has also been at the heart of some discussions in this
regard, and that is critical thinking. Participating in this
forum has brought this issue in to sharp relief!

Well, the cat is out of the bag.  I've reveled myself as a
college prof so I might as well leverage on that to raise
this issue. Critical thinking is something we, in academia,
spend no small amount of time trying to "teach" our students.
Except possibly for those few corrupt professors that Wot is
convinced run amok in Florida (and I guess elsewhere), the
rest of us try to challenge students to spot inconsistencies,
question unsubstantiated claims, and remain skeptical of
authoritative pronouncements not backed up with evidence.

That is the idea anyway.  Critical thinking must play a part
in someone's ability to make rational judgements about
religious, doctrinaire claims, and, in keeping with Sam's
theme, result in rejection of the unsubtantiable.  This means
that individuals who practice critical thinking are more
likely to eschew religion in favor of science (and yes I do
mean either/or).  Please note, I am NOT talking about
the sense of spirituality when I speak of religion.  I leave
that to each individual to find and keep meaning.  I'm strictly
talking about the truth claims made in religious doctrine that
cannot be backed up with evidence.

Now here is the crux of my dilemma as an educator.  I am not
convinced that we are really able to "teach" critical
thinking in any meaningful way. I see the top 1/5th of
students with respect to high school performance and SAT
scores, so I don't see the average student as a rule.  Each
year I get to know approximately 60 - 70 undergraduates well
enough to be able to make a judgement about their critical
thinking abilities (at least I "believe" I'm able to make
those judgements).  I see about 30 graduate students which
come from the top 1/10th of the population in comparable
measures.  Of all of these students, I have noticed (and I
want to make it clear this is NOT a scientific claim, only
a rough observation) that fewer than a third of the undergrad
students and only about half of the grad students demonstrate
critical thinking skills in the assignments I give.

An inference that seems reasonable is that a very large majority
of people in the American population (and actually I see no
small number of international students) do not have critical
thinking skills adequate to make judgements re: religious
claims.  But, moreover, they do not greatly develop these
skills as they progress through the education system!

There are two possibilities of course.  First we may simply
not know the right way to teach it.  Ever since I have been
teaching, however, there have been endless approaches to
pedagogy with respect to critical thinking being evolved and
tested.  You would think we'd have found a universally
successful method by now.  The other possibility is that it
is not learnable by a fair number of people, at least not to
the extent it is needed.  This gets us back to the innateness
question. I'm perplexed and stumped.

Any comments, observations, evidence one way or the other?

Thanks

g

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Posted: 06 April 2005 02:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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gman,

Critical thinking is the key to all of this.  The more time that I spend thinking about the topics that are discussed on this board, the more convinced of that I become.  Reason alone does not cut it, because reason is merely a tool, which people can pick up and use, or not, as they see fit.  Critical thinking is more of a discipline, though, and the more practiced a person is, the more “automatic” the application of critical thought is.

I often think about my own path to greater critical thinking, and wonder what sort of truth I might be able to learn from it.

For what it is worth, I often think of my post-faith life in terms of two transformative shifts of perception which I had.  The first (which I have discussed elsewhere on this forum) was when I came to realize that certain things which I believed were, quite simply, not conforming to things that I was witnessing.  This shift in perception caused a painful period of introspection in which I had to reconsider a wide array of my beliefs (mostly religious in nature) and discard many of them.  I certainly became a better critical thinker as a result of this, but only as it pertained to issues of religion and science.

The second transformative event came shortly after the tech bubble burst.  I had been working for a company that experienced explosive growth in the dot com era, and virtually folded in the burst.  In this process, I experienced a problem that a large number of people have (although I had never given it thought before), specifically, I wound up owing taxes on money which I never actually made, and would never make.  At the time, I assumed that I would be able to sort everything out easily, because, after all, I did not actually make the money.  Sadly, I was quite mistaken.  I did, eventually, get the majoriy of the issue sorted out, but not before my bank accounts had been frozen, and my life was essentially destroyed.  My standard of living was reduced to poverty line conditions, and my fiance left me (which, in retrospect, is probably a good thing, but I digress).  The bottom line, is that up until this took place, I had a lot of bad assumptions about how well certain things in this country actually worked.  Of course I knew that occasionally things were messed up, and that innocent people got hurt, but I did not actually realize how horrible it all was.  I was a wreck for a while, but I did slowly put my life back together, and as I did, I began to study a lot of things.  I realized that there are serious issues that I had simply never even thought about.  I still care deeply about my country, but I now realize that it has more issues than I thought it had five years ago.

The point of this rambling story, I suppose, is that I think that critical thinking itself can be compartmentalized.  Many people can think critically in certain areas, while blithely accepting the most blatantly untrue things in other areas.  For me, it took extreme cognitive dissonance in one area, and trauma in another area before I was able to see clearly.

I don’t think that I want to advocate trauma as a means of waking people up, but perhaps there is still something that can be learned.  In both cases, something happened which brought the issue to my attention in a way that was difficult to ignore, and I actually cared enough to do the hard work of evaluating what I believed, so see if I should keep believing it.

So, for the person that you want to “teach” to think critically, find something that they care deeply about, and find a belief that they hold which is incompatible with what they care about, and bring it up.  Some people will naturally attempt to flee from this painful process, but for the person who does not, a (somewhat) more clearheaded mindset is waiting for them on the other side.

If this is done in more than one area, a sort of “meta” critical thinking might emerge, as the brain becomes entrained to think critically in general, instead of simply in a narrow disciplinary field.

Of course, this is all just my current state of speculation, I have not conducted any scientific tests, and would not suggest that anyone take direct action as a result of what I have said here.  Don’t try this at home kids!

-Matt

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Posted: 06 April 2005 03:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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As I was reading gman’s message, I was trying to formulate a way to express the notion of “modular” theory in psychology, without actually quoting from those books.

Thanks, psiconoclast, for making things easier for me. Your suggestion fits perfectly into the kind of pedagogy gman refers to. The trick is to discover lessons that work in this way that are universal to an entire lecture room full of students.

The following site explains modular mind theory pretty well.

http://www.philosophy.umd.edu/people/faculty/pcarruthers/Practical-reason.htm

Dave

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Posted: 06 April 2005 03:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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It figures, I flunked out of college. Well not exactly, actually I was Phi Betta Cappa at junior college but left one semester short of a degree at a four year school. Anyway, Gman and PSI, I left some passages from a book I recently read on the “Where Science Can’t Go” topic, I wanted to make sure that you got a chance to look at them. The book inspired me to think critically about science, among other things, and to start that particular thread.

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Posted: 06 April 2005 07:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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[quote author=“gman”]There has been a lot of talk about rationality on this
board and how that is a basis for people rejecting religious beliefs.

Please note, I am NOT talking about the sense of spirituality when I speak of religion.  I leave that to each individual to find and keep meaning.  I’m strictly talking about the truth claims made in religious doctrine that cannot be backed up with evidence.

Don’t you think this is a distinction that most religious believers don’t make?  For them, religious beliefs are an outward manifestation of their inner spirituality.  If you attack their belief systems with rationality, they perceive it as an attack on their spirituality as well.  As this is sacred territory to most people, their defense systems become highly impenetrable.  You’re just jousting at windmills.

The other possibility is that it
is not learnable by a fair number of people, at least not to
the extent it is needed.  This gets us back to the innateness
question.

My own theories tend (at least partially) toward the innateness aspect, based primarily on personal observation and introspective thought rather than scientific research. 
But perhaps it’s not so much a question of learnable as one of pre-programming.  Considering the volume of programming/learning experiences we aquire in the early years of life, I might ask how much of that input becomes a permanent part of our thinking processes.  Even though the mind is quite mutable and normally responsive to teaching, at what point do some processes become compartmentalized and static?

I like Matt’s statements about transformative shifts of perception.  Isn’t that a normal stage of maturity?  Some shifts can be dramatic, as were Matt’s, but don’t we have many subtle shifts as well?  How often is it necessary to have a strong catalyst for that transformative shift?  Following Matt’s speculation, are many people never presented with such a catalyst, or do they somehow dismiss the opportunity when presented because they simply are not intellectually challenged by the situation?   

How many of our perceptions are carry-overs from earlier times in our lives which we have failed to question or update?  How often do even rational thinkers have invalid ideas/perceptions that once acquired, reside in their minds simply because they have never had occasion to question the belief? 

Sorry for rambling.  Not being a scientist, I apply the same disclaimer as Matt - just my current state of speculation.  I did want to share an article you may have already read (it was syndicated from the LA Times several weeks ago). 

  http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-brain27feb27,1,1023341.story?coll=la-home-science&ctrack=1&cset=true

Two paragraphs I found particularly pertinent to this forum:

Lattices of neurons are linked by pathways forged, then continually revised, by experience. So intimate is this feedback that there is no way to separate the brain’s neural structure from the influence of the world that surrounds it.

Deconstructing the anatomy of choice, the researchers are also probing the pliable neural circuits of reasoning and problem-solving — the last of the brain’s regions to evolve, the last to mature during childhood, and the most susceptible to outside influences.

If the circuits of reasoning are the last to mature and also most susceptible to outside influences, how permanently entrenched are childhood religious teachings?  And aren’t most of those teachings of the most simplistic nature, and directly opposed to critical thinking?

Do you think the question of innateness could become the influencing factor between a person’s ability to naturally revise and reconstruct those circuits versus your idea of ‘unlearnability’?

Maggie

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Posted: 07 April 2005 12:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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[quote author=“gman”]Now here is the crux of my dilemma as an educator. I am not convinced that we are really able to “teach” critical thinking in any meaningful way.


I recommend you have a look at “The Authoritarian Specter” by Bob Altemeyer. The more authoritarian we get as a society the fewer of us who are really able to think very critically. I’m not an alarmist—I’m not convinced at all that this is a particularly new social problem in the US—but seeing the spotlight shone on authoritarianism really illuminates a lot regarding this particular issue. It’s been a focus of mine since late high school (the early ‘80s) because ovbserving nature and behavior and critically considering those observations is almost as natural to me as breathing, so it was striking when I read Bob Altemeyer’s book. It was the first time I’d seen my take on the apparent mindlessness/obliviousness that seems so prevalent (and so alien to me) explained in some detail and supported with data and interpretation.

Byron

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Posted: 07 April 2005 07:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Hi folks and thanks for these thoughtful replies.  I wanted you to know that I will be back on soon and want some time to digest your words and ideas before I reply.  I also want you to know that I really enjoy this kind of discourse!

g

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Posted: 07 April 2005 07:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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How many of our perceptions are carry-overs from earlier times in our lives which we have failed to question or update? How often do even rational thinkers have invalid ideas/perceptions that once acquired, reside in their minds simply because they have never had occasion to question the belief?

I feel that the above statement, from Maggie, is a key to explaining much about how adult people can remain, in important ways, as children all their lives. The concept makes evolutionary sense, since the world, historically, has been slow to change (other than with “catastrophic” events). But recent revolutions (such as machine tools, transistors, etc.) require humans often to make important adjustments. Neurologically, we’re set up to accomplish such change, but only with great effort.

Dave

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Posted: 08 April 2005 05:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Except…converted, possibly.

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