Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 1.15

I’ve always touted skepticism as a method of examination applied to a claim or situation in order to discover what is most probably true about that claim or situation. It’s the process of thinking critically that helps us draw rational conclusions about things that are important us. And I’m vastly more interested in promoting and teaching that method than I am in adversarial arguments over differing viewpoints. But conveying that process to folks who may not be familiar with it is not always easy.

So for today’s A.I., you’re teaching a continuing ed. course in critical thinking at the local learning annex:

How do you conduct the class? Is there an exercise you would have the students do that demonstrates critical thinking? What is your first lesson?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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38 Comments

  1. Excellent question. Actually my new goal in life is to escape from my cubicle and get a degree in science education. One of my goals is to spend every other Friday teaching skepticism and critical thinking, then I think of all the angry phone calls I’ll get from parents because I’m not teaching their version of reality.

    Oh right, the question. I would have my first lesson be to destroy astrology, it’s easy, obvious, and I think not to many people believe in it still, so it tones down the offense level, have them keep coming back till it’s at least to late to get a refund for the course. First I would start out as if I was for astrology. Do that thing that James Randi did were he hands out “personalized” astrological readings and then have people judge their accuracy. Then have then switch readings and have them find out it’s actually all the same vague reading. Move on with Phil Platt’s explanation as to why astrology impossible. I feel this would show the importants of asking questions and evaluating claims made by proponents of ideas.

  2. I’d start with something neutral and familiar, then work toward more complex examples. First few lessons would probably be related to commercial advertising (“85% Fat Free!”, ) and politics (“no new taxes”, “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman”). Maybe throw in some examples of false causality (ice cream attracts sharks). Gradually work through things like Montauk Monsters, spoon-bending and cold reading. Anyone who’s still attending the class after that will probably be OK with the more hard-core stuff.

  3. I would start by having the students read: The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan. I’d review the Baloney Detection kit. Then I’d have them watch “There Be Dragons” by Brian Dunning and review a couple of his great podcasts. I would also test them on logical fallacies starting with the list of top ones on the SGU website.

    I would focus on teaching the basics of critical thinking. I would shy away from an agenda of debunking and let the students figure it out.

  4. Because it’s a continued education course I would try and do just one lesson a day, and not spread lessons over multiple days.

    Maybe a second day might be used to explain the importance of science (and math), that with it we can use to actually know stuff, and how that differs from the more wishy-washy ideas of relativism found in the liberal arts. (to put a different way the difference between fact and opinion and that facts do exist) Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series had some good things to say about this so I might borrow from that.

    Logical fallacies one day (the NESS has a good web page about this)

    Understanding Statistics another day with material from “How to lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff

    Scientific Consensuses and why it is important and the best, but never the final, word in science.

    Maybe finish up with a few lessons using real life examples.

  5. You know, that’s pretty much exactly what we try to do in my college’s freshman seminar course. The faculty get to select a topic for their individual seminar sections, based on their own interests and expertise, and then examine that subject from a variety of viewpoints, encouraging students to formulate critical questions and work their way through them. Sometimes it’s pulling teeth to get them to do it, but when things start clicking it can be beautiful.

    So in our setup (which I like quite a lot), it really doesn’t matter what the subject is, so long as you can formulate and work through critical questions on the topic. I’ve taught the course twice now, and my first subject was “American Poverty.” Last semester it was “Atheism Comes Out.” So I tend toward concrete social topics, but each prof has his or her own approach, and some are considerably more amorphous. For example, two of the topics last semester were “walking” and “happiness.”

    To go back to the main question, I’ve always thought a good starting point is to take a piece of journalism, such as an article from a newspaper, and pick it apart, asking first and foremost what assumptions it takes for granted. You can go on from there to discuss the value of different types of information, bias & viewpoint, changing social and historical factors, etc.

  6. I’d focus on health claims. What do some of the past, already-debunked health claims have in common with each other (i.e. anecdotal evidence, use of “buzz words”, use of science-sounding words that don’t actually mean anything, no references to studies, etc. etc.)? How can we apply what we know about those already-debunked claims to claims that are being tossed about in the media today?
    I’d probably focus a bit on epidemiology as well, what kinds of studies are out there (i.e. case-control studies, cohort studies, prospective and retrospective studies, and what kind of conclusions we can draw from each of them). I’d say after you’re armed with that kind of knowledge, you’d be well able to rip apart most health news items that pop up in the media.

  7. Critical Thinking has been added to the AS level Curriculum in the UK and is the fastest growing subject. More Students opt to take it every year as it’s seen, rightly, as being a vitally important addition not only to your UCAS form but also CV. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6950084.stm

    There’s even a website to help get you through the course http://www.criticalthinking.org.uk/

    So all your question will probably be answered over the next few years as more and more students and teachers go through the course.

    I’ve taught courses in “Science and Maths for Arts Students” and “Intro to Scientific Thinking” and I generally found R. Carroll’s book “Becoming a Critical Thinker” (the recomended text) to be invaluble as a teaching aid.

    Classes were totally different to normal lectures as I had a shocking 3 hour block (so it was more of an afternoon seminar than a lecture), but had they been 1 hour I would probably have run things the same way as the standard “Chalk and Talk” method of lecturing wouldn’t have worked. I pretty much worked my way through the text roughly in order as each chapter builds on the one before, introducing new concepts etc, while allowing things to go off course a little and adding things that I’d come across during the week that I thought might be interesting.

    I found the biggest problems to be Students inability to think for themselves (at the start 90% just wanted to be told what to think and what to write on the exam, a legacy of the sh*t High School system which is an exam factory) and their jaw dropping lack of Maths (more than half had the pleasure of my company for what was essentially “Remedial Maths”)

    As an increasing number of academic institutions are encouraging (i.e. forcing) non-STEM undergrads to take some useful courses in Science and Maths, my guess is that “Critical Thinking” or whatever they choose to call it will become more popular as its Science without the Lab costs

  8. As I look through my textbook I see the first exercise is ” Find three examples of false implications in advertising”

    And the first homework I set was “Write at least 1000 words on what you hope to gain by becoming a more Scientific Thinker”

  9. Start with a “What you believe” survey which includes a range of beliefs from the ridiculous and unjustified ones nobody believes in, to the ridiculous and unjustified ones a lot of them believe in. First choose one nobody believes in and examine it, introducing the tools of critical thinking you will be teaching. Then use the same tools to examine the belief a lot of them believe in.

    Compare and contrast.

  10. I would steal a lesson from my 4th grade teacher. I would examine commercial ads in print and electrons and break down how they mislead the reader/viewer. Then I would ask them to provide examples for the next class. Since it is a con. ed. course I wouldn’t have any tests. People are their because they want to be so they will probably be paying attention. After that I would try to bring examples of fraud and confidence tricks up for examination. Some Penn and Teller and Project Alpha. If I had time at this point I would end with comparative religion and what anthropology teaches us about human’s desire for answers.

  11. I find it interesting that most comments so far seem to focus on critical thinking as tearing down a fallacious or factually-incorrect argument.

    I see critical thinking as a productive, not a destructive, process.

    My first lesson, then, would be to cover some well-known things that “everybody knew” in the past, and walk through how critical examination led to a better understanding.

    For example, it was common belief at one time that when you dropped a rock, it fell to the earth because it belonged there (teleology). But because Newton questioned that basic (and, on the surface, entirely reasonable) belief, and because of how he did so, we started to figure out gravity.

    And that discovery led to understanding of black bodies, light, movement, and a number of other things that allowed us to study and learn about our world in unprecedented ways. In turn, that led to us being able to design and build space-faring vehicles and deploy the satellite systems that help us communicate around the world, run our GPS, and so on.

    (see: http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/2175.html – read the author’s commentary; great fun!)

    Then I’d construct lessons to lead people toward examining things they’ve always accepted, and seeing if they can come up with better models themselves.

  12. @autotroph: Me, I was just being a smart ass. But I agree with you totally. Critical thinking is the foundation of productive thinking. The whole gamut of basic science research, inductive and deductive reasoning and learning about false and misleading arguments would be essential.

    I was watching a Secret Service agent being interviewed about counterfeiting and one statement he said was a good illustration about the need to continually practice rational and critical thinking. The agent said that the best way to spot a counterfeit bill was to be immersed in knowledge about the real thing because that makes the slight discrepancies in the counterfeit more noticeable.

  13. I’m really glad you asked this, because it’s been keeping me awake at night for weeks. Thing is, in a little over a week, I start my new job as a high school science teacher. And on top of all the usual worries about doing something new (no prior experience at all and only a crash course in education; they’re a little desperate for teachers), I’m really determined to squeeze as much skeptical guidance into my lessons as possible.

    I’ll be keeping a close eye on this thread, so if anyone’s got any more specific advice, please, please, please speak up.

  14. @Spatula: Teach the scientific method. That is the most important thing. The elements are on charts. All of the facts can be looked up but the method underlies all of science it is what makes it work. Also blow things up as often as you can find the budget to pay for it. or if it is biology be as gross as you can be, make the class so fun that kids pay attention.

  15. @Spatula: Mr. Wizard often had experiments that could be done fairly cheaply. You might check youtube for examples. Also, if you can do an experiment with the class but don’t tell them what it teaches them see if they can figure it out. I have found that I never truly learned anything until I had to teach it to someone else so it might not hurt to have the kids read up on something in the text and teach it to each other in a rotational basis.

  16. @Spatula:

    Huzzah!! Another new science teacher!!

    To rock some Cracker:

    Cause, what the world needs now
    is another science teacher
    like I need a brain in my head.

    Yeah, I hope this thread helps you out, Spatula. And once you get your feet wet, report back and let us know how you think it’s going.

  17. I’m torn. I’d either want to start the class with some kind of blatant hoax no one would fall for and having them start picking that apart, and transitioning in to how we know, proper logical forms, and proofs. Or, I’d want to start with the most convincing hoax I can find and then use that as an example of why critical thinking’s important – you can get seriously screwed without it.

    Either way, the emphasis would first be on formal logic and what the valid arguments look like, as was said above “the best way to spot a counterfeit bill was to be immersed in knowledge about the real thing because that makes the slight discrepancies in the counterfeit more noticeable.” Then logical fallacies and evaluating evidence, maybe some basic statistics, as that’s always a popular way to deceive. The Quirkology color change card trick video would be an excellent introduction to discussing anecdotal evidence and the weakness of personal experience.

    Lastly, I actually want to do this. I want to go in to science education, and any chance I can get to teach critical thinking to non-science students would be appreciated.

  18. @Spatula:
    There was a story out last fall about students who play WOW and the like. They found that the best players use the scientific method to construct ways to beat bosses.

    And give it a couple of weeks before they find out your human. In the long run you’ll be glad you did.

  19. I think there have been a few people who said they would start off talking about logical fallacies, and that’s where I’d start, and pick a few readings from the book, simply entitled “Logic” by Paul Tomassi (I think, but am not quite sure about the author’s name). Then after an introduction of the sort, I would show some of the more ridiculous moments in rhetoric and fallacies.

  20. I think MathMike is on the right track with making sure the class realizes you’re human, but I would start this much sooner. I would begin by describing how you failed to think critically which lead to you holding a false belief. For me I would use the example of the Urban Legend of the JATO Car. I would go into why I believed the story, e.g. putting too much trust in a source, wanting it to be true, and not checking the facts. I would then go into why this could be a problem, e.g. not realize that while close friends and relatives might not lie to you, they might still spread misinformation by accident. I think if you do this then I think you will sound less like you are only interested in tearing down their long held beliefs.

  21. I’d have to focus with basic building blocks. An introduction to logic…explain how to construct arguments and throw a wee bit of psychology in.

    How to tell the difference between a valid and an invalid argument, checking that their premises are true…etc, would be a good starting point. A discussion of logical fallacies would have to be included as well. For exercises, I’d have them choose an argument they want to make and present it to the class. Then, I would guide the students as they all discuss whether or not one another’s arguments are sound.

    Then, I’d go into explaining cognitive biases. I’d make sure that they understand that everyone is vulnerable to cognitive bias and we have to actively work to compensate for it. I’d give them examples of cognitive biases and ask them to show me examples from whatever source they want.

    I’d have to work the color changing card trick in there somewhere. I really used that one at work during a meeting and it was pretty effective.

  22. This is something I’d actually really like to do eventually – run community courses in skepticism/critical thinking. I’d make teaching people about cognitive biases a decent part of the course.

    I’ll have to read the responses on this thread in more detail when I’m not on my lunch break!

  23. I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s book “The End of Faith,” and he has a great section in there titled “What Should We Believe?” He gives three examples:

    1. A TV anchorman says a fire is raging through Colorado.

    2. Biologists say that DNA is the molecular basis for sexual reproduction.

    3. The pope says that Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected bodily after death.

    Now, examine the difference between these forms of testimony, and why we find some “expert opinions” more valid than others.

    That would be my first assignment. If I were reading a Howard Gardner book, undoubtedly I’d have come up with a different assignment.

  24. I’m going to be mining this thread for ideas- I’m developing a new science class for high school students that is organized around the narrative of critical and empirical thinking driving change in science, percolating into technology, precolating into culture, from the ancients on- who were the scientists, what evidence (or bias) led them to go searching for theories, what evidence and experiments settled the score, what biases or fallacies or politics stood in the way (or pushed it along) and so forth. Teach science as a process of accumulating better and better mental and technical tools rather than a pile of temporally displaced Latin roots. I may have to do some exercise thieving…

  25. Sylvan–that’s pretty much what happens next after the astrology FAIL. :)

    I don’t go anywhere near religion initially–it’s too easy to immediately put backs up and loose the audience. Also, starting off the class with an activity is much better than standing there saying “Anyone? Anyone?”

  26. I would avoid religion altogether as the very center of the question of religion (is there a god/gods) is unanswerable by science or critical thinking. Also it’s a good way to piss people off and lose credibility to a lay audience.

  27. @ Spatula

    Congratulations and all the best for your new career. I am a newish teacher and it is the best job I have ever had. Hardest job I have ever had too. But the highs totally outweigh the other crap.

    I hope you love it as much as I do.

    And thanks to all for their contributions this thread. I will be getting more involved in our inter-school debating comp this year and critical thinking is something teh kidz need more than anything. Some great ideas here.

  28. I am not sure whether this is the sort of critical thinking you mean, but this is what we did at a class at school (I think we are all about 14 years old).

    The teacher brought in lots of cuttings from newspapers etc about a particular news story. He also brought in a copy of the report that the articles were all based on (I think it was something to do with numbers of immigrants in the UK). The cuttings were from left and right wing newspapers etc. Basically we had to look at the original report and all the cuttings and analyse the political bias and look at whether different papers emphasised/ignored particular parts of the report. We were also encouraged to discuss what coverage we saw on different news programmes.

    I am not sure what age you are teaching because I am sure older people would know all this stuff. But it totally blew our 14 year old minds! I remember the kids in my class talking about it for ages and we were going round the place analysing everything we read for bias! After that the teacher got more into the hardcore critical thinking, but I think this was an accessible and enjoyable introduction.

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