Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Critical Thinking 101

I can’t recall if we’ve had had this discussion here before — I apologize for the repeat if we have — but as lead organizer for the Houston Skeptic Society, I am teaching a quarterly course on the basics of critical thinking and the processes of skepticism. The class is geared for those just discovering skepticism, or for those who might want to brush up on their critical thinking skills.

Now I have a basic outline for the course, and I know pretty much how the class will unfold, but I thought I’d pick your brains for even more ideas; especially since most of you who comment are established and polished critical thinkers. So . . .

How would you approach teaching Critical Thinking 101? What hints might you offer by way of course materials? What might you avoid? Any other suggestions/comments? Should I expect to get an apple from my students? Beer? Whiskey?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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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22 Comments

  1. I’d start with the most obvious, things that people do daily or are more likely to encounter. For example, how to avoid scammers might be a good way to hint people in the right direction. Most people apply critical thinking in daily activities without even knowing. Games, life experiences would be a good way to start it all. Then go to the more important and conceptual situations.

  2. I’m actually trying to develop a CT 101, but aiming for elementary to high school students. The format is to mimic product ads, telling them that there will be a lie or exaggeration during these ads (implying that only one may have the lie). When people are trying to sell you things, their objective is selling stuff, so exaggeration (or outright falshoods) are common.
    Have a number of fake products, all of which make false claims – using some sort of science trick to create the effect. Most of the products have a nice visual effect, and have some audience participation to keep them interested. Once the presentation is over, review with the class where they think the lie/s are, and what they think happened. This would be followed by a discussion about other examples where the kids think critical thinking might be useful.

  3. Have you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science? I really like the way he does it starting with the obvious bullshit to explain the simpler techniques and then building with more complicated examples to the more difficult concepts in skepticism. Only real issue I suppose is that it focuses completely on medicine. I’d suggest doing it that way though, pick examples and demonstrate how we use skeptical techniques to figure out the truth.

  4. I would suggest ‘How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age’ by Theodore Schick. It was a book that I read in an inductive logic course that really destroyed a lot of my illusions while helping me think more critically.

  5. Something that has helped my critical thinking is understanding how incentives work. Once you understand how people can be incentivised to lie or exaggerate their claims, it’s easier to look on those claims with a skeptical eye. Some basic game theory helps with that, such as The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

  6. I’ll shout out to the often-cited Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. There’s a whole section where he describes buying a used car and how you apply critical thinking whenever you do it. Since loads of 16-year-olds would want to do just that, it might be particularly salient to high schoolers.

  7. I recently had to take a CR course to finish up some credits for my degree. The most useful part of the course was learning about the logical fallacies and then trying to identify them in real life examples. We had to search the media and other sources for examples of each fallacy (By the way the DARE anti-drug site has a lot of great examples).

    Aside from the class I think that understanding the way our brain works can help in critical thinking. Knowing that your brain interprets the world to reduce cognitive dissonance and that no ones memories are all that reliable helps. If we are aware of our weaknesses we are more likely to catch our logical missteps.

  8. I did a fantastic critical thinking and fundamentals of argument course (Swinburne University Australia) that used the following book as the main text. http://members.shaw.ca/govier/pracstudy.htm

    The course totally changed my outlook on opinion writing and speaking of all kinds. For the first time I was truly alert to logical falacies in even the most eloquently written works. I have overhauled my own persuasion techniques too!

    The book has loads of really clear examples and can be used to look at logical fallacies as an overview or in complex (essay style) detail.

    A really great companion to a critical thinking course since it has loads of student exercises rather than just discourse.

    P.S. I have nothing to do with the author or publisher of this book. I just really, really liked this text.

  9. One thought I had would be to try to both get your students attention and to jolt them into engaging their critical thinking and the caution that goes with it.

    And to do this by starting out by tricking them…
    Because well I am just mean that way. :)

    Find some mystery or problem to solve that’s engaging and exciting to get their interest and lead them down the garden path by selectively picking the evidence you highlight to them and getting them excited as you and they ‘solve’ the mystery, get them completely convinced…

    And then pull the rug out from under them.

    Show evidence that blows the whole theory out of the water.

    Ideally (if possible) a real (or fictional) crime case might be good where you can create a completely convincing (but circumstantial) case against the most obvious suspect and then show that actually it was someone else.

    If its someone who was about to be executed before this was discovered even better.

    The idea being to really hit home to your students how easy it is to fall prey to confirmation biases and see pattens where none exist and exactly why critical thinking is needed while also shattering any illusions that this is something that ‘other people do’ and that doesn’t apply to them.

    If you can do it with a police investigation then that hammers home the real life implications and value of critical thinking.

  10. I’d include good old “How to lie with statistics” by Darrell Huff. It’s funny, you don’t need to have much in the way of mathematics or statistics yourself to follow it, and it illustrates really well how just because a piece of information is true, doesn’t mean it’s not being used untruthfully.

  11. “Beer? Whiskey?”

    To be perfectly honest, my experiences with sports arguments (and sports betting) have shown, at least in anecdote, that these beverages do not improve the critical thinking faculties of the subject of the experiment.

  12. When I was in college I took a critical thinking class that revolved around archaeology (I was an anthropology major) that was a ton of fun. It used the book Frauds Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, a book written by Dr. Ken Feder.

    The reason I’m suggesting it here is that it took very well known myths and legends, and put them to a critical eye, forcing the students to use critical thinking skills to see why they were just myths. The book isn’t very long and is well written, and is broken down into individual myths so you can pick and choose which ones to address.

    I figure it might be a nice way to work some popular myths into the lessons and keep the students engaged. Here’s a google books link: http://books.google.com/books/about/Frauds_Myths_and_Mysteries_Science_and_P.html?id=8yw5QwAACAAJ

  13. If you’re giving assignments, give CLEAR instruction of what you expect at the beginning. Don’t just say “standard essay format”, provide an example with proper formatting, explain whether you want MLA or other citation, and advise on the use of images.
    Focus on providing great feedback. Don’t just say “you could have worked a little more on this”. Say “you should have detailed x item,” and why. It’s so hard to learn when you get weak feedback or unclear feedback.
    I just took an entry level Crit Thinking course this past semester, and the teacher gave a lot of info, but instructions for essays and feedback were lacking. It really turned me off the class.

    One of the things that really bugs me is when teachers are saying that you have to focus on the facts, but their bias is *painfully* evident. It even shows in what people chose to review in class. If you have strong political preferences, remember to show both sides of everything. I know skeptics are supposed to be good at that, but I have seen plenty who don’t.

    And make it fun! People tend to learn more when they’re enjoying themselves. I like CultureClash’s suggestions!

  14. A Field Guide to Critical Thinking by James Lett does a good job giving practical tools in an easy to understand way. It might be good for high school courses that only have one or two days to give to introduction of critical thinking tools which students would then be expected to use.

    “To make it easier for students to remember these half-dozen guidelines, I’ve coined an acronym for them: Ignoring the vowels, the letters in the word ”FiLCHeRS” stand for the rules of Falsifiability, Logic, Comprehensiveness, Honesty, Replicability, and Sufficiency.”

    If I were a zombie, I would say, “Critical thinking is delicious.”

  15. Start out with some challenging thoughts, like: “most people lie… almost pathologically. Whether its self-deception or an outright lie to appear better/make something appear better, or a combination of both, its a evolutionary brain survival strategy. But as with most evolutionary things, they work well short term but when technology or environment (civilization in our case) moves faster, it can lead to disasters in the longterm.”

    Starting out with a controversial…, i’m going to call it fact for now (until someone convinces me otherwise) is an interesting way to bounce into other related topics, such as:

    Evolutionary speaking, why lying is a good strategy? why it is a bad strategy? Given modern conditions, like a planet that is heading for major climate shift, and repercussion of that globally, especially food and energy production, why critical thought is vital to our futures. We’re not sitting in a cave anymore where lying has no repercussion, now a given global corporation, with a good thorough lie, can hasten anything from economic collapse to food production collapse.

    Go into the Politically and Private sectors seemingly absolute necessity of lying, the fact that they often attract the worst kind of liars, both from stupidity stand point or just plain sociopathic. And given that we rely on IMPORTANT institutions that form in these sectors for a sustainable future, you can imagine that sorting out the bullshit is probably the most fundamental skill modern human needs to develop.

    I’m sure you’ll be covering stuff like that anyway, but the point is that i find the cynics approach the most entertaining, and by extension the most engaging and therefore good for learning.

    good luck

  16. I have actually taught critical thinking, however in the context of nursing. I think the key is to have the students figure it out themselves, not you. Have student-centered learning, not teacher-centered. I find an easy way is to use pair case studies where the students work on them and then present it, and you ask questions about their conclusions, how they thought and slowly highlight how most people critical think without even noticing it.

    It doesn’t matter what the content of the case studies are, what matters is the process. I personally love teaching critical thinking, it is wonderful to see the light bulb appear above peoples heads.

    Another technique is using something such as the “Science or Fiction” from Skeptics Guide to the Universe. You can use any stories or topics, it is about the process, not the content necessarily though the students will learn something there!

    I’m sure the students will have fun, and learn a lot!

  17. It doesn’t matter what the content of the case studies are, what matters is the process.

    I’ll add a corillary to this: make sure the student know that it is the process that’s important, not the content! Regardless of what case studies you use, in a large enough group someone will have strong feelings one way or the other about the subject of the case study. They will attempt to argue for or against the subject, which (while entertaining) is missing the point entirely.

    Be ready to remind your class that the goal is not to determine the truth or value or merit of the subjects explored, but to discuss how the subjects are presented and supported. The goal is not to have a good argument, it is to understand and dissect what makes a good argument.

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