Author Topic: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?  (Read 1208 times)

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Offline vibrunazo

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Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« on: April 25, 2011, 08:00:20 PM »
Hello,

I'm completely new here. Until a week ago I had no idea such thing as the "skeptical movement" even existed. And this has introduced me to a whole new way of looking at skepticism that I had never considered before. But I'm still a bit... skeptical about all of it :) A few times during the SGU podcast I heard them talk about the need to promote science, skepticism and critical thinking. And I read and hear that same thing on other places coming from other skeptics as well.

I can perfectly understand promoting science. Simply teach science to those who don't know it - seems simple and I very well support doing so. On one podcast it was reported that 50% of americans thought humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs. That was jaw dropping and it only confirms to me how urgent it is to teach science. It's very easy to understand the benefits of doing so. Seems like a no brainer to me.

I can partly understand promoting skepticism. Because part of skepticism is understanding pseudosciences and what they're doing wrong. So debunking pseudosciences which exploit people for money seems like a very noble thing to do. And I applaud all skeptics for doing so, I'm sure you're making the world a better place, so keep up the good work. But that's not all that skepticism is. It's also critical thinking.

But I cannot understand promoting critical thinking. Not that I would disagree with it. I think it would be great. Teaching people what is science and what isn't, is just a bandaid fix. We need to go for the root and teach people how to think. If you make a gullible people understand why one UFO picture is a fake. He will say he understands, but then he'll point to the next picture and say "oh but what about THAT one!". So it would be great to teach people how to think. But how could we possibly do that? Even Neil Tyson when asked this question didn't know how to answer "our best bet is to just get out of your kid's way, and hope they learn how to ask questions for themselves". But that's not scientific. How can we be sure that every kid has the potential to understand critical thinking?

I've always had this impression since I was a kid. That some of my friends would jump into conclusions while others would be more careful and ask questions before making a decision. And that I couldn't turn one into the other. As I grew, my experience only reinforced this theory. That you cannot possibly think people how to think. Gullible people will never grasp critical thinking. I was never able to  teachsomeone how to think. I cannot even imagine how could I possibly try to teach critical thinking. Which partly defeats the purpose of the skeptical movement and promoting critical thinking. Sounds like a battle you cannot win.

My theory is that critical thinking is a natural born skill. You are born with it or you're not. No one can teach you that.

But  of course, I'm always open to maybe being wrong. Maybe I'm missing something. So what do YOU think? What am I missing? How could you possibly teach critical thinking? If you had to make the curriculum for a science class with the goal of turning kids from jumping into conclusions to question askers by the end of the course. How exactly would you go by doing that?
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Offline Jordan

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #1 on: April 25, 2011, 09:12:20 PM »
I disagree with your statement that critical thinking is inborn, or that we can just let it develop in children. As a high school student at an alternative high school (www.icsd.k12.ny.us/lacs), I've had a chance to take some classes that have really developed my critical thinking skills--and they weren't all science classes.

One of the best (actually, the best class I've ever taken, which is saying something given that I generally hate social studies), was about the Holocaust, Soviet history, current issues in the Middle East and Chinese history (yes, they sound unrelated but the class was drawn together in a very good way). The other focus of the class was on current events, and throughout the class, whether we were reading a newspaper or a book, writing papers or even taking a standardized test, we focused on issues of bias--where the author of any particular story was coming from. We looked into background, funding sources etc., not to discredit any particular statement, but to get a better idea of why any given author would feel motivated to put out this opinion and to find out how they formed that opinion.

This, I think, is the essence of critical thinking. By exposing students to a wide range of issues and opinions, and teaching them to analyze the background of the authors, we can help students to learn the skills necessary to make decisions on important issues. This can apply across fields--if your first thought on coming across a paper is "who is the author," and your second is "why are they writing this," you can begin to pick out what sources to believe/not believe in any field.

Thoughts?

Offline Chew

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #2 on: April 25, 2011, 09:49:25 PM »
Teaching people to give a name to a flaw in thinking helps to promote critical thinking. Everybody is skeptical to some degree and everybody can sense when an argument or claim is bogus even if they can't give a name to it. For me, after learning to identify and name a logical fallacy I started spotting them everywhere.
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Offline pandamonium

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #3 on: April 25, 2011, 09:57:01 PM »
Short answer: yes.

Long answer: what Jordan said. I think that humans are born with the ability to parse data (in a matter of speaking) but parsing data isn't critically thinking. I think critical thinking can arise from data parsing, which is why we have such a discipline, but critical thinking isn't inborn. Thinking critically is like talking - most people have the capacity to talk, but there are people who are born deaf, dumb and mute.

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Offline Drewish

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #4 on: April 25, 2011, 10:14:54 PM »
I reserve judgment on this until after I become a parent.
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Offline PANTS!

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #5 on: April 25, 2011, 10:41:35 PM »
First off, welcome. Secondly, sure it is possible. It is simply a methodology. And sure some people will take to it better than others, for whatever reason. And finally even the most skeptical person van have a blind spot in thier critical thinking.
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Offline Will Nitschke

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #6 on: April 26, 2011, 03:51:21 AM »
Critical thinking is an acquired skill. Scepticism alone is probably related to temperament and to some extent innate. The public is sceptical but quite often of the wrong things. I.e., drug companies, but not alternate medicine. Corporations and politicians, but not other groups with agendas. This is where critical thinking can help.
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Offline Zytheran

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #7 on: April 26, 2011, 09:30:27 AM »
Yes.
After sort of given up on the mainstream skeptics movement I spend my 'skeptical' time teaching critical and creative thinking to primary school kids in religious schools. Having spent many years of thinking about what is the best effort one could do to promote skepticism and critical thinking I decided that teaching kids how to think and not what to think was the way to go. I have given up on adults, other people can deal with them.
Of course it's packaged as 'teaching better thinking' and everyone is in support of what I do, especially the schools.
(And my work support it because we will need scientists in the future to replace the ones that keep on retiring.)
An example of material, that is out of print now, is Tony Ryan 'Thinker's Keys for Kids.
Here is an example link of what it covers. http://www.kurwongbss.eq.edu.au/thinking/Think%20Keys/keys.htm

Offline Kayto

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #8 on: April 26, 2011, 11:14:13 AM »
I think that both skepticism and critical thinking can (and should) be taught.

It DOES seem that the older some people get - the more set in thinking patterns they become (or maybe all people are that way?)

And it also seems that some people prefer the certainties that some religions give rather than some of the open ended questions of science and skepticism. Some people out-right KNOW that critical thinking could undermine their beliefs and therefore refuse to open their minds.

But then there are some other people who blindly follow a religion for decades, but slowly come to their question their views and consider others.

I've probably been a skeptic all my life. But the critical thinking has developed over time (and could still use MORE improvement).
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Offline uolj

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #9 on: April 26, 2011, 02:45:54 PM »
Like most other skills I believe there is talent and there is technique when it comes to critical thinking. Learning proper techniques can certainly improve your ability to think critically. If you've been taught to always try to falsify your hypothesis, or how to avoid common mistakes, or even just had it ingrained in your head how easy it is to succumb to confirmation bias, then I would guess that there would be some improved ability to reason.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the talent you need for rational thought is based on physiological factors that are difficult to change. Can you make somebody more intelligent? If you can it is certainly not easy. I think the same might be true for making somebody more rational. Our instincts often lead us to make decisions in a way that minimizes the use of brain power while maximizing likelihood of a positive outcome, but I think individuals have varying degrees of the ability to circumvent that process to ensure the best possible outcomes regardless of how much brain power it takes.

Offline Parrot

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #10 on: April 26, 2011, 04:44:50 PM »
If critical thinking were something you're born with, then I would certainly never have been able to develop the skill.  I used to be very credulous.

Critical thinking can certainly be taught, it's a matter of looking at a situation an figuring out what bits of information are important, and what's just noise.  It's actually not that hard to understand the basic concepts.

Offline Will Nitschke

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Re: Is it possible to teach skepticism and "critical thinking"?
« Reply #11 on: April 26, 2011, 08:55:28 PM »
Critical thinking leads naturally onto scepticism. Scepticism by itself does not necessarily require critical thinking. Or what Zytheran said.
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