"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Critical Thinking, Exactly, What Is This?

Critical thinking is one important goal of basic education. Children first learn to recognize spoken language. Children also learn to speak on their own. Then young minds are introduced to reading. This transition is often smoothed by reading out loud so as to make the connection between oral and written communication as tangible as possible. At the same time, children are likewise introduced to writing. Listening, speaking, reading and writing are ways by which we share stories and ideas. These are the basic skills and somehow, someway, through basic education, we also hope that school children will in fact do something of their own between listening and speaking, between reading and writing. Something happens between hearing and understanding. Something happens between reading and writing. Since computers allow as to "copy and paste", it sometimes becomes natural not to exercise the brain activity required between "copy" and "paste".

There are two recent articles on Huffington Post that talk about critical thinking: "Our Orientation Towards Belief" by Dr. Art Markman and "What Is Skepticism, Anyway?" by Dr. Michael Shermer. Markman's article was inspired by Shermer's TED talk:


Both articles emphasize that learning how to think critically is quite different from learning to read. Developing critical thinking goes against an element in our nature. Markman writes:
"When other people tell us things with great conviction, we are wired to believe what we hear. We cannot maintain a skeptical stance to every new thing we are told, because that would get in the way of our need to learn."
Critical thinking sometimes goes against our desire to learn or survive. Markman uses an example from nature to highlight a difference between animal and human learning:
My neighborhood in Austin, Texas is overrun with deer. Several years ago, a baby deer was born in my back yard. Soon after it was born, it was walking around and within a day it had skipped off with its mother. In some ways, this is amazing. My kids didn't start walking for months after they were born. They are teenagers and they are still in school working toward becoming productive members of society. 
Of course, the deer in my neighborhood are not well-adapted to life in the modern world. Cars on the streets routinely have to slow down to avoid hitting them. The deer are not quite sure what to do as they wander through a suburban neighborhood. By the time my kids finish their schooling, though, they will be completely integrated into the modern world with expertise in all of the latest technology. They will be prepared to step into jobs at the leading edge of their fields.
Still, even with these differences, the two are similar at some level, humans (especially children) learn from each other. "Monkey see, monkey do", "Children see, children do" illustrate that we do share a lot in common. If grade school children were quick to dismiss or question everything a teacher says, learning in primary school would grind to a halt.

So what is critical thinking really? Shermer's answer is as follows:
There is also a popular notion that skeptics are closed-minded. Some even call us cynics. In principle, skeptics are neither closed-minded nor cynical. We are curious but cautious. 
Or, I often hear, "Oh, you're a skeptic, so you don't believe anything?" No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe. For example: 
• I believe in the germ theory of disease.
• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.
• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.
• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.
• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.
• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.
• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.
• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.
• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth. 
Being a skeptic just means being rational and empirical: thinking and seeing before believing. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this historical usage of the word Skeptic: 
"One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry; one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement." And: "A seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions."
Skepticism is not "seek and ye shall find," but "seek and keep an open mind." But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.



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