Some important tools of critical thinking

(from my Ockham’s Razor appearance on the ABC’s Radio National)

 Robyn Williams: And now, the bad news. No, don’t run off – this is interesting – even Quite Interesting, as Stephen Fry might say.

Here I’ll quote directly from a statement put out by FASTS, The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. They have found, together with the Australian Academy of Science that ‘a snapshot of 1,500 Australians shows that a third of them believe humans were around at the time of the dinosaurs’.

Oh well, they go on: ‘Over a fifth of university graduates think it takes one day for the Earth to travel right around the sun’ (and that scores worse than the score of the Americans!)

Twenty-nine percent of Australians don’t think evolution is still happening. Other findings: Australia has seen a 27% decline in the number of high school students doing advanced maths in the last 15 years or so, and we rank 20th out of 30 OECD countries in the number of science or engineering graduates we produce each year.

Science, in other words, is sinking fast in our schools and universities, at the very time that demand from industry for these skilled people is soaring.

So that’s from FASTS and the Academy. So, how to change this and how to train for the right mindset of critical thinking, especially in the young?

Well Peter Ellerton has been doing this very thing for years in schools in Queensland. What’s his slant on the possibilities?

Peter Ellerton: There isn’t an educational institution in the world that doesn’t have somewhere in the glossy pages of its prospectus the stated intent to produce critical thinkers, independent learners, problem solvers and the like from the malleable minds of its students. Now, ask them to point to the bits in their courses where this occurs, and you’re bound to get a rather vague answer that probably includes the terms ‘embedded across the curriculum’, or ‘rigorous academic standards’, or perhaps ‘holistic approach to problem solving’. It is remarkable how few educational institutions actively and explicitly teach the skills of critical thinking.

To be sure, many have courses in which students are encouraged to solve problems, or to view problems from a loftier perspective than that from which they were created, but does this actually teach the skills of problem solving, analysis and evaluation? After nearly 20 years of teaching in State and private schools, I have come to the sad conclusion that no, such courses generally fall short of the mark.

I can hear my colleagues from the sciences and humanities banging on about how their subjects indirectly develop these skills anyway; which of course to some degree, they do. Science students do acquire skills in analysis and evaluation through their work in creating and testing hypotheses. History students do learn to critically assess their sources and the motivations of those who created them. But there is also some truth to the idea that students with natural skills in these areas will gravitate to such courses and impress their teachers with the inevitable results. Not to say teachers are irrelevant, but you get the idea.

So, what exactly is my beef? And what do I want to do about it? Let me go back to the words I used a few moments ago – ‘explicitly teach the skills of critical thinking’. There’s a fair bit of stuff written about this, but it becomes pretty clear as you trawl the literature that no-one has a succinct definition of what we mean by ‘critical thinking’. It’s kind of like our definition of a ‘funny’ joke – we all think we know one when we hear it, but it’s difficult to describe why it’s funny. Of course, academics being academics, we do end up with some very nice, holistic descriptors, but it’s hard to find a good, simple working model for us educators and most of the public to use.

I’d like to propose a cleaving of general thinking skills into two operationally different groups. The first could include dimensions of our intellect such as those involved in emotional understanding, relationship development, musical, mathematic abilities and such. And the second is a collection of mental skills and mechanisms relating to how we extend our knowledge from those things we presently know to those things we do not yet know, including here the notion of what it means to ‘prove’ something to be true. I will call this latter group of intellectual devices ‘reasoning tools’. They are the things you need when developing and assessing another’s argument, spotting the flaws and analysing the strengths of their justifications and conclusions. They are the cluster of cognitive cogs and gears that help to determine the likelihood of a proposition being true or false. From global warming to crop circles and from evolution to psychic phenomena they empower you to ‘tibi cogitate’ or ‘think for yourself’. It’s not hard to see that this is the type of thing that a sceptical, scientific world view would value and I suspect it is what most people would like to see emerge from a critical thinking education. Yes, of course we need to extract meaning from texts, develop a high level of visual literacy, appreciate the wide-ranging impact of science on our society and place our own experience of life in the context of our surroundings, but these can be done, and directly so, through the usual suite of subjects. I’m suggesting we need a curriculum that explicitly (and there’s that word again) teaches reasoning as a stand-alone topic.

As it happens, after a career of teaching Mathematics and Science, I now teach a subject in Queensland schools called Philosophy and Reason. I was quite struck by how the three strands of the course, Deductive Logic, Critical Thinking and Philosophy, manage to get across just about every thinking skill I have come to believe is essential for good citizenship. Not only that, but state-wide testing shows these students performing at the very highest level across all scientific, numeracy and literacy arenas. As they come from both humanities and science backgrounds and are often unaware in choosing it of the exact nature of the subject, there may be some justification in labelling the subject matter itself as the cause of this worthy effect.

So, to the heart of the matter: let me outline what I think these skills are. Firstly, we need to recognise that there are two kinds of reasoning: deductive and inductive. Much confusion and disquiet is created by the untidy application of one in the place of the other. Let’s look at deductive reasoning and how it should be used.

Consider the following two statements:

1) All gronks are green
2) Fred is a gronk

We could all reasonably draw the conclusion, although in ignorance of what a gronk actually is, that Fred is green. The first two statements are the premises, or axioms, of our argument. Our conclusion that Fred is green is a guaranteed outcome if the premises are true. Such arguments, in which the truth of the premise implies the truth of the conclusion, are called deductively valid. Deductive arguments have the flavour of certainty about them. If you think Fred is not green, but still accept the premises, then you are wrong.

Consider another deductively valid argument from antiquity.

Premise 1: All men are mortal

Premise 2: Socrates is a man

Conclusion – Socrates is mortal. Now this, unlike the previous example, has the attractive quality of having true premises. Deductively valid arguments with true premises are said to be sound arguments, and these are the strongest of all possible justifications for a conclusion. Mathematics is defined by deduction, and the ‘proofs’ derived by mathematicians are deductively sound proofs. Of course, the premises can be many and complex and the path to the conclusion torturous, but the logical pathway is there and the arguments well-substantiated.

It is tempting, however, to borrow the steely nature of deductive arguments for less than rigorous usage.

Consider now the argument –

Premise 1: Homosexuality is unnatural

Premise 2: Unnatural things are morally wrong

Conclusion: Homosexuality is morally wrong. Notice the enticing deductive certainty. Of course, a quick scan of the premise shows that while the statement is deductively valid (if the premises are true the conclusion is true) it is unsound, with highly questionable premises. An ignorance of biology or a belief that homosexuality is a choice, might lead you to accept that homosexuality is unnatural, but to believe that unnatural things are wrong damns ball-point pens, polyester and brain surgery to the scrap heap. This is a weak premise, and hence the argument falls.

It’s worth teaching the students at this point about the notion of the hidden premise. This is where the unpalatable, less believable or blatantly wrong premise is left out. I might start with the ‘homosexuality is unnatural’ premise and jump straight to the conclusion that homosexuality is wrong. Less agile minds may then be more easily swayed by the argument, not having to accept that unnatural things are wrong, on top of the weak first premise.

The study of deduction permits us to understand and use in a rigorous manner such terms as contradiction, tautology, implication, necessary and/or sufficient conditions, and other terms in technical and common use, and creates a consistent and meticulous language for careful and precise analysis. It sounds like if we could all just learn deductive logic, we wouldn’t have any disagreements at all. The thing is, with deductive logic, just as when you solve a Sudoku puzzle, you really are simply uncovering what was the only possible outcome. Most mathematics is about discovering the correct solution to a problem, and that’s just the thing: deduction really can’t take us beyond the information contained within the premises, just tease out information that may not have been obvious at the start. If we really want to think where no-one has thought before, we need induction.

Induction goes beyond the premises. It deals with the future and with possibilities and probabilities, it’s how we figure out what stars are made of, how economies operate and why gronks are green. It’s often described as reasoning that is not deductive, as it’s sometimes seen as easier to define by what it is not, rather than by what it is, but in fact we can make an excellent and effective categorisation of induction into two simple kinds: analogy and generalisation. Yes, all the reasoning that extends our knowledge into the unknown or into the future is either generalisation or analogy (although in truth, it’s often a complex combination of both).

This is sometimes a difficult proposition to accept. Surely, life is more complex than that. Well, yes, but who said generalisations and analogies had to be simple? Consider a complex question such as ‘Will the Chinese economy recover at the same rate as the American economy from the current economic troubles?’ Well, the answer is a function of how analogous the two economies are. How about the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? We could generalise from the several disparate and independently evolved intelligences on earth (octopuses, crows, humans) that a certain level of development is indeed likely. The periodic table of the elements, so ingrained into the consciousness of many school students, is a triumph of analogy and generalisation. Elements in the same column are analogous to each other (with similar properties for similar reasons) while generalisations across rows and down columns allowed for the placement of gaps which were eventually filled in elegant and inevitable sequence of future discoveries. Now, the characteristics of what makes a good analogy or generalisation are pretty clear and can be explicitly taught. Also, within the analysis of an analogy we see the evaluative skills of comparing and contrasting; in generalisation we see contextual considerations, the list of these subset skills is long and valuable.

Deduction and induction provide the overall architecture of reason, rarely articulated in syllabuses, are providing a very useful framework for developing programs of critical thinking.

I would add only two more topics to this to fulfil my original intention of exploring the skills of knowledge acquisition and of explicating these reasoning tools.

One is an explanation of the characteristics of a good hypothesis, including notions such as (appropriately) Ockham’s Razor and Popper’s falsifiability, and the other a catalogue of errors of reasoning which commonly accompany shonky arguments and assertions. Together these form a formidable scalpel for the dissection of suspect claims from the world of pseudoscience, psychics, homeopathy and young earth creationism.

As an aside, and in closing, to properly do critical thinking we must also be aware of the thing with which we think, that is, our brain and its modes of operation. A little confirmation bias here, a bit of change blindness there – fruits of another tree, to be sure, but it all hangs comfortably and cohesively together.

So there you go. Critical thinking shot from the hip. It’s not rocket science and it doesn’t take a lot to resource a course like this. As one of the cheapest, demonstrably beneficial and most demanded curriculum elements, perhaps we may yet see critical thinking take up its proper place on the national stage, alongside numeracy and literacy. Then again, this argument is over 2,000 years old. I wonder what we’ve been waiting for …?

Robyn Williams: The minister with the money, perhaps? I wonder what critical thinkers make of the election process?

Never let an answer bear any relationship to the question, maybe?

Peter Ellerton teaches critical thinking in school in Queensland.

Next week we turn to carbon, with thoughts from Cairns.

I’m Robyn Williams.

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About Peter Ellerton

Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project and Lecturer in Critical Thinking.
This entry was posted in Critical Thinking, Deductive Logic, Ethics and Moral Philosophy, Media Articles, Cartoons, Philosophy of Mind - Consciousness, Philosophy of Science. Bookmark the permalink.

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