Should We “Teach Children How to Think, not What to Think”?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

It’s a good point that schools should teach critical thinking, not just facts dictated from above. Critical thinking should not replace facts in teaching, however. Knowledge of the facts is a part of critical thinking itself.

There’s an idea that’s been floating around in recent years that’s summed up by the slogan ”Teach children how to think, not what to think.” The idea is that, instead of just teaching facts as given from above, schools should teach students how to think critically.

I heartily agree that critical thinking should be taught. I think the history and methodology of science could also be useful – the history because it’s a history of human errors, and that shows why the methodology is needed.

Nevertheless, I have reservations about the second part of the slogan: ”not what to think.” This should not be understood to mean that critical thinking can replace facts as the object of teaching. I’m not sure whether anyone is actually thinking that, but some comments I have seen have suggested that, and I have often noticed a tendency (in policy, etc.) to swing from one extreme to the other, so I will address the idea just in case. After all, teaching children that something is a reliable fact is teaching them “what to think,” namely to think that fact is true.

The point I want to make is that a basic knowledge of the facts is a vital part of critical thinking. Without it, you have to spend unnecessary energy to find them out first, or remain agnostic about things that should be obvious.

Suppose someone makes a claim premised on the idea that the Earth is a few thousand years old. With background knowledge, you’ll know this is greatly contradicted by geological and other evidence, and also that the likely motivation for such a claim is religious literalism. If you lack any background knowledge, then for all you know, it could be a scientific fact. Even if you remain skeptical on the general basis of not believing anything without verifying it, this means that you have to be just as skeptical about the actual scientific truth. It also means you miss the chance to save effort by immediately discarding an evidently false claim.

This doesn’t mean never questioning the orthodoxy – just that if you know something has heavy evidence backing it, you won’t question it based on only light evidence that doesn’t warrant that.

Even if you were to teach students that it’s a good tool for critical thinking to rely on real experts over just anyone making claims, that would not enable them to know what the experts are actually saying. Anyone can claim to have experts on their side. But if you show them that they can trust what they learn at school, and then give them the basics of what the experts are saying, they can much more easily recognize fake claims.

I think children should be taught critical thinking, and facts, and evidence for these facts, and how all of these tie together. Teaching just facts isn’t a good idea, but teaching students to question things without giving a foundation of reliable facts wouldn’t work either.



How a double standard works, part 2

“60% of experts agree with you on this question. [citation needed]”

–Well, that just proves it! A majority of experts agree with me! Obviously it’s true, and everyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves, given this evidence!

“90% of experts disagree with you on this question. [cites an extensive survey]”

–Bah, like it matters. Appeal to authority is a fallacy, you know. Experts don’t know everything. We shouldn’t just grovel to them like we can’t know things by common sense. Anyway, I bet this information isn’t reliable in the first place.

Wealthy Affiliate – A thinking person’s scam?

wealthy-affiliateI’ve been planning to start a more popular blog and see if I could get more readership — maybe even revenue from advertising. (I don’t like that it’s advertisements, but that seems to be the way to get money from views, and earning money from writing would be a dream come true.) Recently, I came across a website called Wealthy Affiliate that’s supposed to help with that kind of thing. There’s a free membership, but I was never so naïve as to think you’re not supposed to upgrade to the paid version. Still, you can at least try it for free.

At first, it seemed that reviews of the website were all positive — and credible. But now I’ve looked into it more and don’t think I will want to try it. So I can’t do a proper review as someone who’s tried out the site. You’ll find a million reviews like that online if you look, like I did. I also don’t have a definite opinion as to whether it’s a “scam” or legit or something in between. What I want to tell you is to point out some… rather interesting things I noticed about those reviews.

After all, if it’s a website about marketing your website, it ought to be pretty good at marketing itself, right? So how much can you trust what you read about it?

If you’re here to read the kind of stuff I usually write, you can read this as an exercise in critical thinking.

Continue reading

A dialogue on the shape of the Earth

EarthI haven’t read too many philosophical works in the form of dialogues, but what I have seemed to tend too much towards “everyone nods as one character explains the author’s views.” More realistically, it might go something like this…

Protagonius: So, my dear friend Simplexitus, we are here to discuss our theories of the shape of the Earth.

Simplexitus: Yes, or your theory, anyway. I know that you say that the Earth is round, though so large we do not notice the curve.

Protagonius: Yes. This is based on scientific observations.

Simplexitus: That may be so, but it cannot be correct. Your view has absurd consequences.

Protagonius: What would those be, Simplexitus? Continue reading

Vegans and humans: How not to use words

I’ve written before about how you should know whether you’re talking about the meaning of words or something else. Just now, I found myself thinking about an annoying example of how someone didn’t… and since I feel like explaining why it’s wrong, I might as well do so here and use it as an example.

The example comes from an interview on the radio where someone was talking about what it was like to be vegan. She talked about how this also involved wanting to make ethical choices towards humans, not just non-human animals. She mentioned that someone had been surprised about this and asked why, and she’d said that humans are animals too. But that had been the end of the conversation because they other person’s opinion was that no, they’re not.

I don’t know what the situation was really like. (I might even remember the details as told in the interview incorrectly.) But let’s take it as an example, and at face value: that the other person would just insist that humans are not animals, period.

Two points:

  • First, if we’re talking about the meaning of words, okay: There are basically two meanings of the word “animal”; one of them includes humans and the other doesn’t. Just because your linguistic intuition only recognises one doesn’t mean the other is invalid. And if the point is that you feel that there is some essential difference between humans and other animals, that’s at least not more accurate than to say that there is sameness, that they all belong to the same group. The definition that “animal” includes human is the more scientific one, after all. Humans are taxonomically in Animalia. (See also: The Mythical Animal.)
  • Second, why would this be a relevant point anyway? What would make humans not-animals in such a way that this would mean that humans could be treated less well morally? Of course people can base their morality on arbitrary boundaries, but why ask for that if someone isn’t doing it?

Words are just tools, but people like to use them like they’re something else — something more important than what they’re being used to talk about or that they’re otherwise doing. It’s not that word meanings shouldn’t sometimes be brought up. What you should do is to talk about what is relevant and understand what the words used are actually doing in that context.

Suppose you didn’t know about gravity…

Earth.jpgWe know things fall down because gravity pulls them down towards the centre of the Earth. Gravity is a force, or some kind of spacetime curvature that acts like it’s a force.

Suppose you’d never heard of this. And suppose, while you’re at it, that you didn’t know the world was round. Then, quite possibly, you would think it impossible that the world would be round — because the people at the bottom would fall off.

Now, since you know about gravity, you could ask, why would they? In fact, there’s no “down” in space, only somewhere like the surface of a planet, and then “down” is towards the centre. Knowing this, we can ask, why would someone fall off the “bottom” of the planet? Why assume that?

But if you never had heard of gravity and never thought about such things, it might seem obvious to you. Things at the bottom end of the planet would fall off. You’d imagine something being placed there and automatically imagine it falling off. It’d be obvious, not needing an explanation. If someone told you that wouldn’t happen without a reason, you would not, in this scenario, understand what it meant. You wouldn’t think it needed a force. You’d just think it was obvious.

Yet, of course, it wouldn’t be. Things wouldn’t just fall if there wasn’t a force.

We’re lucky to know about gravity, because it gives us such a good example. There are a lot of other questions where people consider something obvious and not needing an explanation, but really it does. There’s some extra premise, like gravity. For example, why do we often automatically assume that if someone does something bad, they deserve to be punished? That’s the kind of thing where people won’t even notice there’s a missing premiss. They’ll just jump from guilt to deserving punishment without asking why that leap should be made. Another example: how many people ask the question of why things farther away look smaller?

We don’t always need to question everything we take for granted. But sometimes we do. When that time comes… well, it’s hard to notice. But remember the example of things supposedly not needing a reason to fall down.

How a double standard works

Suppose that you mistake a satirical/fake news piece about people on the opposite political side for real, because even though it’s over the top, you’ve come to expect just about anything from the other side. Well, if this happens, it just shows how bad the other side has got; they’re so bad you’d believe something like that of them.

Now suppose that people on the opposite political side have been sharing a fake news piece about someone on your side as genuine. Now, if this happens, it obviously shows how bad the other side has got, because they’re so dumb they’re willing to believe something exaggerated like that about your side.