Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The need for critical thinking

This past weekend, I was working on a telescope proposal at a nearby coffeehouse, and a couple of young folks (high school, I think) were at the next table over, working together on a research project. I won't mention the topic, because that isn't important and would be distracting, but it was science-related, and I have some knowledge of the area.

I overheard much of their work, because they were fairly loud, and the discussion quickly grabbed my attention. These people were looking up a topic on the internet. After a short time one of the kids exclaimed, "All of these experts agree on the answer, but it doesn't make sense to me. How could so many experts be wrong?"

Now I realize that there are a lot of "experts" on the internet who can agree on the answer to a problem and yet be wrong, and I don't know which "experts" these students were reading. In this case, the experts were expressing the prevailing wisdom on the topic. Yet the students immediately jumped to the conclusion that everyone else was wrong, and they were right. They didn't even ask each other why the experts held the opinions that they did. To these two students, the fact that they did not understand the line of reasoning was proof that everyone else was wrong.

In graduate school, I made this mistake once. I was reading a paper on galaxy dynamics, and the authors were using an analysis technique I'd never heard of. In fact, it seemed almost magical. So I thought that it was poor science, and I expressed this opinion to a postdoc over coffee. The postdoc told me that the paper was actually excellent work, and that I should think about what the authors were doing. So, I went back to first principles, thought through the issue, and quickly came to realize that the technique was simple, elegant, and very powerful. I was the one who was guilty of poor science, not the authors.

That experience was an important lesson for me: just because I don't understand an argument doesn't mean that the argument is wrong. Maybe I have holes in my knowledge, maybe the argument was not well-made. On the converse side, a fallacious argument can often seem reasonable and very eloquent. Only by critically considering an argument and its supporting facts can we develop a well-informed opinion on a subject.

Critical reasoning is crucial to the continued success and viability of our society. Our gut feelings and initial impressions are often wrong and can lead us to make poor decisions. Blindly believing what we hear, even if it is a statement by a very smart person, also leads us astray. (For example, Einstein struggled with the concepts of quantum mechanics for much of his life; if everyone had followed his initial impressions that quantum mechanics was wrong, we wouldn't have much of today's technology.)

Poor reasoning and logic skills are dangerous. Lack of critical thinking has led us into wars. It leads us to inadvertently place others and our loved ones in mortal peril. It all-too-often costs us our own lives.

Reasoning and logic needs to be taught; it is not a natural skill for most people. I think it is often left out of school curricula, because a discussion of the fallacies of the straw-man argument does not, at face value, seem as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic (even though logic underlies all three!). But being able to recognize fallacious reasoning, being able to filter the flood of information around us, and being open to new ideas we've never considered before is as crucial as any of the topics covered in these courses. And, based on my experience at the coffee house, it is a skill lacking in society.

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