Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology

Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology

Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology

Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology

Synopsis

The American Association for the Advancement of Science's report on Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education suggests that instructors "can no longer rely solely on trying to cover a syllabus packed with topics" but rather should "introduce fewer concepts but present them in greater depth." They further suggest that the principles embodied in a set of core concepts and competencies should be the basis for all undergraduate biology courses, including those designed for non-majors. The theme of Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology will be the first and most fundamental of these competencies: the ability to apply the process of science. Biology courses and curricula must engage students in how scientific inquiry is conducted, including evaluating and interpreting scientific explanations of the natural world. The book uses diverse examples to illustrate how experiments work, how hypotheses can be tested by systematic and comparative observations when experiments aren't possible, how models are useful in science, and how sound decisions can be based on the weight of evidence even when uncertainty remains. These are fundamental issues in the process of science that are important for everyone to understand, whether they pursue careers in science or not. Where other introductory biology textbooks are organized by scientific concepts, Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology will instead show how methods can be used to test hypotheses in fields as different as ecology and medicine, using contemporary case studies. The book will provide students with a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of such methods for answering new questions, and will thereby change the way they think about the fundamentals of biology.

Excerpt

In 2004 I published How Science Works: Evaluating Evidence in Biology and Medicine. I asked a series of questions: “Can police dogs identify criminal suspects by smell?” “Why are frogs in trouble?” “Why do we age?” “How does coffee affect health?” I explained how scientists have tried to answer these questions using various kinds of evidence ranging from comparative observations and correlations to experiments to statistical analyses. My goal was to show nonscientists some of the different ways that science works, which I hoped would encourage them to engage with new stories about scientific discoveries in the media and help them to interpret these new stories.

There’s been an explosion of research on these questions and many others since 2004. For example, the Web of Science lists 2,215 studies about coffee and cancer since 1970, with more than half published since 2004. Defining information broadly to include opinions as well as facts and knowledge, the amount of readily available information is much greater in 2014 than in 2004, thanks in part to the Internet.

I was employed as a teacher for 42 years, mostly at the college level. My experience in the classroom and in individual instruction taught me that the primary goal of teachers must be to help students develop their critical thinking skills. This is even more true in 2014 than it was in 1970 because of the information explosion. Do a Web search on any topic. How do you determine what search results give credible facts and what results give bogus facts? How do you determine what results give information that genuinely contributes to understanding and knowledge? How do you determine what results lead to well-reasoned opinions consistent with well-established knowledge? For any topic that might interest you, there’s virtually unlimited information available at your fingertips, but the only way to judge the value of that information is by thinking about it critically.

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