Why Is Critical Thinking So Hard to Teach?

By McCaffree, Kevin; Saide, Anondah | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Why Is Critical Thinking So Hard to Teach?


McCaffree, Kevin, Saide, Anondah, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


CRITICAL THINKING HAS LONG BEEN RECOGNIZED AS the vehicle by which individuals make informed decisions. Yet, shockingly little understanding exists of how critical thinking strategies are best diffused to the public. In the U.S. there are several regional grassroots organizations such as the Center for Applied Rationality (1) that exist to encourage the development of critical thinking skills. Strategies are numerous and varied, ranging from straightforward group discussions of cognitive biases to thought experiments designed to improve objectivity and to

develop the ability to see things from another's perspective. In addition to such organizations that target individuals, groups and corporations, many colleges and universities offer classes that teach critical thinking strategies.

The Skeptics Society's own Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center, informally known as Skepticism 101, (2) provides hundreds of resources from professors across the country actively teaching their own critical thinking courses. The skeptical and secular community feel the high percentage of the general public who believe pseudoscientific claims is worrisome, and education is seen as the means by which believers can be reasoned out of their misconceptions. Indeed, with survey data showing that between 67 and 73 percent of adults in the U.S. subscribe to at least one paranormal belief, (3,4) this topic needs empirical clarification.

Education and Paranormal Belief

Unfortunately, the empirical relation between educational attainment in general, and belief in the paranormal (e.g., in ghosts, astrology, telepathy) is a murky one. The results of research on whether education (as measured by number of years of formal education received) decreases belief have been mixed. Sociologist Erich Goode (5) has shown that educational attainment doesn't necessarily reduce belief in supra-empirical ideas, but rather it appears to moderate it. Educated people tend to simply believe different (demonstrably false) things than less educated people. For example, in a study by Tom Rice, college educated individuals were more likely to believe in psychic healing and deja vu, while those with only a high school education were more likely to believe in traditional religion and astrology. (6) The Baylor Religion Survey found that individuals with less than a high school diploma were more likely to have consulted a psychic, while college graduates were more likely to claim an out-of-body experience. (3) This suggests that rather than decreasing belief, education influences the nature of the beliefs a person holds (e.g., belief in homeopathy v. astrology).

Critical Thinking and Paranormal Belief

Given that educational attainment in general is not a prophylactic against holding supernatural or paranormal ideas, researchers have zeroed in on critical thinking training. However, research on critical thinking indicates that current training strategies in general do not necessarily decrease belief in the supernatural. An Austrian study that utilized both the Cornell Critical Thinking Test and Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal found no significant relation between these measures and belief in the paranormal. (7) On the other hand, there is some evidence showing that individuals with an analytical cognitive style subscribe to distinctly less conventional views of God (e.g., deistic, pantheistic). (8) Other research has shown that individuals usually endorse supernatural beliefs simply because of a perceived consensus among others that these beliefs are, in fact, justified. (9,10) Thus, individuals may not necessarily--or at least consistently--engage their critical faculties in the assessment of supernatural beliefs; they may evaluate only the probability of their truth given the beliefs of others in their environment, and choose to believe (or not) on that basis.

This paper provides some evidence in support of the view that critical thinking may be as social as it is psychological. …

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