Thinking about thinking: critical thinking, empathy (and its limitations), faulty memories, etc.

Memories: yeah, our minds fill in the gaps, and so some of our vivid memories…never happened, or didn’t happen the way that we remember them. That is one reason I keep this blog; I often revisit what I did..and once in a while, find that I didn’t do what I thought that I did.

I still “remember” an epic workout that I once did: 8 x 400 in 75 each..back in 1982. Trouble is: I never did that. When I read my old logs, I did one workout where my LAST 400 was in 78 (others were 82-83) and I did a few 10-12 x 200 in 37-38…very different. I had written that 8 x 400 in 75 was my GOAL. Goals are not facts. 🙂

Empathy Yes, compassion for other humans is a good thing. But sometimes empathy for an individual can override doing greater good for more people. So empathy for individuals might lead to policy that might actually be harmful for more people (or do less good than it might otherwise). This book is on my reading list.

Critical thinking: Yes, I am for it, but effective critical thinking requires a context and a detailed knowledge of the facts and principles for the context. So teach history, teach physics, teach chemistry. But forget this “course on critical thinking” stuff.

Challenging beliefs and the “regressive academic left”. This article has given me something to chew on. Some of it is very good: one can’t challenge absurd beliefs without talking about underlying assumptions:

Malhar Mali: What in your opinion is the best way of fostering critical thinking when it comes to religious and supernatural beliefs?

Peter Boghossian: I think the whole way we’ve taught critical thinking is wrong from day one. We’ve taught, “Formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence.” But the problem with that is people already believe they’ve formulated their beliefs on evidence — that’s why they believe what they believe. Instead, what we should focus on is teaching people to seek out and identify defeaters.

What is a defeater? A defeater is:

C is the defeater. We should teach people to identify conditions under which their beliefs could be false. This is profound for a number of reasons. If I’m correct, then it would be the holy grail of critical thinking. The problem with traditional notions of critical thinking is that most people believe what they want to believe anyway. They only look in their epistemic landscape for pieces of evidence which enforce the beliefs they hold — thus entrenching them in their view of reality. Eli Pariser has a vaguely related notion and talks about a technological mechanism that traps us in a “filter bubble.”

There are attitudinal dispositions that help one become a good critical thinker and there are skill-sets. If you don’t possess the attitudinal disposition then what’s the point of the skill set? A skill set could actually make it worse because, as Michael Shermer says, you become better at rationalizing bad ideas.

By teaching people to identify defeaters, which is a skill set, we may be able to help them shift their attitudes toward responsible belief formation. We may be able to help them habituate themselves to constantly readjusting and realigning their beliefs with reality. In the philosophy literature there’s a related notion called doxastic responsibility, which basically means responsible belief formation.

MM: So if you had put that formula into action with “If A, Then B, Unless C” what would that look like?

PB: A pedestrian example could be when someone thinks they see a goldfinch in their backyard. The traditional route here is to say, “Formulate your beliefs on evidence. What evidence do you have to believe that’s a goldfinch?” and they say: “Well I see the bird is yellow. I know there’s a high incidence of goldfinches in this area, so by induction I can see that it’s probably a goldfinch.” But unbeknownst to them it’s not a goldfinch but a canary.

So instead of saying, “formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence,” we should say: “how could that belief be wrong? Give me three possibilities how the belief that it could be a goldfinch might be in error.” This type of questioning — applied to any belief — helps engender a critical thinking and an attitude of doxastic responsibility.

The author then goes on to lose his way when he discusses the “regressive academic left” later in the article. Yes, they exist. Yes, some are nasty people. And yes, they are a threat to free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Yes, they are a threat to critical thinking skills.

He says:

Here’s what is surprising: with very few exceptions, and there are exceptions, Christians are very kind decent people all over the world. I do talks and we go out afterwards for drinks etc., and we talk with civility.

The far Left in contemporary academia is not like this. These are viciously ideological and nasty people whose goal it is to shut down discourse and indoctrinate students. I think we’ve spent too much time on Creationism. The problem is less with creationism and more with radical Leftism. For example, if you’re a professor who teaches in the biological sciences, creationists have substantive disagreements with your work and they’ll try to demean it. But they’re not going to harass you or your family. They’re not going to try and get you fired. They’re not going to call you a racist, a sexist, a bigot, a homophobe.

That may well be true, but creationists get on school boards and have seats of political power. Climate change denialists have seats in Congress:

You really can’t compare the power and money behind the right wing variety of nonsense.

Sure the idiots in academia are annoying. But they aren’t the threat to science that the science denialists are, and they have nowhere near the degree of institutional support.


December 10, 2016 - Posted by | education, science, social/political |

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