How to Think or What to Think?

John Loftus raises an issue that I would like to address:

Should professors teach students how to think or what to think? http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2012/06/open-challenge-to-dr-keith-parsons-and.html

 John gives a link to an article by philosopher Peter Boghossian: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/07/192/boghossian

Boghossian challenges what John calls the “received” view of pedagogy. The received view can be summed up by the slogan that the instructor’s job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. The motivation behind the received view is the insight that education is something very different from indoctrination. Indoctrination is the inculcation of an ideology or worldview, with the aim of insulating dogmas from doubt and creeds from questioning. Indoctrination aims at making True Believers. Totalitarian states and the Christian Church have been the major practitioners of indoctrination. (“Give us a boy of seven,” the Jesuits used to say, “and he will be ours for life.”) Education, on the other hand, aims to create Free Inquirers rather than True Believers. Hence, the received view has rightly emphasized the nurturing of students’ critical thinking abilities and not the imposition of doctrine.

However, as Boghossian notes, the received view can appear to have paradoxical and perhaps pernicious consequences that promote ignorance rather than oppose it. Boghossian cites an instance in which he had attempted to debunk students’ belief in creationism, and was chagrined to find that his efforts had been in vain. Two of his colleagues chided him and indicated that instead of aiming to debunk students’ beliefs, even one as odious and irrational as creationism, he should have aimed to present students with the necessary data to draw their own conclusions. Explicitly aiming to debunk a student’s creationist beliefs appears to violate the received norm and to constitute an effort to inculcate a specific set of beliefs, i.e. that creationism is false and that the evolutionary account is true. However, I think that Boghossian’s colleagues offered a wrongheaded defense of the received view. You do not necessarily violate the distinction between education and indoctrination by presenting some claims as true, or, indeed, as beyond question.

Yet it is necessary to keep firmly in mind the essential distinction made by John Stuart Mill: There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. I see no problem with presenting Darwinian evolution as correct precisely because, for the past 153 years, opponents have been given abundant opportunity for proving it false and have failed to do so. In presenting the Origin of Species to my class, I present Darwin’s basic conclusions as correct, i.e. that present forms of life originated through a natural process of descent with modification, as Darwin put it, and that, as Darwin claimed, natural selection has been the main driver of evolutionary change. I do not present this conclusion dogmatically or with contemptuous or condescending references to creationism. Rather, the emphasis is on the evidence and arguments. I also present the objections to the theory noted by Darwin and how he successfully addressed those objections. I also indicate how more recent research, such as the remarkable series of Eocene fossils linking mesonychids to cetaceans, adds much support to Darwin’s arguments.

Should we go further and teach, as John reports of Boghossian, that “…faith is a cognitive malaise and should be given no credence in the classroom”? At what point is a professor no longer presenting facts but exploiting his position to browbeat students from a bully pulpit? I really do not think that this is a very hard question. Consider two assertions:

1) Evolution occurred.
2) Faith is a malaise.

(1) is an established scientific fact. (2) is Professor Boghossian’s opinion. It may be an informed opinion, but it is an opinion. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that (2) is true in whatever sense Prof. Boghossian intends. Still, if Prof. Boghossian presents (2) to his classes as an established fact on par with (1), then he is doing a disservice to reason. That one regards an assertion as true, or even its actual truth, is insufficient justification for presenting it to a class as established fact. Here, just off the top of my head are some assertions that I happen to regard as true: 1) Mozart’s music is better than that of [insert name of leading pop idol of the moment]. 2) Much if not most of the animosity of “Tea Party” types to President Obama is motivated by racism. 3) The highest division of college football should quickly move to a playoff system. 4) Excessive use of standardized testing in the public schools has left my students less knowledgeable and with less aptitude for critical thinking. 5) Congress is now a forum for legalized bribery. 6) The war in Afghanistan is a waste of lives and treasure and should be ended immediately.

Now, I regard each of these assertions as a justifiable claim—i.e. supportable by rational argument—and not simply the grousing of a grumpy old liberal academic. However, none of these claims should be presented as established fact. They are my opinions, defensible opinions, but opinions. I fear that Prof. Boghossian, and maybe John, are not sufficiently respecting the very real difference in epistemic credentials between established fact and informed opinion.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05304391238021068916 Pete

    Thanks for your reflections on my work.

    This article, however, makes one egregious error: It confuses metaphysics with epistemology—conclusions with processes of reasoning. What matters are the processes one uses, because this makes it more likely that one will come to conclusions upon which one can rely. Faith is an unreliable process. Faith will decrease the likelihood that one will align one’s beliefs with reality.

    Peter Boghossian

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03919318328504104290 BernieDehler

    RE: The article said:
    “Give us a boy of seven,” the Jesuits used to say, “and he will be ours for life.”

    That may have been true… before the invention of the internet. I think more and more are losing their religion, and there's nothing the Jesuits can do about it. The more they try, the more futile it is for them, because it gets more well known that their arguments are fluff. It is a coincidence that the archbishop of Canterbury (not Catholic, but similar) resigned his post shortly after his debate with Dawkins? Or is that a culmination of sorts for him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02653303041185240250 Emanuel Goldstein

    EVERY government that Atheists have managed to get control of has been a murderous lying dictatorship.

    You sniveling pretense as being "free"thinkers hides the fact that you would like to eliminate religon from the face of the earth.

    There are many of us who will never submit to rule by atheists. My relatives made that mistake.

    I am not kidding…NEVER AGAIN!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    I think what professor Boghossian is saying is that it isn't just an informed opinion that faith based reasoning processes are unreliable. It is a fact.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17171349521436151080 Gav Davies

    Love that Emanual Goldstein came on here and left a rather angry and ill-thought out repost. His anger is somewhat reflective of the destructive, chinless God he praises. Such a shame that he should fall into the stereo-type many agnostics have of the religious.
    http://www.hitchslap.blogspot.com

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    Perhaps another way to look at this is to compare how other disciplines of learning are taught in the university. THAT would be an interesting comparison. In which disciplines, other than philosophy, do we find the goal is like the received model where the professor's main focus is to teach students how to think? I don't have a ready made answer to that, but the comparison is worth exploring.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    To comment further, let's say we have other disciplines where the goal is the same as the received model in philosophy, say perhaps economics and/or art. Is it true in the same sense? Does a Keynesian teach economics in the same way a Marxist does? Should he or she? In the sciences we know what the answer to this question is, don't we?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02385913359593399116 Unknown

    I am a free thinker and do not think there is evidence to support belief in a supernatural agent of any description. I would never support 'eliminating' religion, as that terminology implies (to me, at least) forceful suppression, perhaps including murder. I fully support 'the free exercise thereof' for anyone who chooses to practice religion, so long as practitioners never knowingly bring harm to others. It is my hope, instead, that religion loses its appeal to humanity and disappears. I certainly do not want 'rule' by atheists. My efforts are to promote enthusiastic participation by an informed electorate in a vibrant democratic republic. It is immeasurably regrettable any time any institution, be it religious or secular, chooses to knowingly bring harm to others. The most effective way to prevent this is to establish, nurture, and maintain egalitarian norms in democratic societies.

    You sniveling pretense as being "free"thinkers hides the fact that you would like to eliminate religon from the face of the earth.

    There are many of us who will never submit to rule by atheists. My relatives made that mistake.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02385913359593399116 Unknown

    I did not intend to leave those bottom two sentences on my post. I copied them from Mr. Goldstein's remarks for reference as I wrote only. My sympathy for anyone who was a victim of Stalinist purges, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, and ad(almost)infinitum.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    In my classes, I teach evolution as established fact, but always explain that most Christians do not see this as antithetical to faith (e.g. the official position of the Catholic Church is that, if true, it does not harm faith, and Protestant heroes such as Charles Spurgeon, BB Warfield, NT Wright, etc. were theistic evolutionists). I typically explain that even most of the ID crowd hold common descent.

    When it comes to questions about the existence of God, I very clearly say that this is something about which reasonable (brilliant) people disagree. I note that the majority of philosophers and scientists disbelieve, but that the quality of scholars who do believe should give one pause about dismissing the ideas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Prof. Boghossian,

    Thanks for the clarification. I certainly agree that the exercise of faith does not constitute nor is it an essential part of a reliable belief-forming process. Still, I would be uncomfortable presenting that conviction to a class as an established fact on par with the best supported scientific theories. The reason is that some thinkers of note have taken the opposite view. Anselm, for instance, said "credo ut intelligam," I believe in order to understand. In his History of Christian Thought, Paul Tillich explained this point:

    "[For Anselm] faith is not belief as a special act of an individual, but is participation in the living tradition…The content of eternal truth, of principles of truth, is grasped by subjection of our will to the Christian message and consequent experience arising from this subjection. This experience is given by grace; it is not produced by human activities."

    In other words, for Anselm, faith is an essential aspect of a reliable belief forming process in which subjection of the will to revelation opens the mind to truth imparted by grace.

    Now I certainly disagree with Anselm, but I do not consider his view to be fatuous or obviously wrong or merely contrary to established facts. In other words, I think that one could espouse Anselm's view of faith without committing epistemic sins of the order of those committed by proponents of YEC. Hence, I would not present the negation of Anselm's claims as an established fact, i.e. on par with the best science.

    Of course, if one interprets "faith" to mean only "wishful thinking" then certainly it is an unreliable belief-forming process. However, I think we need to be clear that in attacking "faith" we are attacking it only in this rather trivialized sense, and not in a more sophisticated or nuanced sense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Sorry, I messed the previous comments with copy/paste errors.

    Keith Parsons said: " I fear that Prof. Boghossian, and maybe John, are not sufficiently respecting the very real difference in epistemic credentials between established fact and informed opinion. "

    I'd like to ask a bit more about the distinction you're making.

    In particular, I'd like to ask:

    Is an 'established fact' something we can tell beyond a reasonable doubt, regardless of whether we waited for some testing (e.g., 3+5=8 counts as established fact?), or does 'established fact' only apply to empirical claims that have undergone considerable testing?

    Also, regarding evolution, YECs claim that is has been refuted. We can assess the evidence and conclude that they're wrong, and that's beyond any reasonable doubt.

    But let's now consider the case of faith. Someone may say that we can tell, beyond a reasonable doubt, that faith is indeed an unreliable process.

    My question is: Are you saying that we can't tell that, or at least not yet?

    If so (if not, please clarify) I would like to ask why you think so and/or what conditions you're suggesting (if any) that need to be met, in order for something to count as an established fact, or in any case in order for us to be able to tell that something is the case, beyond any reasonable doubt.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07259257656055728347 Thnuh Thnuh

    ah, so the Tea Partiers are racist. That is just brilliant.

    So tell me, Keith, how does that differ from obnoxious presuppositional apologetics? No matter what you say, they will say you reject Jesus because you hate him. And here you seem to be saying the exact same thing.

    Is there any act or law or thing Obama could do such that you would be able to say that it is wrong in and of itself? If he walked up to you for no apparent reason and stooge poked you in the eye for no reason, would you be able to say that what he had done was in and of itself wrong, or would you feel like doing that would be "racist"?

    I'm just curious if this is even a theoretical possibility you can allow for (Obama doing something wrong), or if you are even open to the suggestion that people might have principled disagreements with some of the things he's done?

    -Robert
    life long atheist, Chinese/Jewish (since you seems so obsessed about race), politically and fiscally conservative

    For the record, I didn't care about Obama's election much until he started trying to do things like arrogate powers not enumerated in the constitution, appoint ideological, unqualified judges, erode Constitutional freedoms, etc. The Tea Party didn't kick into action except as a response to Obama. But I guess little details don't matter to mind readers like you.

    Maybe you can answer this: there is nothing that logically connects atheism to libtardism. So why are so many atheists libtards? Why do they never give reasoned defenses of what they believe, but only promises of it? Please point me to any reasoned defense of why you have bought into libtardism.

    Thanks

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05304391238021068916 Pete

    Hi Keith,

    Two points. First, you wrote: "Still, I would be uncomfortable presenting that conviction to a class as an established fact on par with the best supported scientific theories."

    Let’s see if we can rephrase this without bringing metaphysics into the conversation. Let’s substitute "scientific method" for "best supported scientific theories". The sentence becomes, "Still, I would be uncomfortable presenting that conviction to a class as an established fact on par with the scientific method."

    Now we’re talking about epistemology and processes of reasoning. It's not about conclusions (scientific theories, evolution) it's about processes (scientific method, flipping coins, faith, goat sacrifice, etc.). Are you comfortable definitively asserting to your students that flipping coins is not a reliable process to ascertain what type of material one should use in bridge construction? If a surgeon wants to make an incision, would you be comfortable if she decided how deep to cut based upon the position of the stars that morning?

    Certain processes are inherently unreliable. If students use these processes it is the professor’s duty to say so—unapologetically. Why should our saying so suddenly change if the unreliable process is faith, as opposed to goat sacrifice?

    Second, the histories of philosophy and theology are replete with people trying to define faith. Anselm’s definition is floral mumbo-jumbo. (For more here, I suggest checking out my lecture, “Faith: Pretending to know things you don’t know,” and the associated podcast: http://richarddawkins.net/videos/645979-update-podcast-june-5-interview-with-peter-boghossian-faith-pretending-to-know-things-you-don-t-know/ ).

    There’s simply no way around these facts: Faith claims are knowledge claims; different faith traditions make contradictory knowledge claims; these cannot all be true (but they can all be false). Definitions like Anselm’s obscure these facts.

    One can talk about “a more sophisticated or nuanced sense” of the word “faith,” but this does not change the fact that faith claims are knowledge claims. It also does not change the fact that certain processes of reasoning are unreliable. Faith is not a reliable process of reasoning. If the professor does not point this out, he’s not doing his job.

    Peter

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Peter,

    First, good to make your acquaintance via Secular Outpost, and I hope you will comment here often. Second, as so often happens, I think surface disagreement masks a much greater depth of agreement. I certainly think that your two colleagues were mistaken in defending an unreasonable interpretation of what John Loftus called the “received view” of pedagogy. A few years back I joined a panel from the National Center for Science Education, defending the teaching of evolutionary theory in the public schools and excluding creationism and “intelligent design.” We were speaking in Montgomery County, north of Houston. Montgomery County is the belly of the beast for religious right activism in S.E. Texas, so we knew we would face hostility. One question directed at us was why we were so “afraid” to allow creationism to be taught alongside evolutionary theory. I responded that if the instructor indicated that there was any serious scientific doubt about the basic claims of evolutionary biology, then he or she would simply be misleading the students and would be violating the obligation to present established scientific knowledge as such.

    When the claims are epistemological rather than scientific, which ones are so beyond a reasonable doubt? Shamelessly oversimplifying, consider these two:

    1) Scientific method is a reliable belief-forming process.

    2) Faith is not a reliable belief-forming process.

    Now, I certainly agree that scientific method constitutes (or encompasses) reliable belief-forming processes and that (pace postmodernists, social constructivists, epistemological relativists, etc.) there is no reasonable doubt that these cognitive processes are indeed reliable means to knowledge of objective, external, non-socially-constructed reality. I would have no hesitation at all about presenting (1) to a class as simply so, though, of course, I would elaborate and flesh out just how scientific procedures work and what makes them so effective (as I do in my book Copernican Questions).

    What about (2)? Should I present it to a class with the same degree of aplomb? First, of course, I have to consider practical matters. I teach in Texas, and if an instructor is perceived as too truculently anti-religious, the students just clam up and you can practically see the mental doors slamming. In that case, your chances of effecting any sort of enlightenment are nil. Still, even Texas students (maybe especially Texas students!) need to have their assumptions challenged, so what do we do? I would assert (2) to a class but I would be very careful to say just what I meant by “faith.” I would make it abundantly clear that what I was attacking was something like “faith” in the sense defined by Ambrose Bierce: “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” “Faith” is a vague term, and to attack it without proper and careful qualification would be perceived as an attack on religious belief per se and—at least in these here parts—would certainly be wholly counterproductive.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Education, on the other hand, aims to create Free Inquirers rather than True Believers. Hence, the received view has rightly emphasized the nurturing of students’ critical thinking abilities and not the imposition of doctrine. However, as Boghossian notes, the received view can appear to have paradoxical and perhaps pernicious consequences that promote ignorance rather than oppose it. Boghossian cites an instance in which he had attempted to debunk students’ belief in creationism, and was chagrined to find that his efforts had been in vain. Two of his colleagues chided him and indicated that instead of aiming to debunk students’ beliefs, even one as odious and irrational as creationism, he should have aimed to present students with the necessary data to draw their own conclusions.
    ===========
    Comment:

    Teaching students HOW to think is NOT limited to providing "the necessary data to draw their own conclusions."

    First of all, a teacher or professor might provide misinformation rather than factual data. Students need to be taught how to determine whether factual/data claims are true or probably true.

    Second of all, a teacher or professor who provides factual data, might provide only data that supports a particular conclusion, and thus bias the thinking of students on the question at issue. So, students need to be taught not only to assess the truth of basic factual/data claims, but also how to gather a full and unbiased set of data in relation to a specific question.

    Thirdly, facts and data do not interpret themselves; people interpret facts and data, and students need to be taught HOW to think critically in relation to BOTH gathering and assessing data (to avoid confirmation bias and reliance upon dubious sources of data, for example) AND interpreting data, drawing logical conclusions from the data they gather.

    If a student believes something that is stupid, like creationism, that presents a great opportunity to teach critical thinking BOTH in terms of gathering data, assessing data, and drawing logical conlcusions from data. In debunking creationism, if done properly, necessarily involves teaching critical thinking in all three of these key areas.

    Debunking creationism, if done properly, focuses on teaching HOW to think: (a) HOW to gather data, (b) HOW to assess data, and (c) HOW to interpret data. Creationism involves significant errors in all three of these dimensions of thinking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    Thanks Keith for the further clarification. I had said something similar in my original post: "I think that atheist philosophers should teach philosophy in this way, challenging theistic beliefs to a much greater extent whenever possible without completely alienating his or her students (which can still be a difficult balancing act depending on the students)." The words "much greater," "whenever possible," and "without alienating" stand out. I see you just don't think you could do this where you live and I understand that completely.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…[in comments]
    Of course, if one interprets "faith" to mean only "wishful thinking" then certainly it is an unreliable belief-forming process. However, I think we need to be clear that in attacking "faith" we are attacking it only in this rather trivialized sense, and not in a more sophisticated or nuanced sense.
    ===========
    Comment…

    The word 'faith' is about as unclear and ambiguous as the word 'God'.

    Before I can take an objection to 'faith' seriously, I need to know how this word is being used, what it is specifically that is being criticized.

    If 'believing claim X on faith' means believing a claim X without having good reason or evidence to believe the claim, then 'faith' is obviously just another word for unfounded and unreasonable belief.
    But I don't think many religious people would advocate 'faith' in this sense, even if they often in fact form many of their beliefs without having good reason or evidence for those beliefs.

    If 'believing claim X on faith' means believing that X is true on the basis of the teachings of the Bible, then there are good reasons for concluding that faith is an unreliable way of forming or justifying beliefs, but significant argument is required to show this to be the case. Many Christians would support this sort of 'faith', and be willing to argue in defense of it.

    And there are yet other concepts or definitions of faith that one might consider and criticize or defend.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    John W. Loftus said…
    Perhaps another way to look at this is to compare how other disciplines of learning are taught in the university. THAT would be an interesting comparison. In which disciplines, other than philosophy, do we find the goal is like the received model where the professor's main focus is to teach students how to think? I don't have a ready made answer to that, but the comparison is worth exploring.
    ============
    Comment…

    Good question.

    One thing to note is that every discipline has a philosophy. There is philosophy of math, philosophy of art, philosophy of literature, philosophy of science, etc.

    These sub-disciplines of philosophy are not just the province of philosophers, they also belong to those who practice and teach in those disciplines. A scientist, especially a scientist who also teaches science classes at a university, should cover some philosophical issues like 'What is science?' and 'Is there such a thing as the scientific method?' and 'Is scientific knowledge more certain or secure than other kinds of knowledge?' etc.

    Also, the distinction between facts, theories, and paradigms has application in a variety of academic disciplines, and it seems to me that once you apply these distinctions in a discipline, the issue of teaching HOW to think vs. teaching WHAT to think arises for that discipline, and the answer to this question is likely to be the same or very similar based on the nature and implications of those basic concepts (i.e. fact vs. theory vs. paradigm).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    Thanks Bradley. I think the more scientifically oriented the discipline is, and/or the lower the college level students are, the more that "what to think" is taught.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    Oh, I should link to a post I did on faith, seen here. In the last chapter of my forthcoming book on "The Outsider Test for Faith" I hammer this point home. Faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities, so a reasonable faith is an oxymoron. The chapter title is "Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    Hey, how about a philosophy of religion class on faith itself? I have come to the conclusion that only a scientifically informed philosophy is worth the pursuit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    In his comment above Angra Mainyu asks, sensibly enough, for a clarification of the distinction between established fact, which Peter Boghossian and I agree should be presented to students as such, and mere ideology or opinion.

    Good question, of course.

    The standard procedure of philosophers when dealing with questions like this has been to propose sets of criteria that are intended to be necessary and sufficient conditions for the requisite distinctions. This has never worked. The discussion proceeds to cycles of counterexample and reply and finally peters out with each side appealing to intuition and convinced that the other side is just being pigheaded.

    A more fruitful approach might be to appeal to paradigm cases and judge problematic ones by their similarity or difference with respect to the paradigms. When the claims are epistemological,as in the above discussion, the paradigms of reliable belief-forming processes that I would propose are those encompassed in the methods of the natural sciences. The virtues of these methods can be spelled out and powerfully defended against detractors (see, e.g. Science and its Fabrication by Alan Chalmers, Defending Science by Susan Haack, and Fashionable nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont).

    When some other means of belief-formation is proposed as reliable, its credentials can be checked vis-a-vis the eminent virtues of scientific methods. For instance, is faith a reliable belief-forming process or an essential part of such a process? Again, we first have to get clear on just what we are talking about since "faith" is such a vague and slippery term. Of course, there have been many sophisticated accounts of faith in the history of Christian doctrine. My Old Handbook of Theological terms by Van A. Harvey has a long entry on the meaning of "faith."

    With respect to the practicalities of teaching an undergraduate class, however, I think that when many students defend "faith" they mean something very unsophisticated. Basically, I think they mean something like "believing what you have always been told no matter what some liberal, smarty-pants professors says." In this case the pedagogical task is to find a way to challenge them without pushing the buttons that make them even more dogmatic. I think that, in my 16 years teaching in Texas I have had some success, but not in every case. With some, the churches have just done too thorough a job of closing their minds.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    John W. Loftus said…
    Thanks Bradley. I think the more scientifically oriented the discipline is, and/or the lower the college level students are, the more that "what to think" is taught.
    ==============
    I agree. However, that does not show that this is how college education ought to work.

    For my first year in college, I was a biological science major and took introductory classes in chemistry and zoology. Both courses involved learning lots of terminology, especially zoology. We had to memorize all the bones in the human body, for example, and be able to identify all the major organs in a dissected frog, and all sorts of microorganisms, and cell structures, etc. Chemistry was also heavy on terminology, but I recall lots of test questions involving application of mathematical formulas to problems in Chemistry (e.g. gas laws).

    Zoology lectures and reading did cover not only concepts of evolution, but evidence supporting the theory of evolution.

    When I attended graduate school at UCSB, one my friends was a grad student in the education department. His focus was on math and science education, and he was doing research on the teaching and learning of statistics. His conclusion was that college teachers generally taught students to apply formulas used in statistical analysis in an unthinking manner, and that most students had little ability to intelligently apply these formulas outside of the somewhat unrealistic constraints of an exam in a statistics class. The students in statistics courses did not understand the basic concepts involved in the formulas, but would simply apply the formulas in an unthinking and mechanical fashion.

    I think this sort of problem in the teaching and learning of statistics has been shown to apply to the teaching and learning of physics. Physics graduate students are often unable to provide clear and correct explanations of simple physical phenomena, and resort to the same false assumptions and misconceptions about physical phenomena that infect the thinking of most non-scientists.

    In short, I believe that colleges and universities have long failed to fully and adequately educate students precisely because of a failure to teach students HOW to think, which includes helping students to grasp the logic of basic concepts in their fields, and also how to defend or criticize a factual claim or a theory in their chose discipline, according to the standards of that discipline.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05460780063452698997 John W. Loftus

    Actually teaching history might be another area to look at. For the undergraduate level course on the Middle Ages there is so much to cover the professor doesn't have much time at all to talk much about historical methodology, and he can't delve into the relevant debates between historians themselves over some disputed events and/or their causes.

    In any case these are interesting comparisons nonetheless, something to think about into the future.

    Cheers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    @Keith Parsons,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Regarding an unsophisticated meaning of 'faith', I can see where you're coming from regarding how students are likely to react, though that's of course a matter of tactics.

    Tactics aside, I would say that it is an established fact that faith in that sense is unreliable, at least with some qualification as to what counts as faith (I'm not sure I'd include the smarty pants stuff in the definition ;), but I get you weren't serious about that part).

    So, to make it more precise, in that sense faith might be something like:

    Faith(1): Believing what you've always been told about the origin of humans, the Earth, etc., and our relation to some entities with superhuman powers based on no other evidence than tradition.

    Throughout history, at the very least nearly all of the entities with superhuman powers involved in some creation account, are non-existent.

    We know that because of incompatibility between them (since they're usually posited as creators), and also because of issues such as the fact that most of such beliefs are extinct, and if those immensely powerful interventionist entities existed, then people would continue to believe in their existence (simply because we would see what they're doing).

    Someone might object to that and say that maybe some of those entities are hiding, but that is ad-hoc and still fails, since different religions posit incompatible entities.

    An alternative way to see this, and perhaps to try to persuade someone of the unreliability of faith (as always, in that sense), would be to ask them whether Uranus, Zeus, Odin, Pan-Gu, etc., exist, and when they answer negatively, point out that we can tell beyond a reasonable doubt that faith-based beliefs, in at the very least nearly all cases, consist in false accounts of creation, false accounts of existence of some entities with superhuman powers, etc.

    I have to admit, though, that I'm very skeptical about the odds of persuading religious believers, no matter the amount of evidence, strength of arguments, etc.; still, sometimes some of them do change their minds, even though I'm personally not effective at bringing about that result.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    On the issue of different concepts of faith, Daniel Fincke offers another definition, and compares it with a number of other meanings of the word 'faith'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    One more example concerning teaching HOW to think in science courses…

    Some middle-school science teachers in the Seattle area participated in an effort to try a new way of teaching science that put an emphasis on teaching how to think, in that students were encouraged to formulate, discuss, test, and critique their own hypotheses and explanations for some common physical phenomena.

    The new method of science instruction was based on some research in science education.

    In the research one example that was studied had to do with teaching about electricity and electrical circuits.

    One group of students was given standard lecture instruction about basic principles of electricity and how electrical circuits work, and the instructor specifically explained a simple example of why a light bulb lights up when connected properly with two copper wires to a battery.

    Another group of students was given light bulbs, copper wire, and batteries, and had to formulate hypotheses about this phenomena and to test and critique their hypotheses.

    The students who manipulated the physical objects and who struggled to understand the phenomena and test their own hypotheses and explanations did much better in providing clear and correct explanations and predictions about such simple electrical circuits than the students who received standard lectures on this topic.

    Clearly, this educational research was comparing something very much like teaching WHAT to think (standard lectures that simply laid out the accepted scientific understanding of the phenomena) verses teaching HOW to think (where students were invited to actively participate in thinking about and criticizing their own attempts at scientific explanation and prediction).

    In this case, teaching students HOW to think scientifically proved to have significantly better educational outcomes than teaching WHAT to think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    'Minds of Our Own' is a video documentary that explores this problem in science education:

    http://www.learner.org/resources/series26.html?pop=yes&pid;=76

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dr. Philip Sadler received an award this year from the American Association of Physics teachers:

    "Sadler has made substantial contributions to the teaching of physics over several decades. His work on student conceptions led to the production of the award winning documentary series, “A Private Universe" and “Minds Of Our Own,” with colleague Matthew Schneps, videos that continue to influence classroom practice. This work has also furthered scholarly knowledge on students’ understanding of physical science and astronomy."

    http://www.aapt.org/aboutaapt/sadler_2012millikan_pr20120402.cfm

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Sadler's doctorate is from Harvard and is in the field of education.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Here is a bit of research supporting emphasis on teaching HOW to think (vs. WHAT) in science:

    http://hub.mspnet.org/index.cfm/17658

    Depth Versus Breadth: How Content Coverage in High School Science Courses Relates to Later Success in College Science Coursework

    "We conclude that teachers should use their judgment to reduce coverage in high school science courses and aim for mastery by extending at least 1 topic in depth over an extended period of time."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Some longer videos on this issue in science education(The Private Universe Project):

    http://www.learner.org/resources/series29.html#

    Workshop 3 focuses on the problems encountered in teaching basic concepts of electricity and electrical circuits.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I have attended football games at Mercer Island High school, because my daughter was a cheerleader at Juanita High school, and Juanita High school plays against Mercer Island High.

    Anyway, Mercer Island High school is in a wealthy school district and they had the good fortune of having two of the best high school science teachers in the nation teaching there IMHO.

    You can watch Dorothy Simpson and Jennifer Wright demonstrate their wonderful 'constructivist' approach to science teaching in the Workshop #3 video mentioned above (start at 42 minutes into the video and watch until about 57 minutes into the video):

    http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=85

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Another video on the failure of science education:

    "A Private Universe"

    http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=9

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Boghossian cites an instance in which he had attempted to debunk students’ belief in creationism, and was chagrined to find that his efforts had been in vain. Two of his colleagues chided him and indicated that instead of aiming to debunk students’ beliefs, even one as odious and irrational as creationism, he should have aimed to present students with the necessary data to draw their own conclusions. Explicitly aiming to debunk a student’s creationist beliefs appears to violate the received norm and to constitute an effort to inculcate a specific set of beliefs, i.e. that creationism is false and that the evolutionary account is true.
    ============

    A key idea in the documentaries "Minds of Our Own" and "A Private Universe" is that students usually already have assumptions, ideas, theories, and explanations about the phenomena studied by scientists. These intuitive non-scientific theories and explanations are usually contrary to current scientific knowledge. Furthermore, unless those personal non-scientific theories and explanations are made explicit and discussed and consciously investigated and tested by the students who hold the non-scientific, teaching and telling students the true scientific theories and explanations will at most only get the students to memorize and regurgitate back the appropriate words and phrases, but will not (in most instances) lead those students to understand and accept the scientific theories and explanations. Instead, they will just go right on believing the false assumptions and incorrect explanations that they started out with, having gained no real knowldedge or understanding.

    Creationism is a bit different, in that this is an ideologically imposed view, rather than something that students just naturally think up on their own, but it seems to me to be analogous in that unless the students false and unscientific views are made explicit, discussed, and investigated and challenged, there is little hope that such students will come to understand and accept the theory of evolution.


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