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The End of a Semester and Thoughts on Critical Thinking

December 4, 2010

The semester is all over except for finals week, so this weekend and next week will have me busy grading all the papers I assigned. It’s good work, busy work, and nice to see how much stronger writers and thinkers my students have become through the course of the semester.

Woo was a large component of my teaching in my developmental writing and freshman composition classes; the students learned about cognitive biases and fallacies, how to define them, and how to recognize them. They learned how to recognize woo, how to read ads and be on the lookout for key words signalling woo and pseudoscience. The developmental class got to write several papers in class and out of class deconstructing the woo of Mercola, Lanza, Hyman, and Ullman. We even looked at the fallacies rampant in Glenn Beck’s on air rants concerning global warming and evolution.

Making students critical thinkers, critical readers, and critical writers matters a lot to me. I hope to the accidental cosmos for all it’s worth to never, ever see them traversing the AoA world, if you ken me. I want them to question, to be skeptical without being cynical, and to be careful what they invest their time and money on.

Michael Shermer writes that the “methods of science, in fact, were specifically designed to weed out idols and biases. Some patterns are real and some are not. Science is the only way to know for sure.” This lesson is perhaps one of the most important ones I can share with my students. It’s obviously not one that is well understood by the public at large and by many in the blogging world. Typically heard in the autism community is the fallacious argument that because the application of the scientific method is often flawed, it should be ignored. Along with that is the typically given argument that if we don’t know what causes something, we can’t say something doesn’t cause it. Most folks, unless wedded to a particular point of view, will recognize the absurdity of it. We can absolutely rule things out while still not having figured out the cause.

There’s much work to be done, both with students and in the wider world, to improve critical thinking, and there’s always room for improvement and edification, no matter where we are and what we know. Recognizing that there will always be more to learn, more room to grow, hopefully keeps the ego in check and keeps us learning.

“The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied… Look at me: I design coastlines… I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”

“And are you?”

“No, that’s where it all falls down, of course.”

“Pity, it sounded like quite a good lifestyle otherwise.”

                             — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 



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