Fluff Won't Make The World A Better Place PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Barbara Drescher   

One of my favorite sources of interesting content is TED. If you're not sure what that is, I highly recommend watching a few of the talks posted online and read about it.

TEDx on the other hand... TEDx is a program which allows people to license the TED name to organize small (<100 attendees) TED-like events in their communities. Many TEDx talks are available online as well. Some are just as good as TED talks. Others are not. In fact, when a TEDx talk is bad, it's usually very, very bad, like this one by Patrick Finn, faculty at the University of Calgary. His bio states that he teaches acting, story, and happiness. Yes, happiness. Oh, he also teaches a course on love. No, he's not a psychologist.

Finn says, "What we need to get rid of is critical thinking."

Yes, I'm going to criticize this.

Finn claims that critical thinking is a defunct way of reasoning that turns us into "martial artists of the mind". He claims that this is a "linear and violent way to think about ideas". He may be right that critical thinking is defensive, however, it is far from "linear" or closed-minded when applied properly. While it is true that many people who call themselves skeptics take a hard-lined approach, pooh-poohing anything that sounds even remotely unscientific, but that's not the spirit of skepticism. The logic may seem okay in a hyper-rational argument, but the approach is bad; cherry-picking, confirmation-seeking, and other forms of fallacious reasoning are abundant in this kind of thinking. This closed-mindedness is the difference between a rational thought and what is sometimes called "hyper-rational".  D.J. Grothe distinguishes skepticism from cynicism in this recent interview. When it is taken to the extreme, 'critical thinking' is no longer reasonable or rational. However, one can say this about any approach.

 

Finn's big idea is he can "fix" universities with "fluff and baskets". He calls it "loving thinking". I call it "gag-inducing".

Finn throws around some weasel words and phrases (e.g., "I'm asking you to step into information.") as he discusses goals and outcomes in very vague terms. Although he described what he does not like about criticism, he never tells us why his approach is superior, nor does he tell us what, specifically, it should improve (other than a pleasant experience in comparison to other coursework).

Essentially, his approach is contributory. Pile on the ideas and "let the best ideas sift up to the surface. We don't spend all of the time breaking your argument down and attacking you... trying to make an argument that is, you know, indefensible, made of titanium and things like that. We need something that is bigger."

Bigger? Bigger than a strong argument? What does that mean?

I don't want to attack his talk point-for-point, but there are a couple of points here that warrant direct response. One is his analogy of "sifting", which is a good one. The problem is that things do not sift upward. Critical thinking is a filter, but it works because the good ideas get through it while the bad ones are left behind. The only way to do this is to examine each and discard the bad ones. Instead, Finn suggests that we just pile on the ideas. What he is suggesting is "brainstorming" and nothing more. It may be a good way to generate hypotheses, but Finn seems to believe that we should stop there.

That's a bit of a problem. Ideas don't change the world. Taking actions does. Taking action on a bad idea is harmful, yet in Finn's model, there are no bad ideas. How are we to choose the best idea from the pile of unevaluated ideas? Will just magically rise to the surface or shine brighter or something?

The summary that he gives for how his course is run:

I don't allow what's called 'hating'. I have a no-haters policy. And what that means is that if you say something from the audience, some bitter SOB is not allowed to then give you their witty, witty, acidy retort, that collapses your argument and leaves nothing for the group. It has to be contributive. The idea comes and I say, 'Oh, yes, I hear your idea. Here's mine'.

So, apparently, arguments which can be collapsed with a single retort should be considered as valid as any other argument.

Look, nobody likes it when some smart-ass shuts them down, but if that smart-ass is wrong, the way to deal with it is counter-argument, not silence. If the smart-ass is right, then the argument should be shut down. If you don't like how this happens, then teach your students to act professionally. Professionalism doesn't mean "unconditional positive regard". It means civil discussion about ideas and arguments, not personal attacks.

Finn has decided that his approach is successful because the course is popular and students do more work (writing) than required. Of course, he doesn't seem to actually grade or criticize this work, so the quality of it is unknown, as is how much of the work is actually done by the students themselves. I would argue that it is unsurprising students love the course. Who wouldn't enjoy a course in which they receive only praise and are never asked to think deeply?

Now, you might argue that one can think deeply without criticism, but I'd reply that even if that is true, there is no motivation or need to think deeply. Any idea is as good as any other, so contributions can come from the top of your head.

It is clear that just piling on theories and arguments without examining them leaves us with nothing but a pile of theories an arguments, so comparing criticism with no evaluation makes little sense. Criticism is also hugely superior to praise and/or confirmational approaches.

Why do we consider critical thinking so important? Because without it, we can't get very far.

Most skeptics are familiar with the confirmation bias, which is the very strong human tendency to favor confirming information. I other words, we are more likely to notice, remember, believe, and assign weight to information that confirms what we already believe to be true than other information. What you may not know is how this bias extends to how we seek knowledge and test hypotheses. Humans tend to experiment, but we do so in a confirmatory manner when a better approach is to attempt to falsify. That is, the best test of a hypothesis is one in which the outcome tells us what is likely to be true by eliminating other possibilities. This is how science works most of the time and I think that we can agree that it works better than any other method.

In science, we start with as many explanations as we can form form what we already know about the world, then eliminate the bad ones until there is only one left. We do that by testing hypotheses and finding weaknesses in theories. Strong ideas can take a beating and remain standing. In fact, the best theories are strengthened by the process of looking for what's wrong with them.

You will find a more complete explanation of the falsification approach and how it applies to critical thinking in a recent post on my blog (http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2011/11/why-we-criticize/).

 

Barbara Drescher teaches research methods, statistics, and cognitive psychology at California State University, Northridge. Her research interests include perception, attention, learning, and reasoning. At ICBSEverywhere.com, Barbara evaluates claims and research, discusses education, and promotes science and skepticism.