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Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Critical Thinking Lessons Do Not Work

Daniel Kahneman studies thinking. Although the interview* is discussing bias, not critical thinking, the implication is inescapable.

Daniel Kahneman: So ...students were asked to evaluate whether an argument is logically consistent – that is, whether the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The argument runs as follows: ‘All roses are flowers. Some flowers fade quickly. Therefore some roses fade quickly.’ And people are asked ‘Is this a valid argument or not?’

Quick. Ask yourself. Is this a valid argument? Don't peek at the answer. Have you decided? OK, if you said no, it is not a valid argument, why did you decide so? If you said yes, it is a valid argument, why did you decide so? If you said yes, you agree with the majority of the students. They said it was a valid argument because they have observed with their own eyes that the conclusion is true. Some roses certainly do fade quickly. Do you agree with the students' reasoning?

Daniel Kahneman: It is not a valid argument. But a very large majority of students believe it is because what comes to their mind automatically is that the conclusion is true, and that comes to mind first. And from there they naturally move from the conclusion being true to the argument being valid. And people are not really aware that this is how they did it: they just feel the argument is valid, and this is what they say.

I have bolded the important words. People do not really think; they feel. Then they draw their conclusions on the basis of feeling. Perhaps you agree with the interviewer who suggests that direct teaching of logic will solve this problem.

Nigel Warburton: Now in that example I know that the confusion between truth and falsehood of premises and the validity of the structure of an argument that’s the kind of thing which you can teach undergraduates in a philosophy class to recognise, and they get better at avoiding the basic fallacious style of reasoning. Is that true of the kinds of biases that you’ve analysed?

It is quite reasonable to expect that with a few lessons, we can teach people to at least pay attention to the question. The question asked if the conclusion follows from the premise. That means start with the premise, NOT start with the conclusion.

Daniel Kahneman: Well, actually I don’t think that that’s true even of this bias.

I read that and thought, well, why not. It seems pretty obvious that if students learn how to evaluate an argument in terms of logic, they will certainly be able to apply that valuable skill in their daily life. After all, the whole point of education, and especially critical thinking skills is to apply the lessons in daily life. Students expect education to be thus applicable. Otherwise they would not continually ask, “When are we ever going to use (fill in the blank)?”

Daniel Kahneman: The thinking of people does not increase radically by being taught the logic course at the university level. What I had in mind when I produced that example is that we find reasons for our political conclusions or political beliefs, and we find those reasons compelling, because we hold the beliefs. It works the opposite of the way that it should work, and that is very similar to believing that an argument is valid because we believe that the conclusion is true. This is true in politics, it is true in religion, and it is true in many other domains where we think that we have reasons but in fact we first have the belief and then we accept the reasons.

So according to Kahneman, we so cherish our preconceived biases that no amount of logic, facts, or reality will dislodge them. And in fact, this stubbornness is exactly what we perceive everywhere in our society, within our political parties, in online forums, and on our neighbor’s porch over lemonade. However, even though critical thinking lessons do not work, I say we need to not only continue to teach critical thinking skills, and do so in an even higher quality way. Better to give students access to the tools and hope some students will actually use them, than to deny the tools to all students.

*If the pdf link to the interview does not work for you, try this non-pdf link.