Critical thinking

In a recent comment on “Give your baby soda pop” (from April 2010), HortonWhoHeardAWho reports:

Two or three times now, I’ve presented the “Cola Baby” image to students in my Critical Thinking/Media Studies course. Even though I have stressed how imperative it is for interpretation of “cultural texts” to include (at least) an identification of the text’s producer and the historical & institutional context, students tend to “fall” for this image gag/spoof. Very few take the time to “google” “The Soda Pop Board of America” to verify its existence (or lack thereof). I’ve been very impressed by those students who’ve done this extra work.Of course, it’s only after doing the latter research that one can see the image for what it is. It makes for an interesting and challenging analytical task, that’s just plain fun!!

(I’m quoting this comment now because few people are likely to catch a comment on a posting from so long ago.)

In that posting, I quoted Kari Castor writing on ADS-L:

I’ve spent a couple of days this semester having my freshman comp classes look at materials that profess to be serious and/or scientific in nature and asking the students to evaluate those sources based on certain criteria …

I used the Open Letter to the Kansas School Board from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and we talked about and evaluated the claims being made in the letter.

… I also had them evaluate the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website, an activity which I found to be quite successful.

For your entertainment, three illustrations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (the deity of the Pastafarian religion):




and one shot of the shy and elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus in its natural habitat:


In November 2010 (in the posting “Looking it up”) I wrote that

The wonderful resources available to students — to all of us — are shot through with looniness, falsehoods (honestly believed or maliciously spread), parodies, confused thinking, and other pitfalls. In a discussion a while back on ADS-L it became clear that a great many students had no way to think critically about what they read and so gullibly accepted all sorts of things.

It’s no good just mocking the students who get caught up in these many traps. They need help, of several kinds: training in critical thinking, information about good reference sources (John McIntyre went on to list a few for copy editors), advice about how to thread their way through all that material, good examples of how more experienced writers and thinkers work their way through it.

And someone needs to keep saying: You Could Look It Up! Even if you’re not a copy editor (or fact-checker), not looking it up is still, as Carol Fisher Saller put it, a character flaw.

There I referred to a series of traps that make students — or, in fact, people in general — inclined to be uninquisitive and uncritical, so that they fall back on what they’ve heard from friends and family, or the media, or respected authorities; on their prior beliefs, attitudes, and expectations and on their personal experiences (so that they’re willing to accept claims that fit with such sources); and on the surprise value of claims (so that they’re willing to accept astonishing claims, from the right source, just because they’re so amazing: “Who would havve thought it? I didn’t know that!”).

On a large scale, these effects play themselves out in mass delusions, the madness of crowds, moral panics, vicious scapegoating, and the like.

On a smaller scale, they turn up in folk beliefs, including fictions passed on by teachers, authority figures, and those affected by them, in (for example) folk history and folk linguistics — in the latter case, in various proscriptions, against starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions, ending sentences with prepositions, and all the rest of it.

At every level, some questioning and testing would be a very good thing. So much of what passes as common knowledge, and even av lot of what presents itself as authoritative knowledge and advice, is flawed, confused, or just flat wrong.

The rub is that no one can question and test everything. You have to make meta-judgments about the reliability of sources and cast your lot with some of them while proceeding cautiously with others. You need to look for warning flags and when it’s reasonably easy to check things, to then do some testing. Otherwise, you’re going to be sucked into the nutritive virtues of soda pop for babies, the secret marvels of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and the magnificence of the noodly appendages of His Majesty, the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

[You might enjoy the tale of the barometz, the “vegetable lamb of Tartary”, as told recently by Michael Quinion on his World Wide Words site. Spoiling the punch line:

Travellers’ tales were often so much embroidered that only a wide-eyed innocent could believe them. But a kernel of truth frequently lay buried within them. In this case, the source was works by the classical authors Herodotus (“Certain trees bear for their fruit fleeces surpassing those of sheep in beauty and excellence”) and Pliny (“These trees bear gourds the size of a quince which burst when ripe and display balls of wool out of which the inhabitants make cloths like valuable linen”). The barometz was almost certainly cotton, native to India.]

6 Responses to “Critical thinking”

  1. F. Escobar Says:

    It turns out that many people recognize typos and writing mistakes as “warning flags,” especially online. Here is a comment about that from the blog (not surprisingly, the post addresses copyeditors).

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    A lot of cultural myths abound online and in reference works too, so looking it up is not a guarantee that you’re checking something for accuracy. Part of what folks need is training in how to assess the accuracy of the sources they work with. When I was at school, we had lessons that explicitly set out to do this. For example, in my secondary school history classes, we had assignments where part of what we were graded on was our assessment of the reliability of a primary source (eg, does it have an overt or implicit bias, is it a charicature, who wrote it/drew it, what were their allegiances, where was it published, how does it fit with other evidence, etc). Earlier on in primary school, we had various classes with regular research assignments along the lines of doing short reports on a topic that were designed to give lots of practice at familiarity with encyclopedias and similar sources. For many of the kids I now teach, the generational difference means those same assignments gave them practice at sifting through internet results and distinguishing useful stuff from the useless or unreliable, which seems a valuable exercise.

    In retrospect I guess I got a better research training at school than many people. But it seems to me that a good part of what we should be doing is the kind of training I had in my history class — not just how to turn up facts, but how to do an analysis of reliability.


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