Anyone likely to be in Melbourne on Feb 19 is welcome to join the Victorian Skeptics for an informal talk:
The abstract is
Academic philosophers, like most professionals, think they’re pretty good at what they do. I’ll present some general reasons for scepticism on this score. Then I’ll focus on one particular respect in which philosophers think they’re pretty good – teaching critical thinking. I’ll show detailed empirical evidence on critical thinking skills gains, which suggests that if you want students to get better at critical thinking, you should teach them critical thinking (not philosophy) and if you want them to get even better, you should teach them using argument mapping.
The talk is a blending of two things. First, a talk I gave about five years ago to various philosophy departments in Australia, in which I challenged the audience to come up with positive reasons to think that they are, in their core professional activities, any better than investment professionals such as stockbrokers, fund managers and the ilk, which have been shown by mountains of evidence to be useless at choosing superior investments, even if they are quite good at skimming vast sums of money from the savings of others. In response, philosophers generally came up with, at best, the kind of lame arguments they’d instantly ridicule others for making; the main outcome of all this, as far as I could tell, was resentment towards me for even raising the topic, which may partly explain why I haven’t been invited to talk at any philosophy department ever since.
The second thing is the work of a Masters student at the University of Melbourne, Claudia Alvarez, who has written on whether studying philosophy is, as philosophers claim, especially effective in developing critical thinking skills. Claudia did (or at least, carried through to completion) a meta-analysis which gives us the best available fix on whether this claim is true. In fact, if you make reasonable comparisons, it is hard to make a strong case that philosophy is especially effective, and it is markedly less effective than certain other strategies, such as… teaching critical thinking. The thesis will be completed and available very soon. (I’m happy to give a talk on this material at philosophy departments, but I don’t expect to be swamped with offers.)
It should be fun…
On Behalf of Philosophy – Somewhat
Long ago Richard Paul, in his “Critical Thinking” (2nd ed., 1992, p.164), drew a distinction between micro-logical and macro-logical critical thinking skills. He said that micro-logical skills include a working knowledge of such mundane terms as premise, reason conclusion, inference, assumption, relevant, irrelevant, consistent, contradictory, credible, doubtful, evidence, fact, interpretation, question-at-issue, problem, etc. He viewed such “working knowledge” as a needed preliminary for the development of macro-logical skills such as respect for fairness, objectivity, serious consideration of opposing viewpoints – in short, a passion for reasonable and rational assessment of claims (all of which are elaborated throughout his book).
Those micro-logical skills are preliminary and necessary but woefully far from sufficient for the macro-skills of good critical thinking, and philosophers are by no means superior to those in other disciplines and professions in either micro- or macro-logical abilities. But, judging from my own institution and what I know of others in the U.S., it is only philosophers – or perhaps more accurately, only philosophy departments – that offer whole-semester courses focusing entirely on those necessary micro-logical skills. Such courses are variously titled “Critical Thinking,” “Informal Logic,” “Practical Reasoning,” “Beginning Logic,” and such like. Undergraduates are woefully deficient in these micro-skills, and other departments do NOT offer courses focusing on them. Students of course have previously encountered the words in the “mundane terms” list above, but they are, much more often than not, unable to apply them correctly to cases. They mistake consistent assertions for inconsistent ones (and vice versa), mix up premises and conclusions, cannot distinguish argument from mere assertion, are routinely fooled by fallacious reasoning, etc. etc. It takes a semester – or more – of practice and exercise for most students to develop a decent level of micro-logical skills. Only philosophy departments, to my knowledge, offer courses entirely devoted to developing such skills. I suspect, perhaps in a biased way, that faculty in other departments either think that their students do not need such courses, or that there is not room for such in their departmental curricula.
I have a speculation about why non-philosophy faculty (and, of course, many philosophy faculty also) may not recognize the extent of their students’ micro-logical deficiencies. I call it the “Clever Hans” phenomenon. Clever Hans was the horse who could, apparently, do fairly sophisticated arithmetic. Put before him on a chalkboard something like “4 cubed divided by 2” and he would tap his hoof 32 times! It turned out that he was detecting signals – body language – from the people who posed the problems. They unconsciously signalled, via eye movements, facial expressions, etc. when Hans’ hoof-taps were at the correct answer, and he took that as an indication that it was time to stop tapping.
I suspect that faculty in all disciplines very often, when asking questions, subtly signal to students what the expected “correct” response is. Students pick up on the signal, often hardly realizing it, and give the expected response. The teacher then thinks the students adequately understand the point. Example:
“In this passage, you see, the author is trying to show that X. But he is assuming that Y, which is very doubtful, and in addition he thinks that Y really leads to X. But, because of Z, Y doesn’t really lead to X. So, you see, there are two serious flaws in the suthor’s thinking. Do you follow? Any questions about this stuff?” The students nod affirmatively; there are few if any questions. The teacher thinks they have all, or nearly all, adequately understood what’s going on. So faculty are inclined to think that their students have adequate abilities in the micro-skills. (Confession: I’ve often done this sort of thing.)
Well, in such circumstances it would be a courageous student indeed who would dare to comment, “No, I don’t see it – could you elaborate.” And if the prof has, as many do, really given a good, clear account of the passage and its problems, then maybe most of the students really have understood it all – for that particular passage. And if the prof later asks about that passage on a test, then the students, if they have decent memories, know how to respond appropriately. Like Clever Hans, the students have detected the “right answers.”
But how many of the students could have figured out the problems – or virtues – of the passage all on their own? That would require micro-logical, and of course also macro-logical, skills. But if they cannot, on their own, identify whether they are presented with an argument or just a series of assertions, or pick out main conclusions, sub-conclusions, linked or separate premises, hidden assumptions, etc. then they are not well-positioned to move on to apply for themselves the more sophisticated macro-skills.
So, two (not three) cheers for philosophy departments that offer courses focusing exclusively on critical thinking micro-skills. If they think, as perhaps many do, that such courses cover the whole or even a very large part of critical thinking, they are very mistaken. But such courses do cover, in admirable detail, an essential part of critical thinking that is by and large neglected by other departments.
Whether philosophy, or philosophy courses in general, develop special abilities in critical thinking is a more debateable issue. In the U.S. many philosophy web sites point to the performance of philosophy majors on graduate and professional school exams such as the MCAT, LSAT, GRE, and GMAT. Philosophy majors score better than nearly all other majors; majors in classics, engineering, and economics also seems to do outstandingly well. But do such data show critical thinking abilities? That’s not so clear.