Critical Thinking, Higher Education

Back to Basics

As I listened to the news this morning, an old concern of mine re-emerged. From reports on vote tallies, to COVID-19 vaccine results, to the interpretation of census data and the potential impact on representation, I kept hearing statements that only partially captured the reasoning underneath. News reporting in every medium simplifies the story for the audiences involved, but that simplification leaves me worried about the conclusions people are drawing.

Today’s big news is about the results of Moderna’s vaccine trials. It is exciting to hear that, of the treatment group, @ 15,000 people, only 11 contracted COVID-19 and of those 11, none became severely ill. So, the short version is, this thing is 94% effective, and the next steps are for emergency approval. Yippee, I say. There is a light at the end of this semi-quarantined tunnel.

But here’s the thing, about 42% of Americans say they won’t take the vaccine, expressing a deep distrust of the science. Among those who distrust the results are groups of people who have historically been denied appropriate care or been deliberately abused by those testing treatments for various illnesses. Certainly, there is good reason for their skepticism. Memories are appropriately long, and trust is hard to regain. Nevertheless, I think the larger component of distrust stems from a lack of skill in evaluating evidence, probabilities, and arguments in general.

Consider the pre-COVID-19 world when we were discussing the growing opposition to vaccinations. For at least 20 years, we have been experiencing an erosion in trust of our vaccination protocols. While some argue from a freedom perspective, many more revert to arguments about safety. The feeling seems to be that since a very small percent of people who do get the vaccine either get the illness anyway or experience side-effects, then the vaccinations are unsafe. These exceptions, however small, seem to undermine the entirety of the vaccination argument for this group.

But what about the 95-98% effectiveness? Can we not build comfort in those probabilities? What about the fact that side effects are usually sore arms and low fevers? Can we not ease fears when the consequences appear so limited? What about the greater good created by herd immunity, protecting those who might be unable to take the vaccine due to other conditions? Can we not appeal to a sense of community to persuade? No, for the frightened parent, those assurances aren’t enough. That tiny, tiny chance of a bad outcome is enough to persuade them. The exceptions hold sway.

Ok, I understand. I raised children and I remember that deep breath I took when I held my child as the doctor administered vaccinations. For me, the fear still existed, but all those other things persuaded me to act. I also let my kids go to the playground, where thousands are injured each year. I let them ride in cars, where thousands are killed each year. I also lived by a lake knowing that accidental drownings are not uncommon. Perhaps, it was knowing that I play the probabilities all the time, helped me commit to vaccinations. Maybe.

Reflecting on this habit of focusing on the exceptions, I am once again driven to the conclusion that higher education needs to work a little harder at developing strong reasoning skills in our students. We need to help them understand that there are always uncertainties, but uncertainty should not lead to paralysis. Instead, it should help us make informed choices based on the best information we have at the time.

A lot of what we do in higher education is about opening our students’ minds to the complexities hidden in the stories they’ve learned all their lives. We dig into the challenging parts of our histories. We uncover the gaps in our exposure to voices from many cultures. We even reveal the non-linearity of scientific discovery, shaking faith in the certainty of that arena. It is a lot. It is a joy. It is necessary.

But those revelations are not enough. Indeed, they need to come second in the hierarchy of learning at college. To help our students see these big picture things, we should commit to some basic instruction in mapping arguments and evaluating evidence. We need to be intentional about developing the following basic skills:

  • Argument Mapping: Like the A, B, Cs, and the multiplication tables, we need to see argument mapping as a foundational skill that is introduced in the first year of college and revisited multiple times thereafter. Logic professors, rejoice. We need you to provide direct instruction in the form of arguments, the nature of fallacies, and the use and abuse of syllogisms.
  • Statistical Reasoning: Our students must develop a reasonable grasp of probability. So much evidence is based on probability, and written in statistical forms, that it would be neglectful to not make it a foundational skill for everyone. This, too, should be introduced early and woven throughout the curriculum thereafter.
  • Information Literacy: Finally, we need to help students understand how to weigh the credibility of a source. This is probably the hardest of all, but our librarians offer excellent, non-partisan ways to start. Yes, year one and repeated thereafter.

These skills must be part of all first year curriculum because they lay the foundation for everything else we do in college. They are also the tools necessary for all the important decisions our students will be faced with after graduation. They are, indeed, the capabilities necessary for life-long learning.

But most of all, we need to commit to these foundations because we don’t want students to take our word for things. We want them to have the right tools to make informed decisions for themselves. That, my friends, is what schools are for.

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