Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The COVID-19 Toolkit: Critical Thinking

A few years ago, my university adopted a new general education curriculum.  We moved from a distribution model that featured exposure to ideas in different categories (humanities, social sciences, sciences) to a model with defined learning outcomes for ten general education categories (scientific inquiry, mathematical reasoning, oral communication, etc.).  We named this a competency model, which was definitely a mistake, but the change did help us focus on the notion that our students should develop particular skills and habits of mind as part of the general education experience.

Among those “competencies” was critical thinking.  We had a lot of conversation around this one.  As it turns out, every discipline wants to claim that they teach critical thinking. The agreed upon definition, which describes the evaluation of arguments, was twisted to fit into every possible version of critique. The word “argument” was stretched to include every aesthetic choice and there was a general claim that you cannot teach anything without doing critical thinking.  Would that this were so.

In the face of this pandemic, it has become exceedingly clear that as a culture we have failed to teach critical thinking in any meaningful way.  From the misunderstanding of the use of masks to the over-generalization of preliminary scientific investigations to the mistaken notion that this quarantine is designed to stop COVID-19 completely, we are awash in evidence that we do not know what evidence is. And don’t get me started on the idea of trusted sources. We have clearly lost our collective minds on that one. Higher education must remedy this immediately.

Here is where I think we went wrong.  We do teach the basics of critical thinking, but we do not always connect those basics in humanities classes, to the hypothesis testing in science classes, or to the structure of probabilities in statistics. We also seem to be satisfied with the starting principles (often black and white/true or false constructs), and less committed to the complications of the gray areas.*

For example, most of our students have had an experience of science that involves hypothesis testing. This is good because hypothesis testing is the primary mechanism for moving knowledge forward in the sciences.  It is an important method because it can yield both positive and negative results. To put it plainly, if there is no option to find your hypothesis wanting, you do not really have a hypothesis.

The trouble is  our basic understanding of hypothesis testing often leads to the faulty idea that hypotheses yield true or false conclusions. This is rarely the case.  They lead to conclusions that are more likely to be true or more likely to be false.  A good research protocol continues to build on those likelihoods until there is enough evidence to propose an action or at least a reasonable working assumption.  That leaves a lot of gray area, yes gray area is science.

Then there are the informal logic classes.  These focus on the structure of arguments, and the incredibly important tool of the syllogism.  You all remember a variation of this one:

  • All human beings are mortal.
  • Socrates is a human being.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

It is such a simple and elegant tool.  I remember when I first encountered it.  It was as if I suddenly had the tools to defend myself from arguments that I had felt bullied into accepting.  I went on to learn about manipulations of syllogisms, which abound in the world of politics and advertising, and the abuses of language that can mislead (weasel words), and I was properly empowered.

The trouble is most of our knowledge is not as simple as this construct allows. True and false are rarely the conclusions of an argument. More true and less true are the much more common realities. As much as I love the syllogism, it has a way of suggesting certainty where none exists.

Then there are our statistics classes. We have determined that statistics is foundational for many research programs (business, psychology, communication, and so on), because it is how ideas move forward in these disciplines. Basic understandings of T-Tests or Chi-Squares or ANOVAs are important tools for many career paths, and students who pay attention in these classes will develop their ability to use these tools. This is to the good. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be succeeding with the other important part of statistics–decoding and interpreting probabilities.

The person not tasked with doing statistics must still be able to interpret them. In all cases, what we are interpreting is the strength of the findings–the probability that we could get the same result with another, similar sample. Understanding how to determine the strength of a finding is so important to our lives, that I would call it an essential learning outcome. As we consider the barrage of “information” about COVID-19, essential learning becomes a matter of life and death.

Take the question of the effectiveness of face masks. Masks are a containment measure, but not an absolute one. They contain the spray we emit from our mouths and noses when talking, coughing, sneezing, etc. The argument for wearing them is to protect others from you in case you are an unknowing carrier of COVID-19. The argument is not that the masks will prevent all spread of COVID-19, but early studies suggest that it is a good tool in the effort to reduce the spread of this virus.

But wearing masks is not enough. We must use masks properly (cover nose and mouth).  We must remember not to touch our faces, even if we are wearing a mask, because we may encounter droplets spread by someone else.  We should probably stay 6 feet apart even with masks on (although, I think this argument is conflated with the typical spray range of 6 feet, and may be nullified by the wearing of masks), because that will remind us not to touch each other.  If we are in a high risk category, we should probably continue to stay home.

In other words, it is not as simple as

  • Wearing a mask will stop people from spreading COVID-19.
  • Everyone is wearing a mask.
  • Therefore, we will stop the spread of COVID-19.

The truth is more like

  • Wearing a mask will help to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Most people will wear a mask (I hope).
  • Therefore, we will limit the spread of COVID-19.

What the second syllogism needs to help us all feel a little better is some well-supported testing results that yield some probabilities that we can be comfortable with.  We are also going to need some points of comparison to help us live with results that are less than 100% perfect, because 100% effective is never a result of anything. We are going to need reminders of the things we already do that are not 100% safe and those statistics need to be calibrated to reasonableness (please do not give us car accidents).

We need to understand the connection between probabilities and hypotheses and/or syllogisms, and the realities of the vast gray areas in which we live. That is the only way we will be able to move out of our quarantined world. Critical thinking is the best tool we have for navigating the gray areas in which we live.  Higher education must address this habit of mind directly and often because our lives are at stake. To ignore this urgent need would be a dereliction of duty.

*Apologies for the simplification of logic, hypothesis testing, and probabilities. This is an essay. We all need to full courses.

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education

One Book Re-imagined for COVID-19

For the last 10-15 years, many campuses have welcomed first year students with a one book program.  The concept was to assign a common read to the entering class to help bind them together in a shared conversation.  Often part of first year programs, this ritual also allowed for a preview of college level reading and analysis expectations. It had varied levels of success in terms of community building, but it was a go-to approach for schools interested in improving retention rates (among other goals).

We did this for a few years at WCSU, but ultimately found there was not enough buy-in to have the desired impact.  As we moved to a more eclectic version of a First Year program, this common read concept went by the wayside. I am not really interested in bringing it back. I am, however, very interested in seizing this moment in history to foster dialogue about the aftermath of COVID-19.

Here are ten topics that we should all be talking about in the fall (whatever fall looks like).

  1. Tracing a Virus: The origins and future of the study of epidemiology.  This is an opportunity to bring the non-science major into a rich understanding of how science research works, why math matters and, how to decode information about illnesses.
  2. Healthcare: From corporate benefit to a national security issue. COVID-19 laid bare the dangers of unequal access to healthcare when trying to quell a fast moving virus. This is an opportunity to discuss the realities of a “gig” economy, massive unemployment, and systematically marginalized groups in relation to our national healthcare strategy.
  3. From Smallpox to COVID-19: Public investment in science and the development of vaccines. As we rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it is useful to consider both the protocols necessary for developing a reliable preventative effort and how market-based vs. coordinated international efforts can impact the results.
  4. Economic Crises and Social Change: Homelessness, economic insecurity, and plans for a more equal society. Large scale social changes like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, social security, Medicare, and civil rights, nearly always occur as a result of a deeply felt national crisis.  What changes can and should we expect from the COVID-19 crisis?
  5. Illness as Metaphor Reconsidered: How language drives our actions and our search for cures. Susan Sontag’s classic work on how language shaped our understandings of tuberculosis and cancer provides a perfect context for considering the ways in which (mis-) characterizations of COVID-19 have shaped our responses.
  6. The Nation vs. the State: Closed states, nationalized production, and other constitutional questions in a time of crisis. When to close, when to open, ensuring access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, bail outs of businesses large and small, and so on – what are the constitutional realities of these questions?
  7. Globalism Revisited: From supply chain disruptions to closed borders in the COVID-19 crisis. For over thirty years, the world has been moving toward an integrated supply chain system that is mostly controlled by private corporations and bottom line considerations.  Given the shortages that occurred with COVID-19, is it time to develop a more balanced system of profits vs. public safety?  What might that balanced system look like?
  8. Unintended Consequences and Opportunities: The Environmental Benefits of the COVID-19 Shut Down.  The reduction in travel at every level has been having a positive impact on air quality.  What other hidden benefits to the environment can we uncover and how might we extend those benefits into the future? We cannot stay locked down forever, but this is a real opportunity to reconsider the structure of our work lives, school lives, and the shape of our communities for a healthier planet.
  9. Internet as Public Utility: The digital divide and access to everything in an online world. As everyone scrambled to move operations online, the digital divide emerged in full force.  From regions of the country with little to no connectivity, to entire school districts with families who cannot afford laptops, the reality of the barriers to social stability and social mobility have come into focus. What would it take to level the playing field? Can access to the internet be re-cast as a public utility?
  10. What are Schools For? How large scale disruptions can help us re-imagine the structure and delivery of, and access to education. Online learning is not all it is cracked up to be and anyone working in education could have told you that.  As we moved pre-K to post-secondary education online, the holes in this approach became very clear. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from this impromptu experiment that could have long term benefits for education.  What might school look like if we must always be prepared to go online?  What goals will we shed? What will become essential?

If every student (not just First Year) was engaged in one of these topics in the fall, think of the conversations we could have! Perhaps some good policy ideas would emerge. Certainly, we would all have a broader understanding of how a health crisis can shape policy.  For those who are wondering where we will find the time for all of this, I ask, how can we not? What on earth could be more important than learning from this crisis.

Be well everyone.

Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!

 

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Free Speech

Are you listening?

On Friday evening, I attended the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture where I  had the pleasure of hearing Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, discuss the subject of her most recent book, Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, not Censorship Strossen is a dynamic speaker and as she wove her legal arguments into a general semantics context, I was struck by the tremendous responsibility educators have for the cultivation of rational discourse.

Strossen’s arguments were clear and persuasive.  Having looked at the impact of legislation designed to limit hate speech (e.g., EU, Canada, New Zealand), she observes that these limits have done nothing to stop hateful actions, which should be the goal.  The most recent assassination attempt at the Halle synagogue in Germany tells the tale.  Germany has some of the strongest restrictions on hate speech.  It is also seeing a rise in anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and nationalistic attitudes, despite these restrictions.

Restrictions on (hate) speech are ineffective at best, and may be inadvertently supporting hateful acts at worst.  How? By sending those who spout hateful views underground.  Banning of hate groups from the Internet does not stop the hate group, it just moves them to a new site, frequently hidden from view.  Recent attempts to do just that after the Charlottesville incident were problematic at best. Strossen suggested that the best way to address hate is to surface it so that there is a chance for dialogue, understanding, or, at the very least, the ability to identify those who are spouting hateful views.

Members of the Institute of General Semantics present that evening largely accepted the proposition that limits on speech are problematic.  There were feelings of discomfort as we wrestled with the power of the language of bigotry.  As students of language, we know that our words do not just reflect our feelings, but also construct our worlds.  The very use of biased language can re-enforce racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes.  It can also legitimize those attitudes, just in the speaking.  Yet, banning that speech will not stop it: it will only hide it. Hearing of these attitudes offers us all the opportunity to ask why they exist and how they might be changed.

There was also some consternation about people in power using hate speech.  This is particularly relevant when we consider our hyper-connected social media world.  Facebook recently announced that it was not in the censorship business and they would not stop political ads that have false statements in them.  While this may seem absurd, and perhaps plays into the hands of unscrupulous politicians, Strossen suggested that seeing those ads allows us to better judge the candidate.  Leaving them out in the open allows us to evaluate biases, faulty assumptions, and poorly supported arguments, and be better informed about who or what we are actually voting for/against.  She may have a point.

I embrace Strossen’s perspective but recognize some of the challenges that living with freedom of speech presents.  One of the critical components to having freedom of speech be a social good is our ability to decode and validate information.  The demand for this evaluative capacity has never been stronger than right now.  We have undermined the many structures that helped us sort information in the past (editors, community leaders, investigative reporting, even just plain old time) while at the same time providing easy access to communication platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia and, well the Internet) with algorithms to lead the way.  This means all of our education structures K-12 through Ph.D. must continuously re-enforce the tools necessary for evaluating information.

Given the urgency of the situation, and it is urgent if we want an informed citizenry to guide policy of any kind,  those of us in higher education might want to re-group and more specifically address these analytical skills.  Strossen referenced the demands on her law students, noting that they didn’t just need to know one argument, but must present as many counter-arguments as possible. Maybe we need to do the same in all of our classes.  Perhaps it is time for debate across the curriculum, with a real emphasis on putting evidence in context.

But there is more to consider than the art of well-reasoned debate.  The potential for understanding that freedom of speech makes available, no matter how controversial, can only be realized if we are willing to listen. Sadly, we don’t seem to be particularly good at this part of the equation.  This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on students burning books after the author’s presentation in Georgia, University of Wisconsin moving to crack down on disruptive protestors (shutting down speech), and a case of a dean being dismissed for some remarks on Twitter (or so it appears).  None of these examples reflect a willingness to listen to speech that challenges our values and assumptions.  This is not a good state of affairs.

The true value of that first amendment will not be realized by covering our ears, liking only posts that support our views, tuning in only to those channels that resonate with our values.  We have to resist this habit of cocooning ourselves in our favorite ideas and excluding those that offend.  This is vitally important in a university context, where students have the time and support to question assumptions from everywhere.

I agree with Strossen’s support of the first amendment.  We should hold onto that Constitutional right with all our might.  But just letting everyone speak isn’t enough. We also have to take some responsibility for the conversations that should ensue.  Let’s engage the difficult, probe our assumptions, and try our very best to understand those ideas that offend our sensibilities.  If we are willing to listen to the diversity of ideas that surround us, we just might find a place to begin sorting through our differences after all.

 

 

 

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Thinking

The Opposite of Twitter

This week I deleted the Twitter app from my phone.  It probably won’t stick.  I will find myself wanting to know what folks are saying or what is prompting the “arguments” that are taking place in the media and in grocery store checkout lines.  Nevertheless, I have deemed this particular communication format to be an anger-accelerant and not healthy for our society.

This is not my usual way. As a media ecologist, I have a habit of examining all new communication platforms via plusses and minuses or winners and losers.  I consider the concerns Socrates expressed about the invention of writing (no one will know anything if they just look it up), and remember that I still like books. I consider the observations of Marshall McLuhan who suggested that we focus on the medium instead of the message, and the analysis of Susanne Langer, who detailed propositional (emotional) vs. presentational (logical) forms, and think what they might make of today’s media environment.  I review Neil Postman’s argument that television redefines public discourse in such a way that prioritizes amusement over analysis, and consider how that has been heightened when everyone interacts with that “entertainment” format. I have always taken cues from their observations, and tried to reflect deeply on how our shifts in communication environments may be changing us. I don’t just dismiss things.

As social media took over the world, I took just such an approach. As my children and I dove into Facebook, I did not just worry about the bullying that could occur there; I also looked at the connections that were maintained over distances and time that once were lost to geographic changes.  The dangers of the algorithms are real, but there are some redeeming qualities. As I pondered Instagram, I observed that although it is well used by influencers hawking products, it is also a fun place for families to share updates on children, grandchildren, travel, etc.  But as I observe what is happening with Twitter, well, I am out.

Here’s the thing, Twitter encourages all of us speak in headlines.  For newspapers, radio, and television, headlines are meant to be a tease to get you to learn more.  In all of those media, the art of the headline is to frame issues in the most heightened state of conflict or disagreement so that people will buy the paper or tune into your network (yes, they sell a product). Ostensibly, that follow-up step would lead to a greater understanding of an issue than reading the headlines revealed. This sometimes happened. As television and radio news moved into 24 news cycles (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), the agonistic tones intensified and, although the time allotted to the stories was significant, the snippets that most people heard were shout downs between commentators and guests, rather than a true exploration of the story.  Twitter doesn’t even try to get to the full story. It is only the shout down.

Last week I realized that even people that I know and love are behaving badly on Twitter.  They have embraced the format and tweet responses of outrage to everything that offends their sensibilities.  In the process, their tweets are promoting petty and divisive approaches to all topics.  Since I know these people to be smart and well read on the issues they tweet about, I must conclude that Twitter is the problem.  It is all sensational headlines with no opportunity for dialogue.

Now some of you might be thinking that Twitter could lead us to the dialogue, but I don’t think so.  It is not what it is designed to do.  It is the perfect response and distraction medium, keeping us engaged in the next tweet, with no time left for research.  Even those who do their research about an issue continue to communicate in this abridged and inflammatory way. There appears to be no real motivation to go into the details of a story in rational tones. No, this just won’t do.

In higher education, our job is to do the opposite of Twitter.  We are tasked with helping students (and ourselves) see the full argument, not these truncated and fallacious syllogisms. We must learn to dig in and uncover as many assumptions as we can. Then we must examine the supporting and contradictory evidence before forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion. This is where true argument and debate live.

True argument (as opposed to shouting matches) is what we should be fostering at all levels of education, because if we don’t do it, there will be no opportunity to develop these skills in our citizens. There are just too many distractions outside of our halls. The world is facing serious questions about how to organize our efforts around climate, poverty, mental & physical health, economy, equity, etc., and answering those questions will require reflective, evidence-based thinking. This thinking cannot be achieved through Twitter.

So, I’ve deleted the app, for now.  I may go back and figure out how to use it as a teaching tool, or even better encourage its use for poetry. But for now, I want to live in the opposite world where thinking still has a chance.