Critical thinking skills truly matter in learning. Why? Because they are life skills we use every day of our lives. Everything from our work to our recreational pursuits, and all that’s in between, employs these unique and valuable abilities. Consciously developing them takes thought-provoking discussion and equally thought-provoking questions to get it going. Begin right here with the Critical Thinking Skills Cheatsheet.
It’s a simple infographic offering questions that work to develop critical thinking on any given topic. Whenever your students discover or talk about new information, encourage them to use these questions for sparking debate and the sharing of opinions and insights among each other. Together they can work at building critical thinking skills in a collaborative and supportive atmosphere.
… (emphasis in original)
The infographic, also available as a color 11 x 17 pdf file, is too large to display here but I can give you the flavor of it:
… benefits from this?
… is this harmful to?
… makes decisions about this?
… is most directly affected?
… have you also heard discuss this?
… would be the best person to consult?
… will be the key people in this?
… deserves recognition for this?
What, Where, When, Why and How have similar expansions.
No matter what media stream you depend on for news, you know that news has changed in the past few years. There’s a lot more of it, and it’s getting harder to tell what’s true, what’s biased, and what may be outright deceptive. While the bastions of journalism still employ editors and fact-checkers to screen information for you, if you’re getting your news and assessing information from less venerable sources, it’s up to you to determine what’s credible.
“We are talking about the basic duties of informed citizenship,” says Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education.
Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, a doctoral candidate in education, tested the ability of thousands of students ranging from middle school to college to evaluate the reliability of online news. What they found was discouraging: even social media-savvy students at elite universities were woefully unskilled at determining whether or not information came from reliable, unbiased sources.
Winburg and McGrew arrived at the crisis of “biased” news decades, if not centuries too late.
There is a documentary by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick about Noam Chomsky and Manufacturing Consent. Total run time is: 2 hours, 40 minutes and 24 seconds. I read the book, did not watch the video. But if you prefer video:
Herman and Chomsky don’t report some of the earlier examples of biased news.
Egyptian accounts of the Battle of Kadesh claim a decisive victory in 1274 or 1273 BCE over the Hittites, accounts long accepted as the literal truth. More recent research treats the Egyptian claims as akin to US claims to winning the war on terrorism.
Winning wars makes good press but no intelligent person takes such claims uncritically.
The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. So-called higher education often rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture has elevated bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, then take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with second-order bullshit. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, often seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.
We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combatting it with effective analysis and argument.
What do we mean, exactly, by the term bullshit? As a first approximation, bullshit is language intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.
While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political sphere, this isn’t a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullshit are those that we will be addressing in the present course.
Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullshit — and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup’s big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?
Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.
Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:
Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.
Bergstrom and West are right about the usefulness of this “class” but I would use Fish and other literary critics to push your sensitivity to “bullshit” a little further than the readings indicate.
All communication is an attempt to persuade within a social context. If you share a context with a speaker, you are far more likely to recognize and approve of their use of “evidence” to make their case. If you don’t share such a context, say a person claiming a particular interpretation of the Bible due to divine revelation, their case doesn’t sound like it has any evidence at all.
It’s a subtle point but one known in the legal, literary and philosophical communities for a long time. That it’s new to scientists and/or data scientists speaks volumes about the lack of humanities education in science majors.
In the most general sense, a commonplace book contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler. Commonplace books serve as a means of storing information, so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work.
The commonplace book has its origins in antiquity in the idea of loci communes, or “common places,” under which ideas or arguments could be located in order to be used in different situations. The florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes. Commonplace books flourished during the Renaissance and early modern period: students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organizing and arranging excerpts. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries printed commonplace books, such as John Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (1706), continued to offer new models of arrangement. The practice of commonplacing continued to thrive in the modern era, as writers appropriated the form for compiling passages on various topics, including the law, science, alchemy, ballads, and theology. The manuscript commonplace books in this collection demonstrate varying degrees and diverse methods of organization, reflecting the idiosyncratic interests and practices of individual readers.
A great collection of selections from commonplace books!
I am rather “lite” on posts for the day because I tried to chase down John Locke’s publication of A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books in French, circa 1686/87.
Someone who could not read Roman numerals gave varying dates for the “volumes” of Bibliotheque Universelle et Historique which didn’t improve my humor. I will try to find a complete scanned set tomorrow and try to chase down the earlier version of A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books. My concern is the graphic that appears in the translation and what appears to be examples at the end. I wanted to confirm that both appear in the original French version.
PS: I know, this isn’t as “practical” as functional programming, writing Pig or Cuda code, but on the other hand, understanding where you are going is at least as important as getting there quickly. Yes?
“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.”
There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when if you have occasion for any thing, you can’t use it, because you know not where it is laid.”
The flood of information is nothing new.
“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extent back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management— the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.
Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.
No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.
“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós, see literary topos) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as John Milton‘s commonplace book. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.
Commonplace books are not diaries nor travelogues, with which they can be contrasted: English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote the 1706 book A New Method of Making a Common Place Book, “in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.” By the early eighteenth century they had become an information management device in which a note-taker stored quotations, observations and definitions. They were even used by influential scientists. Carl Linnaeus, for instance, used commonplacing techniques to invent and arrange the nomenclature of his Systema Naturae (which is still used by scientists today).
[footnote links omitted]
Have you ever had a commonplace book?
Impressed enough by Shane’s post to think about keeping one. In hard copy.
Curious how you would replicate a commonplace book in software?
Or perhaps better, what aspects of a commonplace book can you capture in software and what aspects can’t be captured.
The philosophical pronouncements of Bohr, Born, Heisenberg and Pauli deserve some of the blame for the excesses of the postmodernist critique of science.
The hoax perpetrated by New York University theoretical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 on the editors of the journal Social Text quickly became widely known and hotly debated. (See Physics Today January 1997, page 61, and March 1997, page 73.) “Transgressing the Boundaries – Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was the title of the parody he slipped past the unsuspecting editors. 
Many readers of Sokal’s article characterized it as an ingenious exposure of the decline of the intellectual standards in contemporary academia, and as a brilliant parody of the postmodern nonsense rampant among the cultural studies of science. Sokal’s paper is variously, so we read, “a hilarious compilation of pomo gibberish”, “an imitation of academic babble”, and even “a transformative hermeneutics of total bullshit”.  Many scientists reported having “great fun” and “a great laugh” reading Sokal’s article. Yet whom, exactly, are we laughing at?
As telling examples of the views Sokal satirized, one might quote some other statements. Consider the following extrapolation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty and Bohr’s complementarity into the political realm:
“The thesis ‘light consists of particles’ and the antithesis ‘light consists of waves’ fought with one another until they were united in the synthesis of quantum mechanics. …Only why not apply it to the thesis Liberalism (or Capitalism), the antithesis Communism, and expect a synthesis, instead of a complete and permanent victory for the antithesis? There seems to be some inconsistency. But the idea of complementarity goes deeper. In fact, this thesis and antithesis represent two psychological motives and economic forces, both justified in themselves, but, in their extremes, mutually exclusive. …there must exist a relation between the latitudes of freedom df and of regulation dr, of the type df dr=p. …But what is the ‘political constant’ p? I must leave this to a future quantum theory of human affairs.”
Before you burst out laughing at such “absurdities,” let me disclose the author: Max Born, one of the venerated founding fathers of quantum theory . Born’s words were not written tongue in cheek; he soberly declared that “epistemological lessons [from physics] may help towards a deeper understanding of social and political relations”. Such was Born’s enthusiasm to infer from the scientific to the political realm, that he devoted a whole book to the subject, unequivocally titled Physics and Politics .
A helpful illustration that poor or confused writing, accepted on the basis of “authority,” is not limited to the humanities.
The weakness of postmodernism does not lie exclusively in:
While publicly abstaining from criticizing Bohr, many of his contemporaries did not share his peculiar insistence on the impossibility of devising new nonclassical concepts – an insistence that put rigid strictures on the freedom to theorize. It is on this issue that the silence of other physicists had the most far-reaching consequences. This silence created and sustained the illusion that one needed no technical knowledge of quantum mechanics to fully comprehend its revolutionary epistemological lessons. Many postmodernist critics of science have fallen prey to this strategy of argumentation and freely proclaimed that physics itself irrevoably banished the notion of objective reality.
The question of “objective reality” can be answered only within some universe of discourse, such as quantum mechanics for example.
There are no reports of “objective reality” or “subjective reality” that do not originate from some human speaker situated in a cultural, social, espistemological, etc., context.
Postmodernists, Stanley Fish comes to mind, should have made strong epistemological move to say that all reports, of whatever nature, from literature to quantum mechanics, are reports situated in human context.
The rules for acceptable argument vary from one domain to another.
But there is no “out there” where anyone stands to judge between domains.
Should anyone lay claim to an “out there,” you should feel free to ask how they escaped the human condition of context?
And for what purpose do they claim an “out there?”
I suspect you will find they are trying to privilege some form of argumentation or to exclude other forms of argument.
That is a question of motive and not of some “out there.”
Today I started an experiment I created an excercise for coursework in algorithms and data structures that is very unusuale and many people have been criticle if this was a good idea. The idea behind the exercise is that studens should read wikipedia articles to topics related to lectures and find mistakes or suggest things that could be improoved. Thereby I hope that people will do something that many people in science don’t do often enough: Read something critically and carefully and question the things that you have learnt. (more discussions after the exercise)
This is great! No only can students practice thinking critically but there is a forum to test their answers: other users of Wikipedia.
Read the article, do the exercises and see how your critical reading skills fare.