May 24, 2008

Education Means Critical Thinking. Knowledge is Power.

The Millenial Generation May Produce a New Realignment in the US

It's been an interesting semester with lots of work in the end, as per usual, but now it's over. I had a good experience over all. I like teaching, and, I dare say, most of my students seem to enjoy my classes. I encourage critical thinking and thoughtful discussion--something of a rarity in colleges today. Accumulating information without putting it into proper context is good for passing exams but it doesn't necessarily promote an understanding. Connecting the dots is often a skill that's lacking among Americans but also among too many college students.

Of course, it's the subject matter that allows for such a conversation. My subject is Political Science so I talk about political theories, ideologies, the information (?!) media, American political institutions, etc. But, I'm a science fan too. I'm a scientist in that I accept the scientific way as the most powerful tool we have for knowledge! The scientific method is a specific process, a methodology, of analyzing evidence, forming theories that explain & predict, and always keeping the door open to revision--when better data or a theory are available.

The process is very important and much is invested in it. The process of finding and analyzing evidence and then puting it in order. The conclusion comes later. It is not the other way around it as many people seem to be doing. That is, they first form a "conclusion" which is something they like, and then they try to find any piece of supporting evidence to their thesis. Any contradictory evidence that falls outside their narrow frame (of mind) is discarded! Obviously, this is not an appropriate for knowing stuff; it may be good for escaping reality and/or feeling better for a while, but it is not a tool for learning.

I can't tell you how many times I had to explain--which is good, because at least we are talking about it--what a scientific theory is about. Such a theory is not a hunch, a guess, an opinion! The theory of evolution is perhaps controversial in the minds of the ignorant, but it is one of the strongest scientific theories we have. Modern genetics and technology have confirmed its tenets and have piled on more supporting data upon the tons of evidence we have from fossils, and other observations. Unfortunately, more Americans (US) believe in creation than evolution! In other words, more people believe that human beings were made in their present form rather recently than humanoids having evolved over hundreds of thousands of years! And, this in a society that has been at the forefront of technology, science, and freedom of information!

I like Richard Dawkins's explanation:
"We have two theories, A and B, both trying to explain the same phenomenon. Theory A fails in some particular. Theory B must be right, even if theory A is supported by loads of evidence and theory B is supported by no evidence at all...

Nevertheless, if you can find one phenomenon, call it X, for which, as far as you can see, theory A cannot provide an explanation, you therefore conclude theory B must be right....

What kind of logic is that?"

If you want to understand the physical world, logic is imperative. But, I think, you have to have some courage to face reality even it is unpleasant. You develop courage by having confidence in yourself and your ability to think & analyze. I believe good thinkers are leaders too. Hopefully, we teachers and the schools can facilitate such rational, creative thinking and by doing so to develop leaders. Those who don't know (either by choice or not) tend to be followers and more likely to be manipulated by the simplistic arguments of demagogues who want to be leaders of a flock of sheep.


Tantalus said...

Come now, do you think that everyone can follow R. Dawkins's logic?! I doubt it.

ghassan karam said...

I am in agreement with what your post is all about but I have to point out that scientific theories and explanations do change over time. Actually the purpose of Kuhn when he developed the "Paradigm shift " explanations of how knowledge is accumulated his emphasis was on scientific developments. That is why we moved from Ptolemy to Newton to Einstein. Make no mistake about it many of what constitutes our scientific knowledge in 2008 will be modified radically over the next few decades.

Andros said...

Well, that's the beauty and the power of the scientific method! Always open to revision. If something better comes along, then it should be adopted.

I never took fancy to those extraordinary claims without extraordinary proof (or even a shred of evidence).

I understand the power of a good story that makes us feel good. I do go to the movies, read fiction, and play. But, I understand the difference between make-believe and reality.

Personally, I'm OK with saying "I don't know" instead of making up stuff.

By the way, those who deride science for it's ill effects [after all, it's the choices people make] turn to science (and medicine) when in need.

You may not think it as a good thing, but human life expectancy has doubled in a span of a century or so.