Monday, January 15, 2007

Critical thinking in Schools

Now I, and many skeptics, personally associate critical thinking with science. Science is supposed to combat bad, pseudoscientific thinking. I mean, the word pseudoscientific, which means an unproven, usually duplicitous idea, is based on the word "science". Now, with all the emphasis of science on thinking critically, there is a weird thing that happens in schools (at least the one I go to). Critical thinking isn't really taught in science classes. Fact and theories are taught in science classes. The class where critical thinking is taught, is in English.

Now, when you think about it, English class is not a bad place to teach critical thinking. I mean, you learn about how to use language to persuade and change people's opinions on something. It makes sense that you should learn, along with how to persuade people, how to see through other people's arguments. And that's just what we do. In my English class, persuasion is done by appeals. There is logical appeal, emotional appeal, and ethical appeal. Logical appeal is persuasion through facts and statistics; it's the only appeal that matters in science, and is the appeal you look for when trying to analyze a claim for its authenticity. Emotional appeal is just what it sounds like; appealing to the emotions. Usually for this appeal, words that have a powerful effect are used; this is caused using loaded language. These words tend to be words with heavy connotations, such as fag, instead of homosexual. Now, if you were homosexual, which word would offend you more? The last type of appeal is ethical appeal. It basically targets the reader's moral standards. Although this can be used in tandem with logical appeal, it is an easy place to make false dichotomies (black-and-white decisions) or slippery slopes (if THIS happens, then THAT and THAT and THAT will happen [even though it probably won't]).

Now, this may not be an entirely bad thing. One thing that marks the weakness of an argument is the high reliance on emotional and ethical appeal. A properly thought out argument needs logical appeal also. Now, here's where the difference comes in. In science, you don't want ANY ethical or emotional appeal. They mean nothing. If gravity made you sad, it doesn't care, it will still pull down on you. Now in English, when you're trying to make a persuasive essay, if you rely only on logical appeals, your essay will seem very dull and highly unpersuasive. You need to balance it with emotional and ethical appeal for just the right amount of persuasion.

Now, apparently, English covers just the same critical thinking skills that science wants, even more. But there is a separate message for each. For English, you want all three appeals to achieve the maximum amount of persuasion, even if you have an untenable position. For Science, you ONLY depend on logical appeal, because logic is the only thing that describes nature. Luckily for me, I know the difference, but I think science classes should just mention how to treat claims and analyze them, even for just half a period, which isn't too much to ask.

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