Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

If you haven’t noticed the rising cultural tide of skeptics and non-believers, then maybe we still haven’t made enough of a nuisance of ourselves. Just you wait!

Me, I’d like to take some time to think about where this is all going. What do we want?

Mostly, it seems, just to talk. And that’s a good thing: the subjects we’re interested are abstract: they’re debates about ideas first and foremost. Skeptics have always been the traditional first-line defenders of free inquiry, and we’re not about to give up that role anytime soon.

Still, we seem to have all these people with so many common interests and values. We have conventions. We should, I think, consider having some more concrete goals. Some specific issues we have on the table every election season. And I’m not talking about amorphous things like “better funding for science” and so on. I’m talking about very specific policy proposals: specific enough that some friendly Representative could introduce them as numbered bills on the floor of Congress.

So what should these be? Getting a consensus is always difficult, but other interest groups do it. Skeptics may be, by our very nature, hard to herd, but it’s not impossible. I think most of us could, for instance, get behind a proposal to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which used to helpfully advise Congress on all sorts of complex scientific issues that Congressman and their staffs, rarely have much depth of knowledge about. And if you have your own suggestions, I welcome them in the comments, or on your own blogs (let me know and I’ll link to them at the end of this post).

Here’s my proposal though: that we reform public education. And I don’t mean weigh into issues like vouchers, funding, teacher unions, or any of that. What I mean is that we lobby for a particular set of concepts and skills to become a central part of state and/or federal education standards: a theme that runs through what and how we teach kids to write and reason. Subject disciplines like history, math, biology, English, and so forth, are all important. But it’s just as, if not more important to prepare children to be critical thinkers, to be intelligent and skeptical consumers of mass media, political appeals, and even commercial advertising. To understand logical fallacies. To know how to read an argument and set about responding to it. To appreciate the basic principles of statistics, independent of math level, and the basic pitfalls of interpreting scientific results (regression to the mean, sampling error, etc.) We need civics courses for a new age.

American students have always held an economic edge when it comes to creative, independent thinking: even when our students lag far behind in brute force effort and devotion to studies. I think playing on these strengths is a winning economic and social strategy. I’m not entirely sure yet on how best to sell it to the public, but that’s what Public Relations geniuses are for.

However, we’d also have to be very focused and restrained about how we go about it. All of us skeptics have our favorite sacred cows that we love to target. But in the bitter, rough and tumble world of curricula debates, most of these line-item punching bags are also going to be non-starters. Few of the players and factions necessary to win political approval are going to trust our proposals if they think we’re using them just to smuggle in our partisan views.

I recently scoffed at William Dembski’s petty hopes of trying to cram Intelligent Design down kids throats. There’s a real danger of any effort too similar to his, one that focuses on what to believe, rather than how to think, will get scoffed at, and for much the same reasons.

Just to highlight one example of how skeptical teaching can quickly become politically objectionable, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has a great new educational video out called “Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” I’m a fan of Dunning’s work, and this video is definately a worthy skeptical teaching tool.

But like it or not, a lot of the specific topics he covers are, sadly, too controversial for a public school. Maybe not scientifically, but politically. Panning over the countless nutritional supplements on store shelves and questioning their efficacy has great scientific and skeptical merit. But in practice, the owner of the drug store that makes big bucks off this stuff sits on the local school board.

And, right or wrong, many of these sorts of interested parties are going to give something like “Dragons” a big thumbs down when it comes to showing it in the classroom. Just to pick another example, the orange-grower lobby is not going to take too kindly to coursework that poo-poos vitamin-C’s cold-fighting powers. By the same measure, as silly as it all is, you can pretty much forget about the State of Florida ever endorsing such a course. Honestly, we’re lucky enough that there isn’t much economic force behind creationism or science education would really be in trouble.

But it’s not that we have to toothlessly stand down on everything just to play nice. That’s not the point. It’s just that in politics, everything has a price. Every issue has an interest group, every interest group is loyal to a faction, and every lost vote means having to scrounge up some more from somewhere else. Eventually, you price yourself right out of the market. So you have to be very realistic about how much you can do at any one time, with any one policy proposal.

And in this case, getting into those fights is ultimately unnecessary. If we focus on the core skills in question, it really doesn’t matter what examples we happen to use in the process of teaching them. And if we can lobby for school curriculums that do a good job of teaching kids how to critically analyze any and all claims, we won’t have to single out any specific targets for them.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too, politically. But we can serve students some cake, and then be pretty darn certain that they’ll eat it at some point, on their own initiative.

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism on this, or any other policy idea you think would make a good centerpiece platform for skeptics. Is this something you think we could all rally around? Can we flesh it out sufficiently and seriously lobby for it? Or if not this, then what?

What’s next? And who’s up for it?

13 Responses to Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

  1. educatorblog says:

    I have two issues with your post:

    A. You say that you want students to be critical thinkers – but you provide no analysis about how students become critical thinkers. What is critical thinking, anyway? The term ‘critical thinking’ has become a catch-all phrase (rendering it useless in policy discussions).

    B. Many of your reforms are in the status quo. Many state curriculum standards include thematic units, economics (for example – by the 3rd grade, students in many states have to understand opportunity cost and basic statistical terms), scientific method, etc.

    C. You forget that there is a pathway to understanding complex issues. You can’t sit a 5 year old in front of a newspaper and get the same response as a 12 or an 18 year old. Why? Part of it is life experience – life experience give students information about the world. Second is skill building – ‘critical thinking’ is learned over time. A student can’t understand even basic stats until they can do basic math. They can’t analyze the argumentation of candidates until they can read, write, converse, and research.

    Could you do into more depth about your reforms – I’m interested. (educatorblog.wordpress.com)

  2. educatorblog says:

    Haha – correction: 3 issues.

  3. Bad says:

    I suppose I didn’t want to get into too much detail, since my primary interest is reminding that skeptics what they likely cannot get easily out of the political system more than trying to defend this particular proposal do or die. It’s one thing to lobby for a Congressional Office that simply does technology assessment and science advisory in general. It’s quite another to argue for a specific thing… such as against certain wasteful biofuel subsidies.

    Critical thinking, as I mean it, is essentially a specific (and at times almost mechanical) method of spotting bad arguments and reasoning, and at base requires understanding what you can and can’t do with logic, the most common fallacies, and many of the other things I mentioned. I don’t think there’s any one best way to learn these things (some kids learn by going through lots of examples, some by writing themselves, some by staging debates, etc.), and I know that it’s very much an open debate how to track students into this or any skillset over successive grades/aptitudes, and so on. But the point is that I don’t know of any state curricula that treats it as a real subject all unto itself, which is decidedly odd considering that it’s probably more important, especially in college and professional life, than any particular set of facts you might memorize or novel you might read. It’s often either mixed in with other disciplines, or ends up being part of elective courses that not every student encounters.

    I certainly don’t expect a 5 year old to be able to understand regression to the mean, and I of course agree that students need a lot of core basics to work with: some never even get that far, which is something I don’t think anyone has any sort of magic bullet for. One of my siblings is a special ed teacher, and its hard enough getting many kids to focus on anything at all.

    I suppose where I’m coming from though, is as someone whose primary experience is with kids coming out of high school into college, getting their papers, and looking at their skillsets. They can read, write, rithmatize: they’ve generally gotten that far. But they can rarely reason well, and that seems like a misplaced priority. Being able to write decent, grammatical English sentences is great, but not if they can’t come up with anything to say. I’d rather get papers loaded with spelling errors that at least have some idea about how to form a controversial thesis and some sense of how to go about defending it. I suppose that could be a tremendous blind spot of mine in what I look for out of an education, but, here we are.

    You say that something like opportunity cost is a 3rd grade standard (I’m impressed but skeptical: I’ve seen plenty of college kids who’ve never heard of the concept) and if so, that’s great: I’ve never heard of that, but you clearly are in better tune with the current current status quo than I am. But still, either (as you say) there are just natural barriers of life experience that limit what’s possible (and my musing about more skeptic-focused curricula really is just naive, which I’ll happily admit to being a possibility at this point) or there’s nowhere near enough of that sort of element in most schools, relative to testing and trivia.

    In the end I suppose what I envision is a far more standard and common high school level “civics” course/track that covers analysis, logic, and skepticism in a unified, dedicated way, rather than being scattered throughout other disciplines. If that’s already the status quo, well then, I guess that shuts me up on this point! :)

    In which case, we’re back to the end of my post: so what’s next on the agenda, who’s up?

  4. educatorblog says:

    I debated internationally in college and helped run high/middle school debate leagues and camps (for students from many different types of schools, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc). I don’t think that direct instruction about fallacies is the best way to spend time in school. I think that students should be taught how to make arguments (assertion, reasoning, evidence) and how to express meaningful criticism of others’ arguments. My experiences with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students have shown me that the best writers and debaters aren’t students who say things like ‘that’s a straw man’ – they were students who were able to generalize their knowledge from one subject to another and explain their reasoning. I think that many people mistake knowledge of fallacies for serious argumentation and critical thinking.

  5. educatorblog says:

    If you want to learn more about economics in curriculum standards, check out the curriculum standards of a few states (easily found online with Google).

  6. Bad says:

    I agree that people who shout fallacies generally are not very good at understanding them (or even spotting them). :)

  7. Bad says:

    Here’s a program in England that sparked some of my interest: Critical Thinking/UK

  8. […] author discusses specific policy issues that might unite skeptics. Before launching into an extended discussion of education policy, […]

  9. Anfractuous says:

    Reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) is probably not going to happen, as we have all those wonderful highly paid lobbyists who are more than glad to tell our legislators what they should think. Why, they even write the legislation for them, thus saving legislators valuable time better spent on fund raising events. Why ever should the government actually pay someone to do this work when it is now easily to be had for free???

    As to teaching reasoning skills in school, that is the Devil’s work. Children should be taught to be obedient (particularly female and brown-skinned people). That is the highest form of patriotism and virtue we could teach them. Besides, teachers are way too busy “teaching the test” to take their valuable time with so-called reasoning skills. Reasoning for themselves leads children to denying God’s laws. Children should be able to obediently regurgitate facts and memorized material (preferably Bible verses).

    Nothing should ever be taught to my children that I don’t know, and I get all my knowledge from what my pastor says is in the Holy Scripture. It is my right as a parent to determine what is true and scientific and what is not. After all, I have two perfectly good eyes, and can easily tell what’s reality and what’s not. Besides, the Bible is the greatest science text in the world.

    As to “logical fallacies,” that sounds vaguely kinky, so it’s probably you atheist baby eaters just trying to use big words to trick us. We ain’t falling for it. God tells us (and our greatest President, Goerge Bussh) what we think and He don’t tell no lies. If we do just like He does in the Bible, we’ll be moral and we’ll be saved. You all can take your loggical fallicles and burn in Hell.

    Okay, now go ahead. Teach me some logic if you can.
    Signed, Mrs. Poe

    That’s what we face in instituting any course of study such as you’ve talked about here. Not that we should give up trying, of course, but it would be looked upon as undercutting religion – just as teaching any kind of science seems to do.

    We might be better off to start by designing some video games which teach logic and debating skills. I don’t have much relevant experience with video games, so I really don’t have much of a suggestion. However, when my son first began to play them on his Atari (yeah, that long ago), adventure games required typing out commands in full sentences. Surely, some of you computer geniuses could come up with a fun adventure game that required the use of logic and the skills of persuasion, etc in order to advance through some kind of Indiana Jones sim situation???

    Perhaps interactive books which use alternate plot lines, depending on what logical fallacies are identified (or not) during the development of the stories???

    Maybe board games that teach reasoning/debating/persuasion skills to advance around the board? How about a game show like Password or Deal or No Deal or Jeopardy, etc, using application of logic???

    Certainly Hollywood and the geniuses at advertising/PR firms ought to have some suggestions. Surely we could come up with a better movie than Expelled???? Perhaps they could find a way to popularize debate teams? Wouldn’t it be great if kids followed their debate team as avidly as they do the football team?

    Heck, all we’d have to do is convince Rush or O’Reilly or Hannity or anybody on Fox to use a little logic. That would go a long way towards fixing the problem, doncha think?

  10. Pluralistic Ignorance says:

    I am interested in the practical application of effective critical thinking. Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario: you live in a nation which is considered to be a “superpower,” time-frame, post WWII. The collective decisions of this (hypothetical) population could lead the country in a direction which enhances the great success it has already earned, or result in the loss of core economic values, devaluation of it’s currency, economic subjugation to foreign powers, and eventual catastrophic financal collapse of it’s financial institutions. All hypothetical, of course.

    How might one begin to perform an analysis (“autopsy”) on the roots of failure in the educational system, and in the culture which led to this scenario, hypothetically speaking? In other words, how might the wide-spread failure of critical thinking occur so completely that a superpower commits economic suicide? I would like to discover what the top contributing factors might be in this (hypothetcal) scenario. Comments?

  11. Bad says:

    Oh, I get it: you were being clever.

    How’s that working out for you? Being clever I mean.

    Seriously though: I’m not a tremendous fan of either the Bush administration’s domestic policies or the Iraq war. But a more than plausible case can be made that our economic woes are hardly the predictable and avoidable outcome that you seem to imply. A lot of highly unpredictable factors outside anyones control are at play. Likewise, sometimes certain bad things are the price we pay for avoiding even worse things. So I’m not sure how easy it is to pin all these problems on a lack of critical thinking. And in any case, societies are rarely best thought of as some sort of collective mind in any case.

    As the saying goes: none of us are as stupid as all of us (though actually, I think there are several areas in which collective outcomes are better balanced and tuned than any single person could ever come up with, no matter how bright).

  12. Pluralistic Ignorance says:

    Clever? Not really. I’m interested in the role of critical thinking in the decisions a global democracy makes. Does critical thinking in a democracy get preempted by unrelenting marketing? Is this the source of “dumbing down,” frequently referenced in the press?

    I have found, to my surprise, that my friends who grew up under communism in Russia seem to exhibit a greater degree of critical thinking than friends in the US. How can this be; how can students in a society “empowered by freedom” demonstrate a pattern of weaker critical thinking than students growing up in a repressive one?

    My interest is not confined to the Bush Admistration. Not at all. Our energy and economic decisions are rooted in decades of national decisions (Republican and Democrat) which seem deterrmined to give away our position of strength after WWII. Critical thinking is our first line of defense against the barbarians at the gate. All the high-tech weapons in the world cannot defend us against our own bad decisions.

    Is critical thinking compatible with Capitalism? Does Capitalism, fueled primarily by powerfull human greed, engender short-term “feel-good” decisions which may be catastrophic in the longer term? Can students of critical thinking be taught to override their short-term “feel-good” impulses to favor longer-term outcomes?

    I feel these issues are the “martial arts” of logic, without which, critical thinking is reduced to a debators’ art form.

  13. Bad says:

    I guess I don’t see any “determination to give away our position of strength.” I see a lot of hard decisions made in uncertain times, an even now it’s not clear if there were always better options. Nations rarely stay dominant for long, and the reasons are often inevitable cycles of boom and bust, changing incentives, and so on, that no one, no matter how savvy, can necessarily control and ride out perfectly.

    And capitalism, like democracy, is the worst alternative we have…. except for all the others, which are even worse.

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