• September 4, 2015

The Perils of Unleashing Students' Skepticism

The Perils of Unleashing Students' Skepticism 1

Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review

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Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review

Don't always believe what scientists tell you. Be skeptical.

That's what I tell students in my history- of-science and science-writing classes. But some of them may have taken the lesson too much to heart.

I want to give my students the benefit of my hard-won knowledge of science's fallibility. Early in my career, I was a conventional gee-whiz science writer, easily impressed by scientists' claims. Fields such as physics, neuroscience, genetics, and artificial intelligence seemed to be bearing us toward a future in which bionic superhumans would zoom around the cosmos in warp-drive spaceships. Science was an "endless frontier," as the physicist Vannevar Bush put it in his famous 1945 report that paved the way for creation of the National Science Foundation.

Doubt gradually undermined my faith. I came to believe that I and other journalists were presenting the public with an overly optimistic picture of science. By relentlessly touting scientific "advances"—from theories of cosmic creation and the origin of life to the latest treatments for depression and cancer—and by overlooking all the areas in which scientists were spinning their wheels, journalists made science seem more potent and fast-moving than it really is.

I urged my students to doubt the claims of physicists such as Stephen Hawking that they are on the verge of explaining the origin and structure of the cosmos. The theory that Hawking favors in his most recent bestseller, The Grand Design (Bantam Books, 2010), postulates the existence of particles shaped like strings or membranes, as well as other universes. But the hypothetical particles are too small and the other universes too distant to be detected by any conceivable experiment. This isn't physics any more, I declared in class. It's science fiction with mathematics!

I gave the same treatment to the quest for a theory of consciousness, which would explain how a three-pound lump of tissue—the brain—generates perceptions, thoughts, memories, emotions, and self-awareness. Artificial-intelligence authorities such as Ray Kurzweil assert that scientists will soon reverse-engineer the brain so thoroughly that they will be able to build artificial brains much more powerful than our own.

Balderdash, I told my classes (or words to that effect). Scientists have proposed countless theories about how the brain absorbs, stores, and processes information, but this plethora of explanations indicates that researchers really have no idea how the brain works. And artificial-intelligence advocates have been promising for decades that robots will soon be as smart as HAL or R2-D2. Why should we believe them now?

Maybe, just maybe, I suggested, fields such as particle physics, cosmology, and neuroscience are bumping up against insurmountable limits. The big discoveries that can be made have been made. Who decreed that science has to solve every problem?

Lest my students conclude that I'm some solitary crank—God forbid—I assigned them articles by other scientific skeptics. One, by the tough-guy science journalist Gary Taubes, was an 8,000-word dissection of epidemiology and clinical trials. Taubes pointed out that even large, well-designed investigations—notably the Nurses' Health Study, in which Harvard researchers have tracked 120,000 women since the 1970s—often produce findings overturned by subsequent research.

Such studies have supported and then undermined claims about the medical benefits of estrogen therapy, fruits and vegetables, fish oil, and folic acid. Taubes advised people to doubt dramatic claims about the benefits of some new drug or diet, especially if the claim is new. "Assume that the first report of an association is incorrect or meaningless," he wrote, because it probably is. "So be skeptical."

To further drive this point home, I assigned articles by John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist who has exposed the flimsiness of most peer-reviewed research. In a 2005 journal article, Ioannidis examined 49 widely cited medical papers and found that for one-third, the results were shown by subsequent work to be wrong or exaggerated. After analyzing the track record of other fields, he concluded that "most published research findings are false."

Ioannidis blames scientists' lousy track record in part on what economists call "the winner's curse." The phenomenon occurs when bidders in an auction—whether art dealers lusting after a Picasso or oil companies pursuing drilling rights in Alaska—drive up the price of a commodity past its true value. The auction's "winner" ends up being a loser. In the same way, scientific journals, which compete with one another to publish the most dramatic papers, often overestimate the trustworthiness of those studies.

As a result, Ioannidis and his colleagues contend, "the more extreme, spectacular results (the largest treatment effects, the strongest associations, or the most unusually novel and exciting biological stories) may be preferentially published." These sorts of claims are also more likely to be wrong. Of course, scientists, who are competing for fame, glory, and publications exacerbate the problem by hyping their results.

To top off this ice-cream sundae of doubt, I offered my students a cherry: a critique by the psychologist Philip Tetlock of expertise in soft sciences, such as politics, history, and economics. In his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment (Princeton University Press), Tetlock presented the results of his 20-year study of the ability of 284 "experts"—and I use the quotes advisedly—in politics and economics to make predictions about current affairs. The experts did worse than random guessing, or "dart-throwing monkeys," as Tetlock put it.

Like Ioannidis, Tetlock found a correlation between the prominence of experts and their fallibility. The more wrong the experts were, the more visible they were in the media. The reason, he conjectured, is that experts who make dramatic claims are more likely to get air time on CNN or column inches in The Washington Post, even though they are likelier to be wrong. The winner's curse strikes again.

For comic relief, I told my students about a maze study, cited by Tetlock, that pitted rats against Yale undergraduates. Sixty percent of the time, researchers placed food on the left side of a fork in the maze; otherwise the food was placed randomly. After figuring out that the food was more often on the left side of the fork, the rats turned left every time and so were right 60 percent of the time. Yale students, discerning illusory patterns of left-right placement, guessed right only 52 percent of the time. Yes, the rats beat the Yalies! The counterintuitive lesson, I suggested, is that the smarter you are, the more likely you may be to "discover" patterns in the world that aren't actually there.

My goal was to foster skepticism in my students, and I succeeded—too much so in some cases. Early on, some reacted with healthy pushback, especially to my suggestion that the era of really big scientific discoveries might be over. "On a scale from toddler knowledge to ultimate enlightenment, man's understanding of the universe could be anywhere," wrote a student named Matt. "How can a person say with certainty that everything is known or close to being known if it is incomparable to anything?"

But as the semester unfolded, many students' skepticism intensified, and manifested itself in ways that dismayed me. Cecelia, a biomedical-engineering major, wrote: "I am skeptical of the methods used to collect data on climate change, the analysis of this data, and the predictions made based on this data." My lectures and assignments apparently were encouraging Cecelia and others to doubt human-induced global warming, even though I had assured them it has overwhelming empirical support.

Steve, a physics major, was so inspired by the notion that correlation does not equal causation—a major theme of the Taubes article on epidemiology—that he questioned the foundations of scientific reasoning. "How do we know there is a cause for anything?" Steve asked. He quoted "a famous philosopher, Hume, who believed that there is no cause of anything, but that everything in life is just a correlation."

In a similar vein, some students echoed the claim of radical postmodernists that we can never really know anything for certain; that almost all our current theories will probably be overturned. Aristotle's physics gave way to Newton's, which in turn yielded to Einstein's. Our current theories of physics will surely be replaced by radically different ones, won't they? Who knows! Maybe even heliocentrism, which was established by astronomy pioneers like Copernicus and Kep­ler, will be shown to be wrong.

After an especially doubt-riddled crop of papers, I responded, "Whoa!" (or words to that effect). Science, I lectured sternly, has established many facts about reality beyond a reasonable doubt, embodied by quantum mechanics, general relativity, the theory of evolution, the genetic code. This scientific knowledge has yielded applications—from vaccines to computer chips—that have transformed our world in countless ways. It is precisely because science is such a powerful mode of knowledge, I said, that you must treat new pronouncements skeptically, carefully distinguishing the genuine from the spurious. But you shouldn't be so skeptical that you deny the possibility of achieving any knowledge at all.

My students listened politely, but I could see the doubt in their eyes.

We professors have a duty to teach our students to be skeptical. But we also have to accept that, if we do our jobs well, their skepticism may turn on us.

John Horgan is a science journalist and director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science (Addison-Wesley, 1996) and The Undiscovered Mind (Free Press, 1999).


1. steveharris - January 18, 2011 at 02:16 pm

The winner's curse applies only to that tiny fraction of publishing that appears noteworthy for the public. It has no effect in the vast majority of science publishing.

While various journals ask me to send them my papers (I work in mathematical relativity), these are impersonal appeals, broadcast to all researchers in related fields--this is not competition likely to drive me to hype my results (just who is interested in ideal points for spacetime models, other than fellow relativists?).

Of course, it's that tiny fraction of publications with potential popular appeal that the science journalist is concerned with. So the proper skepticism to teach is related to what appears in popular media, not what gets published in Quantum and Classical Gravity. (That being said: I have had occasion to retract theorems I've published; fallibility is universal.)

Steve Harris

2. dangoorevitch - January 18, 2011 at 05:14 pm

It's very hard to imagine a more "sexy" and saleable theory than Global Warming which threatens the planet itself (reputedly).

Since temperatures have been cooling since the onset of a low sunspot period of activity it can be said with some certainty that the human cause of global warming can now be quantified: if it exists at all it must be less than the difference in temperature caused by the difference caused by high and low sunspot cycles.

I don't see how such skepticism is unhealthy. And your student's conclusion that there is no way to know where on the curve man's knowledge is is quite brilliant. He's right.

3. avalongod - January 18, 2011 at 08:18 pm

A well written article, and I've noted many of the same issues in trying to communicate the limits of science.

@ Steve Harris. Things in mathematics of course but the "winner's curse" (or publication bias perhaps more accurately) is a live, well and kicking in the social sciences. It's not just limited to the press worthy stuff, but often fueled by ideology and dogma.

4. avalongod - January 18, 2011 at 08:19 pm

I meant to say "things may be different in mathematics..."

5. legalgibbon - January 18, 2011 at 09:19 pm

Although I agree with Dr. Horgan's first two sentences, I don't think the issue is quite as stark as he presents it. Rather, I think there are at least four potential contributors to the problem.

First: we should avoid conflating people with disciplines -- that is, scientISTS are different from science. Accordingly, when a scientIST says something about her research or her field, she may have stretched what her actual field permits her to say. Or, she may speak in shorthand, the meaning and constraints of which non-scientists may not fully understand.

The issue of shorthand brings me to my second point, which may sound trite, but I still believe it to be true: science education is not terribly robust in the United States. Accordingly, many people do not understand what science can do, much less what it cannot do. Furthermore, many people do not understand the axioms from which science operates, and those people therefore do not understand why science can do certain things, but cannot do certain others. Accordingly, when non-scientists hear scientists talk about science, the non-scientists are not able to distinguish among propositions that scientists might throw out -- the ones that are scientifically supportable; the ones that are just exciting and beg for further research; and the ones that scientists might talk about that exceed the world of science.

Journalists are often drawn from the population of non-scientists, so they are not always able to separate the scientIST from the science. Later, perhaps, the journalists are surprised and believe they have been sold a bill of goods.

This brings me to my third point: scientists are not always good communicators of our fields. We forget that many people do not have a solid grounding in the philosophy of science (indeed, some scientists might not have this grounding either -- thus leading to further difficulties in communication). So we use heuristic devices (e.g., "my research "proves" x", despite the fact that science cannot "prove" things). Sometimes, though, scientists spend a great deal of time carefully communicating the limits of current research and research programs, but news stories still fail to tell the story. Which leads me to my final point.

Because journalists have their own needs (perhaps space for a story; the need for exciting headlines; etc.), and because our science education is not always robust as it should be, journalists sometimes boil the scientist's careful account of research down into something brief, catchy, and devoid of actual scientific content.

So -- I think Dr. Horgan is correct: we need to be skeptical when we consume science stories, but we need to understand why and how to be skeptical. Those reasons do not, I think, come from simply imagining that scientists get it wrong, or lie, or that there is some fundamental problem with science itself. Instead, we need to know how science works, and how scientists do their jobs.

(N.B. I realize that this is a rather narrow pie-in-the-sky viewpoint, but I do think that addressing even small parts of these issues would help with the apparent disconnect between scientists and consumers of science information.)

6. rickrusselltx - January 18, 2011 at 10:01 pm

If a student is becoming confused into thinking that Newton's physics "gave way" to Einstein, like a wall crumbling before a bulldozer, then they have a deep misunderstanding of the science. Old theories don't crumble, their limits simply become more sharply defined. We haven't thrown out the germ theory of disease because retroviruses and prions have made its application significantly more complicated for some cases. Gould's punctuated equilibrium hasn't displaced Darwin. New materials with astounding properties don't mean that engineers can forget about steel and concrete.

7. crazyfrog - January 18, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Like many subjects, the extremes are not likely desirable. Yes skepticism is healthy and needed--but in the right amount. But to say something is true with 101% certainty is also fallacy. This is why most scientists dislike the word prove and, like myself, try to extract it from students' vocabularies.
The key is probabilistic thinking. Natalie Angier's book The Canon has wonderful introductory chapters on these issues.
Oh and yes, the probability that global climate change is caused by human activities and is real is very, very high; see here for a broad overview of recent research results (note that it's not any one of them that makes the case for each has its own level of uncertainty; rather the "whole is greater than the sum of the parts"): http://climateprogress.org/2010/11/15/year-in-climate-science-climategate/

8. zagreb - January 18, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Does the author of this article have even the faintest bloody clue about the philosophy, and the philosophical arguments, his students are bringing up in his classes? It certainly appears that he's far more ignorant than his Hume-reading student, to say nothing of those unnamed "radical postmodernists" he's imagining. All I can say is I sure hope he has permanent employment already; far too many people reading this column know miles more than he does about everything he's so casually blithering on about.

9. lothlorien - January 19, 2011 at 12:07 am

The science fiction with mathematics crack is, unfortunately, far to widespread a perception in the field of science studies. I would like to see science studies programs require time in a lab, doing positivist research, so that one might not blithely dismiss complicated mathematical theorems because of the high level of mathematical expertise required. I am firmly in the humanities myself, and have not axe to grind. I did, however, take a number of science classes as an undergraduate, and still read
Science, as well as the occasional draft paper sold as "the latest thing" on network news, only to find the paper says no such thing.

Science studies is valuable and has its place. However, if all students are left with is skepticism, then you are hardly doing them a service. Skepticism tempered with scientific reasoning produces good work. Skepticism unfettered only produces annoying party guests.

10. tejackso - January 19, 2011 at 09:12 am

IMHO...this problem is always lurking in the bushes if you lead students *in a certain way* down the path to hardcore relativism: which is to say if, one way or the other, you present relativist skepticism as disenabling any sense of certainty at all. Evidently, your own loss of faith caused you to overstate the cases of science having gone wrong. But as you say, you seem to have had a religious kind of faith in science to begin with. On the one hand I'd say you're better off having lost that faith, and better off leading students to a loss of such faith. But this skepticism does not entail that scientific knowledge in general (or certain other kinds of knowledge in general) is simply false. Way too often, teachers (especially my colleagues in the humanities) get stuck on a not-very well thought-through idea that there is no absolutely certain knowledge, and *this* is what they tend to promote in the classroom. So if students learn what they've been taught (this unthoughtful version of relativism), and call everything unthoughtfully into question, we shouldn't really be surprised. Nor, in my opinion, should we feel that we've taught students true knowledge about relativist skepticism.

tony jackson

tony jackson

11. dank48 - January 19, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Tony Jackson makes an excellent point about reckless skepticism. One cure: begin the semester by writing "There are no absolute truths" on the board. Let the discussion begin. It's a pretty dull class in which no student eventually realizes that the universal "no" takes in the statement itself. So, even if the statement itself is true, it's not absolutely true that there are no absolute truths. If it's false, then there are absolute truths.
Essentially, the problem with absolute or extreme skepticism is that it's self-defeating. Understanding this is by no means the least they could get out of a semester.
Skepticism is useful in avoiding pitfalls of credulity, but like anything else, it can be overdone.

12. goeswithoutsaying - January 19, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I'll be kinder but agree with rickrusselltx, zagreb and tony jackson.

Perhaps the pictures you paint--how science works, what its technological products mean about its strength as one kind of knowledge as opposed to any other, whether or not skepticism necessarily ends in nihilism, and why all this should interest any undergrad-- are all a little extreme and sensationalized in themselves.

I teach in that swarm of fields (history of science, philosophy of science, history of technology and even STS) that all traffic in these issues. Yes, I teach my students to be skeptical. Yes, I want them to understand relativism-- in its weaker and stronger forms. But I haven't encountered the problem Horgan describes, students "turning" on me or knowledge or science.

The only reason I can find for that is skepticism isn't the main idea or skill I try to give to students. Nor is the "Science ought to be doubted until it is decimated" the punch line. The punch line is a series of questions: How *did* all this get built, why do we continue to trust it, and if we wanted something better, what would that look like and how would we build that instead? It's also: You, too, can learn enough to have a say in all this.

13. oh_richard - January 19, 2011 at 01:39 pm

I know the feeling espoused here, but wouldn't worry too much. The "I believe this is true because it is on wikipedia/was featured in an in-depth 4 minute section on the news last week/was the subject of a Men's Health expose I read, I think it was Men's Health, a year ago, or was it two years ago?/a blog by Bill O'Reilly" student turned to the "I doubt the evidence about evolution/the earth not being the center of the universe/aura clensing experts/global warming."

Critical thinking is not being critical of things, it is being critical about knowledge and how we know it. Students get it this semester or don't, and then go on to get it next semester or not, and then go on to get it the next semester or not... and then go out in the world and get it or don't...

Do what you can. Maybe you succeeded, maybe you only seeded and the next instructor will pick up where you left off...

14. zagreb - January 19, 2011 at 03:49 pm

Let me be a little more constructively critical, too, of an issue separate from the author's stunning philosophical naivete. There is *also* a large pedagogical literature on exactly this subject, of which the author also appears innocent. The book _Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years_ is entirely about the question of bringing students into a larger, more complex ethical and epistemological world than they enter college with; it talks a lot about how incredibly _desirable_ it is for them to adopt a skeptical view and even think hard about extreme relativism, making it one of the last and most sophisticated steps/stages/levels in the book's developmental scheme. In another register, the great Peter Elbow also wrote a bunch about the relative attractiveness of doubt and belief. There are another dozen smart and engaged writers from the last few decades I could name. Wouldn't it be nice to hear from someone who'd ever read them or thought deeply about these issues? Isn't that level of background something that should be incumbent on Chronicle writers and editors?

15. dboyles - January 19, 2011 at 04:07 pm

Many decades ago I gave a seminar on the philosophy of science to our chemistry undergraduates. They were dazed that they may not as chemistry students have been taught the "absolute truth" about anything by their chemistry faculty, but rather felt as though I was presenting heresy, undermining their education, and that they had been indoctrinated by a single, dominant chemistry discourse which any chemistry curriculum indeed serves to foster (despite more out-of-department electives than many majors offer). Similarly, in Chem 100 I found it sometimes difficult several decades ago to discuss with students that science does not attempt to establish absolute truth but rather makes predictive models about the physical world. These particular students had been significantly indoctrinated in K-12 at the time--as had I as a boy--that the atom was really nothing but a miniature solar system. Some 25 years later (now) students seem much more forgiving, but perhaps only because they seem to care less about a rigorous pursuit of any one paradigm to the point of taking it very seriously--which may be the same as my indicating they apparently care less about learning it. My questions: Are we seeing a fall of master discourses such as science in society, with the result being more of a distributed approach to what it even means to "know"? Or are we failing to teach (successfuly indoctrinate?) students as well as was done in the past? Granted, most master discourses meet their match as one matures, goes to grad school, becomes more broadly acquainted with ideas outside of one's curriculum, etc, if only to be supplanted by another dominant discourse. The difference nowadays seems to be that many students have never submitted to any master discourse in the first place that might so much as serve as a guide to faith and practice in the job market, if nothing else. Is the faith factor what is missing? Is this what is meant by skepticism? Or is the skepticism a result of our failure to teach and teach well? (I am preferring to discount "millenials" and a variety of other essentialist ideas that would tell us today's students are different, but that fail to focus on the fact they aren't expected to learn as they once were).

16. philosophy - January 19, 2011 at 04:21 pm

A good site that explains how science rally works and related issues:

17. pekein - January 20, 2011 at 01:18 pm

Mr. Horgan seems to suggest as though there is only one kind of skepticism- or perhaps better, that all skepticism rests upon the same (logical) foundation. The author seems to accept being skeptical of the claims made by scientists when using the methodologies of science, but does not allow one to be skeptical of the justification of those methodologies themselves. As already pointed out, there is quite a literature that at the very least will similarly have him responding "Whoa!" and might even help deepen the conversation past a primal scientism.

discere docendo.

@zag I wouldn't be as quick to suggest that the student's spouting Hume's words are being philosophically sophisticated- I've taught my parrot the same behavior.

18. yandoodan - January 20, 2011 at 07:30 pm

I'm with Zag.

I suggest that the author might try browsing through Popper's "Conjectures and Refutations" for Hume related stuff. He needs to be able to answer his student, not dismiss his concerns.

And can you really teach skepticism -- then wall off a giant area like AGW?

19. pete_l_clark - January 20, 2011 at 09:35 pm

I also largely agree with zagreb (but wish to express myself a bit more mildly). I would like to give the author some credit for having familiarity with basic issues in the philosophy of science. Unfortunately such familiarity does not come across in this piece, which seems to be missing nuance in key places.

For instance: the author endorses the claim that "most published research findings are false". But this is a strange statement, because research in the sciences does make claims about truth: rather it reports on experiments. I suppose the intended meaning here is not that most published researchers are reporting falsely on their experimental results, i.e., that the data was not what they presented it to be. Rather, I guess it means something like "the results presented were not reliably replicable by other researchers" or "the (always tentative, falsifiable but not verifiable) conclusions drawn by the researchers from their experiments turned out to be unwarranted". In other words, whatever is happening here is significantly more complex than the author makes it out to be.

I was truly surprised to hear that the author lectured his students that science "established many facts about reality beyond a reasonable doubt", and gave as examples quantum mechanics and general relativity. If this were written by an undergraduate student in the philosophy of science it would get a failing grade: quantum mechanics and general relativity ARE NOT facts about reality! They are scientific theories, and no scientific theory is a fact about reality: they are both more and less than that. The merit of a scientific theory is that it makes testable and useful predictions about reality, and in this regard relativity and QM are immensely successful scientific theories. (Conversely, the genetic code is not a scientific theory: it is a specific body of information. Roughly speaking, it is the idea that there is a genetic code which is a scientific theory, or a small part of one.)

By losing such nuances, the author certainly loses the distinction between positive and negative varieties of scientific skepticism. The real concern here is that people understand what science means before they express opinions for and against it.

20. pete_l_clark - January 20, 2011 at 09:43 pm

By the way, to those who have said "Dr. Horgan":

According to the biography on his webpage (johnhorgan.org), John Horgan's degrees are as follows: a BA in English and an MS in Journalism. In particular it seems that he has no doctoral degree and no degree of any kind in either science or philosophy. It would be quite nasty to suggest that his views should be discarded because of this -- and I am not suggesting this -- but it is certainly something to keep in mind.

21. dank48 - January 21, 2011 at 11:39 am

Pete_L_Clark, that's supposed to be "But this is a strange statement, because research in the sciences does NOT make claims about truth: rather it reports on experiments." Right?

22. rawhideacademics - January 21, 2011 at 01:19 pm

This has important ramifications in the humanities as well. I have a colleague whose work on British colonial misrepresentations of Hinduism were picked up by BJP members so that my colleague's good work (critical perspectives on how knowledge about Hinduism was produced) was turned into rhetoric for the fundamentalist (anti-critical) Hindu nationalists.

I follow the idea that U.S. universities ought to have graduate course mandates for critical ethics to be taught to any student--engineer, physicist, MD, chemistry, humanities--that would press students to articulate the role of skepticism, methodological reflexivity, and critical thought in their field. The goal of such a course would be the cultivation of global citizens who have at least been exposed to the fierce articulation of a notion of knowledge for the common good. The litmus test for knowledge that serves the common good is not truth nor even empirical verifiability but rather knowledge that entails reflexive methodology with a critical edge capable of challenging the assumptions of the researcher as well as the audience.

23. pete_l_clark - January 22, 2011 at 03:42 am

to dank48: Right! That was an especially unfortunate typo -- thanks for pointing it out.

24. gahnett - January 23, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Hit your student in the eye and ask him whether his black eye is correlated or caused by your fist.

25. citizenwhy - January 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm

This emphasis on skepticism is overstated. Grand theories are always open to correction, and other grand theories stand in rivalry. What matters is how evidence and/or mathematics are used, validly or invalidly. But again, the search for evidence and the use of math always leaves the door open for correction. Learned knowledge does not claim absolute and eternal infallibility.

What also matters is the steady accumulation of validated, empirical knowledge. However false a grand theory may prove to be, our learned disciplines are doing a good job of accumulating trustworthy knowledge.

26. ellenhunt - January 24, 2011 at 02:21 pm

I'm with those suggesting Popper and exploring Hume. It's a good class direction, but to do it right requires much more work.

What I would do with these students is to require them to justify their positions, because the skepticism sword cuts both ways. Make sure they learn that in spades. Now you know that you can expect to draw certain muddy thinkers out into the open. Once you have done that is the time to bring out your vorpal sword to snicker-snack!

So if some come out against global warming, give those students the assignment to get up in front of the class for 45 minutes to defend their position against skeptical attack. Those students doubtless started from that position, and you just allowed them to abuse skepticism to come out of the closet. Also bring the tools of skepticism to bear on Hume, and have that student get up in front of class and present about the quote he used, what its context was, and what the arguments are against it. Assign the class to be ready to nail him/her with skeptical inquiry, and be ready yourself with backup. Or, I might grade the class on my perception of how well they argued, telling them so.

It is salutary for certain "in the closet smartie-pants" students that abuse certain idea to be made an example of. All you have to do is make sure that you understand what you are teaching well enough to do it. I get the impression that you are going to have to stretch yourself a bit to teach this very important concept better.

What you are doing with your class is to bring up an idea, but allowing your students to leave it in a distinctly mashed-potatoes form. The point of skepticism is to be sharp, smart, an careful. The point is not to become mentally lazy and adopt an intellectual nihilism that devalues everything except their pet ideas or fundamentalist notions. The difference should be crystal clear to them by the end.

27. mfortuna - January 28, 2011 at 11:18 am

@ dank48: There really ought to be no absolute truths other than the axioms you admit into your system and acknowledge are not to be questioned. If the apriori probability of the falsity of a statement is =0, then there is nothing that could ever change your mind (Bayes).

28. mfortuna - January 28, 2011 at 11:21 am

I think we would have to all agree that in practice absolute skepticism is self-defeating. I would suggest that finding the "optimal" degree of skepticism is also nearly fruitless, unless we merely acknowledge, without much practicality, that there are times when too much and too little skepticism appears to be exercised.

29. mfortuna - January 28, 2011 at 11:24 am

@ gahnett: I have a sense that you may not actually know the answer to your question. Do you?

30. dank48 - January 28, 2011 at 01:28 pm

Mfortuna, in my field (as if I were still teaching) there's not a crying need for logical rigor; the idea is merely to help students get over their reluctance to credit something they've never encountered before. This tendency to identify "unfamiliar" with "bad" or "bogus" cannot be overstated.

But by realizing that it's just not possible for "There are no absolute truths" to be absolutely true can loosen up the skepticism to the point where they realize that e.g. Germans aren't being perverse in having all those different definite articles and plurals and genders and so forth; rather, it's just the way the language is. (Also, it helps to point out a few of the insanities of English, like -ough, to get them past their disbelief that "people really talk this way.")

31. dank48 - January 28, 2011 at 01:29 pm

Sorry: "But realizing . . ."

32. renaissancehombre - January 31, 2011 at 10:37 am

Three basic comments: It is the height of arrogance to assume that students would not be skeptical without our active intervention or encouragment. My experience tends to suggest that students are natuarlly skeptical; there can be value in learning to sharpen this instinct, but I do not think that any instructor actually teaches people to be skeptical.

Secondly, the glib portrayal of the evolution of Physic is factually wrong and masks a more interesting an nuanced understanding. Einstein's physics did not invalidate or replace Newton's physics, but instead offered new insights into physics at scales and for reference frames where Newton's physics tends to break down. In particular, Einsiteing can be thought of expanding our understanding of Physics to address accelerating frames of reference. Newton's physics continues to be tought to science and engineering students today as a basic foundation of knowledge not because of nostalgia for the past, but because this continues to be understood as relevant.

Point three: There is a profound difference between speculation and fiction. Fiction tends to ignore inconvenient facts, whereas when leading thinkers in a field such as Stephen Hawking engage in speculation, this can be seen as probing the edges of what is known in their field hoping to find an explanation that both agrees with all known facts and also points the way to what could be a new break through in understanding. Science does not merely plod along on the basis of facts but requires the active use of imagination, and I believe students are well served to acquire more nuanced thinking about these things instead of superficial arguments that seem intended to undervalue the creative thinking that underpins all scientific advances.

One problem in science and education occurs when people oversimplify or mischaractersize a situation to make a separate point, resulting in the spread of disinformation along withn insight.

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