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human nature, Religion, science

Teach Critical Thinking, Please

Paul Harris of Harvard University is interested in learning how children think about knowledge.  He and his colleagues recently completed a study of 10-12 year olds who believe in God.  The children were asked various questions about different kinds of entities to determine how their beliefs were established.  They were asked about supernatural beings like “God,” as well as invisible entities like “germs.”

The answers were broken down into four broad categories:

  • They had encountered the entity
  • There was a written source or other authority that asserted the entity existed
  • There was some feature of the entity that explained its existence in generalized terms (e.g. “Souls exist because everyone has their own way of being”, or “Germs are on the dirty things”)
  • The existence of the entity is required because it fulfills some need or purpose (e.g. “God exists because he tells us the way).

The most interesting discovery was that children differentiate between religious and scientific entities.  Their answers demonstrated it pretty conclusively.  Nearly 100% of the answers for scientific entities were basically scientific.  Only 17% of the answers for religious entities were scientific.  What’s more, the scientific entities were usually “proven” to the children by causal relationships.  “Germs are what make us sick.”  “Air is what we breathe to stay alive.”

The implications of this study shouldn’t be overlooked.  In broad strokes, it demonstrates that children are capable of scientific, critical thinking at very early ages.  It also shows that they are quite vulnerable to accepting authority, anecdote, and other non-scientific explanations for non-existent things.  There’s a gap in their “natural” scientific thinking.

This is something that I’ve been harping about for some time.  Good critical thinking is not something that just naturally happens.  In fact, we humans are evolutionarily designed to trust authority and popular opinion.  Learning skepticism and independent thinking takes time, and it’s never too early to start.

In America, we’ve got some problems with this.  The most obvious is that religious organizations demand cultural acceptance of their beliefs as beyond skepticism or scientific inquiry.  In effect, they’re demanding that we not teach critical thinking.  The whole point of critical thinking is to subject absolutely everything to inquiry.  If anything is beyond inquiry then we have no way to say authoritatively that anything is subject to it.

But here’s everything we need to know:  If children aren’t taught to be skeptical of authority, anecdote, and assertion, they will accept them and will develop a kind of dualist thinking.  They will be vulnerable to faith.

If there was ever a mandate for freethinkers, this is it.



13 thoughts on “Teach Critical Thinking, Please

  1. There should be a class about Santa, the Tooth Fairy et al that then leads into Religious questions.

    And welcome back for vacation!

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 5, 2010, 6:52 pm
  2. But here’s everything we need to know: If children aren’t taught to be skeptical of authority, anecdote, and assertion, they will accept them and will develop a kind of dualist thinking. They will be vulnerable to faith.

    That’s only part of the problem.

    The thing is that being “dualist” isn’t necessarily the result of poor scientific education, it’s more that we’re naturally born dualists. A really good discussion of this is here:

    Another thing [and possibly the subject of my next blog entry] this that different people learn and think differently and that we can’t just make irrationality go away by wishing it will. A lot of intelligent and educated people believe in God or woo.

    As a final disclaimer, I am not saying we shouldn’t be teaching kids science and critical thinking at a young age, I’m saying it’s part of the solution and we have to do it the right way.

    Posted by cptpineapple | June 5, 2010, 7:32 pm
  3. Alison, I wish you could see how often you disagree with me by saying the same thing I just said.

    And seriously, can I make the request that you stop using the broad stroke of “irrationality” when you insist on my splitting every nuanced hair in an argument? It’s getting hard for me to even respond to you since all you’re doing is saying, “Yeah… but there’s more to it.” OF COURSE there’s more to it. I can’t very well write the definitive manifesto of childhood cognition in a blog post. It’s highlighting one aspect of the developmental experience, and one solution to a problem.

    Now, why don’t you get off your high horse and explain what the “right way” to teach critical thinking is. Why don’t you contribute to the discussion instead of bitching at me every time I don’t write a comprehensive textbook?

    Posted by hambydammit | June 5, 2010, 7:51 pm
  4. I like the idea of encouraging children to think about Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Especially when they’re still pretty young, they can easily figure out that it’s a fun story we tell, and play a game as if it’s real. Because it’s fun. It just takes a little encouragement, and reinforcement when they’ve figured it out.

    The trick, I think, is using this not only as a single encounter with critical thought, but an example of a broad principle. “See, little Johnny? You can always think about stories and try to figure out if they’re made up or real. Isn’t that fun?”

    Posted by hambydammit | June 5, 2010, 7:54 pm
  5. Hamby, I’m sorry if my posts come off as aggressive or “hair splitting”.

    It’s just that I’m frustrated with the current state of people and even more frustrated with the proposed solutions that will somehow solve it as if by magic.

    Maybe I’m just reading too much into your posts as to whether or not you are advocating that.

    I’ll start reading with my hands firmly tied behind my back.

    Posted by cptpineapple | June 5, 2010, 9:00 pm
  6. An example of my 4 yr old’s critical thinking skills:

    17 yr old son: “Robot Chicken is not a kid’s cartoon.”
    4 yr old: “Yes it is.”
    17 yr old: No it’s not.”
    4 yr old: “Then how do you espain* the Elmo episode?”
    *can’t pronounce xpl

    Also, he knows Santa is not real. Thought a woman praying on television was talking to herself and at night has no problem going into his dark closet and closing the door if his present game requires his closet as a prop.

    Posted by a casual comment | June 5, 2010, 9:19 pm
  7. A church near where I work offers a Summer Bible Camp but only to kids in and under the 6th grade. I guess once they start asking questions lending to reality they aren’t wanted anymore! I am forwarding this post, with the links, to my atheist daughter who is studying psychology and has 3 young kids! More assistance than you know Hamby!! Keep up the good fight!

    Posted by PaigeB | June 6, 2010, 1:27 pm
  8. Interesting study worthy of many more studies. Although i don’t believe children are born with critical thinking, i do believe children see everything and hear everything. My children believe what I tell them, not because i tell them it but because they see it everyday. This study should have had more factors added in: What were the mother and father teaching these children? What do mom and dad believe in themselves? The numbers can be hugely changed by environmental factors that we can not know. Where were these children born? The bible belt? Deep south? New York? We can hope they picked children from around the US. This study was only about Catholic children. What about the rest? What about people from other continents that believe what their controlling governments tell them?
    My children, even though i am Atheist, believe in Santa, God and germs as though they were all real, living and deciding entities. I asked my daughter what color she thought that germs like the best. “Red.” She said. “because my nose and cheeks get red when im sick.” Hopefully, when my children get older, they will critically think out what they believe in, from experience and cultural heritage, what they WANT to believe.

    thanks for letting me rant!

    Posted by Brandy Sheppard | June 6, 2010, 11:39 pm
  9. Oh, definitely. The earlier you can exercise a child’s critical thinking skills the better. There is enough evidence from studies of language learning to show that children are born with at least some degree of critical thinking skills as part of their natural drive/ability to acquire a language.

    To cite just one popular example, when a child uses a non-standard grammatical form like, “He hitted me,” most people automatically assess the form negatively. They think, “The child does not have a grasp on basic grammar yet. It should be just ‘hit'”. But actually, the child is demonstrating his/her critical thinking skills through a generalization. In many cases, the “-ed” suffix indicates past tense, so the child understood the “add -ed to talk about something in the past” rule and generalized it to a new situation.

    In language learning alone, children are little scientists, memorizing data, forming and testing hypotheses, building complex theories.

    Of course, it helps that we appear to be driven toward language learning like a bird is driven toward building nests, so it’s possible that children wouldn’t be as talented at other critical thinking skills as they are at acquiring language, but I’m inclined to believe we are born hungry for information, and the hunger subsides as we grow older–not the other way around. (Ever tried to get grandpa to use a computer?)

    Thanks again, Hamby.

    Posted by Archaeoptryx | June 7, 2010, 5:33 am
  10. Oh, hamby.

    I leave you for a few months and you’re off on another rampage, making your wild leaps again.

    You cannot infer that children who are not taught skepticism will accept authority from your study. It does not follow. To draw that conclusion, you need evidence that children who are taught skepticism as they grow tend to accept authority less than children who are not taught skepticism as they grow. Their initial state – which, apparently, is all this study covered – is pretty much irrelevant.

    And don’t bother responding with whatever other studies you have in your stash. A non sequitur is a non sequitur, even if its conclusion is true.

    You cannot infer that religious organizations do not want children to be taught skepticism from the fact that they ask you, politely, not to be quite so harsh with them. That does not follow. Wouldn’t you think that these organizations would at least want children to be skeptical of *other religions*? Christian schools often equip their students with critical thinking skills (note: secular public schools do not).

    So… wild leaps. But, anything to get to the conclusion that somebody religious is the bad guy, right?

    Posted by Presuppositionalist | June 7, 2010, 5:15 pm
  11. “And don’t bother responding with whatever other studies you have in your stash. A non sequitur is a non sequitur, even if its conclusion is true.”

    or, putting it another way…

    Fucking magnets, how do they work?
    And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
    Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

    Church up the wording all you like, but you still channeled the Insane Clown Posse. This is what the kids refer to as an Epic Fail, in case you’re curious.

    HD, nice post, btw.

    Posted by Braxton | June 8, 2010, 2:22 am
  12. What are you talking about?

    I only wanted to point out the two huge fallacies in hamby’s post. I don’t care if he has other studies.

    Posted by Presuppositionalist | June 9, 2010, 1:33 pm
  13. Um… Presup, the children gave answers, “Because of {X authority.} They DO accept authority answers. These are all theist children. They believe in God, and have clearly not been taught critical thinking, since being taught that God exists DEFIES CRITICAL THINKING.

    So yeah, kiddo. It’s straight line logic.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 9, 2010, 4:32 pm

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