Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Situation Critical

I've been seeing more talk recently about "critical thinking" by secularist liberals, and it gives me more evidence that the people who rely on that slogan don't know what they're talking about.

Last weekend a friend posted a link on Facebook to a People for the American Way post about a right-wing radio host who'd been ranting against contraception.  It set off a flurry of comments bitching about the "media."  One person wrote:
The real problem is that no one in the media wants to "take sides" even when one side is based in reality and the other is a bunch of nonsense. So we treat both sides of a "controversy" (which is usually something long ago settled in scientific circles) as if both points of view were equally valid and people should "make up their own minds."
He (and some of the other commenters) reacted as though the radio ranter had been given a platform by CNN or the New York Times.  As far as I could tell, he was talking on his own radio show, and if anything, People For The American Way probably brought him more attention than he would have ever gotten if they'd just ignored him.

One of the warning signals of irrationality is riding your personal hobbyhorse and ignoring the actual situation and context you're reacting to.  While this commenter had a valid point about the way the corporate media handle controversy, it was irrelevant to the case he was talking about.  In doing so he revealed a disturbing authoritarian streak that I've often noticed among liberals and progressives.

It's part of the rationale for freedom of speech, press, and religion that people should be free to express even nutty, discredited, and hateful opinions, leaving others to "make up their own minds."  That the commenter chose to put that phrase in quotes implies to me that he doesn't think people should be left to make up their own minds.  It sounds like he thinks that if something was "long ago settled in scientific circles," there's no need to discuss it anymore, and the media should just ignore anyone who disagrees.  Which they do, on subjects they consider settled, like the importance of eliminating the Federal deficit, Obama's obligation to move to the center, the benefits of privatizing and corporatizing everything, and the necessity of going to war, and other such commonsense positions.  That the corporate media are willing to be one-sided about issues like these shows that they aren't quite as wishy-washy or dedicated to specious balance as many people think.

It's even arguable that they don't need to be balanced.  I think we'd all be better off if more people recognized that the corporate media are not unbiased, but present the news from the perspective of the investor class; the list of issues on which they feel no need to present "balance," compared to those they do, makes that clear enough.  The audience does need to "make up their own minds," because the First Amendment forbids the government to make up their minds for them.

Often, when a question has been long-settled in scientific circles, it's due for shaking up.  But that's not my point here.  The point is that people like creationists are generally well aware of the scientific consensus on the origins of life; they simply disagree with it, which is another matter altogether.  They generally don't understand the science very well, but neither do most of their lay scientific opponents.  So why not teach them?  Most students will never use the science that is drummed into them in class -- much of it will be outdated by the time they reach adulthood anyway -- but what they learn about the conflict will be useful to them throughout their lives.  Besides, teaching the conflict entails teaching the science: students will learn just as much, and probably more, as they would from the standard classroom method.

A disturbing number of people who favor critical thinking object vehemently to teaching the conflicts, and they often object in exactly that term: even to refute that nonsensical position is to give it too much respect.  For example, this citizen-activist has waged war against the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, which the writer of the article calls "an insidious piece of legislation that allows teachers to bring in their own supplemental materials when discussing politically controversial topics like evolution or climate change."
Soon after the act was passed, some of his teachers began to not just supplement existing texts, but to rid the classroom of established science books altogether. It was during the process to adopt a new life science textbook in 2010 that creationists barraged Louisiana's State Board of Education with complaints about the evidence-based science texts. Suddenly, it appeared that they were going to be successful in throwing out science textbooks.
"Evidence-based science texts"!  The article goes on:
And indeed, Kopplin is a passionate defender of scientific inquiry, and vociferously rejects the notion that creationism and evolution should be taught side-by-side.

"Creationism is not science, and shouldn't be in a public school science class — it's that simple," he says. "Often though, creationists do not, or are unwilling, to recognize this." Science, he argues, is observable, naturalistic, testable, falsifiable, and expandable — everything that creationism is not.
As you can see, those teachers who chose to "rid the classroom of established science books altogether" are not teaching the conflict.  And instead of simply declaring the faults of Creationism, why not demonstrate them in the classroom? Since its faults are so glaring, it should be an easy task.  I have my differences with the late Carl Sagan, but I applaud his willingness, in Broca's Brain, to devote a chapter to refuting the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky.  It's significant, though, that he felt a need to justify the enterprise against critics who opposed criticizing a position that was long settled in scientific circles.

Kopplin is trying to make his position seem reasonable, but it's not.  There are other reasons to object to teaching the conflicts: lack of time, teachers who aren't competent to present the material, and the like.  But simply asserting your position and demanding that everyone else accept it is authoritarianism, and it doesn't matter if your position was reached originally through observations, tested, and could be falsified; the question is how you're going to teach it.

I'm trying to figure out what is "insidious" about the LSEA permitting teachers to bring in their own materials on controversial issues.  I thought teachers did that already: cutting out magazine clippings, making bulletin board displays, and the like.  Would Kopplin and the Guardian writer object to a teacher bringing in his or her own outside material on same-sex marriage, the Civil Rights movement, drone warfare?  Maybe there's something about the law that privileges only certain viewpoints, but I can't tell from the article.  True, it's apparent that many Louisiana teachers are abusing the law to advance their own position, but why shouldn't they?  On Kopplin's assumptions, there's no need to cover a variety of views in a class, just the right one.  Creationists agree with him.

Science, like most school subjects, is taught in an authoritarian way.  Yours not to question why you're reading Shakespeare or dissecting a cat, yours to do the assignment.  That's not necessarily a bad thing -- critical thinking doesn't play a role in learning to play the piano or dance ballet either.  But there shouldn't be any pretense of teaching the student critical-thinking skills in that case.  I’m with Gerald Graff: “I’m a believer in the pedagogical and civic value of bad argument. I think a culture of crude and crudely polarized debate is an advance over the Eisenhower era I grew up in, where conflicts were mushed over in a haze of evasive rhetoric.”

Today another friend posted a link to a Paul Krugman column on critical thinking, which concluded:
In her parting shot on leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of her Republican critics, “They just will not live in an evidence-based world.” She was referring specifically to the Benghazi controversy, but her point applies much more generally. And for all the talk of reforming and reinventing the G.O.P., the ignorance caucus retains a firm grip on the party’s heart and mind. 
"Evidence-based"!  That's as annoying as "reality-based," because it's just as bogus.  Democrats also believe what they want in defiance of the evidence: that Barack Obama is as different from George W. Bush as day is from night, that he is the great liberal / progressive hope, that he wants to protect "entitlements" while reforming them just a little, that he is a supporter of democracy the world over, that he ended the wars, that he stands firmly with ordinary Americans against the bosses and the banksters, and so on.

My friend wrote this comment on his link to Krugman: "Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach 'critical thinking skills,' because, it said, such efforts 'have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.'  Well, that much is true.  I remember how in the 1970s, the Christian Right in Indiana opposed bills against child abuse because they would undermine parental authority, and they were right too.  And how many teachers want their students exercising critical thinking in the classroom?  Critical thinking undermines all authority.  And the Right has no objection to doing so when authority is being exercised by liberals and Democrats: stories about simple Christian students who easily defeat and embarrass their smart-aleck infidel professors are popular folklore, for example, and students who petition their schools to allow prayers at Commencement get support from conservative parents and civic leaders.  (But compare this story about a student who blocked prayer at his commencement.  "'They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast,' ACLU NC legal advisor Chris Brook said."  I suppose I sympathize, but the First Amendment doesn't guarantee you the right not to feel "like an outcast" -- rather the opposite.)

Critical thinking cuts both ways.  (Or rather, all ways.)  It's supposed to.  But what bothers me is that many of the people calling for teaching critical thinking haven't mastered the skills themselves, and turn out not to know what they are.  Critical thinking doesn't mean dismissing absurd unfounded views; it means engaging with them.   If they really are so absurd, it should be easy to refute them.  It takes some time and work, but that's part of the price of living in a hypothetically free society.