Friday, September 21, 2018

The Critical Thinking Skills Crisis: A response to criticisms of "The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax," Part I

An essay I wrote several years ago and which Memoria Press recently republished was the subject of a radio discussion program at yesterday. The essay was "The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax," and the radio program is "Critical Thinking For Everyone," hosted by Patty Payette & Brian Barnes, two critical thinking scholars at the University of Louisville.

The link to the show that discusses my article does not appear to be up yet, but you might check in later if you are interested.

Although the title of my article was intentionally hyperbolic, in the thesis of my article there was no hyperbole at all. It was that the vast majority of educators who talk about "critical thinking skills" are incapable of defining the term, and that it serves, practically speaking, as a promotional slogan and an excuse for the failure to do things essential in education, such as teaching academic content to students.

In the article I said, "Not one in a hundred even knows what he means by this term," a common figurative expression like "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," or "her eyes were as wide as saucers," or "he was as skinny as a toothpick." But one must be careful when saying things within earshot of literally-minded critical thinking professionals. Near the beginning of the program, Barnes challenged this statement by pointing to a study that purportedly found that fully "nineteen out of a hundred" educators could define critical thinking skills.

Of course this assumes that those performing studies to determine the percentage of educators who could define critical thinking skills could themselves define critical thinking skills. And I contend that not one in a hundred researchers who do such studies could define critical thinking skills.

I said "vast majority," but, in fact, in my own private, unofficial survey of educators, I have yet to encounter anyone who can give me a coherent definition. And I have talked to far more than a hundred educators on this topic.

In fact, I was waiting to hear a definition of it on the show, but I never heard one. At one point a list of examples of critical thinking skills practices was given. I guess that constitutes a rudimentary connotative definition, and that is certainly informative, but it doesn't constitute the kind of clear, essential, delimited definition (what would be called a denotative definition) that one would need to have in order to properly design and implement programs that would be useful in schools, which I gather is one of the themes of this show.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll discuss that in a later post.

I will be posting several responses to comments made on the show, none of which, I hope, will not be so impudent as to cause the "Critical Thinking for Everyone" people to retract the gracious offer they have made to me to come on their show to respond, which, according to Patty Payette, the show's host, should be sometime in October or early November. I'll post the date here when we have one.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My appearance on last week's "Kentucky Tonight" on Sports Wagering

Renee Shaw and guests discuss sports betting. Scheduled guests: Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky; State Rep. John Sims, D-Flemingsburg; Stan Cave, Lexington Attorney; and State Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, Licensing, Occupations, & Administration Regulations Committee Chair.
(Click on image to see the show)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The #CatholicChurch #priest abuse scandal is not primarily about #pedophilia or clericalism, says Phoenix priest

"The secular world which promotes homosexuality as a positive good had no choice but to spin the sex abuse scandal as predominantly a problem of pedophilia, the abuse of children to avert the attention from the truth staring them in the face..."

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Scientific Hubris: Why #Science Can't Answer All the Big Questions

Big Think has printed another of a class of essays, written by scientists, common these days, announcing in triumphant tones all the things that science can do outside its particular and limited domain. It was a reprint from an earlier post at Aeon. Almost without exception, these essays, which implicitly aspire to philosophical eloquence, fly too close to the sun. The only difference being that, while Icarus was able to gain a little altitude before the wax started melting, these writers never gain much altitude at all before flaming out.

These articles have a number of characteristic features. First, they are usually written by scientists almost completely unfamiliar with the philosophical issues they seem to feel qualified to address; second, they betray a marked ignorance of their own unquestioned metaphysical assumptions, assumptions outside the realm of science altogether, and which, moreover, are often question-begging; and third, their chief rhetorical mode of procedure is not reasoning, but a kind of naive optimistism that often descends into cheer-leading.

"Science," says author Peter Atkins, in his article "Why it’s only science that can answer all the big questions":

has proved itself to be a reliable way to approach all kinds of questions about the physical world. As a scientist, I am led to wonder whether its ability to provide understanding is unlimited. Can it in fact answer all the great questions, the ‘big questions of being’, that occur to us?

Well, first of all, why should we think it is unlimited? There are obvious limitations to science. Like all disciplines, it is limited by the unique tools at its disposal: in the case of science, it is the tools of mathematics and empirical observation. The tools of science are quantitative; they are therefore limited in the possible answers they might give to quantitative answers. 

When a scientist is faced with a non-scientific, qualitative question, he should realize that he is out of his water and would be better off treading lightly.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. History has produced a number of scientists who were also formidable philosophical minds. Alfred North Whitehead was one. Henri Poincare was another. A number of physicists (I'm thinking of Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, and, more recently, Paul Davies) have been able to cross over and still make sense. Even popular science writers like Martin Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould were able to sound articulate even when they took off their scientific hats.

Unfortunately, Atkins is not among this august assembly.

First, he makes a distinction between two kinds of "big questions." The first, he says, 

include questions of purpose and worries about the annihilation of the self, such as Why are we here? and What are the attributes of the soul? They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence. Thus, as there is no evidence for the Universe having a purpose, there is no point in trying to establish its purpose or to explore the consequences of that purported purpose. As there is no evidence for the existence of a soul (except in a metaphorical sense), there is no point in spending time wondering what the properties of that soul might be should the concept ever be substantiated. Most questions of this class are a waste of time; and because they are not open to rational discourse, at worst they are resolved only by resort to the sword, the bomb or the flame.

"They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence." Hmmm. How do we know this? What evidence is there for the statement "The only real questions are questions based on evidence"? It is a metaphysical assumption that is simply unverifiable in itself and suffers from not being able to comply with its own criterion, since there is no evidence for it.

Then he takes a little, hidden leap: These kinds of questions "are not open to rational discourse." In other words, metaphysical questions are not rational because there is no evidence for them. But there are all kinds of mathematical questions that depend on no evidence at all. Geometry is full of them: They're called axioms and postulates. There is no evidence for them at all. We simply assume them.

The field of logic itself has all kinds of assumptions for which there is no evidence that even Atkins would be loathe to reject, among which is the Law of Non-Contradiction.

And then there is science itself. As the 18th century philosopher David Hume pointed out, the major premise in induction is that the future will always be like the past. There is no evidence for it. None. In fact, it is impossible for there to be evidence for it. Scientists postulate that there is such a thing as cause and effect. But these are metaphysical conceptions which, again, as Hume pointed out, are completely beyond the reach of evidence. Empirically speaking, there is only correlation. To posit cause and effect is to go entirely beyond the actual evidence.

And even supposedly empirical science goes beyond the evidence. Where, for example, is the empirical evidence for dark matter?

The second kind of "big question" is the kind of questions that 

include investigations into the origin of the Universe, and specifically how it is that there is something rather than nothing, the details of the structure of the Universe (particularly the relative strengths of the fundamental forces and the existence of the fundamental particles), and the nature of consciousness. These are all real big questions and, in my view, are open to scientific elucidation.

Well, okay. This is a mixed bag. The question of the "nature of consciousness" is something very different than the "relative strengths of the fundamental forces and the existence of the fundamental particles." How is the nature of consciousness even conceptually empirical? He gives no account.

And here is where Atkins employs a typical scientistic trope to make something sound scientific when it is not: "How is it that there is something rather than nothing?" is a disguised form of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" This is the trick that Laurence Krauss pulls in his book A Universe from Nothing (somewhat unfortunately subtitled Why There is Something Rather than Nothing), as I pointed out in my review of that book.

To get the general idea, compare Atkins reasoning here:

The first class of questions, the inventions, commonly but not invariably begin with Why. The second class properly begin with How but, to avoid a lot of clumsy language, are often packaged as Why questions for convenience of discourse. Thus, Why is there something rather than nothing? (which is coloured by hints of purpose) is actually a disguised form of How is it that something emerged from nothing? Such Why questions can always be deconstructed into concatenations of How questions, and are in principle worthy of consideration with an expectation of being answered.

With Krauss' here:

At the same time, in science we have to particularly cautious about "why" questions. When we ask, "Why?" we usually mean "How?"

... So I am going to assume that what this question really means to ask is, "How is there something rather than nothing?" "How" questions are really the only ones we can provide definitive answer to by studying nature, but because this sentence sounds much stranger to the ear, I hope you will forgive me if I something fall into the trap of appearing to discuss the more standard formulation when I am really trying to respond to the more specific "how" questions.

This is the practice Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek has likened to throwing a dart against a blank wall and then, only afterward, drawing a target around it. You take the why question, change it into a how question, and, presto, it becomes amenable to scientific resolution.

It's hard to believe that this move is not just intellectually dishonest. "Why" questions "are often packaged as Why questions for convenience of discourse"?!!! No, actually they're not. They're two entirely different kinds of questions, and Martin Heidegger, who famously asked the "Why" question about something and nothing, would have had a good laugh (which is a rare thing for a serious German philosopher) if he had heard this kind of nonsense.

Then, as if he had not already displayed enough hubris, Atkins says:

I see no reason why the scientific method cannot be used to answer, or at least illuminate, Socrates’ question ‘How should we live?’ by appealing to those currently semi-sciences (the social sciences) including anthropology, ethology, psychology and economics.

Wait a minute. I could have sworn that Atkins said that questions like this "are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence." And now questions of how we should live are open to scientific inquiry?

As Chesterton once said,

To mix science up with philosophy is only to produce a philosophy that has lost all its ideal value and a science that has lost all its practical value. I want my private physician to tell me whether this or that food will kill me. It is for my private philosopher to tell me whether I ought to be killed.

Finally, possibly because he is clearly having problems operating an argument, Atkins just settles for an altar call and asks everyone to come forward:

The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism, optimism that given patience and effort, often collaborative effort, comprehension will come. It has in the past, and there is no reason to suppose that such optimism is misplaced now. Of course, foothills have given way to mountains, and rapid progress cannot be expected in the final push. 

Amen, Halleluiah. 

In the rest of the paragraph whence those sentence came I counted four maybe's and one perhaps. Would if the enthusiasm were supported by actual, shall we say, evidence.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Do you use too many exclamation marks? Stop it!!!

My newest post at Exordium:
In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Katherine Bindley writes of the debate over whether exclamation marks are overused. It is an issue teachers in particular should read, they being among the most cavalier of exclamation mark users. 
How many times have you seen a note from a teacher that reads, “You did a great job!!!” or “It’s so good to have you in the class!!!” “Awesome!!!”
Let’s admit it: There are some teachers who end literally every sentence with an exclamation mark. 
It isn’t as if we are more enthusiastic than we used to be. John Keilman at the Chicago Tribune writes: 
This grammatical sea change has been a rough transition for a lot of us old timers, given that our teachers trained us to regard exclamation points as the Donald Trump of punctuation: loud, overbearing and best endured in small doses. Using them for anything but the most passionate interjection was the sign of a lunatic or an airhead. 
But oh, how times have changed!!!
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What #Putin is Doing and what the West is Not Doing At All

My newest post at Intellectual Takeout:
This weekend's Wall Street Journal featured an interesting article about Hungary, a former Soviet bloc country that fled to NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is now moving closer to Putin's Russia. As the article mentions, it is one more example of the break up of the Cold War anti-Soviet alliance, and another diplomatic victory for Putin.
But more importantly, it returns us to the issue of why it is that the West is experiencing this long, slow breakup--and what Putin is doing right.
Here is what Putin is doing right and what the West is--not doing wrong--but not doing at all: First, he is providing his people with a transcendent meaning and purpose through an official religion, that of Christianity, while the West thinks it can keep cultural cohesion through meaningless secular liberal abstractions.
Read the rest here.

Monday, August 13, 2018

#Science 's Useful Fallacy

My article in the most recent Classical Teacher magazine:
The expression “the science is settled” has been invoked as a way to end numerous discussions of scientific importance. On issues involving evolution, dietary science, or exercise physiology, it is not uncommon for one side to claim that the research has settled the issue. But, however much evidence there may be for any particular scientific theory, is the science of it ever really “settled”? 
Although many scientists don’t like to hear it, the nature of scientific reasoning itself prevents any scientific theory from ever being settled. The problem of the level of certainty in scientific judgments goes much deeper than any specific issue. It has to do with the very kind of logic science must employ in order to come to its conclusions. To put it bluntly, scientific reasoning is based on a logical fallacy, and because of this fact, science is never settled. 
...The fact that the chief mode of scientific reasoning is a fallacy is not an excuse for dismissing science. Far from it. But it should be a lesson to us that, though certain theories may be said to be well-established, the findings of science are always to some extent tentative.
Read the rest here.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Three Classical Terms

My article in the most recent issue of the Classical Teacher magazine:
I have given many speeches and written many articles on the subject of what classical education is. One of the things I have realized in doing so is that, among the many impediments to understanding what classical education is, there is the simple problem of the lack of clarity in the words we use to talk about it. There are three terms that those of us involved in classical education like to throw around, terms we sometimes use interchangeably and simultaneously or in some other way that obscures their meanings. 
We are in no danger of being arrested by the language police over this, but our approach to classical education and our execution of it depend on our understanding of what these terms mean and how they are distinct. 
The three terms are: “classical,” “liberal arts,” and “humanities.”
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wynton Marsalis: Hip-hop "is more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee"

Where are the demonstrations? Where are the grandstanding politicians?
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis didn’t hold back during a new interview in which he discussed the impact rap music has had on the Black community. He believes hip-hop is more damaging to African-Americans than statues of the confederate leaders who fought to preserve slavery.

In a recent interview with journalist Jonathan Capehart on his Cape Up podcast, Marsalis shared that he’s never been fond of the vulgarity some rappers spew on the microphone.

“My words are not that powerful. I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about ni**ers and b*tches and h*es. It had no impact. I’ve said it. I’ve repeated it. I still repeat it. To me, that’s more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.”

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Is the #Bible one of the 21 most overrated #books ever?

A new article in GQ lists the "21 most overrated books ever." Of the 21 books GQ lists that aren't worth reading, one of them is the Bible. It's enough to make you wonder if GQ is a magazine worth reading.

The Bible gets the boot, along with Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and Farewell to Arms, Cormack McCarthy's Blood Meridian, David McCullough's John Adams, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and the book that British readers voted the best book of the twentieth century, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

As an act of literary vandalism, the article isn't exactly convincing. In some of their complaints, the authors (the apparently culturally illiterate GQ editorial staff) sound like women's studies professors having a bad hair day (some of the books are "sexist")--or like Jesse Jackson on, well, any day (some are "racist"). It adds, "but most are just really, really boring."

Say this for the Visigoths: At least they didn't pretend they were pursuing some high-mined ideological agenda when they helped destroy civilization, nor did they find what they were vandalizing to be particularly "boring."

In each case, GQ recommends another, usually more obscure book to read for each of the classic books it denigrates.

Old Man and the Sea is to be replaced by The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, a "series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on a remote Finnish island." I'm sure it is good--as far as books about remote Finnish islands go. 

And displacing Blood Meridian is The Sisters Brothers, the New York Times #1 bestseller (not really) by Patrick deWitt, about two hired killers in the Old West--but an Old West, we can be sure, sanitized of racism and sexism.

Instead of the Bible? The new-wave European Notebook by Agota Kristof. If you've never heard of it, don't worry. You're not alone. But among GQ editors, it's all the rage.

And even though their unwanted list happily includes two J.D. Salanger books, they make the mistake of admitting that they actually enjoyed them in school. Never trust anyone who liked Catcher in the Rye. Even in school.

The article is written in a tongue-in-cheek tone, but still, an article like this makes you wonder whether you can trust GQ on anything. The magazine is, according to the its online self-portrait, devoted to men's fashion, style, grooming, fitness, and lifestyle.  Given the bad taste evinced here, can you even trust these people on men's fashion?

Soon they'll be trying to bring back ... wait. They are! Wallabees? Seriously? 

All in all, the GQ editors find that the body of great Western literature is just too filled with "rigid masculine emotional landscapes," "misogynistic gender roles," and "masculine bluster." I'm guessing that if the editorial staffs for GQ and Ms. magazines were secretly switched one day, no one would ever notice.

Except the Ms. editors would at least have enough fashion sense not to think that donning wallabees was a particularly compelling fashion statement.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

I will be speaking at the CiRCE Institute's liberal arts conference in Louisville May 18-19

 The Fruitful Garden

I will be speaking at the CiRCE Institute's regional conference in Louisville on the liberal arts on May 18-19, along with Chris Perrin, Professor Carol and Hank Reynolds, Adam Andrews, Brian Philips and Matt Bianco. It's at the historic Seelbach Hotel. Check it out.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Classical Education is More than a Method: The Secondary Place of Dorothy Sayer's Trivium

My article in the newest Classical Teacher is now up at the Memoria Press website: "Classical Education is More than a Method: The Secondary Place of Dorothy Sayer's Trivium."

If you were to ask most classical educators what classical education is, you would find them hard-pressed to give a short, coherent answer. That is the way with a lot of movements: It’s easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm, but when asked to formulate what it is that excites you, it’s hard to articulate.

But when you can get an answer to the question, “What is classical education?,” it is almost always in terms of Dorothy Sayers’ trivium, her three “states of development”—the grammar stage, the dialectic stage, and the rhetoric stage. These together, we are told, are what constitute a classical education.

The origin of this conception of classical education can be found in a speech Sayers gave to students at Oxford University during a vacation term in 1947, titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Despite the lack of attention paid to it at the time or in the succeeding decades, its republication in Douglas Wilson’s 1991 book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, made it a rallying cry for thousands of classical home and private schools across the country.

Read the rest here.