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  • Critical Thinking

    Posted by Ginny on October 2nd, 2006 (All posts by )

    While my colleagues point to the Nobel Prize winners, my e-mails suggest why the Nobels in the future might not be American. Scotus sent the department the following passage from “Samantha Shrugs,” a short piece in the September 2006 Touchstone, not surprisingly concerned with reactions at a Catholic school by an honors student.

    The perspective on abortion might be the one you’d expect in such a setting, but the author admits “Now, itís not my intention, in this forum, to argue one way or the other about abortion rights, and, in fairness, Iím sure opponents of abortion have spoken similar nonsense. My point, however, is to illustrate the ďmindset,Ē I believe, of a lot of our students.” The mindset is not likey to garner Nobel Prizes.

    “Samantha: Yes, but what science says doesnít matter.
    Me: (silent, unsure of an appropriate response to such an assertion)
    Samantha: Just because something is true doesnít mean you have to believe it.
    Me: Okay. (I write her last sentence on the board so itís plain as day.) Are you sure thatís the argument you want to make to defend a right to abortion?
    Samantha: Sure. I can go through my life denying what science says is true. I have that right.
    Me: Yes, I guess you can. I can refuse to believe, for example, that the world is round. I can insist itís flat.
    Samantha: Exactly.
    Me: But can that kind of thinking ever become the foundation of our laws, even if some unreasonable folks want to base their personal decisions on it? If we do, laws just become a matter of who has the power, not whatís right and true. Laws would simply be what the lawmaker wants them to be, for his own convenience. If the ones making the law want to say wife-beating is okay, then thatís the law; it doesnít matter if itís ďtrueĒ that women are people and have rights. Or Hitler can have his concentration camps. Or America can have black slaves. And thereís nothing anyone can do about it, because (the lawmaker says) just because something is true doesnít mean I have to believe it.

    Samantha shrugged.

     

    15 Responses to “Critical Thinking”

    1. david foster Says:

      I think there are a couple of things going on here:

      1)The increased emphasis on “feelings” in our society, as exemplified by the Dr Phils & Oprahs of the world, has tended to disconnect opinions and thought. The inculcation of prickly “self-esteem” has also contributed to this tendency.

      2)However, “science says” is not a scientific argument. Too often, science is presented merely as an argument from authority–famous scientists say X is true, so you should believe it.

    2. Scotus Says:

      David, I agree with your first point, but would you say it’s always wrong to appeal to the authority of science, as in, for example, science says the earth is round? It may be wrong to appeal to only one famous scientist (especially when the matter at hand has nothing to do with his area of expertise), but is it wrong to appeal to a scientific consensus?

    3. LotharBot Says:

      I believe it’s best not to appeal to “scientific consensus” as the primary point of an argument. It’s right to appeal to the evidence on which the scientific consensus is based. Mention scientific consensus only as confirmation of the solidity of that evidence. In other words, “scientific consensus” is itself a piece of evidence that adds weight to other, more direct pieces of evidence — but it’s not a substitute for them.

      As for the first point I believe a big problem is a particular form of postmodernism that basically says, well, whatever you feel is OK for you, and whatever I feel is OK for me, and there’s no objective reality either of us has to conform to People will dismiss things they don’t like as “just your opinion” even if there’s incredibly solid evidence backing it up. They believe that, because you can’t *prove* anything and because there are different perspectives, it’s OK to ignore some evidence and cherry-pick other evidence and choose whatever perspective you happen to like the most. A more mature understanding is that, while you can’t prove anything and there are different perspectives, you should seek to gather adequate evidence in order to gain a complete understanding of the underlying system, including the way it’s interpreted from various perspectives and how accurately each interpretation meshes with the sum total of the evidence.

    4. david foster Says:

      Scotus…it’s fairly easy to demonstrate, even to 8th graders, *why* scientists think the earth is round, and why it was possible to come to that conclusion even before spaceships or long-distance sailing ships. I think this is much more valuable to the kids than just telling them “that’s what scientists think.”

      On a related note, I think the increasing practice of substituting computer simulation for lab experiments fails to develop a proper understanding of the scientific method. It would be much better to run the simulation, run the experiment, and compare the results than to just treat the simulator as an all-wise black box.

    5. GFK Says:

      Ginny,

      interestingly enough, this topic was tackled by the pope in his infamous “Islam” speech.

      The Pope’s argument was that science is an outgrowth of reason. Put another way, reason precedes science. So science is important, but science can’t be the sole test for reason and science will not answer all our questions.

      Unfortunately, as we’ve gotten rid of religion in the public square we’ve also had to get rid of much of the philosophy and reasoning that had been intertwined with religion for the past two thousand years.

      We’re left with people that can’t think. Without reason, science doesn’t do them any good; in fact, without reason, they’ll deny even science with credulity.

    6. Taeyoung Says:

      David, I agree with your first point, but would you say it’s always wrong to appeal to the authority of science, as in, for example, science says the earth is round?

      In the context given in the “Samantha Shrugs” excerpt, the problem is that the science is beside the point. The underlying issue is moral — what counts as “human,” at what stage of human development rights attach, etc. Science cannot supply us with moral arguments, only the factual predicates for moral arguments. Only the “is,” not the “ought.”

      To take one of the examples given, science can tell us that, according to a given definition, females and males are both “humans,” and members of the same species. And we can therefore reason on that factual basis that women and men ought to enjoy the same rights. But science can also tell us that there are meaningful genetic and physiological differences between men and women, and people can attach to those differences the moral significance that they wish, using them to argue that women oughtn’t enjoy equal rights with men. The real argument has nothing to do with science, and the moral conclusions scientists draw are not commanding. They are, after all, scientists, not moral philosophers.

      A clear example of this would be ecology, or meteorology, or whatever the Global Warming theory has come out of. There, scientists give us a scientific conclusion (humans are contributing to global warming), and in many cases, volunteer their moral conclusions (ergo humans should stop doing what they are doing to prevent global warming from getting worse). But while we defer to scientific experts on the first question, there’s no particular reason to defer to them on the second.

    7. pouncer Says:

      By what power does a soul obtain such rights of belief?

      A dog might believe he’s a bird, and leap out of a window believing he can fly. No law of dogs or men compels his belief — but he will fall, not fly. However, as far as we know, a dog does not even HAVE such a mental capacity for “belief”. A dog knows he’s a dog and will not even attempt to fly.

      It is human beings who have dreams, see what never was and ask why not, and attempt to bend reality to conform to our visions. We turn night to day, we turn poisons into medicine, and we leap from high places wearing contraptions of wax, feathers, and balsa wood — to soar above the clouds.

      How do we alone of all living things on the planet have that capacity?

      And how can we exercise it without the ability to stare scientific reality in the teeth and defy it?

      The right to be wrong is the highest gift either God and/or the US constitution have ever bestowed upon humanity.

    8. Scotus Says:

      Taeyoung, science IS relevant to moral arguments because facts are always relevant, and science can show what the facts are. If one wishes to argue that abortion is moral because fetuses don’t have a unique DNA, then science makes hash out of that argument because its key factual premise is false.

      pouncer, you say, “The right to be wrong is the highest gift either God and/or the US constitution have ever bestowed upon humanity.” How can even God, let alone the US constitution, give us a right, as Samantha claimed, not to believe that which is true? Isn’t this the same as saying “Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve made up my mind?” Not knowing whether something is true, or going against the conventional wisdom, is not the same as refusing to believe the truth. Also, humans, without technology, can no more fly than dogs can.

    9. LotharBot Says:

      I agree with the argument that “I can go through my life denying what science says is true.” I’ll extend it further — there’s no universal law that denies us the right to be stupid or wrong, even intentionally. There’s no law against believing something absurd like “the Book of Mormon is a literal and correct history of the Americas”.

      But, when it comes down to the formation of laws, deliniation of rights, or foundation of ethics, “I’m entitled to deny rationality” is a crappy defense. You might be entitled to hold stupid beliefs, but you’re not entitled to act on those beliefs in ways that will harm others. You might very well believe (against all rationality) that punching people in the face and yelling racial epithets is a sign of tremendous respect, but if you try to act on that belief, you can expect to be arrested and/or pummelled. And you might very well believe that white people don’t have actual brains or feelings and are therefore no better than grilled cheese, but if you try to act on that belief in certain ways, you can expect similar treatment.

    10. Scotus Says:

      LotharBot,

      I agree that people CAN be stupid and choose to hold irrational beliefs. I also believe that they should not be arrested or hindered just for holding irrational beliefs. I think we agree, however, that people SHOULDN’T hold irrational beliefs. Thus, they cannot claim any sort of moral or intellectual right to hold them and, I believe, that is what Samantha was doing.

    11. pouncer Says:

      If humans do NOT have “the right to be wrong”, why should other humans — particularly richer, more powerful humans — treat the wrongly-believing as anything other than dogs? (Infidels, heretics, barbarians, savages, sub-human dangerous animals…)

      Note how many scientific beliefs have been ovetaken by events; and how those once believing “falsely” have become in time the newly “correct”. Stomache ulcers are caused by a virus, not work stress. Continents “drift”, and have not been fixed in place since the dawn of the earth. Dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor.

      Once science taught that the sun shines due to gravitational collapse and the in-fall of cosmic dust, and has an effective life of a few million years. Light was once a form of “wave” in a sub-luminerferous “ether”. Human beinfs cannot breathe on a locomotive moving over nine miles per hour.

      The only thing wrong with being wrong is being wrong. We don’t need human laws on top of Laws of physics and chemistry to enforce correct thouhts.

    12. Scotus Says:

      LotharBot,

      I agree that people CAN be stupid and choose to hold irrational beliefs. I also believe that they should not be arrested or hindered just for holding irrational beliefs. I think we agree, however, that people SHOULDN’T hold irrational beliefs. Thus, they cannot claim any sort of moral or intellectual right to hold them and, I believe, that is what Samantha was doing.

    13. Scotus Says:

      pouncer,

      See my comment to LotharBot. Also, you are confusing the right of free inquiry with the right to be wrong. I don’t think anyone on this blog would deny the first, but, in order for the first to have meaning, one must deny the second. Why bother to inquire into anything, if, after all your hard work to inquire into and discover the truth, someone asserts something’s being true is not a sufficient reason to believe it?

    14. LotharBot Says:

      “Why bother to inquire into anything, if, after all your hard work to inquire into and discover the truth, someone asserts something’s being true is not a sufficient reason to believe it?”

      I bother to inquire because *I* want to know and because *I* believe we should follow where the evidence leads. If the whole rest of the world asserts truth is irrelevant, that’s their own problem. I’ll criticize them for it, but they do still have that right. Free inquiry still has meaning, even if others refuse to acknowledge it.

    15. Scotus Says:

      LotharBot,

      I agree that people should be at liberty to be irrational and say (and, in their private lives, act as if) truth is irrelevant. In the sense that a civil liberty is a right, I agree people have this right. Rights, however, can also be thought of as entitlements, and no one is morally or intellectually entitled to say or act as if truth is irrelevant. If they were, it would be wrong to criticize them for so saying or acting.

      To clarify my position, by way of analogy, I believe that no one has a right (is morally entitled) to commit adultery. As a result, I believe people who do commit adultery should be criticized (severely). I also believe, however, that people should be left at liberty to commit adultery, i.e. adulterers should not be put in prison or even required to wear scarlett A’s. If someone commits adultery, any penalty should be imposed by the civil (divorce) courts, not the criminal courts.