We are all very fond of talking about critical thinking.
But what does it actually mean? In the classroom, in reality, in our lives?
And how is such a skill developed?
Awash with information, how do we determine truth, integrity and merit?
The skills of discernment and discrimination are more crucial than ever as we all sort through what we hear, and read and see. How do we develop the essential skills of seeing through the bias, the deliberate distortions and the fraud.
Years ago Neil Postman and Charles Weingarten cut right to the chase with one aspect of critical thinking. Educational quality and a healthy democracy, they said, were dependent on each citizen having a highly developed ability to see through cant. They called it “crap detection”* – the ability to see through flummery, manipulation, quackery and fraud.
Talk to people about using the internet for research and in a flash someone will make the comment that you can’t always trust what you read there. Of course they are right. The most common culprit cited is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Knowing what is a trusted source and how can we tell is a vital skill for all of us to learn. But what about trusted sources? Should we not also apply that smell test to information that appears to come from reliable sources?
So here is the test:
This paragraph is a parable about the unintended consequences of human actions. It’s from a reliable source. This is a story that is all over the internet. It’s a great science story. But does the telling of it put its credibility in question? Can this story be true? Apply your critical thinking abilities.
In the 1950s, the Dayak people of Borneo had malaria. The World Health Organization thought they had a solution: spray large amounts of DDT over the countryside to kill the mosquitoes. However, the DDT also killed a tiny parasitic wasp that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. Without the wasps, the caterpillars ate the thatched roofs, causing the roofs to cave in. Moreover, DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. Eventually, the cats started to die, and the rats multiplied, threatening potential outbreaks of typhus and plague. The World Health Organization, therefore, engaged a Singapore squadron of the British Royal Air Force to parachute 14,000 live cats into Borneo!
Part of this story is complete nonsense. But which part?
Apply that crap detector.
Does the story seem credible to you?
How would you go about finding out the facts?
*Their book was called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Neil Postman made a presentation to the National Council of English teachers in 1969 explaining what he meant by the term. You can read the text of his speech here: Neil Postman at NCTE
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