Yet Another Thinking Meat Project

As a secular humanist, I have been thinking about what I can contribute to society that would have the largest impact with my limited resources.

Before I get to that, I will give a bit of personal background (and anecdote). I grew up in both Taiwan and America, and was exposed to both education systems. My personal experience is that the Asian education system tends to emphasize rote learning, math, and respect for authority. Science is taught as a collection of facts, rather than a method. What is in the textbook will be on the exams, and the only correct answer is what is in the textbook. There is very little interaction in the classroom, much less intelligent discourse. Traditional views and values are taught without critical examination. There is very little questioning and a lot of blind accepting, which I suspect is mostly cultural. Not a stretch, since in the old days questioning the emperor generally resulted in meat separation. Specifically, at the neck.

I attended a Catholic school and then a Christian school until 9th grade. I do not remember when I no longer believed, but I do remember that the hypocrisy clearly turned me off, and contributed to my subsequent wholesale rejection of religion. The way I saw it back then, if everything glorious were to be attributed to their preferred deity, then they better have a good explanation for things not-so-glorious. As no one could convincingly do so then, and insisted that the problem was with yours truly instead, I could only conclude that this deity in question was cruel, vain, vengeful, and jealous, or the school staff didn’t know what they were preaching. Neither case was worth my time. As a kid it was a simple dichotomy and I was quite firmly on the opposing side. Today, older but not much more mature, armed with the illusion of thinking more clearly, my view on anthropomorphized, monotheistic religion has not changed much.

As I moved on to study in the US, what struck me most was not what was taught, but how it was taught. It was obvious to me that having critical thinking skills was important, if not indispensable, at least in my experience. The odd thing is that by the time you are in college, it is already assumed that one has this skill; however looking through most high school curricula, it is unclear if this need has been adequately addressed.

My father, who recently passed away, had a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Stanford. His career, however, was mainly excelling as an outstanding businessman. He was asked if he regretted the years spent pursuing that PhD. Not one bit, he said, as it was through the rigorous PhD program that he learned how to think. That resonates with me in particular, as I had felt the same about my time spent there.

That, is also what bothers me.

Why, does it take years of toiling away in the sciences or academia to learn how to think carefully and critically? Shouldn’t this be a prerequisite, not only for the scientifically inclined, but for everyone in general? Is there a particular reason why this is not taught explicitly in schools? Perhaps this would offend religious or cultural feelings, be considered too advanced, abstract, boring, or of limited usefulness? I do not know. But I guess I won’t know until I try.

I believe what sets us apart is the amazing 3 pound chunk of thinking meat between our ears. Evolutionarily, it is the ultimate manifestation of intelligence over muscle. It is highly adaptable, extremely good at pattern recognition, approximations and heuristics; however it also filters, distorts, deceives, and confabulates, all behind the scene. What our brain can do that other species likely cannot, is the ability to think about thinking (metacognition), from something as innate and seemingly simple as theory of mind/folk psychology, to more advanced concepts such as morality and philosophy. In particular I believe the ability to think systematically and critically is one of the most significant advantages, as it can make us arrive at better approximations of the truth through careful reasoning, and override our primitive evolved responses such as fight-or-flight, in-group tribalism, or other primal emotions.

The world has changed significantly and will continue to change. In the past people relied on books and libraries and newspapers for information; doctors had their PDRs and were rarely questioned. However in this age of information, everything is a simple query away on the interwebs. People self-diagnose and question doctors all the time. Jenny McCarthy attended the University of Google. One major difference that I see is that the books of past were typically better fact-checked, newspapers better edited and their sources vetted, as opposed to the current environment, in which anyone can put up any type of information on the internet, accurate or not. I believe that now, more than ever, one needs to have a great BS detector to navigate this sea of misinformation. Unfortunately this is not an innate skill that we have evolved to have; it needs to be learned, developed, and practiced. A natural predisposition alone does not suffice, as evidenced to a music prodigy still requiring the due practice to achieve greatness.

Therefore, what I want to accomplish with my limited resources, hopefully of significance, is educating people on not what to think, but how to think. Specifically, I would like to start a guest lecture series on critical thinking skills for international high school students, here in the southern China/Hong Kong area. My personal guess is that high school students would have the intellectual curiosity and cognitive capacity for this, if presented appealingly. This is, of course, not based on any observable evidence but rather wishful thinking and fallible personal recollection. So far so good for what I will temporarily dub Yet Another Thinking Meat Project.

I would like the series to be fun and thought-provoking, as I believe that this is a subject that is best thought through, not taught through. I would like it to be hands-on and entertaining, with demonstrations and experiments that leave a lasting impression. I have looked at some of the existing material, such as “Your Deceptive Mind – A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking” by Dr. Steven Novella, and as excellent a course as it is, it may be less appealing to high school kids.

Maybe it could start out with a magic show, to highlight the fact that perceptions are easily fooled and what the brain constructs is not always veridical. Perhaps get a license to show some clips from “Brain Games (National Geographic)”, with its entertaining and insightful experiments. Show the cognitive biases and how they affect one’s thinking, from a third-person point of view for amusement; and through a first-person experiment for impact. With real life examples, show the difference between science and pseudoscience, evidence and anecdote, argument and assertions, motivated reasoning and intellectually honest thinking, and how not to make false dichotomies like this one. Explore the various logical fallacies, with examples and thought experiments.

There are several challenges:

  1. A course outline with the appropriate breadth and depth. How many lectures can reasonably cover the topic? Dr. Novella’s course has 24; what can it be reasonably condensed to?
  2. An instructor or instructors, available over a period of time for the lecture series, in the general area of southern China/Hong Kong
  3. Buy-in from international schools
  4. Keeping the audience interested

Perhaps JREF can help?

Update: David Young is interested, hopefully we can make something happen together 🙂

Update 2: I have decided to start writing a “Skeptic’s Corner” monthly column in a local expat magazine called Hubhao, and also start a program for ISD high school students in the form of an interesting problem every month to think about