Teaching the Fourth R - Reason

by Steve Mason

How often have you run into an individual with lots of diplomas but very little common sense? Actually, this condition occurs quite often. The reason is that what is called "education" has increasingly given way to what is in fact "training." The former supplies students with broad-based knowledge while the latter teaches specific skills. The result is a bunch of experts who know more and more about less and less. But the trend is bound to continue so long as the preverbal "getting a good job" - earning rather than learning - remains the goal.

One of the things I recall from my early school years is the dean who, during the first assembly of the first term, said "At this institution we shall teach you how to live - not how to earn a living." Since then, I have come more and more to appreciate the meaning of his words. Training to do a job (be it air conditioner repair or brain surgery) has very little to do with education and nothing whatever to do with learning the value of critical thinking and the method of skeptical inquiry. This is why Jay Leno can so often find a college educated, gainfully employed man-in-the-street who doesn't know if the Earth goes around the Sun or vice versa. This is also why the media will regularly sacrifice truth in the cause of tranquillity.

Television, originally touted as the greatest tool for learning the world had ever known, has become yet another comic strip; reinforcing the silliest beliefs and being careful never to challenge established myths. Now it seems the Internet, originally touted as the greatest new and improved tool for learning the world had ever known, is headed in the same direction. Science fact vies for cyberspace with science fiction and Leno's typical man-in-the-street hasn't a clue.

And don't believe for a moment that inherited intelligence is any more a guarantee of common sense than acquired training. Recently, I spoke at a MENSA (the high IQ society) seminar during their '99 international convention in Long Beach, CA. My session, What You Think You Know May Not Be So, began with a warning: Attendance may be hazardous to firmly established - though ill founded - beliefs. Of course this did nothing to cull the crop of crazies. There were people who, despite their genius level intelligence, believed in everything from crop circles and astrology to therapeutic touch and psychics. What's more, any firm challenge to these beliefs was met not so much with genuine interest as with an even firmer resolution.

A question I frequently ask during my talk is: Do you have any beliefs you know are false? Going first, I believe that the roulette ball has a memory. Now I know that's not true but whenever I'm in a casino and notice that Red has come up six or seven times in a row, I bet Black. The odds against me are still better than 50/50 but I still put down my little stack of chips. I also ask: Do you have a belief you would refuse to change, despite any evidence? I'm always surprised at how many people admit to having such unshakable notions. To me, this is akin to throwing away the keys to your head.

What if a kid told you he would always believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy regardless of any proof you might offer to the contrary? Such closed minds are no less frightening in children than they are in adults. Another question: Do you have any beliefs that you've changed 180 degrees? As a psychologist, I used (and taught interns to use) projective tests like the Rorschach, the TAT, the DAP and the SCT. On occasion, I would even analyze a dream or two. Mea culpa.

But now there appears to be a light, admittedly dim, at the end of the tunnel. The Council for Secular Humanism has joined with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in opening the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. Of course this is just one small step - bound to be far out shown by such Fox network specials as Alien Architects in Ancient Egypt - but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Critical thinking is something that can be taught and that should be taught at every level. Talk about finding a need and filling it! Simple ideas like extraordinary claims demanding extraordinary evidence, like appreciating the fact that not all opinions are created equal and like understanding why proving a negative and arguing from ignorance are invalid endeavors.

Let's look at just this last item - arguing from ignorance. There's a light in the sky. No one can explain it. It must be a paranormal event - right? Wrong! It is most likely an ordinary event seen in an extraordinary way. Years ago, I was flying along at night with a friend when we both spotted two white lights in the distance. Although he was a senior Air Force officer, a former test pilot and a much decorated combat pilot with thousands of hours in the air, he was just as startled as I was when, moments later, we realized we were looking at an enormous craft closing with us at an enormous speed.

I froze as this thing the size of a city block ran right into us and passed around us. It was not one big craft but two small ones - helicopters that flew harmlessly to the right and left of us. Had he been at the controls, his superior skills and faster reflexes would probably have prompted some evasive action and we would most likely have dropped to the deck thus missing any chance to see our one Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) turn into two all to common Identified Flying Objects (IFOs). Who knows, we might even have turned up on the Fox network to tell of our sighting that no one could explain.

Look at it this way:
There are always going to be things you know and things you believe. The former are based on fact and reason, the latter on faith and credence. Do learn to tell the difference and do appreciate that, alas, both are subject to change.

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