Critical thoughts on critical thinking

Siv Helen Egelund Gjerstad

What does a porn star and a 13-hour teaching program have in common? They both have the potential of reducing the chance of Trump being re elected as president.

You may be disappointed, but it’s the teaching program and not the porn star that is the star of this show. A Norwegian study has recently managed to show great potential in a teaching program on critical thinking for children. Reflection and understanding of the logical reasoning behind information is important for the choices we make. The trend of false information being widely spread through the internet, and episodes of world leaders openly downgrading scientific research, make these findings highly relevant. We know that humans in general tend to struggle with critical thinking tests, and that the lack of ability to evaluate information may have fatal consequences. This raises the question of how effectively we can learn critical thinking, and what we can do to reduce the impact of illogical reasoning and false information.

Rejecting scientific knowledge
Donald Trump, the president of USA, has been the centre of the fake news debate with his ongoing accusations of his critics as messengers of fake news. Assertions like these, in combination with actual spreading of misleading information, have blurred the lines between fact an fabrication. We have also seen the Trump administration’s tendency to decline science and expert advice in favour of their own ‘common sense’ perceptions in several cases. The repudiation of climate change being may be the most startling. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported that the Trump administration prohibited them to use the words ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’. Without comparison in general, we have seen examples of both politicians and other actors in Norwegian public debates declining scientific research in favour of ‘common sense’ perceptions as a basis of arguments. The trend of undermining scientifi facts is indeed alarming.

Detecting false information
Truth versus false information is not an issue exclusive to political discourse. The ordinary citizen’s troubles of steering clear of false information has become an even greater problem as the expanded use of the internet and social media has made spreading of information very easy. It is somewhat paradoxical that the broadened access to the internet that has provided people with nearly limitless access to all kinds of information is also an essential part of the false information problem. An article with false information may be published with the intention of misleading people for financial or political purposes, or simply for gaining click revenue and online sharing numbers. Further sharing by convinced readers will increase the reach even more, and may also contribute to the legitimation of the content. The problem seems also to be related to the increasing choice of channels available for receiving information, making it easy t seek out information consistent with the readers’ own views, and disregard other sources.

Because the things we believe to be true have a great impact on the choices we make in our lives, the ability to make critical evaluations of information we are presented with is of great importance. Choices that influence our health and wellbeing are particularly critical in this regard. ‘Facts’ about our health are among those that are plentiful, especially online. Some health advice is practically harmless, like ‘eating carrots makes your eyesight better’, or ‘face creams with e-vitamins reduce wrinkles’. Other health related claims presented as facts are riskier, like ‘herbs can cure cancer’ or ‘STDs are not contagious if you shower after sex’. One of the more alarming health beliefs are those of antivaccination. In Norway we have seen smaller groups of vaccine opponents contributing to the periodic outbreaks of measles over the last decades. The same has happened in other countries, like Italy and Sweden. Measles are one of the most severe childhood diseases we know,and also one of the most contagious. And yet, there are widespread doubts as to the benefits of the vaccine.

The problem is initially that we struggle, not only to detect a claim made on false premises, but to make individual evaluations of lines of reasoning that are presented to us.

Teaching critical thinking
In 2017 the Norwegian institute of public health (Folkehelseinstituttet) conducted a study on the topic of critical thinking presented in two articles published in The Lancet. The study was a cluster-randomised controlled trial, including primary school children in Uganda aged between ten and twelve. The objective was to teach the children how to critically evaluate health related claims through a 13-hour teaching program conducted over three months. They found that in the schools where the children had been taking part in the program, almost 50 percent more of the children passed the critical thinking test compared to the control group. These are highly significant results with large effect size, showing a strong effect of the critical thinking programs.

Education to the rescue
The results from the study illustrates how even young children can learn critical thinking, and that a relatively short teaching program can be very effective, even in schools with scarce resources and low density of teachers. The fact that teaching programs like this one can have an impact on the ability to make critical evaluations on health information, can suggest that it may also be the case for other types of information. Giving people tools to make independent and critical judgements on the facts they are presented with is important from both a health perspective and a broader political perspective. Discovering the learning mechanisms is an important step in the direction of fighting the impact false claims and fake news have on society.

We know the possible consequences of relying on false information, and thus the benefits of critical evaluation skills. With increased knowledge also on the ability to learn it from an early age, the choice of implementing it as a school subject should not be a very hard one.