Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Aristotle Swan Test

By Paul Waring

Students from school to university should be learning the essential skills of critical thinking.

Isaac Asimov once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. He had alien civilisations in mind, but what of the many Australians who cannot tell the difference between magic and science?

As scientists we are continually implored to communicate our results. For instance, Science Minister Kim Carr recently appealed to scientists to engage more with the public in the global warming debate. But if the public possesses no tools to assess the scientific claims being made, are scientists just wasting their time?

Science often appears to be separate from the humanities. We talk about “the school of humanities” and “the school of physical sciences”. However, the art of good thinking is a necessary prerequisite for both.

Critical thinking is not taught widely in Australian schools or universities. Philosophy departments offer such courses, but they are usually avoided if they’re not compulsory.

Critical thinking is thought of as a study aid to be used just to get that good mark in your essay. Indeed critical thinking books are found in the study skills section of book shops. Universities often have a couple of web pages devoted to critical thinking posted under “study skills”, but does this really help students to think better?

Critical thinking needs to be taught more widely, at least by the early teens, as a stand-alone subject. By practice and exposure to arguments, students can become adept at recognising weaknesses and strengths in reasoning.

Critical thinking should be an integral part of a broader education underscored by my observation that some PhD students in science do not appreciate the process of inductive reasoning – the primary route by which new knowledge is acquired.

Aristotle’s claim that “all swans are white” was based on observation alone. By using this example, students very quickly see the limitations and problems inherent in inductive thinking and hence the limitations in scientific reasoning. However, they also quickly appreciate the strength behind scientific reasoning, based as it is on weight of evidence, experiment, strong logical connections between reasons and conclusions, and consideration of the likely possibility of alternative conclusions. Couple this with risk assessment and basic statistics and you have a powerful set of skills to dissect statements made by scientists.

Established scientists may also benefit from thinking about how new knowledge is acquired. Popper’s idea of falsification of theories notwithstanding, scientists more often seek results that support their hypothesis. No doubt this process can result in interesting findings, but it is sobering to contemplate that this is achieved by committing the error of confirmation bias.

Application of critical thinking skills is equally valid for assessing claims related to global warming, evolution, astrology and religion. Students leaving high school with a working understanding of the fallacy of appeal to authority or confirmation bias would present a formidable challenge to the establishment. Be prepared for a backlash if critical thinking were ever introduced into primary schools! Consider the hysteria generated by the trial of ethics classes in New South Wales.

Scientists should never become the sole keepers of knowledge – high priests whose proclamations are accepted (or not) based on faith alone. This is the world painted by John Ralston Saul in Voltaire’s Bastards – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, where technocrats with expert knowledge operate secretively and unchallenged by an ignorant public.

We desperately need non-scientists to be able to reasonably interrogate claims made by scientists. To quote Saul: “Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen”.

Citizens can only be involved if they are suitably equipped. Critical thinking should be a compulsory subject for all students in all schools and universities.

Paul Waring spent several decades as a research scientist and now teaches critical thinking in Canberra.