Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Part 3)
Hendrick’s next example is even worse than the Shelly one. He wrote:
A physics student investigating why two planes behave differently in flight might know how to “think critically” through the scientific method but, without solid knowledge of contingent factors such as outside air temperature and a bank of previous case studies to draw upon, the student will struggle to know which hypothesis to focus on and which variables to discount.
It seems like Hendrick is making a tautological argument here, physics students need to understand physics to understand physics. And once again, this example of “subject-specific critical-thinking skills” is not an example of critical thinking at all. Knowing to pay attention to the most relevant contingent factors doesn’t necessarily require any critical thinking skills whatsoever, that is just subject-specific knowledge.
As for “think[ing] critically through the scientific method,” Hendrick misses another major point. Critical thinking and the scientific method are not always synonymous. They are certainly related, and the scientific method is meant to be a method to think critically about reality, but being able to apply the scientific method to a hypothesis does not necessarily mean one is thinking critically about it. That is why we have John P. A. Ioannidis’s Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, and pseudeoscience (some of which really seems to be following the scientific method, yet it gets things totally wrong in the end). There is a vital “why” aspect to the scientific method, and that answer has less to do with any specific subject and more to do with those dreaded general critical thinking skills.
But let’s not forget that Hendrick’s point in this example was to discount “critical thinking” even in this specific subject. (Notice that he used the word “but” in the above quote.)
Focusing on only the subject-specific aspect of critical thinking skills, like presenting the scientific method in a physics class, can give students some critical thinking ability for that subject, but is that even enough? The much more general critical thinking skills could make an even bigger difference than just following the scientific method like a how-to guide. Instead of just trusting it to remove your “biases” (whatever those are), wouldn’t it be even more useful to understand what exactly those biases are and how they work? Alas, cognitive biases are not a part of the subject of physics. Applying them here would be teaching general critical thinking skills, which Hendrick is against.