Rational thought

Something that has become clear in recent years is that there is a distinct lack of rational thought and fact based, data driven discourse in our political system.  This has been true for a while but it has kicked up a notch.

The rise of “alternate facts” and denialism are troubling.  As many have said, you can disagree on opinions but lets all agree to the facts.  The question is how do you learn to figure out what is fact, what is a trusted source of information, how to evaluate evidence, etc.  In a world where literally anyone has the equivalent of a printing press its pretty hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Something that is critical to bring into our schools and reinforce it constantly and from an early age is how to think critically and evaluate whether what someone is telling you is true or false.  This applies to science, math, history, social studies, etc.  How do you validate something is accurate?  Is reading something on someone’s blog as trustworthy as reading in a peer reviewed journal?

Think about these claims that seem to be based on different “facts”:

  • do vaccines cause autism?
  • is the globe warming and is it caused by human activity?
  • is the crime rate going up or down? 
  • what is the efficacy of a drug or medical therapy?
  • what is the greatest driver of economic growth?
  • Is “x” a good investment?
  • Is organic food better for you or more environmentally sustainable?

Learning to weigh evidence based on the source is critical to understanding the world enough to form well informed opinions.  I care less about the opinions on an action to take than how you form those opinions and what they are based upon. We can debate merits of a given policy all day long but that really isn’t possible if we are starting from a different set of facts. Although this is only part of the equation when forming a policy position, we shouldn’t choose our facts based on the policy we want, we should let the facts inform the appropriate policy taking all factors into account. 

Back to education, I am a proponent of education methods that don’t rely exclusively on rote memorization of facts.  Aside from being more interesting for the student, it can teach the ability to think about the information and research answers. Getting multiple sources on a historical event from different perspectives gives a broader view of what is happening.  You also get to see the biases in the different sources.  Understanding that there are multiple view points is important in evaluating information.  

Having coordination between the material you are learning is also very helpful in order to see why what you are learning is important instead of appearing to be something you’ll never use.  When I was in my last couple of years in high school and a freshman in college this never became more obvious than taking calculus and physics at the same time; you learned differentiation and then learned the laws of motion.  You couldn’t do the physics without the math so it reinforced why it was important.

Without the skills to think critically it is too easy to be fooled into believing things that are demonstrably false.  If you get the wrong facts then you come up with ill-informed decisions. If you aren’t trained in how to evaluate evidence it is easy to get duped in every area of your life.  Lets make sure we are educating our children to think about the world.

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