A course for all degrees: PHIL 105, Critical Thinking

By Grant Jacobs 18/02/2010 12

Some argue that all students should take courses in basic logic. At Otago University any student, from any degree course, can take ‘Critical Thinking’. If it’s a good course,1 as I suspect it is, they should.

Plato and Aristotle (Source: wikipedia)
Plato and Aristotle (Source: wikipedia)

In an earlier advisory essay I wrote that one thing all students should get out of university is to be self-learners. Another would be critical thinking. It ought to be part of every student’s repertoire.

At Otago University, PHIL 105, Critical Thinking, has the interesting honour of being the only course in the university that can be accredited to any degree course. (I’d be keen to hear readers suggest any others that could perhaps be made available to all degrees,2 or if a similar practice exists in other universities.)

The description of PHIL 105 reads:

This paper aims to educate students in clear thinking and rational argument. Topics covered include: how to sort out good arguments from bad ones; techniques for testing the validity of an argument; common fallacies of argument; and the distinction between science and pseudoscience.

Or, from the prescription:

The ideas of reason, truth and argument. What are the limits of argument? Common fallacies of reasoning. Traditional logic and its limitations. Modern logic. Non-deductive reasoning.

Dr Maclaurin (Head of the department of Philosophy) teaches the course with Associate Professor Heather Dyke.

I imagine it’s a great course to teach. You’d get a chance to dissect and smack down your favourite pieces of illogic! According to Assoc. Prof., interviewed by Mr. Bertram for D-Scene:

’Bullsh*t detection is what we teach.’

Presumably that’s metaphorical… you’d like to think it doesn’t involve field trips to paddocks to locate steaming piles.

Surveyor 3 with Apollo 12 Lunar Module in background. (Source: wikipedia)
Surveyor 3 with Apollo 12 Lunar Module in background. (Source: wikipedia)

Mr Bertram writes that in the past her students have looked at the Moon Hoax conspiracy, and have worked through all of the arguments against man having landed on the moon. (C’mon, that flag fluttered in a near-vaccum! Hehe. Seriously, it moved in pendulum-fashion after being touched by one of the astronauts.)

Like many scientists, I’ve never formally studied philosophy. Most scientists pick up a fair bit through reading other scientists’ reasoning and the school of hard knocks, i.e. the criticism of their peers.

Now I’ve said that, I imagine some well-trained PHIL 105 students will be waiting to tear me to pieces!

There has been past discussion at Sciblogs and elsewhere on the need for more teaching of evolution science in medicine, by Alison and Hilary. I worry the issue is broader, relating to needing more teaching of ’the scientific method’, how scientific reasoning works and what is considered sound research practices in human biology and biological science. A part of this is just basic, sound logic: critical thinking in other words.

A number of doctors tout things that aren’t sound science. Some of the doctors that Orac frequently rallies against are particularly obvious examples. You’d wonder if learning better critical thinking might have prevented at least their more egregious errors.

There is more to ’the scientific method’ than logic. While many of us enjoy using “pure reasoning” to try “connect the dots”, at some point you’ve got to sit down and figure out how to test the hypotheses (ideas) so that they can be shown to others, and to do the practical work involved. The reality is that the practical work takes the bulk of the time. But you still need sound argument and critical thinking!

Looking at life more generally, sound logic is important to make decisions that genuinely address whatever problem you’re facing, without getting trapped by marketing jingles and emotive arguments. This applies to everything from business decisions, to “doing right by your kids” to whatever.

It even applies in blog comments! Some of the illogical arguments I’ve see in the comments of blogs sometimes make me want to give up blogs. Certainly they make me sigh in exasperation.

I’m all behind the principle of opening this course to everyone attending university. Critical thinking ought to be a universal tool in any university student’s toolbox.


1. I have to add the “if”, having not attended the course nor interviewed students who have recently sat the course. It’s the the principle of the thing that I’m after here.

2. An idle–and idealistic–thought would be for all science students (medical students included) to be required to attend an introductory course covering the history and development of the scientific method, with it open to those outside science as an optional course. Having written this, there does sound as if there is some overlap with the PHIL 105 course in that it apparently looks at what distinguishes science and pseudo-science.

More articles you might like on Code for Life:

Preconceptual science, the dismissal-ness of it all

Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy

Popularity does not mean effectiveness or sensibility

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Advice for students heading to university

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Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

12 Responses to “A course for all degrees: PHIL 105, Critical Thinking”

  • Wonderful idea I absolutely agree. One of the major problems in science courses is the lack of teaching the scientific method, as well as scientific writing. I studied at Otago and found that when tutoring students, they were not self-learners, more like information absorbers/regurgitators. It is awful to see students who can not think critically, especially in science. What’s the point if you just accept everything that you are told?

  • Thanks for the comment and compliments.

    I like the idea myself, but then I’m biased, it being my idea :-) Hell, if someone paid me I’d even consider teaching it myself.

    Your final remark is right on the money, IMO. That’s the way to blind acceptance of nonsense.

  • I agree with you both, Grant and Jared. I’ve taken the Phil 105 at Otago and whilst it is only a 100-level paper, it is very good paper for teaching a critical approach, which is something that should be taught far more often. I would take your proposition a step further and propose that critical thinking should be taught before university, we should be teaching students as soon as they are out of the “3R’s” basics how to critically consider, evaluate and challenge things that they are taught as ‘fact’. History as a discipline has only (relatively) recently moved towards such an approach, papers are often now taught with a dual focus on “what/when/where” and a “how/why” – for example, “WW1 started because of an interweb alliances that had formed” (basic fact), but now it is being taught (albeit at tertiary level) to ask why such a situation arose in the first place, the facts on which that proposition is based and also to question how our historical analysis is biased and/or limited by others factors and for further (and possibly more ‘real’ or ‘useful’) application, how we would recognize something similar happening again. Kind of a critical “historical relativism” – loosely termed. Hist 106 (UoA) is an interesting paper – History of Sex – and basically examines different occurrences or developments regarding sex and sexuality but with a concurrent analysis of the society that it occurred in. Two other good particularly good papers for such an approach are the Anthropology 105 : Race and Racism and Statistics 150: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics – both taught at Uni of Auckland.

  • Tara,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Alison, who also writes here, shares similar thoughts to you; we’ve both written other articles along these general lines.

    It’s interesting what you say about history. I know very little about how it’s properly done, but I enjoy popular history of science works. One thing that always bugs me a little is how ‘fact’ is established in history. (One example is a recent worry over a book that others have suggested has an religious apologist’s slant, e.g. my last comment in this thread.)

    As a computational biologist, I agree that you need to be very careful how statistics are used!

    As for teaching little kids, as someone wrote to me in private correspondence recently, five year-olds ask an awful lot of questions. In little ways, you could start from there.

  • Regarding children and philosophy (which generally promotes critical examination) There is a recent-ish issue of the Philosophy Now magazine about this (http://www.philosophynow.org/issue84) that I’m going through now (NZD8$ in pdf). There’s a corresponding podcast episode on the site. Critical thinking features prominently.

    There are also loads of books dedicated to the subject, an NZ website :http://www.p4c.org.nz, and plenty of resources. Now we just need to convince schools it’s a good idea.

    I gather Aussie schools are starting to offer Ethics classes.

    That gets my vote too.

  • A friend of mine used to teach a philosophy course at her daughters’ primary school, while her kids were there. From what she told me, the kids loved it, the teachers loved it, & she loved it. And the kids gained a lot from the experience. Winners all round.

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