Reviewed Books & Films

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Uncritical Critical Thinking


Among the frustrations of anyone who alleges to be a critical thinker are discussions that turn into arguments. During the discussion phase I may say, “well, the scientific evidence shows . . . .”  If open-minded discussion continues, my friend might counter with reference to other evidence, although neither of us may have documentation at hand or even in memory. We begin to argue, however, if my friend claims that those scientists I mentioned are biased liberals and refers to an article in the Wall Street Journal. I confess that in many discussions I have not read the “evidence” but only a review of research on, say, global warming. So, at best, we agree to disagree and order another round.

Critical thinking is hard cognitive work, and we can use help to keep it sharp, so it is disappointing to read about an apparently widely used book (in its 7th edition) on critical thinking in which the authors are “debunkers who fail to consider evidence and argumentation that are inconsistent with their beliefs” (last para.). In his review of How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, Etzel Cardeña goes on to say the authors “offer an unscientific double-standard discussion instead of engaging in the difficult task of trying to think and argue about complex evidence that sometimes resists easy explanations” (last para.).

What we really need is a book on how to discuss weird things, or better yet, an Evidence App for our smartphone that will take us to reviews and meta-analyses on various topics with links to the original sources. Wouldn’t that make me popular as a dinner guest? Short of that, I could use some advice on evidence-based everyday discourse, including a better guide than How to Think About Weird Things.

Read the Review
ReviewDo as I Say, Not as I Do
By Etzel Cardeña
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(28)


David Carroll

I used earlier editions of Schick and Vaughn’s book in my class on critical thinking. It is certainly true that there were questionable arguments at times. But I don’t believe that the primary purpose of the course or its text is to present students with the last word on controversial issues. Rather, the goal should be to encourage students to examine their assumptions and systematically evaluate alternative explanations. By expressing skepticism regarding a wide range of weird topics, including UFO abductions, near-death experiences, and homeopathic medicine, the authors aimed to stir the argumentative juices of their readers. I warned my students at the outset that the book would challenge some of their cherished beliefs (and mine too, for that matter). Although they sometimes disagreed vehemently with the authors, my students often commented that the book forced them to develop better arguments and, occasionally, change their beliefs.


I appreciate Prof. Korn initiating this blog and Prof. Carroll posting a commentary. It is indeed extremely difficult to have a conversation on contentious issues that is not a dialogue of the deafs, to quote Eliade, because we are far more gentle with evidence that we favor than with that we dislike. Whether it is Freudian mechanisms of defense or the cognitive biases documented by Greenwald and others, we resist even considering alternative explanations. Besides its very sloppy scholarhip, one of the main problems with the Schick and Vaughn book is that it seeks to indoctrinate its readers rather than discuss the bases for different contentions and how easily our reasoning can go awry. It is far from being the only book that misrepresents a topic it dislikes. To give but one other example, the 2010 Psychology Intro textbook of Liliefeld et al. mentions that the Maimonides psi experiments could not be replicated by later experimenters, but unsurprisingly it does not provide a reference for this last assertion. It does not because later summaries of research on this area (by Van de Castle, and by Sherwood & Roe) have actually supported the validity of the Maimonides work, while some critics have misrepresented repeatedly the experiments (cf. the Irvin Child support of the Maimonides work in American Psychologist).
Rather than listen to echo chambers of those who are already convinced that they have the final word on psi phenomena, it is healthy to read again some of those old SPR researchers like Eleanor Sidgwick or Richard Hodgson, who described exhaustively the phenomena they were investigating and discussed the various possible explanation. In contrast, those who already "know”, one way or another, strike me as dogmatic rather than scientific.
And although we are not developing an app, along with other two coeditors i will publish a Handbook of Parapsychology that discusses recent research on psi phenomena along with its criticisms, so that readers can make up their own minds,

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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