“Islamophobia” and Other Illegitimate Neologisms

In common usage, “phobia” connotes fear. Nevertheless, the term “Islamophobe” can legitimately be applied to people with a prejudicial hatred of Muslims, too. On the other hand, when the term is used to characterize someone with informed critical objections to the substance of Islamic doctrine, it is a smear. The proper term to describe the informed critic is “anti-Islamist.”

Phobias as Psychiatric Disorders

A perceived danger will provoke a “flight or fight” response in any animal, human beings included. When a person’s perception routinely misrepresents the actual severity of a type of threat, this might indicate the presence of a “phobia.” A fear of spiders, for example, is arachnophobia; a fear of heights is acrophobia.  In the most common psychiatric sense of the term, a phobia is an… Continue reading

Critical Thinking Education Works – But How Well?

A published review of 117 empirical studies assessing the impact of critical thinking instruction on critical thinking (CT) skills and dispositions confirms my suspicions: some instruction has a powerful positive effect and some instruction has no effect at all. Overall, these results support the view that, on balance, there is a measurable positive effect. And there are tentative indications of what kind of instruction fosters the most marked improvements in critical thinking.

In their paper “Instructional Interventions Affecting Critical Thinking Skills and Dispositions: A Stage 1 Meta-Analysis,” (Review of Educational Research 78:4, December 2008), Philip Abrami and six Canadian co-authors attempt to derive measurements of the effect of pedagogical “interventions” intended to improve critical thinking.

In their meta-analysis, Abrami et al. used Ennis’ taxonomy to divide the studies into… Continue reading

American Egalitarianism – How Much Equality Do We Want?

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice introduced a memorable thought experiment related to the nature of a just society. Rawls asked what principles would we chose to regulate the basic structure of society if we had to chose those them from behind a “veil of ignorance” as to our own position in that society. One of those was the “difference principle,” that is, that economic (and social) inequalities, to the extent that they exist, must be relatively advantageous to the most unfortunate members of society vs. a strict egalitarian distribution of wealth and income.

In a recent article (“How Americans view wealth and inequality“), behavioral economist Dan Ariely reviews data from a survey in which Americans were asked how much inequality there should be in… Continue reading

Science Education is Not Enough

One of the goals of effective thinking advocacy is to help people relieve themselves of some of their kooky notions. This is a goal that is shared with those in the skeptic movement, who think that spreading public understanding of science will help people reject pseudoscience and reach conclusions based on reason and evidence. It seems plausible enough: teach people about evolution, for example, and they should reach the conclusion that neither man nor beast really came from the mythical Garden of Eden.

Wouldn’t we expect that people exposed to some university-level coursework in science will be better equipped to evaluate scientific claims critically, and distinguish genuine scientific knowledge from pseudoscience and generic hokum? It turns out that it doesn’t, according to a new paper from Massimo Pigliucci. For rational… Continue reading

The Critical Thinking Left

We tend to think of the methods and attitudes of critical thinking as politically neutral. We suppose that critical thinking doesn’t discriminate; any appeal to tradition or authority is subject to critical challenge, regardless of what tradition or whose authority is in question. Nevertheless, there is a faction within the critical thinking “movement” that does have some affinity with left-wing politics. I call this faction the “critical thinking left,” to distinguish its theoretical slant from its political commitments.* Its prevalence among educational reformers helps explain the Texas GOP’s doubts about the teaching of critical thinking.

Identifying Assumptions; Imagining Alternatives

Critical thinkers universally acknowledge the importance of identifying and challenging assumptions, and of imagining and exploring alternatives. Clearly, assumption-hunting has an important role to play, and I include it as one of the… Continue reading

Do Conservatives Oppose Critical Thinking?

A juicy tidbit has been going around the Internet over the past few days that seems to confirm some of our worst fears about an anti-intellectual streak within the GOP. On the surface, it seems like the GOP in Texas, at least, has come out against critical thinking. Despite some apparent backpedaling, I think they might be onto something.

GOP Platform Fail?

H/T to Zen Faulkes who, in a recent post at NeuroDojo, drew attention to a plank in the platform of the Republican Party of Texas (RPT). To quote from the platform document directly:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have… Continue reading

Are Critical Thinking Skills Transferable?

In my post of 5/5/2012, I referred to a discussion of a 2010 AMA Critical Skills Survey in which executives were asked several questions about employee’s competencies at “21st Century skills.” The survey was sponsored in part by P21, an educational reform organization leading an effort to integrate “the Four Cs” into the K-12 system via curriculum reform. The P21 movement has vocal critics over at Common Core, among them E. D. Hirsch, Jr., author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Their objections are based on a skeptical view of the transferability of critical thinking skills across subject domains (which they ascribe to P21). I think they overstate the case.

The crux of the argument is articulated by Hirsch as follows:… Continue reading

Leading Firms May Need to Outsource Critical Thinking Training

If current trends such as economic globalization, financial deleveraging, and regulatory tightening continue, corporations will face an increasing need for effective thinkers to sustain their growth. But the educational system is not preparing new workers for the realities of the 21st century. Leading firms will have to make up the “soft” skills deficit — in many cases outsourcing training for critical thinking and related skills.

In “The Real Education Gap,” Chief Learning Officer (January 2012), author Sandi Edwards remarks on the 2010 American Management Association (AMA) Critical Skills Survey, in which it is reported that critical thinking is one of four related “soft” skills are that not being adequately taught in school. In terms of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity (“The Four Cs”), “new American workers come up short,… Continue reading

Barriers to Critical Thinking: Challenges and Opportunities

The best critical thinking education available provides learners with the opportunity to acquire new thinking aptitudes and thinking attitudes. The successful learner emerges from their course work with different attitudes towards argumentation, reasoning and decision making, and new-found facility at performing these tasks. Yet in many cases, bright would-be critical thinkers still find themselves facing difficulties translating their new skills and knowledge into practice. Is there more that critical thinking educators can do to help learners to grow further? Are there holes in the standard curriculum that need to be addressed? I think there are. Before I offer my own suggestions for augmenting the standard curriculum, I need to acknowledge a couple of factors that in part account for why, even among those familiar with its methods, critical thinking has… Continue reading


It takes a lot of courage to make the intellectual journey beyond faith, and more still to publicly renounce one’s former religion. Apostasy is as act that is usually not viewed sympathetically by an apostate’s former congregation. Apostates risk being socially outcast and publicly attacked for their “betrayal,” at least by those from Christian denominations. Some religions regard apostasy as a criminal act tantamount to treason, and deserving of the same punishment.

If courage is a virtue, then “apostate” must be regarded as a term of approbation. If courage is a virtue, and the term thereby loses any pejorative significance, the apostates walk among the heroes.

One such hero, Tim Prowse, was recently interviewed by Sam Harris. Prowse waxes eloquent on the subject of what can happen when an intelligent,… Continue reading