Teach Everyone Logic?

[William] Clifford argued that we are morally responsible not merely for what we do and say, but also for what we believe… When we show ourselves to be uncritical and careless with own our beliefs, we implicitly invite others to do the same. And, perhaps more obviously, we invite others to fool us. We encourage dishonesty and deception. Each time we believe something that we lack the right to believe, in other words, we spread an intellectual and moral disease: an epistemic shamelessness that threatens the very possibility of meaningful, rational discourse…

Among the most pernicious and perilous immoralities of our own age is our apparent surrender to the lowest standards of belief and communication…  But it will take tens of thousands of us to really make a difference and drag our civil discourse back from the brink. Should all freshmen across the land be required to study critical thinking and symbolic logic? It is a thought.

It’s a thought of Michael Ventimiglia, associate professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart University, who directs what sounds like a terrific program at the school that introduces every first-year student to critical thinking and introductory formal logic, in an essay at Times Higher Education. He is understandably disappointed and frustrated with the level of public discourse, as well as its political results, and he thinks that teaching every student logic could make a difference.

I want to believe this. So I should be suspicious of it.

(Note: being on the lookout for motivated reasoning is not something typically covered in logic or philosopher-taught critical thinking courses.)

Professor Ventimiglia’s case is an explicitly moral one based on the value of “meaningful, rational discourse.” Whether such discourse is valuable in itself, or for the realization of other goods, or both, we can leave aside. Let’s also leave aside the many interesting questions about the extent and degree to which we can plausibly be held responsible for our beliefs. Grant all that. Questions remain. For example:

  1. Do people’s improved skills in critical thinking and symbolic logic lead to better, more meaningful, rational discourse among them?
  2. Does taking a course in critical thinking and symbolic logic lead to improved skills in critical thinking and symbolic logic?
  3. Do enough people attend college such that their taking a course in critical thinking and symbolic logic will make a difference to the level of meaningful, rational discourse in their society?
  4. Is there a better way to achieve more meaningful, rational discourse than through trying to improve their critical thinking and logic skills?

I’m not sure that there’s conclusive evidence on any of these matters.

Regarding (1), it’s at least sometimes true that a little logic training is worse than none at all. It doesn’t appear that the term “Petty Philosopher” is in usage, but it is a good name for a person who often uses his or her skill for identifying logical fallacies, unstated premises, and counterexamples in ways that impede rather than further mutual understanding. (“Petty” is a pun on “petit”, get it? Sorry for both the pun and for overexplaining it.)  Do we want more petty philosophers?

Logic training might also inhibit participation in discourse by making people aware of a greater number of ways in which what they’re saying could be mistaken.

Public opinion research shows that despite increases in education and access to information, voters remain woefully ignorant of political matters, and so public discourse about them is pretty bad. What’s lacking, it is sometimes suggested (a la Schumpeter) is not access to information, but motivation to learn and use it. If that’s right, increasing critical thinking skills may have no net effects on the quality of discourse: they take effort to use, effort which people may not be sufficiently motivated to expend.

Readers, are there empirical studies on any of this?

On (2), the evidence is iffy (here, too). Teaching students logic seems to improve their reasoning skills only after a significant prior exposure to logic, and it isn’t clear that philosophy courses on the subject are better than, say, ones in mathematics. Maybe more than one course is needed.

Regarding (3), in the US, about a third of the population graduates from college. Is that enough to make a difference?

Lastly, on (4), the question is what would be most effective? While courses vary, cognitive biases and debiasing strategies don’t tend to get a lot of play in philosophy-oriented critical thinking and logic courses. Nor does statistical reasoning. Perhaps they should be added in. Or perhaps a college course is not the answer? What alternatives should we consider?

Professor Ventimiglia raises the idea of teaching all students logic in the form of a question. It seems like a question worth being able to answer, in which case we will need more evidence. Perhaps a large scale experiment to collect some is in order?

(via Carol Hay)

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