A New Kind of Critical Thinking Text (guest post by David Manley)

“What would it look like if we taught only the most useful skills from the toolkits of philosophy, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics?”

That’s a question David Manley, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, asked himself after coming to think that the standard approach to critical thinking courses in philosophy departments was not as effective as it could or should be. His answer is in the form of a new, online textbook that brings philosophy together with other disciplinary approaches to take aim at more common reasoning errors using “the tools best suited to fix them.” In my opinion, this is an important, needed step in the development of critical thinking pedagogy.

In the following guest post*, Professor Manley describes the book, its motivation, and how it has worked out in the classroom.

Corinne Wasmuht, “Pehoé P”

A New Kind of Critical Thinking Text
by David Manley

My new text, Reason Better, is the result of rethinking the standard playbook for critical thinking courses. It’s about acquiring a mindset of inquiry, recognizing our cognitive biases, and adjusting our beliefs to match the strength of the evidence. You can check it out here. (Use the “Enter as Guest” button on the right, and once you’re in, view the chapters properly by clicking “Full Screen” on the bottom.)

Over the years, I got frustrated with the standard playbook for Intro to Logic and Critical Thinking courses. I felt that I was teaching students a grab-bag of items that had been handed down and were taught mostly out of convention. The material wasn’t aimed at the most prominent reasoning errors, and wasn’t using the tools best suited to fix them.

So I thought: what would it look like if we taught only the most useful skills from the toolkits of philosophy, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics? And then I wrote the text for such a course. The result is a book that:

  • emphasizes acquiring a mindset that avoids systematic error, rather than persuading others.
  • focuses on the logic of probability and decisions more than on the logic of deductive arguments.
  • offers a unified picture of how evidence works in statistical, causal, and best-explanation inferences—rather than treating them as unrelated.
The unified account of evidence I offer is a broadly Bayesian one, but there aren’t any daunting theorems. (Without knowing it, students are taught to use a gentle form of the Bayes factor to measure the strength of evidence and to update.) It’s also shown how this framework illuminates aspects of the scientific method, such as the proper design of experiments.

I’m happy to report that there’s no need to accept the false choice between a narrow Intro to Logic course and a remedial Critical Thinking course. The course at Michigan (Ann Arbor) that uses this text– at the moment taught by the amazing Anna Edmonds–is rigorous but immensely practical. Students come away with a sense of how to weigh the strength of evidence for claims, and adjust their beliefs accordingly.

When I used this text last Fall for a class of nearly 300 students, I asked them to comment in their evaluations about all aspects of the course, including the text. The comments about my teaching itself were mixed, as usual. But the text and platform were just wildly popular. I don’t think I’ve ever had unanimous consent in a large class on anything before.

I’ve been hesitant to turn to a traditional publisher, because I like the TopHat platform so much:

  • There are embedded questions in each section that are auto-graded and ensure the students are doing the readings.
  • It offers a really nice UI for students with search and note-taking capabilities, and they can read the text and answer questions on any device.
  • It’s pretty cheap: TopHat charges $35 plus a $10 platform fee if the student isn’t using TopHat already.
  • Most importantly, any prof who assigns the text can change it however they like. Want the students to skip a section? Just cut it out. Don’t like the wording of a question? Just change it. It’s hard to overestimate how useful this is in a text.

The text is ready for use right now, but I’ll be continuing to improve it, so I’d be very happy to get any feedback. For the next month or so I’ll be working on an additional chapter called “Sources”, about social epistemology in a world of information overload: navigating science reporting, expertise, consensus, conformity, polarization, and conditions for skilled intuition.

Anyone who’d like to use the text for a course should email me at [email protected] from their academic account, and I’ll provide them with all kinds of course materials to go along with it.

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