Early exposure to skeptical thinking: navigating the chicken and egg syndrome

I live in the midwest area of the United States, where sidewalks in neighborhoods are a luxury, and you are a “nobody” if you don’t own a car. Or two. And a pickup truck—the bigger the better. Cars and driving are a necessity—drive-thru banks, curbside pickup of takeaway food—all part in parcel. In fact, every now and then I point at one of those long vehicles used to transport large numbers of people—yes, that’s it—a bus—and ask my children if they know what that is. They do, because there are school buses. Just no mass transit.

In any event, needless to say, I spend a lot of time in the car. I don’t mind, because our library system has a superb collection of “books on CD”, and I go through an “extra “ book a week, in addition to the one or two that I actually read. But when I’m driving with my kids, we like to talk about current events and science and math. Occasionally I am too tired to do this and drive, so I’ll turn on the radio. And in doing so, the other day a phenomenal “teachable moment” presented itself.

The radio announcer described how evidence demonstrated that sports teams (basketball, I believe) who supported each other emotionally during games by ‘high-fiving”, backslapping and friendly contact were more successful and won more games. I immediately asked my children (aged 8 and 12) whether they thought this was a valid conclusion. Proudly, for they have practically grown up in laboratories and are well accustomed to skeptical thinking, both rapidly came to the conclusion that the supportive physical contact might come as a result of the team scoring more points and winning more games—as opposed to the other way around.

Sadly, though, the same question put to various graduate students did not meet with the same skepticism. Several of the students, guessing that I had found fault with the interpretation of the radio announcer, were quick to conclude “that more controls were needed”. What “controls” was another story. But only a few were able to discern the inherent logical flaw in this thinking.

Now while every parent loves to brag about his/hew own children’s abilities, the issue here is that scientific training—true skeptical thinking—is something that needs to be developed at an early age. Sure, the knowledge of science is important, but this can be attained at any time—more or less. However, it seems to me that logical/skeptical thinking—necessary for the advancement of science—is most easily obtained at an early developmental stage and should be emphasized accordingly.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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12 Responses to Early exposure to skeptical thinking: navigating the chicken and egg syndrome

  1. cromercrox says:

    Great post, and a salutary lesson. Working as I do at your favourite weekly professional science journal beginning with N, I see quite a few manuscripts in which professional scientists fail to make the distinction between causes and effects. There’s a related issue, of course – those who confuse correlation with causation.

    This New Learning amazes me Sir Bedivere – tell me again how sheeps’ bladders can be used to prevent earthquakes.

  2. nico says:

    It is my firm belief (no, I don’t have any data) that children are much more intelligent than is given credit to them, if only because they are largely unencumbered by the pressure of giving the “right” answer (a plague in the French educational system).

    It is essential that this intelligence and curiosity are not then stamped on by education, unfortunately most students (at school and university) have been trained to care only about the grades.

    Henry, I think “correlation is not causation” should be printed on the bezel of every university computer screen, and at the top of every page of every lab book. Maybe accompanied by “percentages aren’t (necessarily) statistics”.

  3. Heather Etchevers says:

    “logical/skeptical thinking—necessary for the advancement of science”

    Gosh. Critical thinking is necessary for the advancement (well, for the proper functioning) of the society in which I want to live. Sometimes I think I taught my teenage son to be a little too skeptical, but I think the advantages outweigh the personal inconvenience.

    Good for you for quick thinking and finding teachable moments at less-than-auspicious times.

  4. Nice post! I can’t wait for my friends’ kids to start talking so I can start having this kind of conversation with them (I don’t see my nephews often enough to have much of an influence on them!)

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Thank you all for the support! It’s rather encouraging for that most amateur of bloggers-a first timer…

  6. ricardipus says:

    Excellent. Kudos to your kids, and welcome to the Irregulars. :)

    My children (8 and 10) seems to spend inordinate amounts of their classrom time studying something referred to in the curriculum as “media literacy” (say what?). I was pleased to discover that at least part of it is studying advertisements and how they work, and also in critiquing their claims. Probably should have been essential learning when I was in school, too.

    Hm… maybe I should pose your “high fiving” scenario to them and see what they come up with.

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Thank you, Ricardipus- I enjoy you columns. Critiquing advertisements sounds like a very good way to develop critical thinking skills. To the best of my knowledge my kids do not have this in their curriculum. But then, they don’t always keep me in the loop…

    This whole issue has been on my mind for some time. There is a ‘team-taught’ graduate course that I participate in–and one of the comments that I receive year after year in anonymous evaluations by the students is that “he focuses too much on applications and not enough on knowledge”.

    Translation?

    My exam questions force them to think and apply what they’ve learned rather than simply memorize and vomit it back to me.

    Finally I realized that the little bit of critical thinking and application of logic is a skill that many students have not properly developed. And it is really difficult to cultivate it at this stage.

  8. Midwesterner says:

    Obviously not your point, but may I suggest that your environment is more strongly correlated with living in the suburbs (in almost any part of the US) than living in the Midwest? I’m not sure exactly where you live, but Midwestern cities typically do have sidewalks and public transportation… not to mention lots of people that can’t afford cars.

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    Midwesterner–agreed about the suburban issue–and some suburbs do have sidewalks. I think the issue is that Omaha (and don’t get me wrong–we love the city and the people) is so spread out, that it really is like a gigantic suburb.

    Having said that, there is almost no public transportation–only the most minimal service for only the core areas of the city. Yes there are people without cars, but I expect the car-per-capita in this area is among the highest in the US, and one really is severely limited without a car here.

    But thank you for pointing that out.

    S.

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