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Critical Thinking and Science in the New Year

David Brooks posted his favorite essays of the year, and I wanted to draw attention to the first two, which I think will be of particular interest to Labbers.

Pinker on scientism, and why the humanities should take advantage of recent advances in science: here

Wieselstien on tradition, and why science isn’t always the answer to anything: here

I think that most of us here fall somewhere between the two essayists — or rather, don’t necessarily see the contrast that both essayists play into. This isn’t really the scientism that Pinker recommends: art is still art, with a different vocabulary, different questions, and a different approach to those questions than science. But it isn’t quite the isolationist approach seemingly advocated by Wieselstien either: the interplay between science and art is, at least according to many of us, where the really exciting things happen.

Insert clever caption here
We might be a self-selected bunch, but we’re proud of it.

I think that there’s a lot to be said for the creation of beauty for beauty’s sake — whether that is an awe-inspiring image of a galaxy many light years away, or a poem that moves you to tears. But I don’t think that’s actually what the argument is about. I think this is more about how we find “truth”. In particular, I wanted to highlight something mentioned by Pinker and picked up by Wieselstien, which resonated with me and set me thinking: their explanations of reason, and critical thinking, and the relation of both of these to science.

Pinker sets up both as fundamental to science: “The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves… In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.”” and “To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.” These two elements, when pointed outward to examine the material world, form the essential meaning of science. Literally: that’s how Pinker defines science and scientism.

It's the scientific method, which was first explained to me as a sort of two-step process: discuss, gather data, repeat.
It’s the scientific method, which was first explained to me as a sort of two-step process: discuss, gather data, repeat.

But, as Wieselstien points out, that’s a very broad definition, and it doesn’t just describe science, as practiced. He says: “Reason is not scientific; science is rational. Moreover, science is not all that is rational. Philosophy and literature and history and critical scholarship also espouse skepticism, open debate, formal precision (though not of the mathematical kind), and—at the higher reaches of humanistic labor—even empirical tests.”

Seem similar to the scientific method? That's because it is. Good thinking is good thinking, and not something unique to scientists.
Seem similar to the scientific method? That’s because it is. Good thinking is good thinking, and not something unique to scientists.

I think this is a crucial part, since the debate between the two essayists was very much framed in a “what should universities fund” context: Universities are defunding the humanities! Oh no! But students don’t even need to take science classes! Oh no!

There are many ways to learn to think critically, and that skill — critical thinking — will serve you well in many walks of life.

This was something I noticed in essentially every one of my classes in college: my skill in critical thinking, which I learned in dinner-table conversations with my philosopher/lawyer father and my scientist/math teacher mother as much as in any classroom, allowed me to converse with the material and the experts in any field. Gather data (whether through empirical observation or a close reading of a text), synthesize, discuss. Be open to other opinions and to changing your opinions, but argue forcefully when you are confident you are right.

That’s science, but it’s also the humanities. It’s also math. As many places as critical thinking can be applied, it can be taught. And because each student has a unique blend of predispositions and tendencies, really the best thing a University can do is give each student a way to think critically, about any one of a number of things. And if it’s really good, add on a sense of the kinds of questions different disciplines ask, and the ways different disciplines gather data to answer those questions.

The thinking is all the same; it’s the focus and the data that changes.

A universal new year's resolution
A universal new year’s resolution

I guess that’s a good toast to all of us in 2013, and looking forward to a new year: To reason, in science, in art, and in life.

A big thanks to Amy for all the art in this post! And to all of you for reading and making this a great community!

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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