How to teach critical thinking and inquiry
An interview with Dr. Mark Battersby, co-founder of the Critical Inquiry Group
Recently, we had the chance to speak with Mark Battersby, co-founder of the Critical Inquiry Group and author of the book Is That a Fact: A Field Guide to Evaluating Statistics and Scientific Information. He is also co-author (with Sharon Bailin) of a critical thinking textbook that focuses on inquiry: Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking Dr. Battersby has taught critical thinking and scientific reasoning at Capilano University for many years. He’s an expert on critical thinking techniques and informal logic and a member of Critica’s Inner Circle. What follows is a lightly edited version of our exchange with Dr. Battersby. We hope you enjoy!
Critica: You recently shared with us some of your course materials, including an exercise for students to critique Andrew Wakefield’s infamous 1998 Lancet article on the purported link between vaccines and autism. What were some of the most prominent critiques you heard? Do you think your students are representative of members of the general public? If not, how can your lessons be modified to reach a wider range of people?
MB: No, they were college students from an affluent suburb of Vancouver, generally not top students but ones raised in an educationally positive social environment and of course they had had 6 weeks of instruction based on my text. The lesson is that even with limited instruction, people can master the basic criteria for evaluating studies. But the US may be more of a challenge given for example the large number of people who reject evolution and climate change.
Critica: What has been your general approach to helping students build their critical thinking and inquiry skills?
MB: A central part of my approach has been to encourage students to identify as reasonable people rather than as leftist, conservatives, Christian, etc. If your primary commitment is to being reasonable you don’t lose face or perhaps friends when you change your mind in the face of contrary evidence. In addition, the crucial question for all beliefs is “what is the evidence for the contrary?” I do this habitually (and to some extent annoyingly) but it can be taught and developed.
Critica: You’ve also discussed problems with conflicts of interest in science and medicine and the faith the public has lost in science as a result. Is it possible to change people’s perceptions even after so much faith has been lost?
MB: In a certain way the issue is not faith in science if we are promoting the critical consumption of science information. In addition the loss of “faith” is issue-driven. I read recently that a study that debunked the concerns about butter consumption caused a huge jump in butter sales. So lots of people obviously still have “faith” in science at least when it tells them what they want to hear! Guns, climate change, and (surprisingly) vaccines are political issues in the US that lead many to ignore evidence, but this rejection does not necessarily lead to a blanket rejection of science. Even in the US most people flock to doctors (if they can afford it), take prescription medicines, etc. So I think the key question is how can we educate people to respect evidence when the evidence is contrary to their interests or political or religious views. And this is tough for all of us given the incredible power of confirmation bias.