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Philosophy, Scientific Literacy… and Flattery

Statue in ancient Greek style in a park of Significus the Obscure, declaiming "If at first you don't succeed... don't go looking for babies in the bathwater." An early statistical philosopher, Significus the Obscure was known for mangled aphorisms and an intense hatred of post hoc analyses. (Cartoon by Hilda Bastian.)

These days I find the literature on improving critical thinking and scientific literacy kind of depressing. The many overlapping and diverging concepts and measurement tools in the field are a recipe for confusion. With studies scattering data in so many directions, the evidence base gets larger, but it’s hard to tell if it’s getting stronger. There must be important studies advancing knowledge, but finding them in this sprawling literature across many disciplines would take a lot of work.

Meanwhile, we’re constantly paying the price of too-low levels of critical thinking in our communities. Look how much pandemic misinformation got serious traction among large numbers of very well-educated people. Part of the problem is the complexity involved in not just having skills, but using them. Balazs Aczel and colleagues spell out how many obstacles we face – we have to recognize when we need to kick our critical thinking into gear, even when it’s in a context we haven’t been specifically trained for. And we face a daunting array of cognitive biases that can derail our thinking.

This is a slide I use when I discuss this in talks:

Charting 4 areas: values & integrity, communication skills, research/analytical skills,cognitive skills

Efforts to advance critical thinking and scientific literacy tend to focus a lot on acquiring information and analytical skills. But in the chaos of everyday life, it’s the other factors in this diagram that may determine how effectively we think. We need both the cognitive skill to recognize, for example, when our self-interest or ideology is taking the wheel, and the motivation to not let it cloud our thinking once we do. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter how advanced or sophisticated our technical skills are if we aren’t aware of, and able to constrain the impact of, those biases.

So I found a recent systematic review refreshing. It’s by Mohd Kaziman Ab Wahab and colleagues. And it’s about teaching philosophy to children. It’s not that the evidence for the program they discuss is strong – it definitely isn’t. But it encompasses a very broad approach to critical thinking, and that’s what made it so interesting to me.

I didn’t even know there’s been a dedicated effort to include philosophy for children in school curricula internationally since the early 1970s. While I knew that “science” originated as a branch of philosophy – “natural philosophy” – I hadn’t thought of philosophy as a form of scientific literacy education until I started to look at the approach these authors were advocating. It’s called P4C – philosophy for children, and it starts in kindergarten – with at least some exercises available free on the internet that can be used anywhere. (It’s promoted by IAPC, the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in the US.)

I can’t speak to the quality of the program – I’ve only dipped into it briefly and read a couple of papers by advocates. The first thing that struck me is how much overlap there is with other approaches to critical thinking and scientific literacy: “This resource will help you to explore and contrast concepts such as Opinion, Belief, Truth, Knowledge, Attitude, Justify, Certainty, Fact and so on…”

Along with critical thinking, children are encouraged to develop “caring thinking” in developing their philosophical judgement. “Caring thinking”, wrote Ab Wahab, “is a form of thinking that encourages a person to value other people’s opinions and to empathize with others.”

I liked seeing that explicit link between improving skills for your own reasoning with those you need for reasoning with others – and being open to others reasoning with you. Being able to engage in effective dialogue with others is vital for helping people to reduce the spread of misinformation and truthiness in groups, not just reduce their own susceptibility to it.

Philosophy’s concern with rhetoric as well as logic shows up in other interesting and useful ways that stretch past the cognitive biases and skills typically included in discussions of scientific literacy. Take for example this P4C exercise on untruths and flattery: “One way of getting people to believe an untruth is to flatter them in some way.” “Why,” they ask, “do people create untruths? They might want to:

  • Attain satisfaction and popularity from their message being passed around.
  • Mislead people in order to undermine a society by creating conflict or anxiety.
  • Gain followers and therefore influence.
  • Create power over someone by get getting them to believe or do something you want.”

Recognizing the power of flattery is so useful to prepare us for the daily drumbeat of misinformation, contrarianism, and conspiracy theories:

“I’m going to tell you something that I heard from someone with special inside information. That will make you special and if you pass it on people will thank you for it and you will help them to feel special too….

Powerful people are trying to trick you but I know you are not an average, ordinary person. You are more intelligent than most people so I think you will appreciate what I’m about to tell you.”

I often talk about the dangers of our susceptibility to charisma. From now on, I’m putting susceptibility to flattery right up there with it.


You can keep up with my work via my free newsletter, Living With Evidence.

The cartoon is my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny.)

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