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America Needs a Crash Course in Critical Thinking

Students who took a history course that focused on debunking frauds and misconceptions were less likely to accept pseudoscientific claims.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Samuel Schneider/Unsplash)

At a time when people at the highest levels of government peddle baseless, self-serving conspiracy theories, the question of why we believe what we believe has become an especially urgent one. That is, how do we determine what is true, and avoid the temptation to automatically agree with arguments that align with our prejudices?

Newly published research suggests we need to develop an often-overlooked but vitally important skill: critical thinking. Two North Carolina State University scholars report that, once students learned to apply healthy skepticism to one realm of knowledge, they were less likely to accept questionable claims in an unrelated field.

“The change we see in these students is important, because beliefs are notoriously hard to change,” said psychologist Anne Collins McLaughlin, who conducted the study with historian Alicia Ebbitt McGill. “Seeing students apply critical thinking skills to areas not covered in class is particularly significant and heartening.”

The study featured 117 undergraduates who began by filling out two surveys: one measuring basic scientific literacy, and a second noting beliefs in “pseudoscience and the paranormal.” Using a one-to-seven scale (from “I do not believe this at all” to “I strongly believe this”), the students rated such statements as “The moon landing was faked,” “The U.S. government hides evidence of alien beings,” and “9/11 was an inside job.”

Once students learned to apply healthy skepticism to one realm of knowledge, they were less likely to accept questionable claims in an unrelated field.

Each student then took one of two semester-long classes: One focused on psychological research methods, or another entitled “Frauds and Mysteries in History.” The latter class was split into a regular and an “honors” section; students in the latter read and discussed the same texts, but also participated in a group project.

The history class “contained direct instruction on critical thinking,” including the use of famed astronomer Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit.” “Students also learned common logical fallacies, fallacies of rhetoric, tropes in historical myths, and then applied them to course topics,” the researchers write.

At the end of the semester, all students were again tested on their belief in scientifically unproven claims. While attitudes did not significantly change among those who took the research methods course, those in the history course were less likely to support baseless assertions. This shift was most pronounced among those who took the honors course.

Importantly, this trend applied to both material explicitly covered in the history course (Bigfoot) and misinformation that was not (the Illuminati). This suggests that “critical thinking skills can be generalized beyond the specific discipline in which they are instructed and practiced,” the researchers write.

“It’s important to note that these results stem from taking only one class,” McGill said in announcing the research. “Consistent efforts to teach critical thinking across multiple classes may well have more pronounced effects …This drives home the importance of teaching critical thinking, and the essential role that humanities can play in that process.”

That’s an especially interesting finding given that, last week, the current administration proposed eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.