Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology
In 2004 I published How Science Works: Evaluating Evidence in Biology and Medicine.I asked a series of questions: â€œCan police dogs identify criminal suspects by smell?â€ â€œWhy are frogs in trouble?â€ â€œWhy do we age?â€ â€œHow does coffee affect health?â€ I explained how scientists have tried to answer these questions using various kinds of evidence ranging from comparative observations and correlations to experiments to statistical analyses. My goal was to show nonscientists some of the different ways that science works, which I hoped would encourage them to engage with new stories about scientific discoveries in the media and help them to interpret these new stories.
Thereâ€™s been an explosion of research on these questions and many others since 2004. For example, the Web of Science lists 2,215 studies about coffee and cancer since 1970, with more than half published since 2004. Defining information broadly to include opinions as well as facts and knowledge, the amount of readily available information is much greater in 2014 than in 2004, thanks in part to the Internet.
I was employed as a teacher for 42 years, mostly at the college level. My experience in the classroom and in individual instruction taught me that the primary goal of teachers must be to help students develop their critical thinking skills. This is even more true in 2014 than it was in 1970 because of the information explosion. Do a Web search on any topic. How do you determine what search results give credible facts and what results give bogus facts? How do you determine what results give information that genuinely contributes to understanding and knowledge? How do you determine what results lead to well-reasoned opinions consistent with well-established knowledge? For any topic that might interest you, thereâ€™s virtually unlimited information available at your fingertips, but the only way to judge the value of that information is by thinking about it critically.
This poses a problem, however. Critical thinking isnâ€™t easy. Itâ€™s not an intuitive human skill. It takes lots of practice to overcome some natural impediments to critical thinking. We jump to conclusions before considering all the evidence, much less weighing the strengths and weaknesses of evidence for and against our conclusion. We â€œmake evidence subservient to belief, rather than the other way aroundâ€ (van Gelder 2005:46). These are just a few examples of several challenges to critical thinking.
These challenges and my retirement from active teaching in 2011 started me thinking about a sequel to my 2004 book. I wanted to make the same argument that I made in 2004, but more persuasively because Iâ€™ve become even more convinced of the importance of critical thinking in both individual lives and the public sphere. I wanted to make the argument more directly than I did in 2004 and I wanted to make it more accessible to nonscientists by avoiding technical language and discussion. I didnâ€™t want to avoid quantitative issues altogether, because these are fundamental in modern science, but I wanted to explain these in as friendly a way as possible. I wanted to use different examples and write about current research.
Critical thinking takes practice, so just reading this book wonâ€™t make you a better critical thinker. Instead, I hope the book will introduce you to the joys of critical thinking and be a guidebook to some key tools for critical thinking. Each chapter includes a few questions that involve critical thinking and a list of resources for further practice. I urge you to use these resources and look for additional opportunities to develop your critical thinking skills. The quality of your life may depend on it, if you face a difficult decision about medical care that requires you to evaluate different treatments offered by your physician. The future of human society and the natural world certainly depends on more and better critical thinking by all of us.
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|May 30, 2020|
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