Friday, September 05, 2008

Sue Blackmore on Teaching Critical Thinking

Susan Blackmore is an interesting person. According to her Website ...
Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She practices Zen and campaigns for drug legalization.

Sue Blackmore no longer works on the paranormal.
Yesterday she published an article in The Guardian (UK) [Opening Minds].
Should science teachers in Britain challenge their students' religious beliefs? Is it their right? Is it even their duty?

I say yes. This is (amongst much else) what education is for; to teach children how to think for themselves. And thinking for yourself is challenging, especially if your previous beliefs were based on dogma and ancient books.
This may illustrate one of the ways that education in the UK differs from that in the USA.
I don't mean that science teachers should belittle religious beliefs, or scoff at them, or even tell students they are wrong. They need not even mention religion or creationism. What they must do is explain so clearly how natural selection works that those students, like one or two in Dawkins' series, begin to feel the terrifying impact of what Darwin saw. This realisation will change them. It will challenge what mummy and daddy told them, it will cry out against what they heard in chapel or synagogue or mosque. It will help immeasurably in their ponderings on human nature, the origins of life and the meaning of existence. This is growing up. This is learning. This is the process that skilful science teachers need to initiate, encourage, and help sensitively to guide.

They should never shy away from challenging their students' religious beliefs and opening their minds, because understanding the world through science inevitably does just that.
I'm all for challenging students to think. Problem is, you'd better make sure you know what you're talking about. I'd like to challenge Sue Blackmore to stop thinking about Darwin, Dawkins and natural selection and start thinking about the 21st century version of evolution.

Next question is, how do we evaluate students in such a course? Can they still pass if they reject evolution and critical thinking?

[Hat Tip:]


  1. Short time lurker, first time responder.

    Your last sentence piqued my interest. Not as a teacher (which I am) nor an ecologist (which I was). But as an ordinary citizen...

    Back in the day, when I was a student at the UofC, our faculty would laugh and smirk inwardly at the great evolution/creationism debates that were being held on campus. We couldn't believe that anyone intelligent enough to be at university could believe in the literality of the bible, or that evolution was not supported by a huge body of evidence.

    And then we became friends with a neighbour. He was a doctor, and she was MSc in biochemistry. In intensely christianist (to borrow Andrew Sullivan's terminology).

    And they didn't believe in the notion of evolution.

    You ask "Can they still pass if they reject evolution and critical thinking?". No, of course not, because the preponderance of evidence supports it, and it is the mark of a closed mind (the antithesis of critical thinking) to reject information you don't want to hear.

    I'll take it further - shouldn't acceptance of our best theories of how evolution happens sort of be a prerequisite for a BSc, let alone grad or post grad?

  2. Hm, interesting.
    In Norway we had religion as a subject in school.
    I never neither liked or accepted it, but it was part of the curriculum. The lessons were spent heckling the teacher, and on the test most of the students aimed for a pass, which wasn't all that hard.
    Problem was that the bloody subject counted in the aggregate mark.

    So my point is that if somebody KNOWS the theory of evolution, it doesn't matter for acadedemic purposes if they accept it or not.
    Bit like traffic rules, you don't have to accept them, but you bloody well better know them.

  3. acadedemic-

    eh, normally I don't stutter.

  4. I went to a "private" Catholic school in America, and now I'm a godless scientist.

    In some ways I think if religion were brought into the classroom it would lose that sense of the sacred and numinous. Like sex-ed, students would be forced to examine their assumptions and have them challenged by others in the marketplace of ideas. But it would have to be done correctly.

  5. I agree that evolution is more complicated than Darwin and natural selection, but it's a lot to expect 2ary schoolers or even undergrads to jump into the ideas wrassled with by Jablonka and Lamb or West-Eberhard. Anyone can read Dawkins, and with the caveat that you're getting a bare-bones perspective, suddenly and completely get the core epiphany required to engage in evolutionary thinking. It happened to me in a first year class for non-science majors, and now here I am with a PhD and everything. Reading Dawkins is good way to learn to think critically and clearly, more than enough to start criticizing Dawkins.