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Critical Thinking
Making it popular at university

By Martin Bridgstock

This article originally appeared as "Channelling skeptic thought" in the Higher Education section of The Australian 13 December 2006. It has been updated with the author's subsequent work in the Skeptic 27(3), 12-15, Spring 2007, and with studies by others. Dr Bridgstock is a senior lecturer in science at Griffith University in Queensland and is the winner of the 2006 Australian Skeptics Prize for Critical Thinking, awarded for work that promotes critical thinking about beliefs that lack reliable evidence.

Surveys in Australia and the US indicate that about 80 per cent of the population holds at least one paranormal belief. These include extra-sensory perception, astrology, UFOs and ghosts. The science-based Australian Skeptics believes that paranormal claims should be tested carefully before acceptance. It considers that the current widespread belief in the paranormal has produced many appalling outcomes. For example people have died trusting alternative therapies or faith healing when medicine could have saved them. Others have lost large amounts of money to fake mediums, clairvoyants and channellers. To prevent this, we need to seek out and evaluate the evidence for paranormal claims.

Skeptics follow the truth wherever it leads
Many regard skepticism as a closed-minded form of rejection. It isn't. Skepticism tests paranormal claims and follows the truth wherever it leads. If a paranormal claim can be confirmed, the Skeptics are bound to accept it. To motivate psychics and channellers to come forward, Australian Skeptics has offered a prize of $100,000 for anyone who can show paranormal powers under mutually-agreed conditions. So far no one bas come anywhere near substantiating their claims.

Each year they also offer the Australian Skeptics $10,000 Prize for Critical Thinking. It is awarded for work that promotes critical thinking by the public, educators and the media about beliefs that lack reliable evidence. In 2006 I was awarded the prize for my university course "Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal". It is a second-year optional course open to anyone. It began in 2003, when 27 students enrolled. Since then the numbers have grown relentlessly, and in 2007 more than 100 students enrolled. Comments and feedback have been overwhelmingly good.

Skeptical thought is powerful
I lay a heavy stress on the nature of science and how it works by testing claims. I talk about the paranormal, and skepticism, and then analyse selected fields such as astrology and creation science. The students give seminars on subjects that interest them, critically analysing evidence for the claims. I am not concerned if a student ends up believing in aliens or acupuncture. However, I do mark students on how well they understand skeptical principles, and on how well they can assess whether a paranormal claim is supported by evidence. If a student can ask and answer those questions, they receive good marks.

Skeptical thought is powerful. It can force us to radically revise our views and beliefs. As one student wrote, "Martin, you destroyed my fantasy world!" Another remarked, "I'm having to rethink 50 years of belief because of this course". Another liked the course but added, "I also feel like I've lost out on something. I have lost the ability to believe for the sake of believing, a trait which may be scorned in academic circles, but gives a boundless quality to the soul". I call such a reaction "skeptical shock". Very few students can grasp the power of critical thinking and emerge unchanged.

Students want skepticism
Of course, universities are all in favour of critical thinking. We know this because they say so. They include it in their goals, often heavily larded with words like "excellence" and "rigour". The reality is rather different. Universities are under pressure to become more like businesses, and they are beginning to resemble educational supermarkets. So we find a burgeoning of strange courses including alternative medicine, perhaps aimed more at the market than at intellectual excellence.

My own university, to its credit, has accepted my efforts in the skeptical direction without a qualm. It is clear that many more students would enrol in my skepticism course but they are prevented by timetables and distance. So I want to make the course more flexible by increasing the number of ways it can be accessed. More radically, I want to automate the course so that students will be able to study over the summer holidays while taking computerised assessments. I'm not saying we should all relentlessly scrutinise beliefs in terms of some idealised science. But I do think that many people would benefit from learning how to evaluate evidence. The world is full of the deluded, the predatory and the dishonest. I think that skepticism and critical thinking can provide the tools to navigate through these shoals.

Effect on paranormal beliefs
I said that skeptical thought is powerful. But what effect does my course actually have on paranormal beliefs? Most people have no idea that a lot of quality evidence is available. So even if a course only tabled some of this evidence, we should expect some decrease in belief. But how much? In 2007 a pilot survey of my students by PhD student Alisa Taylor gave some tentative answers. Before the course nearly two-thirds of students believed the paranormal claims they were most interested in. After the course the proportion fell to just under one-third. So the change was substantial, even though the course was about critical thinking and not about trying to change beliefs.

But how permanent are the changes? In Montreal a 13-week lecture-format university course in which ten popular paranormal beliefs were critically examined, led to a reduction in belief from 56% yes to 41% yes (mean of three years, each with about 30 students). But a year later it had crept back to 50% yes (Gray 1984). So the 13-week course seemed to have only a small permanent effect. Not reported were the outcomes for beliefs the students were most interested in. It seems likely that the changes would be more lasting if the students made tests themselves instead of just listening to lectures, in the same way that our tennis is more improved by practice than by reading about it.

American studies have found that paranormal topics are popular with students and make a great focus for critical thinking, particularly when compared to traditional approaches based on abstract concepts. For example Weep & Montgomery (1998) trialled a course of critical thinking based on paranormal topics. They concluded: "Topics on paranormal phenomena interest most students. Students can easily evaluate these concepts, and the literature includes a wide variety of common thinking flaws. ... We believe that studying paranormal concepts can enhance the skills of critical thinking and that the skills transfer to other issues."

Gray T (1984). University course reduces belief in paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer 8(3), 247-251, Spring 1984.
Weep R and Montgomery K (1998). Developing critical thinking through the study of paranormal phenomena. Teaching of Psychology 25, 275-278.

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