Forbes columns

A compilation of Helen Lee Bouygues’s regular column in Forbes on critical thinking research and education.

Pseudoscientific beliefs can lead to weak or irresponsible decisions. Conspiracy theories, the paranormal, climate change and evolution denialism, Bigfoot: many Americans belive in these phenomena. In response, educators are testing ways that instruction on human error of perception and logic can train more critical thinkers.

Groupthink is the tendency to make decisions based on consensus, even if, individually, group members may find those decisions to be weak. Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to avoid groupthink. There are new and powerful ways to teach people to be better, more independent thinkers. For one, people should be encouraged to play the devil’s advocate and help break up the norm of agreement. Along the same lines, people with a dissenting opinion should be encouraged to speak up, without negative consequences, so long as their opinion is fact-based and well-researched.

“Calling Bullshit,” got its start as a lecture series covering the various ways in which news agencies, corporations, and even scholarly institutions sling, well, bullshit. Now also a college-level course, Calling Bullshit provides people with tools to look critically at what is too often considered unassailable — data. The founding University of Washington professors continue to make a wealth of course materials available online including syllabus readings and case studies.

Last year, the Cornell University SC Johnson College of Business launched an online certificate program that focuses exclusively on developing critical thinking skills. The economy is changing, driving demand for richer forms of reasoning and independent thought. The university recognized that their students would be attractive future employees, whose improved decision making skills would help forge thriving teams and organizations in the professional world.

Concept mapping is far from a new educational approach, but it can help students engage in improved thinking. It typically involves creating diagrams that visually represent a set of ideas. Argument mapping is a variation of concept mapping, and the approach encourages people to create diagrams of an argument’s contentions. A forthcoming research review argues that helping students create online organizers leads to stronger reasoning skills. The authors declare that mapping tools are simply “a very effective way to teach critical thinking.”

The 2002 war game known as the Millennium Challenge exposed gaps in the critical thinking training of the US military. In fact, it has been 100 years since the last comprehensive review of its education system. In the meantime, “conventional warfare” has evolved into adversaries and insurgencies without a discernible front line. The U.S. Navy is now conducting a major study that’s expected to lead to a radical shift in the education of its personnel. The Navy will almost certainly recommend doing far more to emphasize critical thinking skills in its training and development programs.