We often think of the need for critical thinking in the context of nonscientific approaches to extraordinary claims about the natural world. We call that pseudoscience, and as an antidote we often prescribe more science courses, especially those focusing on skeptical thinking. But critical thinking is not unique to the sciences.
A study by two researchers at North Carolina State University, Anne McLaughlin and Alicia McGill, indicates that explicitly teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course can significantly reduce students’ beliefs in pseudoscience, pseudo-archaeology, and pseudo-history.
They worked with 117 students in three different classes. Fifty-nine students were in a psychology research methods class that did not specifically address critical thinking. They served as the control group. The other fifty-eight were in one of two courses on historical frauds and mysteries. Their courses were explicitly designed to cultivate skills in critical thinking. Among the course materials were Kenneth Feder’s Fraud’s, Myths, and Mysteries and Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit.” More than a dozen pseudoscientific ideas were critiqued, including Atlantis, the Piltdown hoax, and the belief that the Egyptians had to have been aided by “ancient aliens” to build the pyramids.
Before and after the course, students in all three courses took a baseline assessment of their beliefs in pseudoscientific claims on a scale of 1 (“I don’t believe at all”) to 7 (“I strongly believe”). The control group students did not change their beliefs, but students in both history courses had lower beliefs in pseudoscience at the end of the semester.
One of the history courses was for honor students, and those students decreased the most in their pseudoscientific beliefs, an entire point for beliefs covered in the class and 0.5 points on topics not covered.
Even beliefs in specific topics not covered in the history courses went down, an indication that students were applying their critical thinking skills on their own.
“The change we see in these students is important, because beliefs are notoriously hard to change,” said McLaughlin, associate professor of psychology at NC State.
Coauthor McGill, assistant professor of history at NC State, agrees. “This drives home the importance of teaching critical thinking and the essential role that humanities can play in the process,” she was quoted as saying in a university news release. She said the study may be especially timely right now. “Humanities courses give students tools they can use to assess qualitative data and sort through political rhetoric,” she says. “Humanities also offer us historical and cultural perspective that allow us to put current events in context.”
Their study, “Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Course,” was published in the March 20 issue of Science & Education.
It seems to be having some impact already. McLaughlin told the Skeptical Inquirer that they have received many emails from the media and other professors eager to learn what techniques can help students learn critical thinking skills. “It’s very heartening. People seem hungry for critical thinking tools and often somewhat surprised that students probably won’t just pick up those skills without explicit instruction and practice.”
Their study couldn’t track students over time, but McLaughlin told SI she plans to incorporate some similar critical thinking activities into her courses starting this fall and get approval to follow those students over a longer time.
This is just one small study of students at one university, so it is probably best not to make too much of it. If the effects of the humanities courses’ successful teaching of critical thinking skills could be shown to persist over time, it would be an especially welcome advance. In the meantime, it is good for all of us to recognize that science courses aren’t the only academic route to teaching critical thinking and resisting pseudoscientific ideas.