Syria debate proves critical thinking should be taught in schools

(Originally published by New Internationalist)

The city of Raqqa in Syria. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
The level of debate around whether Britain should bomb Syria demonstrates why critical thinking should become a compulsory subject for children in British schools. To give an example, if someone puts forward the argument: "Bombing Syria will strengthen, not weaken, ISIS and make things worse for all of us", the standard reply: "so what are you proposing; that we just do nothing?" is not a logically valid counter-argument.

The question of whether we should bomb Syria or whether bombing will be counter-productive is entirely separate from the question of whether or not there are other policies, that do not involve bombing, which could have a positive effect. The onus is on those defending bombing to demonstrate that their policy is likely to have positive, rather than negative, consequences. Merely asking their opponent what they would do instead adds nothing to their argument whatsoever. 

This is understood in almost every other sphere of life outside of politics. If you remain unconvinced, try the following thought experiment: If you are ill and I prescribe you some medicine, the onus is on me to justify why I am confident my remedy will make you better, rather than worse. If you have good reason to believe the remedy I am prescribing you is actually poisonous, and will therefore make you worse, and when challenged I fail to provide any evidence to relieve your suspicions, does it help my case to exclaim: "well what else are you planning to take other than the poison I've prescribed!?" 

Similar tactics are frequently used by religious people debating atheists. The conversation tends to go like this:

Atheist (A): "I do not believe life is the product of intelligent design since there is no evidence to suggest this is the case."

Religious person (R): "Well if god didn't create life, then how did the first life forms come into existence?"

A: "Scientists are working on this problem. There are a number of plausible theories but we are not yet certain..."

R: "Aha! You don't have a definite alternative! Therefore you are wrong and god must have created life."

Mainstream political discourse is riddled with this kind of muddled thinking. One solution to this would be to promote critical thinking in education as a skill of equal importance to numeracy and literacy. Encouraging children to engage critically with world affairs from an early age would certainly do no harm. Unfortunately the few (mostly private) schools which do teach critical thinking courses basically teach their students to pass an IQ test, full of puzzles grounded in mathematical logic with no application to the real world. 

In my critical thinking course pupils would learn about, debate and discuss world affairs freely - with minimal input from a teacher other than to correct muddled thinking, flawed logic and factually incorrect statements. Attendance would be compulsory but learning would not be assessed - an alien concept to many policy makers. 

The chances of anything of the sort every being implemented into the national curriculum are non-existent of course, since it wouldn't profit those in charge of education policy to have a nation of razor sharp minds scrutinising their record. But there's no harm in dreaming. 


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