Teachers, parents and students believe in things that aren't true
A lot of Australians believe in ghosts and aliens, a poll found. That may be harmless, but it makes it a lot easier to believe in other things that aren't true ...
How do we get Australians not to believe silly things? Why not teach critical thinking from an early age?
Educational psychologist Jerome Bruner once said that “Young children are rarely called on to reason”. Yet Dr Joseph Lau, in his book Introduction to Critical Thinking: Think More, Think Better, confirmed that “good critical thinking skills require practice. Persistent practice can bring about improvement”.
So let’s give our children a daily reason to reason. Try these short critical thinking games with your students and notice their critical thinking skills improve with regular practice.
Download for free: cct.education/cctcrunches
Read the ABC article below:
Why do Australians believe silly things?
We're a rational bunch of people, right? New polling suggests yeah, not so much.
Do you believe in ghosts? You probably shouldn't, because there's no credible evidence that they exist.
Despite this, it would appear that 35 per cent of Australians believe that "ghosts exist and can influence their will on the living" — one more percentage point than those that believe that "extra-terrestrials have visited the earth" and "the story of creation in the book of Genesis is a true account of the first man and woman".
These are findings from the Essential Poll, a weekly survey carried out by polling company Essential Research. In this instance they asked 1,803 people of a statistically valid range of demographics about their beliefs, based on a similar poll carried out in the US.
And the results are somewhat unnerving, if you think that reality is a thing.
It starts with a harmless belief
Now, beliefs about ghosts are pretty harmless. Unless you're about to pay a quartet of wisecracking former scientists who offer to bust said ghosts, the chances of you doing something detrimental to your life or that of someone else for ghost-related reasons is pretty low.
And insisting that aliens have visited Earth, another claim for which no evidence exists, will make you annoying at parties but otherwise seems pretty benign.
The problem with believing in silly things when you have no reason to think they're true is that it makes it a lot easier to believe in other things that aren't true — things which have more serious consequences than making people avoid you at social gatherings.
For example: the same poll finds 21 per cent of people believe that "global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists". Which would be such a wonderful relief if it was true — oh, how much more hopeful the future would seem! — but it is not.
Similarly, 14 per cent believe vaccines cause autism — which, again, they don't. And not vaccinating can literally kill people — even, heartbreakingly, the children of pro-vaccination parents, as vulnerable newborns can't be vaccinated for some diseases until they're a few months old.
It's important to remember that this isn't a new thing. One of the greatest texts for critical thinking to this day is Charles Mackay's book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was published in 1841. Want to see the future of our current housing bubble? Read his thoughts about Dutch Tulip Mania.
However, as the reach of media has grown, the effect of believing things that are demonstrably incorrect has become greater at the same time that our knowledge has gotten more sophisticated.
Impartiality doesn't always help
What's the answer? This might be controversial, but: I think that we need to stop aggressively defending impartiality as though it's a solution rather than part of the problem.
There's a difference between showing multiple sides of an issue and elevating nonsense as though it's a valuable viewpoint — because publicising outlandish claims in the name of balance has a body count.
To use a not-politicised example: in 2008 the massive, country-straddling Large Hadron Collider was being ramped up to higher energies in order to carry out one of the experiments for which it was built, looking for the missing element predicted in the Standard Model of Particle Physics. (This led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, a discovery which raised as many fresh questions as it solved, but that's another fascinating story.)
In the media coverage leading up to CERN firing up the LHC there were stories about how this magnificent piece of machinery was going to solve some fundamental questions about the universe, and others about how the LHC was going to create a black hole that would destroy the Earth.
Literally hundreds of physicists kept pointing out that the LHC didn't operate at energies that could possibly create a black hole, but their assurances were given equal weight to a handful of non-physicists talking about how this was going to bring about the end of the world.
And one girl in India, after seeing apocalyptic headlines and news reports, became so convinced that the world was ending that she swallowed pesticide and died.
Facts have become political
Opinions — especially political opinions — are worthy of multiple points of view.
But over the past couple of decades facts have been made political, which has led to the horrific situation of endless debate over impartiality instead of, say, how to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that are unambiguously warming the planet — facts which are happily accepted in countries where global warming is not considered a political issue on the left-right divide.
And we can address this with teaching critical thinking and the scientific method in schools, but we in the media need to do a better job of holding people to account instead of being seen to be assiduously unbiased about whether or not something is true.
The alternative is treating opinion as fact and that way, as we are discovering, madness lies.