Deprogramming students

A teacher of libertarian-conservative bent asks Dr. Helen what to do about middle and high school students with  goofy leftist views. She responds:

. . . it is not your job to decide the politics of the students in your class, it is your job to expose them to the critical thinking skills that will help them make informed decisions and back them up in a reasoned way.

She recommends thinking games such as WFF ‘N Proof or The Propaganda Game. I’ve  never heard of these. Are they any good?

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Comments

  1. Lots of times the students hold these views because they have not yet learned that people will lie to them for money. In the fourth grade, I had an excellent teacher who taught us to look critically at claims made by toy manufacturers and junk food peddlers. In the process, we all learned to look critically at a lot more. Perhaps an indirect, nonpolitical method such as that would overcome adolescent resistance and acquaint them with the right kind of resistance.

  2. The letter to Helen was interesting–supposing that indoctrination was rampant because he was encountering students with liberal views (that he did not share). Perhaps this guy needs a course in logic to be able to examine some of the things that he assumes and believes.

    WFF and Proof was a real blast from the past. I recall that my older brother got it for a Christmas present sometime back in the 60’s. I even recall my mother reading the game directions out loud. Somehow you had to use little cubes to construct WFFs (pronounced WOOF). The website claims a 21 point increase in IQ scores in kids who played it for 3 weeks over the summer. Personally, I cannot recall that we ever got past reading the directions.

  3. I believe you.

  4. WFF ‘N PROOF is a game I (hazily) remember playing as a child in the early 70s. From my recollection, the game is based on formal logic. I enjoyed it but only played it with my dad; my friends preferred checkers.
    I never played it again after elementary school, but when we had to learn proofs in high school geometry, they looked very familiar!

  5. I’d like to see more students get some exposure to debate. Not only does it demonstrate the way in which positions can be asserted and defended logically, it also helps develop public-speaking skills which are valuable in many careers.

  6. I was recently dismayed to hear some of my seventh graders confidently dismissing global warming as nonsense. Oy. To hear twelve year olds smugly asserting that some of the most esteemed scientists in the world were fools, or were cynically hyping a nonexistent threat to gin up research funding! As if they should smugly assert anything at that age. I resisted the urge to fight Fox/Glenn Beck indoctrination with my own –that’s not my role. I don’t think any of us teachers, libertarian or socialist, should be so cocksure of his worldview as to make that the organizing principle of his teaching. Teach the subject, perhaps flavor it with a bit of your own tastes/beliefs, but let the wisdom or power of the subject itself be the prime force you bring to bear on your students. “Liberal” means “freeing”; liberal arts are the freeing arts. Too many humans are mental slaves to ministers, radio demagogues (Limbaugh’s ditto heads), simplistic ideologies (from Marx to Ayn Rand), etc. It is rare to have a truly free-thinking individual. A good liberal arts education, one that exposes kids to a vast range of views, is the best hope of creating this rare, valuable person.

  7. Andy Freeman says:

    > To hear twelve year olds smugly asserting that some of the most esteemed scientists in the world were fools,

    Huh? We know that esteemed scientists are frequently fools. At one time, “the most esteemed scientists” believed that the sun orbited the earth. They believed in the ether. They believed that the earth was flat. They believed that some races were subhuman. They believed in dragons. They believed in leeching to cure disease. And so on.

    And in every case, “the most esteemed scientists” had good evidence.

    And, when someone pointed out that previous “most esteemed scientists” had gotten things wrong, they said “this time it’s different”.

    > or were cynically hyping a nonexistent threat to gin up research funding!

    Scientists aren’t saints. They do things for all sorts of reasons. They get frustrated and overstate their cases. They prop up their beliefs with facts that don’t actually support their conclusions.

    However, it’s not the frauds who cause the most damage. It’s the true believers.

  8. It can be difficult to be self-consistent. I believe that psychologists have found that to be a fundamental human challenge — like we really needed that, but hey I have a scientific bent. You can see my previous post on the work of Jonathan Haidt for leads to a more thorough discussion.

    Making a statement like the following without any reasoned support doesn’t seem to be helping the cause of critical thought, which is what one usually means by free-thinking.

    “Too many humans are mental slaves to ministers, radio demagogues (Limbaugh’s ditto heads), simplistic ideologies (from Marx to Ayn Rand), etc. It is rare to have a truly free-thinking individual.”

    Plus this is the web, one doesn’t have to author everything. Just simply refer to someone else’s work at the touch of a button.

  9. Robert Wright says:

    I used an earlier version of The Propaganda Game a few years ago. Yes, I think it’s quite good.

  10. I was recently dismayed to hear some of my seventh graders confidently dismissing global warming as nonsense. Oy. To hear twelve year olds smugly asserting that some of the most esteemed scientists in the world were fools, or were cynically hyping a nonexistent threat to gin up research funding! As if they should smugly assert anything at that age. I resisted the urge to fight Fox/Glenn Beck indoctrination with my own –that’s not my role.

    Ponderosa –

    I admire you’re restraint in not correcting the urge to correct the kids. I doubt it was even Fox indoctrination so much as middle school “I know everything” type talk. Kids at that age tend to think they know better than the adults around them about everything. It’s part of their development.

    I would hope, though, that if you did choose to correct them, you wouldn’t base that correction on the appeal to authority contained in the above. Looking at the evidence, not the people who collected it, paints a much more tenuous picture.

    I’m continually surprised that none of the models used to predict future global warming consider variable solar energy input. From my, admittedly limited understanding of the subject, not accounting for increases and decreases in the amount of energy coming into an open system such as the earth’s atmosphere/ocean system is a fundamental flaw in the modeling.

    I realize the scientists assert that the data they do collect and model are enough to make a prediction, but as a free-thinker on this particular subject, I believe the scientists asserting future global warming based on these models are being overconfident.

    One of the most troubling thing I’ve seen about the global warming dogma of late is how little room there is for reasoned dissent among the believers. Science depends upon reasoned dissent. If the global warming cultists (that subset of believers that takes the word of global warming as gospel) manage to shut down debate and dissent on the subject, I’m afraid we will never know the truth.

    Personally I think teaching a “healthy skeptic” approach works well in helping people resist indoctrination.

  11. @Andy Freeman

    Wow Andy, did your middle school science teacher flunk you? You have a poor attitude and an even poorer understanding of what science is and how it works. The beauty of science is the removal of “belief”, and the never-ending journey for an evidence-based understanding of the world around us. The willingness to discard old information and update or replace it with new findings is not a trait of “fools”, but a hallmark of an open, intelligent mind.

    The uninformed public may feel that any change in scientific thinking represents weakness and fallibility, but true scientists welcome new factual knowledge and healthy evidence-based debate.

  12. Quincy,

    Interesting that you mention the “kids know everything” angle. My 2nd grader has been making a lot of statements about global warming lately. So I asked him where he was learning about global warming and he told me that one of his classmates is an expert on global warming 🙂 Today he told me that he can’t wait until global warming stops. I guess we’ll have to have a discussion about ice ages 🙂

    So maybe the students are indoctrinating each other more than any teacher.

  13. Interesting talk about what the speaker calls “outdoctrination”.

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html

  14. In the differing views of scientists (not science) presented by Andy Freeman and Chris R, I come down pretty much on Andy’s side. There is what I like to call “the professor’s fallacy” The fallacy can be stated, “I’m smart in one area, so I’m smart in all areas.” I know a few professors, and in some of their views I tend to think they are not very smart at all.

  15. Chris –

    You say:

    The beauty of science is the removal of “belief”, and the never-ending journey for an evidence-based understanding of the world around us. The willingness to discard old information and update or replace it with new findings is not a trait of “fools”, but a hallmark of an open, intelligent mind.

    Unfortunately, you’re conflating sciencists as a community and individual scientists. The former are willing to consider new evidence, mainly because there are new people coming in to challenge the old ways. It’s a group dynamic among scientists that makes such reconsideration possible.

    Individual scientists often doggedly stick to their beliefs, even after they’ve been proven wrong. That’s why appeals to authority in science are so dangerous. Today’s scientific leaders are the next decades obsolete thinkers.

    On global warming, as in everything else, let the evidence speak for itself. When I hear someone say “leading scientists believe” or “the consensus is”, I instantly reject that person’s argument. We should be teaching students to do the same.

  16. Wff n proof is great, but it teaches essentially symbolic logic, which might or might not translate into critical thinking skills regarding political positions.

    The directions are, however, terrible.

  17. @Ponderosa

    A good liberal arts education, one that exposes kids to a vast range of views, is the best hope of creating this rare, valuable person.

    Interesting point, but I can’t help but wonder, just by mentioning that you would expose kids to a wide range of views, how many parents and administrators would be concerned about this statement, even to the point of attempting to correct your “misguided” direction.

  18. You are free to refer students to my guide to the logical fallacies – http://www.fallacies.ca – which is free, and contains basically the same information as the commercial products recommended in the post.

    What you’ll find, however, is that strong critical thinking skills, sound logic, and solid evidence are *not* good ammunition against what is characterized here as “goofy leftist views”. Indeed, the more skilled students become at reason and rationality, the more they seem to favour broadly leftist economics and politics.

    I would, in response to the original writer, ask him what he thinks constitute “left wing views” and what it was led him to believe that these views are “goofy” (the one example cited, that “Bush caused 9-11,” is not recognizably a left-wing view).

    What I have found, in my own work in this field, is that the most vocal critics of indoctrination in the schools are themselves the least informed and offer the poorest arguments. One needs only cite names like Keen and Horowitz to make the point.

  19. @Quincy-

    Your point is well stated. I do tend to think in terms of the “scientific community” rather than individual scientists. That community has a tendency, over time, to discard (or more often, modify) current understandings as new information comes to light. While still involving imperfect human beings, I see this as the best path to greater knowledge.

    Perhaps Andy was thinking along the same lines as you stated. If so, then I better understand his views. If not, then I would like to hear about his replacement for the scientific method.

  20. I’m sure the people stuck in “once in a Century” heavy snow in southern Louisiana and Las Vegas, Nevada are upset to know that all this snow was caused by global warming…

  21. Mrs. Lopez says:

    “Indeed, the more skilled students become at reason and rationality, the more they seem to favour broadly leftist economics and politics.”

    Indeed? I’m looking forward to that “solid evidence”, Mr. Downes.
    🙂

  22. Stephen,

    I tried a google of Keen and Horowitz and there was nothing that seemed relevant on the first page. Could you provide more detail?

  23. I don’t care for WFF ‘N PROOF. As someone earlier said, the directions that come with it are awful. And I doubt that it will teach anything about logical thought, because it’s purely formal and uses Polish notation, which is hard to relate to logical thought. Learning to manipulate things like CCpCqp isn’t going to teach most people to think logically. I bought it for my oldest kid, who likes math, and we never played with it because I couldn’t figure out how to make it fun (and was unable to understand the “documentation” that came with the game in the amount of time that I was willing to spend; since I do math for a living, I decided not to recommend the game to anyone else after that).

  24. Indeed, the more skilled students become at reason and rationality, the more they seem to favour broadly leftist economics and politics.

    In college, sure. I’ve seen plenty of bright, young kids make the case for leftist economics and politics using academic knowledge and logic. It’s only when they get out in the real world and learn to consider the words “unintended consequences” that they realize that complex systems like economics escape standard logic because accurately knowing all the premises upon which to base such logic is impossible for a single mind.

    Logic can be employed to prove a great many things, but only when the premises are known. That is the fundamental flaw in leftist economics, and the reason it routinely inflicts unintended consequences on the people subject to it.

    As to the fallacies, I looked at Stephen’s link, and I still find the Nizkor fallacies page a much handier resource.

  25. Quincy touches on an idea that I think is very important. Logic often is less important than our lack of knowledge. I have expanded on this idea here

  26. Andy Freeman says:

    > You have a poor attitude and an even poorer understanding of what science is and how it works.

    Chris R should learn how to read.

    The topic of my message was scientists, their beliefs, and whether they could be fools. The word “science” doesn’t even appear in said message.

    > The willingness to discard old information and update or replace it with new findings is not a trait of “fools”, but a hallmark of an open, intelligent mind.

    That’s nice, but doesn’t support Chris R’s point because the vast majority of the scientists who believed those foolish things I mentioned didn’t change their minds when the new theories became popular. The succeeding dominant theories got that way because new scientists believed them and the folks who believed the previous theories died off, defending said theories until they died.

    Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is somewhat useful here.

  27. Andy Freeman says:

    > If not, then I would like to hear about his replacement for the scientific method.

    I do science. I interact a lot with scientists. I’ll bet that I’ve dealt with more Nobel Prize winners than Chris R has even met.

    Chris R confuses an ideal about science with how scientists actually work.

    In fact, his idea of science as a series of refinements, creating new theories to accomodate both old data and new, is wrong. New theories often gain acceptance even though they don’t accomodate old data, instead rejecting it as irrelevant. See Feyerabend for this (and more).

    Scientists are people. We see some of that in (some) AGW scientists who say “I’m not going to give [critics] my data because they’ll just use it to try to prove that I’m wrong.”

    I think that such behavior is bad science but Chris R is free to disagree. (The possessive is also somewhat interesting since they didn’t pay to acquire said data.) My reason for suspecting their conclusions, that people who try to hide something are usually correct, isn’t “science”, but it’s pretty good when dealing with people.

    Whenever someone speaks of consensus, I’m reminded of the 5000 German scientists who signed a petition denouncing Einstein and his reply that it only takes one if he’s wrong. (And yes, he was wrong fairly often. He’s not even close to being one of my favorite scientists, but he was correct on that point.)

  28. @ Andy Freeman

    I believe in my follow-up to Quincy I stated, “Perhaps Andy was thinking along the same lines as you stated. If so, then I better understand his views. If not, then I would like to hear about his replacement for the scientific method.”

    It would seem that the first sentence in the above quote is indeed the case. I don’t mind being on the “wrong” side of a debate though if the conversation is good.

  29. Robert Wright says:

    Mr Downes,

    Thank you for posting your website.

    It appears to be one of the better ones on the subject.