Bias, argumentation, and education

Critical thinking often appears to be an answer to unwanted biases, if not the answer.  Sometimes, indeed, it seems to be the only answer. How else are students to learn?  In class, or on their own, reflection seems the only answer.

So when we consider what we want out of our CT courses, it’s worth considering whether attention to personal biases should be a goal, and how to address that.  Whether we want to provide students with skills for the business world and getting a job, or help them solve problems more generally, we must engage student biases.

Yet cognitive biases prove to be resilient to self-reflection. (I haven’t sources for this yet, but it’s well-accepted.)  Furthermore, attempts to correct certain biases can create a rebound effect, a conscious or unconscious backlash. (Again, I’ll have to owe you the sources showing that. I do expect at some point to be properly publishing a piece attending to this problem.)

However, that resistance and backlash, conscious and un-, might operate primarily when one treats CT as an individual process, rather than one that people share.  If we reason together, and scrutinize each other, collaborate and share resources, a different role for biases can emerge.  At least, this possibility deserves consideration, and it would help explain why so many people consider argumentation a good way to teach critical thinking.  Otherwise, the only reason for the centrality of argumentation in much CT pedagogy would seem to be the disciplinary biases of philosophers.

Much has been made by Helen Longino (1990; 2001) of how scientists can bring biases to light and  better evaluate the available evidence by attending to background assumptions. That seems promising to me.  She suggests that can be done by bringing diverse (but competent) perspectives into critical dialogue.

The means by which we share reasons and criticism is argumentation. Understood as a social process, argumentation allows us to collaborate in our reasoning.  The study of how social reasoning progresses has recently received some of the attention it deserves, as we’ve seen the field of social epistemology emerge and develop.  I’m still catching up on that, but I expect there will be profound resources from it to help us figure out ways to work through our biases rather than reinforce them in the way that individual reflection can.

All this suggests that argumentation may be more important to critical thinking than previously recognized.  Sure some people assume that teaching argumentation is teaching critical thinking, and philosophers are especially likely to fall into this trap — it’s our bias!  But the CT movement stressed any number of other skills — numeracy, media literacy, etc.  However, these may not help us address our own biases, only recognize it in other people.  If illuminating bias is central to CT, then we may need the larger social context of argument analysis.

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About Cate Hundleby

I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, Canada, where I am also cross-appointed to Women's and Gender Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Argumentation Studies. View all posts by Cate Hundleby

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