Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shall we challenge false beliefs with facts?

Philosopher Peter Boghossian recounts a recent experience in which he challenged a student's belief in Creationism only to find that his colleagues thought that such challenges were pedagogically out of bounds:

Until two weeks ago, I had been laboring under the na├»ve assumption that one of the primary goals of every academic was to change students’ beliefs when they were based on inaccurate information. I was awakened from this dogmatic slumber at an interdisciplinary faculty meeting by colleagues who reacted with dismay to my confession that I had tried and failed to disabuse one of my students of Creationist beliefs.
The conversation became more heated when I read to the group what the student had written on her final exam: "I wrote what I had to ‘agree’ with what was said in class, but in truth I believe ABSOLUTELY that there is an amazing, savior GOD, who created the universe, lives among us, and loves us more than anything. That is my ABSOLUTE, and no amount of ‘philosophy’ will change that.
Two of my colleagues, one in the language arts and one in psychology, argued that it was an inappropriate use of my authority to attempt to change this student’s belief; rather, my role should have been to provide her with data so that she could make better decisions. I countered that both the process that allows one to arrive at Creationist conclusions, and the conclusions themselves, are completely divorced from reality, and that my role was not simply to provide evidence and counterexamples and hope for the best, but to help her overcome a false belief and supplant it with a true one.
Their unanimous reaction to this declaration temporarily made me question one of my basic assumptions about the responsibilities of college educators: Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts? 

Do read the rest for yourself (and the comments are, rarely enough, worth reading!). So who's in the right here — Boghossian or his colleagues?


  1. I think it is totally appropriate to challenge a student's belief, if it is relevant to the discussion at hand.

    That said, I think it is inappropriate to read from sections of her exam. This seems to be focusing on the individual student too much, and perhaps ostracizing that individual as well. Fight the issue not the individual.

    As for the staff reactions, I hate to be so conspiratorial but my impression of collegiate staffs has been the majority of them are worshipers of the Dark Lord Cthulhu anyways, so their aversion to the truth is to be expected.

  2. No, part of the position of a college professor is to help develop a student's critical thinking skills. When someone is in college, the expectation is that they ought to be able to think for themselves.

  3. According the a First Amendment lawyer who lectured at a workshop I attended, after the age of 18, teachers are allowed to cause students to call into question their religious beliefs. I would argue that they MUST do this.

    Boghossian defines and uses the terms "knowledge" and "belief" differently from what I would have—but then I am not a philosopher. I liked his clarification of those terms and his illustrations of the implications of a failure to demand rigorous application of real knowledge to belief—of how knowledge must lead to belief. Perhaps we need a third term in this discussion, "faith," which would be belief in something despite evidence (knowledge) to the contrary.

    Such faith extends well beyond religion. I have high school students with faith in all sorts of things from the impact of violent games to sports—they have almost a magical attachment to ideas they like and an aversion to reality. Since I am working with younger students, I do feel that I must sometimes hold back, and when religion enters the stage I am legally obliged to back off. Students at that age are more vulnerable, living in their parents' houses, and perhaps not mature enough to change their minds even in the face of evidence. I can plant a seed. I do that. That little seed of question.

    This, of course, I'm on Boghossian's side. His colleagues, like some of mine, simply don't want to make or clean up after trouble.

    btw The young woman who is quoted above was taking a class called “Science and Pseudoscience” so you have to wonder why she would even be there if she had no interest in actual science?

  4. I agree with Boghossian that we should "change students’ beliefs when they were based on inaccurate information" but based on the empirical evidence on cognitive dissonance, it seems that his way of doing it will likely have the opposite effect.

  5. epistemic relativistJuly 21, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    Boghossian should distinguish between two claims:

    1) There is empirical evidence for the existence of the Abrahamic God.

    2) It is rational to believe in the Abrahamic God.

    I think he can safely say that it is his job to help students understand that (1) is false. But (2) is a different matter, and some of the things he says suggest that he also takes it upon himself to disabuse his students of (2). There he is on much shakier ground.

    Another distinction would help here:

    A) challenging students' most deeply held beliefs

    B) challenging students' false beliefs

    Boghossian runs these two together at times, which obscures the fact that (B) is much harder than he lets on. We can all agree that people who teach philosophy (especially anything like critical thinking) should be in the business of doing (A). But it's far less clear that it is our job to do (B), because we, as philosophers, ought to appreciate that our personal judgment is not the absolute guide to what is true. There exist defensible philosophical reasons for almost any position one cares to name. Rather that assume that the view expressed by this student is False, it would be better to engage with her and have an open-minded discussion about her grounds for holding it.

  6. I would have thought that the first task of a teacher is to a) introduce students to the issues that have occupied people's thinking, and b) present the range of tools humans have developed (and proposed for others to use) to determine whether what we are presented with in terms of information, opinions, evidence, etc. 'holds water', and should be adopted as our own opinion. Given the wide range of such advice (for b) and the significant number of issues for which we simply do not have adequate tools to settle them once and for all as 'true' or 'false' (that we cannot ever 'know' with any certainty), it seems inappropriate indeed to insist on any particular mode or combination of principles for this task. This is especially so for issues and beliefs about what we ought to do (for which the labels 'true' and 'false' do not apply, at least not in the same way as they do for what we call 'factual' knowledge) -- the arguments or evidence for / against such claims are not only inconclusive from a formal logic point of view but inevitably rest on at least one premise that is in turn a deontic one to which 'true' and 'false' nor empirical evidence do not apply: ultimately such arguments then rest on beliefs we accept as 'intuitively' plausible ('self-evident') and not needing further support. I. e. beliefs. History shows that we keep changing our minds about the kinds of such claims we accept, and what kind of support they need. I (not a real philosopher, obviously) suggest that the structure of such claims upon which we base our lives is a matter of design as much as one of truth of knowledge.
    So what should an exam be looking for, legitimately? For (a): awareness, understanding of the issues; for (b) awareness, understanding and ability to use various tools that have been developed (including tools the professor considers most appropriate) -- but not whether the 'right' tool and set of beliefs have been accepted by the student. At most: whether a student is able to construct (design) an internally coherent set of support arguments for the position she adopts, and against arguments that question that position. Coherence in the sense, perhaps, of the foundation of Venice: we know, don't we, that a wooden pile driven into a swamp is not a safe foundation for a building. But all the glorious palaces in Venice are built just upon such foundations: many interconnected piles of wood.
    Thorbjoern Mann

  7. I side with the colleagues. Philosophers aren't evangelists. Dispute Creationism in the same breath as you dispute Darwinism.

  8. Students should be able to hold on to their creationist, sexist, racist, and homophobic views. Regardless of what we think of them.

  9. I think students ought to know everything that Socrates knew.

  10. I tell my students "I don't care what you believe - but I need to know why you believe it." Family tradition and it makes me feel good don't count - give me the logical argument for your belief.

  11. I don't think there is enough data in the article to reliably discern whether Boghossian himself actually lives up to it, but I think he's right when he states that, "...our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence." What this should look like first and foremost in a class, I think, is a professor making an honest attempt at providing students with some of the most reasonable arguments for or against any view that the class covers.

    Take his own, "Science and Pseudoscience" course, for example. Alongside something by Imre Lakatos or Philip Kitcher on the epistemic value of prediction, one might include Robin Collins's, "Against the Epistemic Value of Prediction over Accommodation," (Nous, Vol. 28:2 [1994] pp. 210-224). Likewise, alongside, say, Eldredge's, The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism, one might include Gerald Schroeder's, The Science of God or Andrew Parker's, The Genesis Enigma, and so on for the demarcation problem, whether doing good science requires methodological naturalism, and so forth.

    Further, if Boghossian is right about our role as educators then there should be no sacred cows in the class. The views we hold on whatever topics we teach should be scrutinized just as carefully as the views we oppose, and this needs to be done by *professional philosophers* or other, suitably competent interlocutors. Our students generally aren't competent to give our views the careful scrutiny they deserve, much less their own views. As such, no one benefits if we only select materials that support our views and then knock down any students' objections.

    In addition to judiciously selecting materials, I think we need to cultivate the will to give our students the most fair presentation of the debate that we can. Recall what Mill says in chapter two of, On Liberty:

    "In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. "

    If this is the sort of mindset we want to cultivate in our students, we ought to model it ourselves. With that in mind, I have to hand it to William Lycan for modeling something very much like what Mill proposes in his (i.e., Lycan's) paper, "Giving Substance Dualism its Due."

    Jeff Wisdom
    Assistant Professor of Philosophy
    Joliet Junior College

  12. Honestly by the end of the course I'd rather see my students improve their justifications for their absurd beliefs than merely reject those beliefs. Boghossian's piece is surprising, given that in philosophy there is no lack of absurd, deeply held positions even in single departments. It must not be that easy, apparently, to teach people to merely think in accordance with reality.


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