Posts Tagged ‘Greg Hart’

Greg Hart: Critical thinking

2015/11/07

(This is one of a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Greg Hart

The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1 was the opening talk of Day 2 in our conference.

In it, Greg Hart wound through several pitfalls people fall into when attempting to think critically.

For example, many of us have a vague idea that critical thinking involves thinking carefully, maybe following particular rules, but we can’t define it. Greg gave a useful general description – a quote he attributed to Richard Paul:

“Critical thinking is the act of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.”

Cool. Other problems he identified include confusing skepticism, critical thinking, and scientific thinking; treating critical thinking as just problem solving; and thinking mechanically.

I’ll expand on that one a bit too. (I’m trying not to give away the whole talk here. If you get a chance to listen to Greg speak, you’ll probably find it worth your time.)

He gave the example of this problem, given to grade 3 students:

There are 75 sheep in a pasture and 5 sheep dogs. How old is the shepherd?

Common answers, accounting for 90% of the responses from the kids, included 75+5=80 years old, and 75-5=70 years old. Why wouldn’t they just say “I don’t know”? Well, first, most numerical problems they see can be solved by some simple operation like this. And second, even as adults, we live in a culture where the answer “I don’t know” is seen as a failure.

This ties in with another of his points: leaping to evaluation before you have thought things through carefully. But more generally, we need to become comfortable with ignorance. Not that we need to give up trying to understand things. Just that we need to value the recognition of where our understanding ends. If I want to learn how economic stimulus works (to pick a random example), then I first have to acknowledge that, however strong my opinions, and however much I may have thought about it, there is a possibility that I don’t have the full picture. That I am, in fact, ignorant of some important fact or principle that is key to understanding or finding the answer.

We mustn’t just apply critical thinking to the easy stuff. We mustn’t just do it when we have a thorny problem to solve. We especially mustn’t just use it on other people’s ideas. We have to use it always and everywhere.

Does that sound like a daunting task?

Yes. But that’s what it takes to be intellectually grown up. To think better.

This wasn’t a talk about how “we” do it so much better than “them” – an attitude that may sometimes surface in the secular community. It was a talk about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.

Here are a couple of places you can find Greg Hart online:

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None of the Above conference

2015/10/27

Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.