Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Critical Thinking: A Primer for Parents

By Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

One of the wonderful things about becoming involved in the vaccine debate is that it pushed me to research a field that I had never really explored in depth. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been a “science person,” and when one is entrenched in the humanities for so long, it’s hard to imagine delving into the realms of science and public health. Yet, here I sit, with a pile of scientific journal articles to my right and a stack of Dr. Paul Offit’s books to my left.

I have a graduate degree and a background in research, but researching the reciprocal influences of European surrealist and Francophone West African writers and artists isn’t exactly in the same intellectual sphere as public health. In fact, this topic that I spent the better part of a decade researching and topics related to vaccine safety couldn’t be more disparate (starting with the fact that way more people are interested in vaccines, for good reason). 

However, I can apply the same set of critical thinking skills to both topics, because these incredibly useful and important skills can be applied to any topic. You don’t need a graduate degree (or any degree, for that matter) to think critically. You just need to commit yourself to remaining rigorous, clear-headed and honest in your analysis.

This is easier said than done, because the more passionate we are about our topic, the more tempting it is to become sloppy in our analysis, to take the shortcut to the answer we are seeking. Sometimes we want our conclusions be to right so badly that we gloss over details and fudge our findings so that they fit neatly within our pre-established framework. Almost everyone, even the best critical thinkers, is guilty of this from time to time.

Then there are those who cling to their preconceived notions for dear life, quickly dismissing any evidence to the contrary, and repeating unsubstantiated claims and causal fallacies ad nauseum. I’ve found that there are many anti-vaxxers who fall into this camp (yes, I’m sure you’ve seen them on the social networks), which makes it very hard to debate or engage with them in a logical manner (and even harder to take them seriously). This, second only to the whole putting millions of lives at risk thing, is what frightens me most about the anti-vax movement--- the blatant dismissal of reason and logic.

In An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking (Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941), renowned critical thinking expert Edward Glaser defines the process as such: “Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends.”

A persistent effort. This means we, as critical thinkers, must remain engaged in the process, staying current on the research, continuing to be rigorous in our analysis of the information at hand. Of course, this holds true for those on both sides of the debate.

In his discussion of critical thinking, Glaser goes on to explain that it is the job of critical thinkers “to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life.”

To reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience. This means that when new evidence emerges that contradicts our previously held notions, we must revise these notions. This is something the many members of the anti-vax movement have a hard time doing. In the first few chapters of Deadly Choices, Dr. Paul Offit details the origins of the anti-vaccine movement. As I read about the inception of this movement, it became clear that many contemporary anti-vaxxers rely on the same rhetoric and tropes that the founders of the Vaccine Information Network used in the 1980s. Scads of new studies have been done since then, new research has been published, certain vaccines have changed in terms of their make-up, yet so many anti-vaxxers continue to cling to outdated (and outright false) information.

I find this refusal to think logically runs rampant in the anti-vax community, but it is certainly present in the pro-vax community as well. We all need to commit to critical thinking, to understanding why we hold a certain belief (and to reassessing that belief in light of new, credible information that arises).

Parents who are on the fence about vaccines: I implore you to think critically as you continue your research on both sides of the debate. This mode of thinking will serve you well not only in your decisions regarding vaccines, but in all of the decisions you make in life.

Interested in learning more about critical thinking? Here are some sources to get you started:

·      “A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking,” by Greg R. Haskins http://www.skepdic.com/essays/Haskins.html

·      The Critical Thinking Community

How to Get Kids to Think Critically

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard is a writer, editor, teacher, translator, and scholar, as well as a wife and a mother to fully vaccinated eight-month-old girl.