February 19, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Not Always Trained to Be Critical Thinkers

A trainer of graduate students at a prestigious university wants to put the Ph back in PhD.

Can scientists be good at detail work but dumb at logic? Gundula Bosch thinks so. She directs the R3 Graduate Science Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. In Nature, she says she’s on a campaign to “Train PhD students to be thinkers not just specialists.” She explains an alarming trend in graduate schools that betrays the historic purpose of a top-level education:

Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.

As a result of the pressure, “That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific.” Without formal training in philosophy of science, scientists can become very skilled at detailed lab procedures but clueless about logic. Can they recognize a logical fallacy? Are they being forewarned of the pitfalls of flawed research?

Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

Some blunders are not so hilarious. There can be societal consequences for not thinking ahead. But some serendipitous discoveries are hilarious, like when Kekule said he discovered the structure of benzene after dreaming about a snake eating its tail. Cases like that led to Murphy’s Technology Law, “All great discoveries are made by mistake.” Don’t omit the corollary: ‘The greater the funding, the longer it takes to find the mistake.” There are lists of these, like the one at Mental Floss, which lists 24 serendipitous discoveries of everything from Velcro to Viagra.

I was startled by the oft-expressed opinion that scientific productivity depended more on rote knowledge than on competence in critical thinking.

The lack of training in critical thinking shows up in retractions, corrections and the worrisome “reproducibility crisis” (4 April 2017). It also leads to public mistrust of science, like when nutrition scientists have reversed their positions on eggs, sugar, fat, the Food Pyramid, and other matters over time.

Blunders and dangers of this sort prompted Bosch to start a program at her institution, Johns Hopkins, to put the Ph back in PhD: Doctor of Philosophy. Before William Whewell coined the label “scientist,” investigators of the natural world called themselves natural philosophers. A specialist in any scientific world is really not worthy of the letters PhD without some philosophical training.

We call our programme R3, which means that our students learn to apply rigour to their design and conduct of experiments; view their work through the lens of social responsibility; and to think critically, communicate better, and thus improve reproducibility. Although we are aware of many innovative individual courses developed along these lines, we are striving for more-comprehensive reform.

Lemmings, by JB Greene. Used by permission.

Her program encourages students to evaluate case studies in fraud and misconduct, as well as poor design that leads to flawed conclusions. Somewhat surprisingly, she’s running into resistance from science faculty. They don’t think they have the time for this mushy stuff: nothing a cup of coffee can’t solve:

Introducing our programme to colleagues in the Johns Hopkins life-sciences departments was even more sensitive. I was startled by the oft-expressed opinion that scientific productivity depended more on rote knowledge than on competence in critical thinking. Several principal investigators were uneasy about students committing more time to less conventional forms of education. The best way to gain their support was coffee: we repeatedly met lab heads to understand their concerns.

Once hearing their concerns, Bosch sought to convince them it is worth the time. She argued, “better critical thinking and fewer mandatory discipline-specific classes might actually position students to be more productive.”

Discussions about the bigger-picture problems of the scientific enterprise get students to reflect on the limits of science, and where science’s ability to do something competes with what scientists should do from a moral point of view.

Bosch strives for “a better, more rational world” with these efforts. In her final sentence, Bosch accepts the fraught idea that science is “self-correcting,” but she believes it should also be “self-improving.” Such aspirations are not peculiar to science. Each individual, each institution, and each country should strive for the same.

Don’t teach Darwinians critical thinking! It will destroy their whole cult! It would make them have to think of better explanations than, “It evolved” and “Stuff happens.” That’s too big a challenge for those needing to get molecules to become human brains. Good grief, they’ll have to stop using the Master List of Logical Fallacies as their “how-to” textbook!

Bosch’s suggestions are good, but we wish she would add some material about groupthink, consensus, and courage to think outside the box. Notice that her suggestions presuppose values that should be aspirations for everyone: logical consistency (philosophy) and a commitment to honesty (morality). And yet we have a professional “science” enterprise dedicated to the proposition that we’re all products of a blind, amoral, unguided natural process. How do you “evolve” philosophy and morality out of that? As we repeatedly have to emphasize, naturalism is self-refuting. We quoted C. S. Lewis on that a few days ago (11 Feb 2018). Another of his quotes points out that there is really nothing truly unique about scientific thought except for its subject matter. This is another good quote to memorize:

The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics. If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.




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