Tuesday, April 29, 2008

An Epistemological Exercise (or, This I Believe)

Ok class, take out a piece of paper, this will be an exercise that will go in your in class exercise portfolio. I want you to take ten minutes to list 20 things you believe very very confidently. Try to make them as various as possible. To give you a sense of what I mean, here are five items I believe

Torture is always wrong
I have never been to the moon.
Two plus two is four.
I love my wife and children
Humans arose by a process of evolution by natural selection

Ok, so take ten minutes, and then I will give you further instructions.

[Wait. During that time write your own list, try to make it new each time.]

Ok, now I want you to explain, for each of these items *why* you believe it.


I was just taking a long bath (which I always recommend) and thinking about assigning this exercise. It doesn't particularly fit with where I am in any of my classes right now, but I think it is a good one. I may create an online version and use it to replace some of my online discussion questions, which are pretty weak. It would work in my intro course if I linked it to issues of empiricism and rationalism. Or in the critical thinking course for issues of authority and also the tie in to the Clifford reading and the viewing of 12 Angry Men But I don't have an exercise portfolio in the critical thinking class right now. hrm.

11 comments:

Matthew said...

Who needs a reason to make students think about what they really believe? I think this would have gone well in my Historical Geology lab this semester, right around the time we talk about the age of Earth.

Still haven't had any creationist students. *Sigh*

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Its the "why" part that makes a difference. This would be especially good for the creationist students, who would answer "because I am a Christian" and you can explain all the reasons that is a bad reason to believe in creationism.

lemmy caution said...

"why" questions are kind of problematic:

This study tested the prediction that introspecting about the reasons for one's preferences would reduce satisfaction with a consumer choice. Subjects evaluated two types of posters and then chose one to take home. Those instructed to think about their reasons chose a different type of poster than control subjects and, when contacted 3 weeks later, were less satisfied with their choice. When people think about reasons, they appear to focus on attributes of the stimulus that are easy to verbalize and seem like plausible reasons but may not be important causes of their initial evaluations. When these attributes imply a new evaluation of the stimulus, people change their attitudes and base their choices on these new attitudes. Over time, however, people's initial evaluation of the stimulus seems to return, and they come to regret choices based on the new attitudes.

Rationalizations are thick on the ground. A lot of times it is better to not even bother giving reasons for things. Especially things that are important to you. People love their kids because they love their kids.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I never said people were good at reasoning. I only believe that people would be better off if they reasoned more.

For every worthwhile unexamined preference, like the love of children, there are a dozen that are not actually worthwhile, for instance, love of big gas guzzling status cars.

The study you site reports increasing consumer dissatisfaction as a result of examination. As a follower of Socrates I believe that the increased dissatisfaction is a good thing.

lemmy caution said...

Apparently, these are the top 5 reasons people give for buying SUVs

1. They want the offroading capabilities.
2. They want a vehicle that will get around better in the snow.
3.They want the cargo capacity and feel that an SUV holds more than a station wagon.
4.They feel an SUV is a safer vehicle because it's larger and heavier built.
5. They need a combination of pulling capacity and passenger seating.


These are all pretty much bullshit and the people who give these reasons are worse off than they would be if they never bothered to come up with a reason.

People who now believe that they need an SUV to keep their kids safe are going to have a hard time switching to a smaller fuel efficient car if these cars become higher in status.

The study you site reports increasing consumer dissatisfaction as a result of examination. As a follower of Socrates I believe that the increased dissatisfaction is a good thing.

The study really deals with choice. Not all choices have to do with buying things. Things like who to marry, where to live, what career, what school to go to are choices too. You are better off going with your gut on those things too.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Articulating stupid reasons for a stupid choice is in some ways a step backward, but it will help you take many steps forward.

The public aspect of reason, as recently emphasized by Haidt, helps a lot here. When other people see SUV owners giving stupid reasons for their choice, they are better able to see that it is a bad choice. Outsiders (like us!) are free of the biases that lead to rationalization. As a result, we are less likely to buy SUVs. If the rationalization hadn't been given, we might have bought an SUV out of the most basic human instinct to copy your neighbors. Thus the mechanism of reason provides for a more adaptive society than simple imitation.

The whole thing might even feed back to the person who gives the original rationalization, for instance if they see that no one else accepts their reasoning or is behaving as they do. This is the weakest link in the chain of public reasoning, but it does happen.

lemmy caution said...

I just read this Haidt article:

http://www.hum.utah.edu/~bbenham/Minds%20and%20Morals/Haidt.emotionaltail.pdf

It is very good.

You could be right about the public aspect of reason. Certainly different groups have acceptable and unacceptable reasons for things and these distinctions can be taught.

lemmy caution said...

Haidt's book is good too. I was avoiding it because I read too many of the happiness books, but one more didn't hurt. Haidt writes well and the book is mainly focussed on current psychology research rather than on ancient wisdom as the subtitle threatens.

Anonymous said...

Using this next lesson. Looks great!

Kimberly said...

I was in a panic for an activity to use in class one day and found this via Google. I used a version of it to great success. It was great to prompt a discussion of whether truth is objective or relative. Those who were tempted by relativism had to admit that some of their beliefs were not relative. Thanks for posting this nine years ago. :)

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Thanks!