Going beyond "learning to think"

Belief is stronger than fact. According to Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, we are all hardwired to be sectarian and close-minded. The main thrust of his work is in motivated reasoning, which he defines as, “the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” Another one of his recent studies suggests that political bias has a negative effect on mathematical cognition. Subjects given politically charged data were less able to analyze it than subjects given the exact same data without political connotations.

Geneseo students, however, must be above such irrationality; we’re raised above the primordial ooze of ignorance to the ivory heights of objectivity. Right? Not according to Kahan’s research.

The most disheartening result from this study showed that the greater the individual’s mathematical capability, the more it was inhibited by their bias. Intelligence alone does not confer rationality.

If this is so, then Geneseo cannot expect to produce “socially responsible citizens” just by giving them knowledge. The much-maligned liberal arts education—intended to teach students how to think—presents a wonderful opportunity to replace motivated reasoning with the rationality to which we aspire.

According to Kahan’s findings on objectivity, just telling someone to be unbiased does not help. In fact, giving someone cues to be open-minded tends to make them less so. “Individuals naturally assume that beliefs they share with others in their defining group are ‘objective,’” Kahan said.

This is readily apparent in the sciences. The debate of evolution versus creationism is supposed to be the classic example of evidence against rationalized belief. Many evolutionary biologists, however, are as firmly entrenched in their respective paradigms as creationists.

They have all the facts on their side but invite opposition by ferociously clinging to their own interpretation of evolution. Both sides justifiably view the other as biased, but cannot see the same bias in themselves.

Only a generation of thinkers who are truly objective can positively affect the world outside of their own like-minded sphere, but it seems that impartial cognition requires hard training. Geneseo and all institutions of higher education must make fostering critical and impartial learning a priority.

This is why the liberal arts doctrine of “learning to think” is so important, but it cannot be limited to learning the basics of philosophy in Humanities. It cannot be limited to mere “tolerance” or “acceptance” of differing viewpoints.

Productive discourse is not built upon agreeing to disagree; no idea should be safe from criticism by others or the person who holds it. It is too easy for professors to pass on their biases to students in the guise of impartiality without either party realizing it.

To embrace the uncomfortable and constantly reshape our thinking as we take in new information must be a personal choice. The drive to question everything––especially one’s own beliefs––must permeate every aspect of collegiate education.

If not, a university risks producing brilliant physicists, historians, philosophers and citizens who are extremely skilled at keeping their heads in the sand.