From the Editor: In Praise of Skepticism

Fall 2017

By Stan Izen

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth. — Einstein
 
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. — Voltaire

Who shall forbid a wise skepticism, seeing that there is no practical question on which any thing more than an approximate solution can be had? – Ralph Waldo Emerson
 
In a world awash with far more data than ever before, it is ironic indeed that many talk about ours as being a “post-truth” or “post-factual” society. Yet, we see it every day multiple times a day: a newspaper article that confuses correlation with causality, a blogger who deliberately cherry-picks facts that support his argument, a speaker whose bias colors her conclusions. There is so much data and, at the same time, so much imprecision, incorrectness, and just plain mendacity.

Teachers who use the internet in their classes realized early on that it was imperative that their students check online material carefully before they rely on it. Columbia University libraries suggest that researchers follow these guidelines:
  • Always check authorship, publisher, and sponsorship.
  • Try to ascertain the accuracy of the information by substantiating it elsewhere.
  • Check footnotes and bibliographies when possible. 
If healthy skepticism is important when viewing material online, shouldn’t it be just as important (maybe even more so) when reading essays by public intellectuals, watching personalities on TV, perusing newspapers and magazines, listening to politicians, or engaging in ordinary conversations with friends and colleagues? And yet many people simply accept what they hear as truth, never once thinking that maybe the speaker doesn’t know what he or she is talking about or that the author is trying to trick the reader. As Justice Robert Jackson observed many years ago, “Every person must be his own watchdog for truth.”
 
Classroom teachers are in a unique position to encourage skeptical thinking. In science and math classes, seeking proof or corroboration is built into the system, but humanities teachers should also create guidelines that urge skepticism in discussions and reading. For example, teachers can encourage students to take these three steps:
  1. Ask why or how, if an assertion is anything but obvious.
  2. Inquire into the objectivity of the speaker or author.
  3. Search for corroborating evidence.
It is not only possible for classroom teachers to promote healthy skepticism, it is their responsibility to do so. This falls under the heading of helping our students become principled individuals in their future roles as parents, professionals, and citizens.
 
It is important to remember that skepticism is not cynicism, nor is it pessimism. The skeptical person is not a naysayer, nor is he or she trying to tear down the world. Skepticism refers to an attitude, to a mode of thought in which one is “not easily convinced.” A skeptic is a person who does not accept arguments or “facts” at face value. Some evidence, some corroboration, should be required before one is willing to accept an argument or an assertion of another.
   
Some teachers may be hesitant to empower their students in this way, worried that class discussions will become wild free-for-alls, that their students will be harder to “control.” And it is true that encouraging our students to think skeptically will help them become more self-possessed individuals who will create livelier, more substantial debates and discussions. It may even, at times, make the teacher feel slightly uncomfortable. But isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that preferable to blind obedience? Teachers, let’s give our students the space to think for themselves and to become the persons they are meant to be.

*********

Welcome to the fall 2017 issue of Independent Teacher. This issue contains an extraordinary range of topics and classroom experiences – from combining archeology with math to middle school election simulation to using neuroscience to inform pedagogy – that we hope will inspire and enlighten your teaching.  We hope you enjoy these essays and that you will join the conversation by sending your comments and responses to editor@independentteacher.org.
 
Stan Izen

Stan Izen is the editor of Independent Teacher Magazine.