Critical Disagreement

I’m just wrapping up my time spent at a really great conference that’s all about the First-Year Experience for students in college. I’ve got lots of thoughts running through my head, including lots of cool ideas for a large part of my job: director of my university’s First Year Seminar program. This post is about just one of those.

I was in a pre-conference workshop that was about critical thinking. This is a hot topic in higher ed, especially ever since “Academically Adrift” was published, indicating research that many college student’s critical thinking skills actually got worse during their college years. Someone mentioned something that really has me thinking:

Students struggle to understand how two people who are both thinking critically can come to different conclusions.

Not surprisingly a few people in the workshop muttered about politics in the US to give a bunch of examples. For me, though, I realized that my main discipline doesn’t really suffer from this problem. If there’s a disagreement between two physicists, it usually means there’s just not enough evidence in yet. The two can be arguing about which theory best describes reality, but if they’re really arguing, it’s usually because both of their theories match all the available data. The reason they don’t fully agree is that the two theories make predictions about things that haven’t been detected yet.

This actually was a large part of my masters work. I was in a group that was really trying to understand how ultrashort pulse lasers work. [brief aside: These are lasers that blink. They’re only “on” for 0.0000000000001 s, then they wait for a few microseconds before they repeat.] My group had one theory, and another prominent group had another to describe exactly how these lasers developed the intense electric fields involved. The problem was that the standard measurement that people were able to do at the time did not distinguish the two theories. It was interesting to go to conferences and be involved in what felt like heated debates. But really they were just hopeful debates. Both sides wanted to be right, but both realized that at most only one of them was. My masters thesis was all about the development of a new measurement technique that could clearly distinguish the two theories.

So that really has me thinking. Does this approach to natural science distinguish how it employs “critical thinking” from other disciplines? I’ve begun to explore the political arguments I’ve been involved in, especially those where I feel like both sides are “thinking critically.” We have access to the same facts, but we feel that the best moves for the future are nearly diametrically opposed. It seems to me this happens for at least two reasons:

  1. We disagree on base assumptions about something.
  2. We prioritize particular future events differently.

I’ve been a participant in arguments that have fizzled because both parties have realized that either 1 or 2 above is what’s happening. That fizzle takes the form of “oh, well then I guess we just disagree then” or “well, then you’re just an uncaring SOB, I guess.”

In physics, the arguments come to an end when new data comes to light. People can be disappointed that their theory wasn’t right, but they don’t kick themselves for being wrong. Their theory matched the data that was known. They just bet wrong. Moving forward they’re happy to use the correct theory.

One interesting physics example is how to interpret quantum mechanics. There’s tons of disagreement about what’s real, what a measurement does, how many universes there are, etc. However, to participate in the argument, you have to back a theory that matches all the data. When pseudoscience folks try to join or say things like “well anything goes”, they’re usually pretty easily shot down when their theories are shown to not match particular measurements. The argument is really about what reality is, not how to make calculations or predictions.

So what do you think? Here are some starters for you:

  • This is interesting. Here’s an argument that happens in my field  . . .
  • Have you ever heard of reading?! Here are 10 things you should read before blathering on like this  . . .
  • I think you’re not being entirely honest here. After reading your paper I see that your new technique vindicated your group’s theory. Seems fishy to me.
  • I remember when FROG was invented. It opened up so many new ways to think about our ultrashort lasers, thanks!
  • If someone disagrees with me, it’s clearly because they’re not thinking critically.
  • Quantum mechanics is just a spherical-earth conspiracy.
  • What arguments do you see your students having in lab?
  • Are you saying that if disagreement lingers the participants aren’t thinking critically?
  • I wrote “Academically Adrift” and now I think I should go and write a whole new chapter about how the critical thinking abilities of bloggers goes downhill.

About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in dean, physics, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Critical Disagreement

  1. bretbenesh says:

    _Teaching with Your Mouth Shut_ (and other places) have argued that it is a good idea for two professors to teach a class. That way, the students can listen to the professors argue about things. This could help get them out of the mind set that, if one is thinking critically, there is only correct conclusion. That is a pretty expensive fix, though.

    Of course, I don’t see how this would take place in either mathematics or physics (I can see how team teaching could be useful, but not as a tool to get students to understand critical thinking in this way).

    Do you think that mathematics and science could be part of the problem? In our fields, it seems like critical thinkers either (1) have to agree if there is a proof/enough data or (2) can disagree when there is not yet a proof/is not yet enough data. Maybe this is a consequence of our society being too scientifically literate (probably not).

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I think students could benefit from seeing two math or physics teachers attack the same problem. They’d (likely) get to the same result, but what tools they use and the order they do things would be different (again, likely) and the students could see that learning a particular recipe is not the goal. So is that critical thinking? I think so, but I’m not sure.

      I think having an answer that’s “right” that everyone can agree with is rare in our culture, though it does seem to happen a lot in math and physics.

      We would say a student is thinking critically when they look at a research source and critically evaluate the information in it. Were there limitations to the equipment used that weren’t noted? Was there a different system that could have been studied to make the result more general? Are the conclusions statistically significant? What’s interesting is that these questions actually have answers, though it’s possible neither the student nor that author knows that answer (yet).

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