The Dearth Of Reason

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out… without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.
-H.L. Mencken

I’ve long been of the opinion that a critical flaw in our society, likely foisted over several generations though I haven’t been alive long enough to see that many, is that we have spent far too much time teaching one what to think, and far too little teaching how. If I were in charge of education, I would make a requirement of high schools that economics and logic were required courses — economics of the behavioral sort and logic courses with a heavy emphasis on logical fallacies.

But I’m not in charge, and in my experience very few students are exposed to either in their formative years. Sadly, a new study suggests that they’re not offered all that much better in college.

An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Possibly the best teacher I’ve ever had, my AP US History teacher in high school, started the semester by giving us conflicting accounts of the battle of Lexington & Concord. Our first assignment was to write a paper justifying which side fired the first shot — the “shot heard round the world” — based SOLELY on those accounts. Not all people in the class came to the same conclusion, but the lesson wasn’t about providing us with the correct historical answer. It was about teaching us how to determine the answer based on that evidence. The lesson, one I remember vividly 17 years later, was that one does not “learn” history, one “does” history. Implicit in the lesson is that you cannot accept written, even eyewitness, accounts without evaluating the credibility of the source of those accounts.

To place nothing — nothing — above the verdict of my own mind.
-Dagny Taggart’s rule, Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

It goes without saying that such a lesson makes one inherently a skeptic. That poor word, too often used pejoratively, denigrates those who are unwilling to take revealed information as fact without self-confirmation. But skepticism is a healthy part of critical thinking. It is what instructs to ask whether a speaker’s own interests might cloud their ability or desire to present an unbiased viewpoint. It is what instructs us to ask whether a political policy’s actual results will in any way resemble its stated objectives. In short, skepticism and critical thinking is man’s only defense against snake oil and bullshit — in other words, the only defense against politics.

Very few people I’ve ever spoken to had such opportunities in their high school curriculum. Most were taught facts, not processes. And thus many come into their collegiate experience without these skills. Sadly, too many also leave after four years without those skills.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

If you’re not going to college to learn, exactly why are you there?

Oh, wait, it’s because you have no clue what you want to do with your life, you’re terrified of actually entering the real world, and because your parents and your previous schooling have prepared you for absolutely nothing other than classwork [this of course discounts those who went to school to obtain their Mrs. degree — not an inconsequential number]. So you do something silly like majoring in “Communications”, which offers no particularly employable skill set.

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

While I don’t particularly consider natural sciences or mathematics to be “liberal arts” disciplines, and am surprised by the grouping of business students in the group showing little gains, I think the keys are simple. The natural sciences and mathematics demand rigorous adherence to logical thinking. Even in the social sciences, it is expected that you justify an idea with some sort of argument. It’s no surprise that math students are better at thinking than communications majors — they’ve spent the last four years practicing.

But it’s good to know that denial of reality hasn’t been impacted!

The study used data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a 90-minute essay-type test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach and that more than 400 colleges and universities have used since 2002. The test is voluntary and includes real world problem-solving tasks, such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.

Christine Walker, a senior at DePauw who’s also student body president, said the study doesn’t reflect her own experience: She studies upwards of 30 hours a week and is confident she’s learning plenty. Walker said she and her classmates are juggling multiple non-academic demands, including jobs, to help pay for their education and that in today’s economy, top grades aren’t enough.

“If you don’t have a good resume,” Walker said, “the fact that you can say, ‘I wrote this really good paper that helped my critical thinking’ is going to be irrelevant.”

Yeah, those “real world problem-solving” skills are going to be completely useless to an employer.

You wouldn’t be aiming for government work, would you Christine? Oh, “student body president”? Yeah, you’ll fit in well in DC…

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  • John Curran

    I read with some interest the comments of the young lady from DePauw about having the right kind of resume being more important than being able to write a really good paper. We have hired a number of youngsters with great resumes who turn out to not be very good at reasoning.

    Many of them hate to write and think knowledge of PowerPoint means you are smart. They worship Obama, think humans are making the planet warm, and recycle. Their feelings get hurt when you drill holes in their arguments.

    One young man gave me a hard time about rising sea levels and my lack of concern for this looming disaster. When I told him that sea level has risen 120 meters over the last 12,000 years he scoffed. “Where did the water come from?” he demanded to know.

    When I told him that the Wisconsin ice shield had been two miles thick and that sea leave rose because the glaciers melted, I could see a 10 watt glimmer of thought pulsing on and off in his eyes. He had no idea of the extent of the ice age or its aftermath. He merely accepted what Al Gore told him in a PowerPoint presentation.

    He did not understand that if the Arctic ice cap melts sea level will not rise, since the ice has already displaced the water in the ocean. It was brutal for him, but I had a really good time demonstrating the value of facts over emotions.

    He has very little knowledge of natural or human history. He values feelings over thinking. His scientific knowledge is at about the third grade. He got a degree from a “good” school and yet he knows almost nothing. He has self-esteem though and is quite smug. There is no way people like him are going to solve real world problems.

  • Brad Warbiany


    Thanks for the anecdotes. I think you’ve got firsthand experience in a very related issue to the post (highlighted specifically by Ms. Walker):

    Students are conditioned to spend more time caring about their resume than what that resume is supposed to represent.

    They work their asses off in high school — not becoming stellar thinkers, but amassing the “right” extra-curricular activities to impress a college admissions officer. They then get into the “right” college, spend their time doing things like running for student body president and being a make-work intern for the “right” company or non-profit, and then wonder why that and their 3.8 GPA doesn’t get them automatically hired.

    It’s not about the resume, it’s about learning from the experiences your resume provides.

  • Stephen Littau


    Do you really think that the lack of reasoning skills is due to the lack of such skills being taught or could it be that students aren’t applying what they learn? The critical thinking class that I took years ago was something of a life changing experience for me. As we went over the various logical fallacies, I couldn’t help but think of all the examples of the fallacies being used during the 2004 campaign on both sides (actually, I think that using campaign ads would be great way to identify/illustrate each). It was this class that inspired me to create my first blog “Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds.” Believe it or not, I didn’t intend my blog to be a “libertarian” blog per se but one that would challenge conventional wisdom, apply reason, and expose illogical thought wherever I found it.

    Having said that, I doubt that this class was the same kind of life changing experience for many of my classmates (though I could certainly be wrong). I think that most approached it as another class they needed to get through in order to get their degree. How do you force someone to think critically?

    Truthfully, I think if most people don’t learn about critical thinking before college, it’s too late. If I had my way, the most basic critical thinking skills would be taught in school in grade school and be built upon all the way until graduation. The sad truth, I think, is that those who control education do not want people to grow up to be critical thinkers. What they really want is people who are easy to control (and they certainly don’t want people who would challenge their authority!).

  • Brad Warbiany


    I agree that it is something that needs to come earlier — as I said, if I was in charge I’d expect a semester of behavioral economics and a semester of logic would be mandatory in high school. Whether you call that second class “logic”, or “critical thinking”, or as Scott Adams of Dilbert coincidentally suggested today, simply “Comparing” doesn’t matter that much. But it should be taught earlier, and then college should build upon that.

    That said, it’s never too late to learn, and it’s not something that *requires* deliberate coursework to obtain. The article states in many places that those who tend to show a lot of progress are those who take classes requiring a lot of reading and a lot of writing. While mathematics, engineering, and applied sciences force formal rules of logic upon you, liberal arts disciplines do not. Yet liberal arts (by which I mean social sciences) often require you to read, form an opinion, and write to justify that opinion. You’re talking about the critical aspects of “argument”, and a good teacher should be forcing you to hone your craft by exposing the flaws within the arguments you advance. One of the reasons I enjoy blogging (reading/writing/commenting) is that it keeps my critical thinking skills sharp — if I make a logical mistake, the internet is FULL of people willing to call me on the carpet over it. As I am willing to do to them.

    Critical thinking is like riding a bike — it’s never too late to learn (although learning young undoubtedly helps), it’s something you never forget, but it requires practice to keep your skills sharp.

  • Dr. T

    Why Few of Us Are Skeptics

    1. Most teachers (including college professors) do not understand logic, reasoning, or critical thinking. Therefore, it is impossible for them to teach these skills to others.

    2. Religions, big governments, and many organizations (such as environmental groups) discourage skepticism. They cannot exist without large numbers of unquestioning believers.

    3. Not all people have the intellectual capacity to develop logic, reasoning, and critical thinking skills.

    4. Most people of average or above average intelligence are too lazy to bother with logic, reasoning, and critical thinking. They leave those mentally demanding tasks to others. Unfortunately, the “others” often are selected based on emotional or physical appeal. Marketers, hucksters, actors, and athletes are believed more readily than knowledgeable experts.

    This skeptic cannot think of a way to increase the numbers of critical thinkers, logic users, and skeptics. Because our society does not require intellectual rigor, non-skeptics can thrive. There is no pressure on most people to think instead of believe.

  • Stephen Littau

    Dr. T:

    I agree with you on 1, 2, and 4 but not sure about 3. I think most people have the intellectual capacity to be skeptics but are not skeptics for one or all of the other reasons you mentioned.

  • Stephen Littau

    I think Dr. T’s #2 is the greatest reason people are not skeptics. Not only is skepticism discouraged in religion, faith is considered a moral good (and by implication, not having faith is somehow immoral).

  • Dr. T

    @Stephen Littau

    People with IQs below 85 generally are not able to grasp rules of logic and are not able to think critically. They can be skeptical, but it is ineffective skepticism because they often cannot differentiate between evidence and smokescreens.

    Although #2 is important, I actually believe that #4 is the major reason why people in the USA aren’t effective skeptics. I have encountered too many situations where a person refused to even consider looking at evidence because he could not be bothered. A good example of this is that many people believe vaccines cause autism because some actress or actor said so. When I asked such persons to look at the evidence, almost all refused. In some cases, the person’s mindset was poisoned against skepticism by religion or government, but in most cases the person was just too lazy.

  • Jeff Molby

    I’ve long been of the opinion that a critical flaw in our society, likely foisted over several generations though I haven’t been alive long enough to see that many, is that we have spent far too much time teaching one what to think, and far too little teaching how.

    I agree that it is something that needs to come earlier

    it’s not something that *requires* deliberate coursework to obtain.

    I recently purchased a book called Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. I’ve read half of it already and I plan on re-reading it once a year for the next couple decades.

    Brad, I think you should buy it immediately. I’m so sure of it, I’ll send ya the $15 if you end up not liking it.

  • Stephen Littau

    Jeff, would you be interested in writing a review for the book here as a guest post?

    I read a book by the same authors “Parenting Beyond Belief” which my wife and I also enjoyed. We lent it to someone a few years ago and we still don’t have it back. When will I ever learn not to lend books I ever want to see again?

  • Brad Warbiany


    Thanks. I think I’ll buy it on the Kindle, and add it to the too-long list of things I haven’t read yet :-)

    I second Stephen’s offer, if you have an interest in writing a review of the book.

  • Jeff Molby

    Stephen, I recently got my hands on a copy of Parenting Beyond Belief (not available on Kindle) and am equally impressed with it so far.

    I’ll pass on the review, at least for now. I haven’t done a book report in over a decade and I can’t say I’m enthused about the possibility of breaking the streak. :-) Who knows, though. I might come around a year or two from now if neither of you have done it yet.

  • Stephen Littau

    Jeff, I never would have thought when I was in high school that I would still be doing book reports in my 30’s…as a hobby.

    If you ever change your mind, the offer still stands. Actually, if there are any other “guest post” topics that you would like to write about that are germane to this site – I think I speak for everyone here, we would be happy to post it here.

  • Jeff Molby

    Thanks, Stephen. I’m honored and I’ll certainly keep it in mind.