Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Critical Toolbox

In a recent edition of The Philosopher's Zone Martin Bridgstock (from the School of Science at Griffith University and winner of the inaugural Australian Skeptics Prize for Critical Thinking) looks at skepticism.

He concentrates on three critical thinking tools: the burden of proof, Ockham's razor, Sagan's balance.

The burden of proof demand is simply that if somebody makes a paranormal claim of some kind, an astonishing claim of some kind, then the onus is upon them to establish that in fact their claim is justified. Other people don't have to disprove it [...] Ockham's razor is the principle laid down by William of Ockham, who was a mediaeval theological politician. And basically it says that one should always prefer the simplest explanation, one doesn't add on explanatory entities that you don't need. [...] [Sagan's balance] is that if somebody makes an amazing claim, then the evidence has got to be very strong in order to back up that claim. If somebody makes a very minor ho-hum boring claim, such as that a car drove past my house this morning, very little evidence is required to make a reasonable person believe it. But if it's an amazing claim, such as mind-reading or foreseeing the future by paranormal means, then the evidence has got to be very strong indeed.

Dr Bridgstock uses these principles in his university course on Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal to educate his students with good critical thinking skills.

As he points out, he doesn't attempt to dissuade his pupils from any fantastic beliefs they may hold, but rather gets them to apply these tools to beliefs and claims.

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