MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 1
September / October 2018
Education for Credit/Education for Progress
MIT's Relationship to China
How Not to Teach Ethics
On Critical Thinking and Nerd Epistemology
A Collaboration in Learning
MIT Open Access Task Force Shares
White Paper on OA Landscape
The Transition to Retirement
Climate and Accountability
Stephen Hawking:
The Eminent Physicist vs. The Media Myth
Introducing the MIT
Academic Climate Survey
Study Abroad IAP Opportunities
Continue to Grow
Nominate a Colleague as a MacVicar Fellow
Request for Proposals
for Innovative Curricular Projects
from the 2018 MIT Survey of New Students
Printable Version

On Critical Thinking and Nerd Epistemology

Woodie Flowers

We adults have created messes. We need to help students learn to think critically about fixing our messes. Evolution has left us with brains capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast – without realizing it. Examples abound.

While boarding an airplane, I overheard two fellow passengers claiming that climate change was a hoax. I could not keep quiet. I cited the stack of reports from the national academies that argued otherwise. The fellow travelers' summary of my arguments was, “Well, all those scientists are atheists!” My retort was, “And they also designed this airplane.”

We build thought-walls that keep one part of our brain separate from other brain parts that believe stupid stuff. Being even mildly consistent is hard. Critical thinking makes our brain hurt. Just fleeing the saber-toothed tiger or agreeing with others in our tribe is much easier. Evolution gave what Daniel Kahneman calls our “fast brain” a dominant and stealthy position in our lives. We are not as rational as we want to believe. Tribalism, human chauvinism, and fear interfere with critical thinking without our being aware.

We love mysticism, especially when it reinforces human chauvinism. On the evening news – “The vehicle was totally destroyed, but the driver survived. It was a miracle!” Maybe. More likely it was good engineering. Air bags. Crush zones. Knowledge of biomechanics. 

We are launching students into a society that does not think critically.

An essential part of critical thinking is allegiance to objective truth – the kind of objective truth that underpins science and our understanding of the universe. This objective truth is being ignored by much of the population. Maxwell’s equations are not published with an asterisk with a footnote saying “unless contravened by human thoughts and prayers.”

Nerd epistemology adheres to beliefs based on objective truth rather than on volitional belief. For me, what I believe naturally results from what I think I understand.

Obviously, nerd epistemology does not cover all of human thought. Love, creativity, awe, devotion, leadership, empathy – many emotions and desires are not accessible to equations. For example, there are laws of thermodynamics, but no “laws of fairness” in the universe. There are no equations for ethics.

We have been divided into nerds and not-nerds. That is not good. The balanced human celebrates both types of thinking – without letting them become irrationally entangled. The students at MIT have passed a filter that selects for logical and rational thinking more than “other.” I believe that should facilitate our guiding them to become rational and compassionate leaders. Maybe ubernerd epistemology is the answer.

Unless we talk about expanded nerd epistemology, students may not expand. If we help them develop critical thinking grounded in objective truth while honoring the messy stuff we never lecture about, we have some hope of redefining education for the twenty-first century.

At the beginning of class, maybe we should give a few minutes to a discussion of critical thinking. I believe that can be done without constraining students’ beliefs. Maybe we can help them learn the difference between what they believe and what they assume they believe.

• Read an example of the day’s horoscope and ask, “Is this good advice?”

• Replay a set of absurd claims for a popular commercial and ask, “Should a venture capitalist invest in this business?”

 • Ask “Would you buy an expensive house on the beach?”

 • Ask “Is 'my lucky number’ a logical concept?”

 • Ask “Supreme Court Justices should be clear about what?”

• Ask “What data would inform better decisions about electric scooters in Cambridge?”

• Ask “How should EarthNow be regulated?”

As the students pursue a meaningful life, I believe a blend of understanding the universe and of understanding self and society will be essential. As machines prove more and more effective, humans who straddle will be needed. “Both” is becoming more important. MIT alumni in leadership positions will understand a lot about the universe. The ones who also make uniquely human contributions will be even more influential.

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