Motivated reasoning, critical thinking, higher education, and physics

Can taking physics teach you to avoid motivated reasoning?

Benjamin Monreal of the physics department at the University of California at Santa Barbara reflects on the “motivated reasoning” issue as raised in Lane Wallace’s Atlantic essay, “All Evidence to the Contrary“.

I’m quite taken by the idea that one of the goals of liberal education is to combat “motivated reasoning”.

I’ve been trying to make my physics classrooms into something a pulpit for the importance of a liberal education. In these days of cutbacks, I hope that, if I can clarify to my students what the mission of the university is, they’ll go home and clarify that in turn to their tax-paying and proposition-voting parents.

But I feel that generic appeals to “critical thinking skills” do not have a lot of force for either students or voters.

But this motivated reasoning is great: a concrete, localizable example of the difference between critical thinking and the opposite.  It’s something we can quite plausibly say gets better with practice, and that this practice actually happens in our classrooms and is largely absent beyond them.  And “avoids motivated reasoning” is not just a trendy synonym for “smart”, so it can be part of the value of education at every level from JC to UC.

Moreover, it’s something students may recognize from daily life and from the news, and not (as “critical thinking skills” were when pitched to me in my undergrad days) a nebulous instinct we’d someday apply in our future careers, sometimes implicitly presumed to be “consulting”.

And, as a bonus for me, a particular aspect of critical thinking that will explicitly come up in physics contexts, so it won’t take a shoehorn to find a place for it in my teaching.

Given the prevalence of motivated reasoning (and its cousin, wishful thinking) in politics, I’m not sure how many California elected officials would be enthusiastic about teaching potential voters to reason like grown-ups.  But no doubt some of them would love to have a constituency of people who would listen to the truth if they were told it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Motivated reasoning, critical thinking, higher education, and physics”

  1. Much of the Atlantic essay deals with attachment to beliefs about matters of fact: whether Cook or Peary reached the Pole, what happened to Everett Reuss. This is one level at which attachment to opinion can occur. But as long as one can appeal to a factual record, these can be resolved more or less conclusively.

    Another level of attachment can occur, at the level of opinions about relationships between facts. Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” A few years later, the Wall is down. Reagan’s trip to Berlin preceded the tearing down of the Wall, but was the relationship causal? The factual record is clear, but the relationship between the facts is a matter of opinion.

    Not all opinions are created equal, however. There are very good reasons to explain the tearing down of the wall not so much to Reagan’s demand that it be torn down, but to other factors having to do with Eastern European politics in the late 1980s, to Gorbachev’s preparedness to take history in a different direction, and to the fact that Reagan became flexible enough to back down from years of belligerence and thereby give Gorbachev the ability to move his policies past obstacles in his own establishment.

    This does not keep many people from adhering to an opinion that has very weak support, though. They believe that it was Reagan’s “toughness” that ended the Cold War, and that therefore “toughness” is called for with all our dealings with sovereign nations.

    Both kinds of attachment to opinion can create mischief. It seems to me that the second kind of attachment can create at least as much as the first. Perhaps it causes more. Hundreds of examples could be elicited of mistaken beliefs about relationships between facts leading to bad decisions about matters of statecraft.

    The distinction between levels of attachment to belief seems to be worth making, since the remedies may differ. That would be a different discussion.

  2. Reading Lane's column, I immediately thought of that favorite tool of geologists, the method of multiple working hypotheses–so named by T. C. Chamberlain when he published his argument for it in 1890. It is available at… He gives no references, but it is very likely that he was heavily influenced by the working style of another geologist, G. K. Gilbert.

  3. The colleges should just change their mottos to "You're not always right, and it's not about you. You stupid kid." That should just about have the same effect without giving license to add the personal moral improvement and enlightenment of students to liberal arts educators' occassional mandate of paralyzing independent analysis and appreciation of the liberal arts. (I have nothing against academics. THey're doing what they are told the system needs.)

    I agree with your correspondent that "critical thinking" as a rationale is unpersuasive, but it's best to stick with the central goals of 1) practicing literacy, 2) practicing numeracy and 3) improving basic knowledge of subjects necessary for civilized life.

  4. @MP,

    Those central goals you speak of are not college level, but High School.

    But I understand how you could have mistaken the two. However, it is exactly the liberal arts curriculum that is teaching independent analysis etc. The other choices are trade school, not exactly a hotbed of independent thought, or a religion-based school, ditto.

    (Before you mention Notre Dame, remember that they are exactly a liberal arts school, coincident with a religious mission.)

  5. Could we have a cite/ URL to Benjamin Monreal's full post?

    The academe no longer teaches critical thinking it seems– maybe it never did.

    University is about certificating yourself for employment. A Harvard certificate buys you a job at Morgan Stanley or at least a crack at the interviews. T'was ever thus, I guess.

    Hence the rise and rise of 'practical' degrees like Business Studies, which, in the end, don't teach logical thinking as well as well taught arts and sciences courses.

    Since grades are all important in that race, distracting yourself with learning to think is surely a great mistake.

  6. "However, it is exactly the liberal arts curriculum that is teaching independent analysis etc. The other choices are trade school, not exactly a hotbed of independent thought, or a religion-based school, ditto."

    OTOH, the latter two aren't exactly hotbeds of post-modernism, either, which rather compensates.

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