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. Â 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. Â 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 sureÂ how manyÂ California elected officials would be enthusiastic about teaching potential voters to reason like grown-ups.Â But no doubt some of them wouldÂ love to have a constituency of people who would listen to the truth if they were told it.