We’ve all been in arguments lately where one side or both swing from the fences, attacking what appears to be a generic enemy (the radical left, the media, Washington politicians, the right-wing conspiracy.) And, increasingly in many of these discussions, the people arguing don’t often believe they need evidence to back up their arguments—or they use one example of evidence to try to make a blanket case for all situations. In other instances, when there is solid evidence that counters their point of view, some people simply choose not to accept the evidence or they claim to mistrust all information altogether. (This is the crux of the problem.) It is baffling and concerning for everyone involved. After all, if there is no truth, what do we have?
Mathematicians, those in the legal profession, scientists, and historians have been using their own standards for defining truth for centuries. And there is much we can learn from these disciplines ourselves and teach our students, about how to discern truth from fiction and how to use critical thinking rather than mere emotion to frame our thinking.
Mathematicians start from a base of assumptions that are universally believed to be true. For instance, 1+1=2 and no one disputes this absolute truth. There is nothing fuzzy about this conclusion. According to award-winning longtime math educator John Benson, “The only way one can doubt a theorem is to find fault with its proof.”
The field of law has a much less exact basis for arriving at the truth, but still has merit for our own search for the truth. Legal professionals and scholars use preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as their measures. The concept of evidence is critical in a court of law. Without it, there is no case. There are only accusers and the accused.
In addition to evidence, lawyers and judges use the decisions made in prior cases to build a new case for a new circumstance. In other words, they use the wisdom of others who have wrestled with the truth in a similar situation to come to the best conclusion.
In the field of science, observations and data provide the evidence from which conclusions can be drawn. If there is no data, there is no science.
Historians, too, accumulate data—but in a different way. To them, it’s not only important what happened in history, but also who gathered and reported the information and why. As an example, Native Americans would tell the story of the settling of America differently than the European settlers who ultimately prevailed. Many of the facts might intersect, but the stories behind those facts and the emotions about those stories would differ vastly.
So, what conclusion can we draw from these disciplines to sharpen our own thinking about what is true? Here are some questions we can ask ourselves and our students to keep both on track, and avoid engaging in sloppy thinking:
- What is the evidence that something is true?
- Is there a preponderance of evidence and is it clear and convincing?
- What data can you bring forth to substantiate your claims?
- Who supplied the data and is it from a credible, unbiased source?
- Is there anything that would cast doubt on the data, and if so, is there enough doubt to claim something held to be true is not true?
- What wisdom from experts who have grappled with similar issues can you bring to bear on the current issue you are arguing?
- Do you have an emotional bias that might keep you from exploring the truth beyond a reasonable doubt?
As educators we have a responsibility to ourselves, our students, and our society to teach critical thinking skills. Certainly, the world our students are living in today and will be living in tomorrow commands it of them. As our world becomes even more complex and information even more accessible, being able to discern fact from fiction will become a necessary survival skill. Let’s make certain they have the know-how and the practice to do so.
Herrmann, Z. (2017, May 10). Finding what’s true: A cross-disciplinary search for truth—and the critical thinking skills students need in order to assess it. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/uk/blog/finding-whats-true