Bob believes one explanation of how the brain works. Bing believes another.
Can only one view be right? Or could both have some claim to being correct?
And if both could be right, could one explanation be better or more right than the other?
This isn’t a test of your beliefs about neuroscience, but a test of your beliefs about knowledge.
According to the classification scheme of Deanna Kuhn, people who think that only one explanation can be right harbor an absolutist understanding of knowledge. They believe that reality can be observed directly and known with certainty. The world is black and white with no shades of grey. While it’s unlikely that you embrace absolutism, you almost certainly have known people who do. Absolutism is the favored epistemological stance of young children.
A more sophisticated understanding emerges with the insight that reality is not directly knowable. Information is filtered through our fallible senses. Knowledge is constructed by the mind and is subject to doubt.
Kuhn refers to this second level of understanding as multiplist because it grants the validity of multiple viewpoints. It has important virtues. Doubt and skepticism are essential if you want to tackle the world with a scientific outlook. And the multiplist stance may encourage us to regard other people and their differing views with more tolerance. Live and let live.
Those are valuable breakthroughs. Nobody ever ran a police state on a doctrine of skepticism and free speech. But the breakthroughs seem so radical, so impressive to the human beings who make them, that people are drawn to a new position as extreme as absolutism.
They decide that since we can never be certain, there is no objective basis for choosing one explanation over another. All assertions are merely opinions. All claims hold equal weight.
How many people get stuck at the multiplist level of understanding? Fail to progress to the next set of insights – that all claims are not equal, that we can weigh and evaluate competing claims and judge some to be more probably correct than others?
We might lack certainty, but we can make distinctions. Some explanations have more merit because they are "better supported by argument and evidence" (Kuhn et al 2000). Kuhn calls this last level of understanding evaluativist and – needless to say – it is the only approach to knowledge consistent with scientific thinking. It’s also the approach best calculated to protect human rights. Strictly speaking, a relativist can’t recognize the existence of universal human rights. One person’s rights might be another person’s wrongs. To each his own.
It’s not clear how many people fail to progress to an evaluativist understanding. Kuhn and others have posed questions like the one about Bob and Bing to gauge what people believe about knowledge. When people consistently answer such questions with “No, only one view can be right,” they are identified as absolutist. When they say that each claim is equally right, they are categorized as multiplist. And when people answer that both explanations can have merits, but one may be better than the other, they are classified as evaluativists.
As noted above, young children are usually absolutists. Older children and adolescents make the transition to multiplism. But age doesn’t guarantee that a person will advance to evaluativism.
In one study of about 120 Americans – ranging from teenagers to adult students enrolled in an MBA program – most people were multiplist in outlook and “…no more than half of adults of any background and in any judgment domain [made] the subsequent transition to the evaluativist position” (Kuhn et al 2000). Not even when it came to explanations about atoms, or language acquisition, or the brain.
That doesn’t mean that most adults reject evaluativism. In another study, a sample of 20 upper middle class American mothers was overwhelmingly evaluativist in outlook. Until these Bob-and-Bing type questions are administered to a much larger sample of people, we shouldn’t draw any firm conclusions.
But it’s obvious that the multiplist stance is popular.
When the supporters of pseudoscience are confronted by skeptics, they often fall back on a relativistic defense – that there is more than one way to be right, and that we can’t judge one explanation to be better than another. Moderators of public “debate” – like talk show hosts – often downplay the idea of building a consensus through careful reasoning. “He said, she said” – the presentation of rival claims without any attempt to evaluate or analyze – is a common shortcoming in the popular media.
That’s not good. What can we do about it? Researchers like Kuhn are interested in early interventions, teaching kids explicit lessons about critical thinking. She and Amanda Crowell have developed a program for teaching 6th graders the methods of rigorous, logical debate, and their first field test of the program looks very promising. Compared to kids in a control group, kids enrolled in a three-year debate curriculum showed an improved ability to discuss the costs and benefits of different courses of action. When presented with controversies, they were also better at figuring out what information would be needed to resolve these controversies.
More recently, Caren Walker and her colleagues have tested an educational program that teaches philosophy to 7- and 8-year olds. For just three months, students’ regular studies were altered to include instruction in the standard fields of philosophy – including epistemology, the study of the nature of knowledge. Kids explored the philosophical implications of select children’s fiction, and they were introduced to six rules for discussion:
- State a position
- Figure out if you agree or disagree
- Present a real example
- Present a counterexample to a claim that has been proposed
- Offer a revised version of the claim
- Support your claim with evidence or logic
At the end of the study, kids in the philosophy program showed critical thinking benefits compared with kids enrolled in a control group that had studied art. The philosophy kids improved their ability “to construct their own and opposing arguments.” They were also a bit more likely to move from absolutist positions to multiplist ones.
Is this the route to a world with more analytical, science-minded adults? These studies suggest we can move kids in the right direction, and they are consistent with other studies showing that older kids benefit from explicit lessons in critical thinking. We need more research to understand how and when people make the transitions from absolutist to multiplist to evaluativist modes of thought. But meanwhile, we’ve got good reason to think that explicit instruction can make a difference.
For more about teaching children how to analyze, see my articles, "Teaching critical thinking" and "Lessons in debate improve critical thinking skills."
Kuhn D, Cheney R, and Weinstock M. 2000 The development of epistemological understanding. Cognitive Development 15: 309-328.
Kuhn D and Park S-H. 2005. Epistemological understanding and the development of intellectual values. International Journal of Educational Research 43(3): 111-124.
Kuhn D and Crowell A. 2011. Dialogic argumentation as a vehicle for developing young adolescents’ thinking. Psychological Science 22 (4): 545-552.
Walker CM, Wartenberg TE, and Winner E. 2012. Engagement in philosophical dialogue facilitates children’s reasoning about subjectivity. Developmental Psychology. 2012 Sep 3. [Epub ahead of print]
Text copyright 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved