Thursday, May 17, 2007

Forget the kids. Can we teach teachers to do critical thinking?

I believe that most school teachers are capable of critical thinking. But it seems that this capacity gets tossed by the wayside all too frequently when the facts aren't in line with with school politics.

How can an intelligent college graduate convince himself or herself that black is white? The answer is in this week's Newsweek. It's a column about the very human coping mechanism of denial.

The author, Sharon Begley, also has a blog about good science and bad science called Lab Notes.
Here's the article:

The Truths We Want to Deny

By Sharon Begley
May 21, 2007

A man who resented his parents' favoritism toward his younger brother was receiving
psychotherapy in Boston for relationship problems. His therapist thought they were
making progress, but she knew a problem loomed. Pregnant, she worried that her fragile
patient might view her maternity leave as abandonment or rejection. She held off revealing
her situation until she was six months along, last year.

"Have you noticed anything about me?" she asked. The patient said he had not, so she
told him she was pregnant. Looking at her bulging abdomen, he said she couldn't be; he
was a keen observer of women's bodies and had made a habit of scrutinizing her because
he worried this would happen. No, he said; you're not pregnant.

Denying the evidence of your eyes is the most extreme form of the coping mechanism
called denial. But denial comes in milder forms as well.

Parents refuse to believe their child is on drugs; that baggie under his bed contained
oregano. A husband maintains his wife cannot be cheating; those late nights she spends
with a friend are purely platonic. A wife denies that her husband is gay; he's just been too
tired for sex with her these last few years.

And a president who insists that a war will succeed despite setback after setback? It's risky
to put a politician on the couch, but that has not kept President Bush's critics from
charging that he is "in a state of denial" about the situation in Iraq, as Sen. Harry Reid said
last month. The phrase was the title of Bob Woodward's latest book on the war, and in
January, USA Today editorialized that Bush is "in denial about the insurgency that has
plunged [Iraq] into civil war."

This could all be dismissed as psycho-babble, except for one thing. Psychology
researchers, including some who advise politicians, have reached the same conclusion. "I
do think there is denial on Bush's part in his running of the war," says Kerry Sulkowicz,
clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center. "He seems unmoved
by the extent of the evidence that things are far worse than he believes. The tip-off for
denial is perpetual optimism, a pathological certainty that things are going well."

Bush could, of course, know full well that the United States cannot achieve its goals in Iraq.

If so, then he is lying not to himself but to us (for reasons scientists would have a field day
with, but that's another story).

But while it's always risky to psychoanalyze a politician from afar, a few things in his past
are consistent with the capacity for denial. When he was 7, his baby sister died of
leukemia. Bush, while certainly not denying her death, tried to cheer up his grieving
mother, saying everything would be OK.

Also, those who abuse alcohol, as Bush has admitted doing, typically need to see the world
in black and white in order to stay on the wagon. "It's how they control their addiction,"
says Sulkowicz. "It reflects an inability or refusal to see shades of gray."

People resort to denial when recognizing that the truth would destroy something they hold

In the case of a cheating partner, denial lets you avoid "acknowledging evidence of your
own humiliation," says New York psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman. Short of catching a spouse
in flagrante delicto, evidence of infidelity is usually ambiguous. "It's motivated skepticism,"
says psychologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine. "You're more skeptical
of things you don't want to believe and demand a higher level of proof."

Denial is unconscious, or it wouldn't work: if you know you're closing your eyes to the
truth, some part of you knows what the truth is and denial can't perform its protective

One thing we all struggle to protect is a positive self-image. "The more important the
aspect of your self-image that's challenged by the truth, the more likely you are to go into
denial," says Ditto.

If you have a strong sense of self-worth and competence, your self-image can take hits
but remain largely intact; if you're beset by self-doubt, however, any acknowledgment of
failure can be devastating and any admission of error painful to the point of being

In their new book, "Mistakes Were Made," psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
argue that self-justification and denial arise from the dissonance between believing you're
competent, and making a mistake, which clashes with that image.

Solution: deny the mistake. Similarly, if a political leader believes himself competent and
wise, and a decision has disastrous consequences, the only way to reconcile self-image
with failure is to deny the failure. As Tavris and Aronson write, a president who believes
"he has the truth becomes impervious to self-correction." He blinds himself to information
that might make him doubt his decision.

There are exceptions, however. When the Bay of Pigs proved to be a fiasco, JFK said
responsibility was "mine and mine alone."

No denial there.