Steve Joordens on Critical Thinking


Coming straight from the Psychology Department of U of T (Scarborough Campus), this lecture addresses primarily first year students and talks about the lecturer's struggle to get his students to think.

Professor Steve Joordens A very interesting lecture. I’ll start with my notes:

  • lecture dedicated to his father, who had passed away recently
  • “expert opinion”, William James – Jimi Hendrix of thinking – on forming opinions, from Pragmatism:

The process is always the same.

The individual has a stock of old opinions already.

The individual meets a new experience that puts some of these old opinions to a strain.

  • Somebody contradicts them.
  • In a reflective moment, the individual discovers that they contradict each other.
  • The individual hears of facts with which they are incompatible.
  • Desires arise in the individual which the old opinions fail to satisfy.

The result is inward trouble, to which the individual's mind till then had been a stranger.

The individual seeks to escape from this inward trouble by modifying the old opinions.

  • The individual saves as many of the old opinions as is possible (for in this matter we are all extreme conservatives).
  • Old opinions resist change very variously.
  • The individual tries to change this and then that.

Finally, some new opinion comes up which the individual can graft upon the ancient stock of old opinions with a minimum of disturbance to the others.

  • The new opinion mediates between the stock and the new experience.
  • The new opinion runs the stock and the new experience into one another most felicitously and expediently.

The new opinion is then adapted as the true one.

  • The new opinion preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible.
  • An outreĆ© explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass for a true account of a novelty.

The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing.

New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions.

The point I now urge you to observe particularly is the part played by the older truths . . . their influence is absolutely controlling. Loyalty to them is the first principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.

  • information inconsistent with beliefs – try to accommodate
  • a natural tendencies we have, he implies, but “this is not representative of most of us”
  • Noam Chomsky, the dissident: The United States is unusual among the industrialized democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control - “indoctrination,” we might say - exercised through the mass media.
  • if the media will start trumpeting an idea, we’ll just accept it – e.g., beauty magazines and body images
  • Bovee: Example has more followers than reason. We unconsciously imitate what pleases us, and approximate to the characters we most admire.
  • example: Flea (RHCP) is a fantastic bass player. But if I admire him, and hear him talk about things that have nothing to do with music, I’ll accept his ideas; same with mothers and fathers.
  • B F Skinner: Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless. (before we’re even able to think rationally, we’re bombarded with opinions we’ll accept
  • B F Skinner: The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. He said it in the context of the early thinking about AI, when everybody was preoccupied with whether machines can think or not.
  • BFS thought that human beings were molded strictly by the environment and was quite extreme in some areas of his thought
  • rational thought – epiphenomenon, impossible, experienced subjectively, but does not determine behavior at all; a person’s behavior is determined solely by how he was rewarded or punished in the past
  • BFS leads to determinism and a prof cannot teach anything, so he’s ignored; however, students do come holding some opinions based on indoctrination and modelling
  • WJ – throw in people’s face a contradiction of their opinions
  • cartoon – Son: Hey mom, who’s more open-minded, liberals or conservatives? Mother: Most people are open-minded about ideas they already agree with.
  • Confirmation bias: seek information we agree with and disregard the rest
  • experiments: selective memory – ppl remember what they agree with
  • exposing this problems with critical thinking actually helps a lot
  • historical example: contradiction between declaration of independence and slavery in USA; early Americans complained of being “slaves to the British”, while being slave owners themselves

Vegan argument

  • opinion oddball: “I seem to move around perfectly easy among people and have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions! Am I fantasizing at all? I must be mad!” J M Coetzee
  • abolitionists were lynched and discriminated, until a full blown civil war; pointing out the inconsistencies didn’t do it, it was resolved by violence – William James fail
  • .. trick “Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses they have bought for money.”
  • rationalize: he’s extremist and provocative
  • the only good reason: “meat tastes good”
  • we evolved to like it: at a time when food was scarce, meat provided energy, so individuals who liked it better survived to spread the habit
  • industrial animal farming is barbaric – animal torture (“meet your meat” on youtube)
  • what do we possess that animals do not that gives us the right for freedom?
  • GW burden: 2006 UN report – emissions caused by animal farming greater than all the other combined <=> primary cause – we don’t hear it from the media
  • health issues: cancer & heart disease largest killers, connected to consumption of meat


  • I tried to make you feel uncomfortable
  • I spent most of my life knowing that there was information out there that could change my meat eating habits and purposefully tried to avoid it
  • “I do not know what happens in the factory farms; I’m pretty sure that if I did, it would change my views; that’s why I don’t want to know”
  • The philosopher and the Wolf – a philosopher adopts a wolf and takes it with him everywhere, hanging on to his decision
  • tips:
    • have big ears (musician who’s open to all music) – seek out criticism
    • have a big mouth – don’t worry about expressing what you currently believe but don’t think of it as etched in stone
    • pursue nagging suspicions about learning info that will rock your world; habit formation is very powerful and disrupting our beliefs is a PITA
  • you can be in one state cognitively (vegan) but behaviorally not there yet; we have to accept interim states and work towards it

Apart from his status of finalist in best lecturer 2010, he has previously made the news in 2009, when the grad students union took him to court for using a peer marking system in his critical thinking course.

My criticism

His style is rather nervous, with frequent “head turns” toward the screen. These are distracting and I think it would be better if he didn’t do that Shame on you

I will expand what I think about meat eating in a new, separate article. However, I whole-heartedly agree with everything else; issues of critical thinking are very dear to me and have been for a long time.

Sources / More info: tvo-joordens, joordens-uoft-short, joordens-uoft-courses, joordens-peer-marking, wiki-w.j., wiki-bfs, wiki-coetzee, wiki-critical-thinking

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