Teaching Critical Thinking as a Public Health Initiative

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Last fall I went to a talk delivered by Tim Caulfield: a law professor, author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, and host of the Netflix show A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.

During his dynamic presentation, Caulfield covered a lot of ground. He discussed political polarization on Twitter, the profit-maximizing machinations (or self-delusion) of celebrities pedaling bunk health products, and evidence that false claims spread faster than true ones. All that may leave one feeling pessimistic about our ability to make good decisions about health. Caulfield would likely sympathize with such pessimism. Yet, Caulfield’s presentation also contained reasons to have hope.

Caulfield discussed the ways using narratives can help us fight misinformation. He emphasized the power of consumers to initiate complaint-driven efforts to enforce truth in advertising law. And he provided empirical research suggesting that the relevant critical thinking skills people need to make well-informed, rational decisions about their health can be taught.

This last point about teaching critical thinking stuck out to me.

I wrote above about “well-informed” and “rational” decisions. What counts as “well-informed” and “rational” will, of course, differ depending on one’s perspective and values. And it’s important that we keep this in mind when assessing the quality of the decision-making and discourse of a large population.

Yet even with these caveats in place, I take it that there are still some objective value claims we can make about many health-based decisions people make.

For example, getting your children vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella is a good decision, while purchasing a jade egg from Gwyneth Paltrow to put in your vagina is not (or at least it’s not good for your health).

Thus, if we can be doing things to help teach people how to make better, more-informed decisions about their health, for those of us interested in promoting health in the general population, the possibility of doing this by teaching critical thinking skills seems like an important avenue to pursue.

The study Caulfield cited was from a 2017 publication in which researchers found that primary school children (ages 10–12) in Uganda who were given nine 80-minute lessons in which they were taught about “12 concepts essential to assessing claims about treatment effects and making informed health choices” scored an average of 20 points higher than students who did not receive the instruction on a test meant to examine students’ ability to make informed, health-based decisions.

This is a hopeful finding.

In a society where people are already concerned about the population’s lack of critical thinking skills, evidence that such skills can be taught, and that they can be used to help people make better-informed decisions about their health, provides us with plenty of reason to fight for the teaching of critical thinking skills.

People are already calling for the teaching of critical thinking skills to counteract other societal issues, and courses like “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World” have begun cropping up online. Those of us concerned with fighting for improvements in health outcomes ought to rally behind these efforts.

If teaching critical thinking can lead to better decision-making about health, we should start treating the teaching of critical thinking as an important public health initiative.

The essay is based on a post published with the bioethics and health law blog, Bill of Health.

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