Critical Thinking

Students increasingly are learning via computers, and scientists are increasingly dependent on them. Computers allow us to work numerous problems quickly and accurately. However, Liz, my wife of many happy years, tells me the cautionary tale of her 10-year-old students who have discovered that they “solve” classroom problems on a computer by cycling quickly through all the answers until they stumble onto the correct one. Give them credit for superficial smarts, but they are obtaining answers without understanding, and circumventing valuable learning. Unfortunately, some teachers let the students get away with this because it’s easier and, after all, the answers are correct. And before we get irate about the school systems, the same problem exists with most of today’s mandatory corporate training.

One worries that scientists have also discovered this trick, using computers to obtain answers instead of understanding. Although there is plenty of room for critical thinking when using a computer, that step is sometimes omitted and no one seems to notice. Computers can provide strong support for both learning and scientific processes, but they can also be used to replace them. I stumbled into eminent AAPG member J. Nolan Wesson on the exhibit floor of NAPE recently, and amid the amazing array of booths selling answers we agreed that modelers still need to know which numbers to crunch and how to carefully assess the meaning of those numbers.

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit on a hot stove lid again and that is well, but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.” Mark Twain
“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit on a hot stove lid again and that is well, but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.” Mark Twain

Larry Nation, AAPG communications director, found the accompanying chart that seems to show a strong correlation between rock music and oil production. Technically one could conclude from this that the way to reverse the production decline in the United States is to write more good rock ‘n’ roll music, a solution to the world’s energy problems with appeal at many levels. However, a critical assessment of the graph should suggest that there is probably no relationship between factual production data and subjective opinions on songs. If the correlation itself is merely serendipitous, then conclusions derived from it are spurious. Similar scenarios occur in real science, but they tend to be more subtle.

Critical thinking is difficult to teach and probably more difficult to learn, especially when answers that don’t require it are easily available. Once learned, critical thinking takes constant effort. David Starr Jordan, writing well before gender-neutral styles were in fashion, noted that, “The world stands aside to let anyone pass who knows where he is going.” Jordan should have added the unfortunate corollary that the world also often stands aside for someone who merely acts that way. People who talk loudly and frequently often achieve notoriety, which is easy to mistake for expertise. They can appear even more credible if they have the platform of a prestigious institution behind them, and a false aura of expertise becomes almost invincible as they gain public recognition.

The ability to make the distinction between expertise and loud talk is especially important for geologists given our realm of incomplete data sets and non-unique solutions, and because we often have our own money riding on a decision. So what makes an expert? Word of mouth and professional reputation count for a lot in our industry, and the AAPG Division of Professional Affairs works hard to maintain ethical standards that define professionalism. Professionals with established reputations in other fields have exploited their reputations in order to push less than professional geologic theories: consider Immanuel Velikovsky, a respected psychiatrist, who wrote the pseudo-scientific yet popular apocalyptic geological reinterpretations “Worlds in Collision” and “Earth in Upheaval”. These works had a veneer of authenticity and were accepted by many when they were originally written half a century ago, but the scientific community critically assessed them as lacking and they have been largely forgotten.

On the other hand, using more scientific processes, some non-geologists have made significant contributions to geology and their theories have withstood critical scientific assessment to become part of our scientific foundation. Consider Alfred Wegener, the meteorologist, and his ideas of continental drift, or Luis Alvarez, an experimental physicist, whose theories of planetary impacts revolutionized not only the geological record but also many concepts of evolution.

One of the differences between Alvarez and Velikovsky is that the first used defensible data synthesized into a plausible and testable theory whereas the other picked isolated facts out of context to spin a story. The more scientific approach of Alvarez is not immediately apparent to the non-critical thinker who looks only at an author’s conclusions. Critical thinking requires listening to and assessing, but not necessarily accepting, opposing views. It requires the give and take of discussion, not just stone-wall contradiction. The difference between discussion and contradiction is humorously illustrated in Monty Python’s “Argument” sketch . There is much truth in humor. If someone believes too much in their side of an argument to laugh about it, be cautious. Likewise, learn to ask questions and beware of someone who doesn’t consider them seriously. AAPG member and Piceance basin expert Steve Cumella notes that science would be stagnant if we all agreed on the issues and answers.

Other rules of thumb for the critical thinker include instant caution flags whenever someone throws the term “obviously” into a discussion. A critical thinker gets information from multiple and diverse sources before taking sides in an issue. One should consider not only someone’s conclusions but also the logic and data that were used to come to those conclusions. Does the expert have personal experience in the area or is the argument theoretical? Calibrate your sources: Peer-reviewed literature is not infallible but it tends to be more reliable than not. Websites can be anyone’s guess. Recognize that just because a person has a Ph.D. doesn’t make them experts in all fields, or even in their own. Consider also whether a person drawing specific conclusions might have another, less apparent agenda that would be served by those conclusions.

Many pressing issues in today’s world would benefit from thoughtful reflection by geologists. We have a wide range of opportunity for exercising critical thinking in our science, and the numerous AAPG venues provide a wealth of data to assist critical thought.


This is my last opportunity as president to inflict a view of the world onto the AAPG membership. One year goes by quickly: that’s either good in that it limits the opportunities to do damage, or bad because a year is not nearly enough time to effect significant change. Regardless, it has been an honor. My sincere thanks to Gretchen Gillis and Liz Lorenz who have edited these columns and kept me from making egregious errors.

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