On cognitive shortcuts

Okay, the hiatus is over – sort of. This won’t indicate any sort of regular posting, but I have a subject that I think fits best under this banner rather that my Docere Est Discere blog (even though it deals in a very broad sense with education).

In my interim as a student teacher – which is coming to a close in the next few weeks – I have tried to stay apprised of what is happening with the blogs that I have been following for quite some time (many of which are on this site’s blogroll). One of those which I have come to enjoy greatly is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which I find interesting and enlightening on a number of topics (despite disagreeing personally with Brayton on a number of matters).

Recently, Brayton wrote about Chris Mooney ripping George Will apart for his uninformed and flawed piece on global warming in the Washington Post (both pieces were printed in the Post, actually), and in discussing the issue, he brought up the idea of cognitive shortcuts:

Cognitive shortcuts are leapfrogs over study and analysis to reach a conclusion without going through those intermediary steps. The most common type of shortcut is group identification. If you place yourself within a group – political, religious, ideological, etc – and you are confronted by an issue you do not understand, the default response is to accept whatever the position of that group is and to presume that it must be correct even though you have not taken the time to do any study that would justify that conclusion.

If you’re a conservative, you will blindly accept the standard conservative position on global warming. The leaders of the group you place yourself in have assured you that global warming is a myth, perhaps even a cover for evil intentions, and that is all you think you need to know. If you’re a liberal, you will blindly accept that global warming is a serious problem for the same reason, because the people you respect and follow have told you so.

But in reality, a vanishingly small number of people in either group has ever looked at the actual data and an even smaller number is capable of understanding it, analyzing it and reaching rational conclusions about it.

I was thinking about this as I read some critical reasoning application essays, which was my culminating assignment for a small week-long unit I did on critical thinking and logic with my seniors. One student (who I know is Catholic from personal interactions) wrote about his own reasoning for his Christian faith, and it was interesting to me that he made a point to include science in his reasoning (not that it contributed to his faith but instead that he did address its role in his faith). He took a similar position as I and many other Christians do regarding evolution, that God used it in the creation of the diversity of species on earth. (Well, I assume that his position is something like that; his statement was much more cursory and general.)

It really occurred to me that this student probably uses cognitive shortcuts in his approach to the integration of his Catholic faith and the science he believes to be true as well. From what I can tell, he has grown up Catholic, and so his group participation in that faith dictates some of what he believes regarding God and the apologetic he puts forth for the truth of his beliefs. But clearly at some point he was introduced to the idea of evolution; it might have been from his church, his parents, or some other important figure in his life, but I would venture that it was his formal education in science that in fact influenced this belief. (Indeed, I know the science teachers that he would have had at the high school level – coincidentally, all of whom are Christians, from what I can tell from talking with them – do in fact teach evolution in fair depth, certainly more than I got in my own high school experience.)

This experience in some ways mimics my own, except that my education in evolution has been largely self-discovered through a long history: My initial ideas on the origins of the universe and man were ones rooted in Genesis (although I would have probably never called myself a creationist; my parents never pushed the stranger aspects of flood geology or anything like that on me, and even as a precocious kindergartner/1st grader, I would have known that man most certainly never co-existed with dinosaurs); my interest in Christian apologetics ultimately led me to the Intelligent Design movement, which I followed seriously for some time until I became very much disillusioned by the antics of its proponents; finally, I became much more aware of the evolution side of the creation/evolution (or ID/evolution) debate, and that tended to solidify my own position in thinking evolution to be evident in nature and thus true.

So here I was, an inquisitive and generally philosophically individual in his early twenties who maintained a belief in God (after all, evolution doesn’t preclude a deity; it merely falsifies any sort of strict creationism) and a belief that evolution explains the diversity of life on Earth. How did I comport these views, ones which could be in conflict depending on how either were construed?

To be 100% honest, I still don’t entirely know. Part of my own integration is to acknowledge that I am in some cases taking cognitive shortcuts; I have a fair amount of knowledge on how speciation works, of the evidence for common descent, and so forth, but I certainly have not studied it in enough depth to defend it fully. On the other hand, I have some good reasons to think the universe (although not necessarily life itself) to be the product of some non-natural force, and I do not find sufficient reason to doubt the truth of the Christian Bible and the theistic proofs that I have formerly read and considered. (I say ‘formerly’ only because it’s not a matter of deep interest to me these days; my study of apologetics has really fallen by the wayside for other things.)

I’m not sure exactly what to do about this, though. I do think about these matters sometimes (like now), and I do continue to think about what I believe in the most critical terms I can, but there is a certain extent to which I cannot simply discard the shortcuts upon which I base my core beliefs. Maybe I will jettison them at some point, but not now, and I don’t consider it dishonest to do so for the time being.

There is, after all, only so much I can know, and I must in a sense stand on the shoulders of giants to make decisions about what I believe based on the evidence available in reality. When the limits of man’s knowledge can become something approaching infinity (which will likely never happen), then perhaps cognitive shortcuts can go by the wayside, but for now, they’ll have to do.

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