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Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions

Sun., Apr. 19, 2015 at 2 pm (PST)
Baxter Hall, Caltech

OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS, “no religion” has become the fastest-growing religion in America. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have turned away from the traditional faiths of the past and embraced a moral yet nonreligious—or secular—life, generating societies vastly less religious than at any other time in human history. Drawing on innovative sociological research, Dr. Zuckerman—a Pitzer College professor who founded a Department of Secular Studies, the first of its kind—illuminates this demographic shift with the moral convictions that govern secular individuals, offering crucial information for the religious and nonreligious alike. Living the Secular Life reveals that, despite opinions to the contrary, nonreligious Americans possess a unique moral code that allows them to effectively navigate the complexities of modern life. Zuckerman discovered that despite the entrenched negative beliefs about nonreligious people, American secular culture is grounded in deep morality and proactive citizenship—indeed, some of the very best that the country has to offer.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Living the Secular Life online.

TICKETS are available first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, John E. Buckner V and Rebecca A. Buckner discuss compartmentalization and conformity as possible socio-psychological mechanisms that might explain how individuals, through education, can decrease their paranormal/supernatural beliefs without improving their critical thinking skills. This commentary is a response to McCaffree and Saide’s article, “Why is Critical Thinking So Hard to Teach?” published in eSkeptic a few week’s ago and in Skeptic magazine 19.4 (2014).

John Buckner is currently an applied-psychologist focused on individual assessment and employee selection, and an adjunct faculty member teaching Psychology. He received his Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational (I-O) Psychology from Louisiana Tech University and Master’s in I-O Psychology from Saint Cloud State University. He has published research on emotions, health, personality, and technology use at work.

Rebecca Anders Buckner is currently an applied-psychologist in the field of learning and development. She received a Master’s of Arts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the University of Detroit Mercy. She enjoys researching, writing, and presenting her work about skepticism and psychology.

Commentary on “Why is Critical Thinking so Hard to Teach?”

by John E. Buckner V & Rebecca A. Buckner

We really enjoyed our read of the recent Skeptic article “Why is Critical Thinking so Hard to Teach?” by Kevin McCaffree and Anondah Saide (published in Skeptic 19.4 and presented in eSkeptic for Wednesday, March 25th, 2015). In it, the authors presented their meta-analysis of studies on critical thinking courses. They found purported paranormal beliefs decrease after participating in a critical thinking course, though critical thinking skills do not necessarily improve. This left the reader questioning, “Why did paranormal beliefs decrease across these studies without an increase in critical thinking?”

Answering this question, McCaffree and Saide argued that critical thinking is not strictly a cognitive issue (we agree) and suggested that social mechanisms help explain how individuals can change their purported beliefs without increasing their critical thinking. Specifically, the authors outlined how tribal identity and a desire for social inclusion can cause individuals to:

  1. experience discomfort when their views are challenged, disengage from the course content, and report the expected belief change without much thought in order to ease their discomfort,
  2. fear group exclusion or punishment in rigid or hierarchical settings (e.g., a classroom or “workshop”) and report a belief change—perhaps real but emotionally motivated—in order to “fit in”, or
  3. defer to an authority figure’s supposed belief out of generalized trust or a presumption the authority knows more or is more capable.

The article struck a chord with us and we could not resist offering a few unsolicited comments. It was encouraging to see attention paid to teaching critical thinking skills and we felt the data presented were somewhat promising. This also triggered some thoughts about other possible mechanisms that could explain their findings. Two came to mind, compartmentalization and conformity.

Compartmentalization of thought refers to keeping one’s incompatible ideas and beliefs internally separated so they might continue to coexist. Compartmentalized thinking is a way for individuals to avoid cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling that occurs when confronted with conflicting information about one’s deeply held beliefs. As McCaffree and Saide mention, this discomfort can be resolved by disengaging from thinking critically about content and instead apathetically reporting a change in paranormal belief. Cognitive dissonance can also be resolved by an authentic belief change where one adopts a new belief or alters their existing belief to be consistent with new information.

Where does compartmentalization fit in here? It is possible that individuals join courses with compartmentalized beliefs, which they then learn to scrutinize. That is, critical thinking courses might focus individuals on their ‘compartments’ causing them to burst their own metaphorical bubbles. Framing the issue this way, individuals may be using their critical thinking skills within certain ‘compartments’ of ideas and beliefs, but not applying them to all of the paranormal beliefs they hold. The critical thinking courses, then, might be focusing individuals’ application of their critical thinking skills rather than building their skills per se. If individuals are able to generalize this ability (and motivation) to apply their level of critical thinking skill more broadly, the positive impact of critical thinking courses could be long-lasting.

Conformity to social pressure was discussed by McCaffree and Saide in several respects, namely that individuals are often motivated to avoid social stigma, punishment, and exclusion and that their desire to “fit in” might cause them to yield to the group or a perceived authority. Thus, social pressure can force conformity and lead to belief change, real or feigned.

This pressure to conform might also operate in another fashion in the classroom. If we consider a larger social group—the University or a region of the U.S.—which is likely to believe in at least some paranormal phenomenon, the sub-culture formed within the course may actually be non-conforming. As the critical thinking sub-group forms its norms, the rules and expectations the group has about how openly they can share or contest ideas, individuals might genuinely feel safe to challenge and abandon ideas and beliefs which are more widely accepted. Through this lens, the course professor may be acting as the “first” dissenter who breaks the expectation of social conformity in the broader sense making students feel accepted for using their critical thinking skills.1 Although some students might respond to this social pressure by conforming to the “new rules” of the course for emotional reasons, others may react to this as an opportunity to “come out” and recognize, “oh, it is okay for me to question these things.” In fact, it seems probable that at least some students would seek out that opportunity.

Naturally, there are many other relevant explanatory mechanisms that could influence the findings regarding critical thinking and paranormal belief pre- and post-course. For instance, those taking part in a critical thinking course could self-select in for a variety of reasons. The various course titles themselves might attract different types of individuals with different motivations. That is, the student drawn to “Parapsychology” or “Paranormal Phenomena” might be quite different from the student drawn to “Science & Pseudoscience” or “Psychology of Critical Thinking”. Related to this, students might come into a course with above-average critical thinking skills, and therefore may hit a “ceiling” for how much they can improve.


Order Skeptic magazine 19.4. This issue is available digitally in the Skeptic magazine App, and is sold out in print format.

Overall, McCaffree and Saide’s study was thought-provoking and we wanted to reinforce that the explanatory mechanisms they proposed—among others—merit further investigation by the skeptical community. The questions “what are the mechanisms influencing the growth and application of critical thinking skills?”, “how can we use these mechanisms to create positive change?”, and “are these changes short-lived or long-lasting?” still need to be answered. Those teaching courses on critical thinking are particularly well positioned to help. By employing a pre- and post-course survey design in the classroom more data can be accumulated for future meta-analyses. This could serve to identify drivers of the purported changes in belief and direct us toward even more effective strategies for helping people to grow and apply their critical thinking skills. END

  1. Psychological experiments have shown that individuals are more likely to non-conform once others have challenged the status quo; consider for example Asch’s line studies and Milgram’s obedience experiments.


  1. Roy Niles says:

    The goal of critical thinking should be to move from superstition to logic. Nonetheless, NeoDarwinism is the newest superstition which dictates that, instead of the gods, mother nature sends accidents to us that will sooner or later confer intelligent changes that will over time allow us to evolve. The biological intelligence that seems in the end to have magically appeared will have emerged, miraculously, from non-intelligence.
    The eSkeptic editors are admittedly neoDarwinists. They don’t believe that evolutionary changes can possibly be intelligently self directed by the biological creatures themselves. The more realistic thinkers among evolutionary biologists, however, are more open to adaptive mutation as a more logical and realistic scientifically supported theory as to how we in the end must purposefully evolve ourselves.
    The latest ‘mother nature’ form of superstition is still hanging in there, however, because critical thinking alone is by necessity illogical. As this eSkeptic rag continues to unwittingly attest to.

    • Walter Balcerak says:

      We probably could direct our evolution toward greater intelligence by way of eugenics. Please, let’s not go down that ugly path.

  2. Snortimer Merde says:


    Sounds good to me

  3. Adrian says:

    You gave a good definition of “compartmentalization”, emphasizing incompatibility and dissonance between ideas and beliefs but then you switched and say: “Cognitive dissonance can also be resolved by an authentic belief change where one adopts a new belief or alters their existing belief to be consistent with new information.” You switch the dissonance and incompatibility between ideas and new information, giving the impression that new information is independent of ideas. That is not correct. Facts are meaningless by themselves. There must be a paradigm or “compartment” within which they are interpreted and receive meaning, within which they make sense (and won’t make sense within another compartment). New information may “fit” a compartment but not another and thus would point out an inconsistency within the grand paradigm. Such new information may be ignored, downplayed or data may be “stretched” and distorted to fit both. Or the new information will cause a break in one paradigm and one will drop the compartment that is less fundamental to the overall, grand paradigm. I discussed about this in the comments for the previous eskeptic newsletter (but on the moralarc dot org side not at skeptic dot com). I said: “I dare to say that one never accepts something primarily because it’s logical but always because it fits one’s preexisting paradigm. Only within a paradigm something can make sense or not (and it will or won’t depending on the paradigm). It’s one’s grand paradigm that interprets and gives meaning to data and makes sense out of it. If some new information doesn’t fit one’s paradigm it won’t make sense, it will be unintelligible and thus couldn’t be properly accepted. The reason that 2 different people looking at the same data will come to very different conclusions is not because one is logical and the other is not. They just have different paradigms.”

    The comment from Roy Niles points the same failure: “The goal of critical thinking should be to move from superstition to logic.” He seems to think the problem with superstition is that lacks logic. While it may also emphasize emotions, you cannot say it doesn’t have logic. A superstitious conclusion may be a very logical conclusion derived from the given assumptions. Some say that madmen have an even more stringent logic than sane people. On the other hand science has its share of emotions (career, competition for funds, “publish or perish”, peer pressure or “conformity” as discussed in the article, special interests, emphasis on making one’s own landmark discoveries to the detriment of accuracy and proper verification, unreproducible results, resistance to radical change, shortcomings of peer review, even fraud). The problem is with questionable assumptions though. While the scientific method is not perfect it is a powerful way to test assumptions: derive predictions from assumptions and the test those predictions. That should be done with any claims be them labeled as “superstition” or “science.” Actually the history of science reveals many superstitions (for example “spontaneous generation”; claims, before Pasteur, that it takes dirty underwear and grain to create mice). Who knows what the future will reveal about some of our current scientific beliefs?

    The key is being self-critical about one’s own assumptions and beliefs – this is where critical thinking and the scientific method are very helpful. It’s easy to apply critical thinking to the opponent’s views, to see how the superstitious fail that. But it’s very hard to be self-critical. The main reason is that we use our paradigm to judge and make sense of anything. Being self-critical regarding our own assumptions and beliefs is to use our paradigm to judge and be critical about our own paradigm. It’s like asking a judge to judge himself. It’s easy to be idealistic about our own beliefs (as I discussed in my comments referenced above) and if science is a fundamental part of one’s paradigm then it’s easy to be idealistic about science as well and overlook its shortcomings. For example, General Relativity together with Quantum Mechanics predict a Universe with an infinite mass which would collapse to a black hole. We do not observe that. Very little critical thinking would tell us that at least one of the 2 theories must be wrong. However scientists believe that both are right and true and have wasted decades on trying to make them work together. So scientists have “compartmentalized” the two theories (and the presumed “realities” they describe) to avoid the cognitive dissonance while holding on to both of the 2 contradictory theories. However, one may very well not see or discuss that but only see it when it’s somebody else’s problem (in this case, the superstitious).

    In conclusion “critical thinking” should start with being self-critical and the realization that the battle is not between facts and ideas but between different paradigms. Facts (or, empirical observations) in themselves have no explanatory power. You need hypotheses (or assumptions) on which to build theories (which fit within a paradigm) in order to provide explanations for facts. And you test those theories (and, indirectly, their associated paradigms) by making predictions and employing the scientific method. However, even the best theories and explanations are not perfect – some of the “most settled” scientific theories (as discussed, GR and QM) still fail some test of the scientific method in some ways. So even the best scientists make some of the mistakes imputed to “the superstitious” when it comes to critical thinking (the best one can say is that they do it less).

    • Roy Niles says:

      “A superstitious conclusion may be a very logical conclusion derived from the given assumptions. ” Which doesn’t make that conclusion logical, now does it?
      There is no deductive logic that doesn’t depend on its assumptions for correctness.
      And in any case superstitions can be inductive, especially if they are the product of our emotional learning systems. And the factual inaccuracies of that induction produce inaccurate assumptions. In other words, lacking sense or clear, sound reasoning; illogical.

    • Jay says:

      I like your post -it kind of convinces me. Still, being a high school teacher, I’d like to add some of my own observations, especially as refers to the question of where to start. The necessity of cleaning your own doorstep before even looking at your neighbour’s is as blindingly obvious as it is hard to do, but it doesn’t do much to further critical thinking on a societal level. I’m pretty certain that whosoever would read this discussion and seriously think about it is likely to score rather above-average both on critical thinking and on rejection of paranormal beliefs anyhow, and will just need to be reminded of being critical about their own beliefs now and then -your comment does so quite admirably.

      But what about those shockingly high figures in the original article, that “survey data showing that between 67 and 73 percent of adults in the U.S. subscribe to at least one paranormal belief”? It appears to me that if those are the figures for adults, and courses in critical thinking, while being rather successful at reducing paranormal beliefs still fail at really teaching people critical thinking, it’s likely that the efforts are made in the wrong age group. Questioning one’s own beliefs as well as well as those of others, sharp and critical reasoning, questioning authority and the ability to rise above peer pressure are skills -and habits- that it would seem need to be acquired during adolescence, the formative stage of mental development.

      To sum up, I think that if we want to actually chip away at unreason, make more enlightened, more rational grand paradigms more common, we need to encourage the development of those skills chiefly in people well below college age. Thus, we need to develop didactic methodologies that are more appropriate to those goals than those used so far. Plus, apart from the kids, the parents have to be reached.

  4. kennwrite says:

    I wonder if a key point gets lost in complex verbiage. Other than observation of a handful of facts where the same results through experiment producd the same outcome every time (chemistry, electronics, practical physics), all others thoughts, beliefs, conclusions become convenient perceptions that make us feel good, or as Wallace Stevens said, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

    Those who do not critically think or question their time-honored assumptions may choose to do so because they find comfort in simple belief as a way to make sense of an otherwise absurd existence, hence, belief in God, Coke over Pepsi, Pepsi over Coke, or wormholes that can take us through time to dats before we were born.

    It’s a losing battle to persuade people that their ice cream doesn’t taste good if they like the taste so much they just keep eating … .

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