“When they start 

they want answers.

 In the end, 

hopefully, you’ve 

taught them to 

think and question 

everything, even—

or especially—




Reasoning, Writing and Rare Resources
Lessons from Teaching
 By Jeanine DeNoma 

The three Rs taught in Dr. Paul Nickel’s classroom include reasoning, writing and natural resource economics. He uses a writing intensive program in classes of 100 to 150 students to teach logic tests and the rules of scientific processes. Writing up to 25 papers a semester, students use the tests to evaluate modern environmental doomsday theories.

Students want answers. They want to be told what is true, how everything is interconnected and what to study for the exam. This isn’t what they are given, however, in Professor Nickel’s class. At talks to Oregonians for Rationality in Eugene and Tigard, Dr. Paul Nickel, professor of Natural Resource Development at Michigan State University, discussed the techniques he uses to teach students how to think, instead of what to think.

     “What I wanted was to get kids to think, reason and analyze,” said Nickel. “I wondered how I could get students to more carefully examine what they were saying.” Nickel ran across some Skeptical Inquirer articles by Joe Nickel, James Lett, Milton Rothman and others describing filters to test for scientific process. “I began to wonder if it was possible to take these series of tests used for testing the paranormal and put them into everyday learning.” By trial and error, keeping ideas that seemed to work in the classroom and discarding those less effective, Nickel began to develop a curriculum for teaching thinking skills.

     On top of the stack of history, law, economic analysis and other subject matter usually taught in natural resource classes, Nickel added independent thinking. He did so by teaching logic tests and the processes of scientific reasoning and then requiring his students to put them to practice by writing up to 25 papers of various lengths each semester. Skeptical or independent thinking can and should be taught with every subject he believes. “It’s really teaching scientific process,” he said as he put up an overhead showing the table of contents for David Hackett Fischer’s book Historians’ Fallacies with chapter titles such as ‘Fallacies of question-framing,’ ‘Fallacies of verification,’ etc. “It comes down to how do you get kids to question. Ultimately, it is really guarding students against deceiving themselves.”

The teacher’s role

     “My goal was to get students to think. The challenge was to do this in classes of 100 to 170 students,” said Nickel. Students learn best in an environment where they know, and are known by, their teacher, so he believes it’s important to take the time to learn students’ names. One way to do this is to create a file for each student’s papers which includes his or her picture.

     Students perceive teachers as being authorities, powerful and unapproachable. And while students claim they do not like the authority professors represent, in fact, they expect it from them. So what the teacher needs to do is twist that around and empower the student, said Nickel. One of a teacher’s most powerful tools is to admit ignorance. “Saying ‘I don’t know’ gets your ego out of the way and places the problem back with the student where it belongs.” A similarly powerful response is, “That’s a great question! How would you solve that?” On the other hand, he warned, “Do not let the students know what you believe - even though that’s what they’re trying to discover. You must not give into them on this ever, or you will get endless papers pandering to you.”

     “What I finally came to understand, as I kept trying, things is that you don’t want the student fighting with you and you don’t want to be the student’s guru. What you are trying to do is to get them to fight themselves,” said Nickel. “I use the model of Socrates, but I put the student on both ends of the log, so they are fighting with themselves, because now they have the tests.” The teacher can encourage the student’s internal dialogue, ask leading questions, provide focus and encourage explanations, but must leave it to the student to find solutions.

Logic tests and writing

     First students need to understand that they are only looking at models, not reality. It’s a model - and a highly simplified one at that. Even the best models are abstractions. A good model will define terms clearly and completely, state its assumptions and limitations, define trade-offs, accept negative evidence, use scientific processes and logic tests, and have a testable objective.

     Next Nickel introduces students to the logic tests and scientific processes, concepts such as falsifiability, replicability, comprehensiveness, and sufficiency. The tests are taught, reviewed, and memorized. But that’s not all. “You cannot just teach students what the tests are; you must teach them how to use them. And that is where the writing comes in,” explained Nickel.

     Nickel uses “endless writing exercises” in which the student “must wrestles with his own angel to prove himself wrong—not right.” When students prove themselves wrong in writing, they become more modest, more questioning, more reflective and thoughtful about what they choose to test—and believe.”

     Nickel believes enthusiasm, trust and showing individual interest in students maintains a positive atmosphere within which they can learn. Affirmation is a better teaching tool than criticism. When editing papers he finds one place to suggest a different approach and two things to praise. And no red pencil marks! If the number of papers becomes unmanageable, he has students co-edit for each other. The benefits of papers over exams are immediately apparent. Students’ writing improves, with practice - not criticism, Nickel observed. Writing requires that students practice the tests they have learned. Writing makes the students’ thoughts visible, so they can identify their own fallacies. “You cannot write without thinking,” Nickel stressed.

Dirty tricks

     Tension builds through a sequence of writing assignments which Nickel calls his “dirty tricks.” The first assignment, before the rules of skeptical testing are even taught, is for each student to select his favorite model (global warming, ozone hole, chemical toxins, etc.) and create a “fireproof” case for it. Prove that it is right. “Students love to do this, so I get all these papers showing this is not just a model, this is the truth.”

     This paper is then tucked away for a later day and Nickel introduces students to logic tests and scientific processes. Along the way students are given writing assignments to teach and reinforce the tests. He asks students to apply these tests to neo-Malthusian, environmental doomsday models. Examples range from the absurd, pulled from newsstand tabloids, to the pet theories of Nobel Laureates. “Nobelists are great because students know how to appeal to authority; what you, as the teacher, need to do is get them to question authority,” said Nickel. “Outrageous examples annoy students; I’ve found that if you can irritate them enough, it makes them think.”

     How terms are defined affect the model. To illustrate, a short in-class writing assignment may be to write two paragraphs on “What is nature?” Students usually bring up ecosystems, Mother Earth, Bambi. This is followed with a paper on “What is nature to a scientist?” In this context students may mention randomness, chaos, functionality.

     Nickel uses counter-intuitive examples: A global warming model shows increases of atmospheric CO2 will increase plant growth; population is rising Malthusianly, but world food stocks are in excess and prices are falling; erosion just moves farmland around; a study shows that Hiroshima survivors are healthier than their control group, could radiation be good for us? Counter-intuitive examples create cognitive dissonance, explained Nickel. They are introduced on the principle that “an unsettled, questioning, irritated mind (one containing two contradictory models) will be a thinking mind.” Students are asked to apply the tests to contradictory models. Once again Nickel places the student at both ends of the argument with leading questions: Are there alternative explanations? Are you talking short-run or long-run affects—government policy years or geologic time? Did the study use a representative sample?

     “What am I trying to do here? Get the kids to test the stuff they automatically believe. Why? To embed the tests in their minds. I don’t care what they believe, but I really want them to learn to question and test, to know about falsifiability, Carl Popper, and other heroes of the scientific process,” stressed Nickel.

     Two-thirds into the semester, Nickel assigns an “anonymously authored” paper for students to test by the measure of the logic tests they’ve been taught. Unbeknownst to them, the paper is one of Nickel’s own, from which he has removed his name.

     “When I get this huge stack of outraged papers back, I let my teaching assistants read them because its too painful for me to see how thoroughly my students have taken my favorite model apart,” Nickel jokes. “Once I have their papers in my hand, I ask ‘Who do you think wrote that article?’ When they learn it was me, I get cries of ‘unfair!’ When I ask ‘Should I use the paper next semester?’ every hand goes up. They love it! The real point, however is that I want them to question authority, even the authority of their beloved professor!”

     The final paper is the ultimate “dirty trick.” Nickel asks students to go back to their first paper of the semester—their ‘fireproof’ argument for their favorite model. Equipped now with logic tests and an understanding of scientific processes, they are to apply what they have learned to their favorite model. They confront themselves, not the teacher. “It works,” says Nickel. “And I think it does because these are models they have never questioned.”

Tough lessons can be fun

     These are tough lessons. Nickel stresses the importance of using nonconfrontational approaches. Hyman’s Courtesy Principle, Parent Effectiveness Training skills, and other techniques of respectful learning must be practiced. When co-editing is used, students must put these practices to use with each other.

     Nickel adds one more element to his lessons—fun! Unique nontraditional lessons can drive a point home and make it memorable. Nickel’s iconoclastic teaching style is illustrated in the book Powerful Principles of Instruction, where S. Yolon describes one memorable lesson in which Nickel dons a pirate hat and eye patch to become Captain Iconoclast for the showing of a biased, illogical ecology-based film. Students spotting logical fallacies in the movie’s narration shout “Yo Ho!” and pop helium balloons. The student finding the most flaws wins the prized rubber chicken.

     By the end of the semester students should understand the difference between advocates who use selective information to ‘prove’ their point and scientists who attempt to prove their model wrong. They should have a collection of tools with which to test information. And they should recognize that authorities are not always right and be ready to question them when appropriate.

     “When they start they want answers. In the end, hopefully, you’ve taught them to think and question everything, even—or especially—themselves,” said Nickel.

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