Is A Student Obstinate Or Just Skeptical?

It’s been a while, but here’s one more thought about the NYT piece about educating skeptical students that was posted forever ago.

I’ve already discussed why not presenting self-critical views encourages skepticism in students. I won’t retread that point here, but it sounds like that situation may be at play in the situation described in the piece (however anemic that description may be).

But there’s an important distinction to be made when confronted with student skepticism: is the student being obstinate or is the student genuinely unconvinced?

There is a kind of student who is obstinate by nature and a kind of student who is skeptical by nature. Sadly, a lot of people confuse the two.

My rule of thumb is to take the questioner as seriously as they take themselves. Misreading the questioner is where a lot of motives get unnecessarily questioned and a lot of conversations turn unnecessarily hostile.

That said, even obstinate people can still make reasonable inquiry. “You’re being obstinate!” is actually an ad hominem fallacy directed at the student. If a student has a reasonable question in spite of their attitude, then dismissing a student’s question because of a their attitude can be either intellectually lazy or emotionally reactionary –either way it’s a bad example. Unfortunately, I’ve seen both in a lot of teachers.

On the flip-side, it’s also fallacious to assume that a question directed at your view is an attack against you. The article highlights this exchange:

For his part, Mr. Sutter occasionally fell short of his goal of providing Gwen — the most vocal of a raft of student climate skeptics — with calm, evidence-based responses. “Why would I lie to you?” he demanded one morning. “It’s not like I’m making a lot of money here.”

As a species, we must get our heads around the fact that one does not have to lie in order to promote something false. People of good will and conscience promote falsehood all the time. If a student says, “I don’t believe you.” The proper response is not, “Are you are calling me a liar?” The discussion-promoting response is “Why not?”

One starts a fight; the other promotes inquiry.