Dr. Tom Stohlgren has taught “Critical Thinking” with Dr. Dan Binkley for decades, under different graduate-level course titles. This past summer, Stohlgren developed an online course, ESS381A, Critical Thinking for Ecosystem Science, aimed at undergraduates as a means to reach students earlier. Stohlgren also published a new novel on the topic, “Twelve – My Age of Reason,” available on Amazon in softcover and Kindle. I sat down with Tom to discuss the online course and the book. First, the course:
XS. What made you switch from a graduate-level class in critical thinking to an undergraduate level course?
TS. I thought we were reaching student too late in college. Developing critical thinking skills and becoming an evidence-based learner is essential for educated life and for a career in the sciences.
XS. An educated life?
TS. Four out of five doctors agree.
XS. You’re kidding.
TS. Right! Which doctors? What are their credentials? You see we should be very skeptical of thousands of claims we see every day in advertising, by teachers, and by authority figures. Teaching everyone the fallacies of logic and the scientific method are prerequisites for evidence-based learning.
XS. As opposed to what other kinds of learning?
TS. Faith-based learning, believing in things because of your parents, teachers, and authority figures told you to believe in them, even when solid evidence is lacking.
XS. How does your online course work?
TS. We follow a text book, “How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age,” by Schick and Vaughn. I have other required readings, and I’ve developed short video lectures [check out the YouTube videos here] to augment the readings. Three of eight modules in the course highlight science in ecosystems in Hawaii, the Central Grasslands, and the Rocky Mountains to show “how scientists think.”
XS. And you wrote a new novel on the topic of critical thinking?
TS. Yes, I wrote a short autobiographical novel about me and my four irreverent brothers and friends growing up in Oakland, California in 1964. It’s a story based on actual events, as well as I can remember them fifty years later. My brothers and friends think it was a comically accurate re-telling, and that matters most to me.
XS. I just read the book myself and have to say the one-line zingers in there were quite something for a 12-year old! Within the first 50 pages you learn Tommy (you) is quite the little hell raiser. For example, in class you tell your Catholic school teacher (tenderly known as Sister Mary Something): “If God was all merciful, there couldn’t possibly be a Hell!”
TS. It’s funny you say that because the truth is, at the time, I wasn’t nearly as much of a smart-ass as my brothers!
XS. So for those who haven’t read the book, what can they expect?
TS. The book traces my transition in a span of eight days around my 12th birthday, from a sweet Catholic school kid to a skeptical smart-ass. In Catholic school, I question the existence of Hell. That didn’t sit well with the nuns. Then, I begin to question everything about my faith-based upbringing. With a lot of help and sketchy philosophical advice from my four wild brothers, I fully develop a strong conflict with authority, abandon my ancestral religion, and become an evidence-based learner. I’m sure it led to me becoming a scientist later in life – laughing all the way!
XS. So it’s about the process of becoming an evidence-based learner?
TS. And a smart-ass, and a scientist, and becoming less gullible, I think.
XS. So your book is aimed at twelve-year olds?
TS. No, I’d say it’s really for people of any age who still believe in ghosts, Bigfoot, ESP, UFOs, the Devil, and other mythical beings, for which there is no evidence. I follow the advice of comedian George Carlin (1937- 2008), who said, “Don’t just teach your children to read…Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”
Stohlgren laughs, “Despite the book being available for several weeks now, there has been no official response from the Vatican!”
Dr. Tom Stohlgren is one of the top ten most productive scientists in the world in the field of biological invasions, he hold affiliate status at Colorado State University at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab, and is a research ecologist for US Geological Services .