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Thinking Like a Scientist

Constituents of Rush Holt, the popular congressman representing central New Jersey, like to flaunt bumper stickers that declare: “My congressman IS a rocket scientist.” As it happens, Representative Holt is the only physicist in Congress (he’s also the only Quaker). Since his election as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1998, Holt’s advocated for math and science education, children’s health, and biomedical research as well as human rights and women’s freedom of choice. A past teacher, Congressional Science Fellow, arms control expert at the State Department, and inventor (he holds a patent to a solar energy device), Holt served for nearly a decade as assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Even better, from a bragging rights’ standpoint, Holt is a five-time winner of the game show “Jeopardy!” In 2011 he beat Watson, IBM’s super computer, in a simulated round of the game.

To spend time with this smart, modest, and thoroughly likable man is to wish Congress were made up entirely of Holt-like thinkers. Here, he talks about the ways in which non-scientists can—must, in fact—learn to examine, assess, and verify any judgments we make or opinions we form.

The Humanist: How do you define critical thinking?

Rush Holt:  Let me define instead what I like to call “thinking like a scientist.” It’s asking questions that can be answered based on evidence; it’s expressing questions in a way that allows someone to check your work. If you don’t have both of those elements, it’s too easy to fool yourself or to get lazy in your thinking. I wouldn’t say that critical thinking is hard thinking, because I don’t want to discourage people from doing it, but like anything else, it’s easier if you practice.

Third graders, for example, are often very good at thinking like scientists. Like scientists, they know that if you ask how something works, what something means, or how something happens, you should do it in a way that allows for more than just pure thinking. There should be some evidence, something empirical. You should form your question so that it allows someone else to ask that same question and observe the evidence to see if they get the same answer as you do. And that’s the essential part of critical thinking. If you say, “I’ve been thinking about this deeply and, by golly, now I understand it,” but then you try to explain it to someone else and can’t, then you probably don’t understand it … or it’s not very reliable knowledge.

I keep trying to get science taught in a way that, even if you can’t remember a single Latin term or are a klutz at solving equations, you’ve learned how to frame questions and sift evidence. I talk about verification but another way of putting it is: be ready for the cross-examination. Prepare to explain yourself.

The Humanist: How valuable is critical thinking to everyday life?

Holt: It’s invaluable, whether you’re making a consumer decision like which laundry detergent to buy or whether you’re trying to decide what career you want to pursue. There are ways to ask yourself both what you’re trying to accomplish and how to measure whether you’ve accomplished it. If you’re able to express it that way, then you’re thinking critically.

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