New: How Not To Be Taken In – A Course In Intellectual Self-Defence

Noam Chomsky once famously suggested that citizens of democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for more meaningful democracy. This course aims to provide such a course. In an age of post-truth politics, fake news, alternative facts, government spin, aggressive advertising, manipulative marketing, ideological polarisation, religious radicalism, moral relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific claims, and the growth of populist politics, how does one go about filtering information in an optimally rational way so as to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the lies, the rational from the irrational? This course aims to equip you with the critical thinking skills and rational decision-making tools for doing just that as well as providing an introduction to recent work in the psychological and philosophical literature that underpins this.

Who is this course for

The most important prerequisite for this course is that you have an open and inquisitive mind, and are prepared to engage in critical thinking and rational scrutiny not only of the beliefs you already disagree with but also some of those to which you may subscribe. No training in logic or mathematics is required, and there will be no formal logic or mathematics beyond elementary arithmetic. Some familiarity with issues in critical thinking, 'smart thinking', informal logic, epistemology, social and behavioural psychology, philosophy of science and cognitive biases research is desirable but not essential

What does this course cover

The course introduces students to the principal approaches to reasoning and rationality in contemporary philosophy and psychology. It will enable you to acquire the skills needed to parse and filter information, update your beliefs, and take decisions in all domains of life in a more critically reflective and rationally responsible way. By learning how to recognise the fallacies in reasoning and cognitive biases to which we are all prone, as well as the tricks employed by those who have an interest in manipulating your behaviour for their own gain, it will enable you to rationally assess claims, evidence, data and information in such a way as to avoid being taken in by propaganda, dishonest politicians, biased media reports, unscrupulous advertisers, ideological fanatics, religious extremists, snake-oil salesmen, and your own unconscious strategies of self-deception and self-justification. By internalising the skills necessary for making optimally rational and empirically well-informed decisions, the course will help you to avoid making costly mistakes in both your personal and professional lives.

The core learning objectives of this course are:

' To understand the principal approaches to rational thinking and decision-making in the contemporary philosophical and psychological literature;
' To learn how to think critically and rationally by becoming aware of cognitive biases, formal and informal fallacies, and the difference between rhetorically powerful and logically valid arguments, both in one's own thought and behaviour and that of others;
' To understand how the unconscious intuitions, heuristics, rules of thumb, shortcuts and biases of our evolutionarily designed cognitive systems, while for the most part adequate for daily life, often fail us when thinking about complex systems, large numbers, long timescales, counterintuitive findings, and information presented in statistical or probabilistic formats.
' To learn how to rationally update your beliefs in light of new evidence and information and make decisions on a rational and empirically informed basis by internalising critical, scientific and rational thinking methods of approaching, assessing and filtering information.

What will it be like

The course will proceed by an interactive mixture of tutor exposition, class presentations, discussion and debate. Short readings from a variety of sources will be made available each week along with further reading suggestions for those who want to explore the issues in more detail. Videos will be used to supplement the readings and as starting points for class discussions and activities. Your expectations for the course will be canvassed in the initial sessions, after which you will be able to monitor your own progress on the course through participation in class discussion, question and answer sessions, and in-class activities and exercises. At the end of the course you will be able to measure your progress against the stated learning outcomes for the course.

What else do you need to buy or do

Short readings or video discussions will be made available each week and students will be expected to have read or listened to them before class. These will form the basis of class discussions and activities. Further reading suggestions, as well as videos, podcasts and online talks and lectures will be made for those who want to explore the issues further. It will be helpful for students to take notes of examples of fallacious reasoning and biases they may come across in their everyday lives, whether in the media, in conversation, or in their own thinking and decision making. These can then be used as examples for class discussion. There is no set textbook though there are numerous accessible books and articles aimed at a general audience that will be provided or recommended. The extent to which one engages with these outside of class is down to the discretion, time constraints and motivation of individual students.

What this course could lead to

In every domain of life decisions have to made, information has to be filtered, claims have to be assessed, probabilities have to be weighed, and beliefs have to be updated in light of new information. Whatever you are doing or plan to do with your life, this course will equip you with critical and rational thinking skills that will enable you to do these things in a more rational, responsible and critically reflective way. For those looking to proceed to further academic study, it provides a grounding in rational and scientific concepts and methods that are essential to success in any academic field.

Aside from applying the knowledge and skills developed on the course you could move on to further courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Mary Ward Centre or elsewhere. Courses in Economics, Politics, Psychology and Philosophy would be particularly useful

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I've been to many Centres to study in London and the Mary Ward Centre is one of the nicest I've studied in.

MWC student

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Mary Ward Centre is the adult education centre with a difference. We provide a wide range of subjects for people at all levels and run courses during the day, evening or weekend to suit your timetable.

Get inspired and enjoy excellent teaching in an environment where each individual’s learning experience is valued. That’s what makes Mary Ward Centre ‘the friendly place to learn.’