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Critical Thinking and Becoming “Students of Data Science”

  • Bill Schmarzo 

Social media and internet search scare me because it is so easy to acquire information without also acquiring the associated knowledge. You can order essay writing help from EssayHub and never even think about the topic. It’s easy to find almost any information via search or social media, but an effective “student of data scientist” (as well as any effective future leader) must learn to discern easily acquired information with a sense of skepticism. To quote the character Dr. Ian Malcolm (played skillfully by Jeffrey Goldblum) in the movie “Jurassic Park:”


“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.”

There is a lot of meat in this quote for a “student of data science” to consider:

  • [The scientific power] didn’t require any discipline to attain it.
  • You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it.

The scientists in the “Jurassic Park” movie lacked the critical thinking to contemplate if what they were doing was ethical or even safe. They washed their hands of the responsibility for their actions because they hadn’t had to struggle to learn, earn and appreciatethe knowledge for themselves.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

Maybe of all the skills that an effective “student of data science” needs to have, critical thinking may very well be at the top of that list.

Defining Critical Thinking

Critical thinkingis the judicious and objective analysis, exploration and evaluation of an issue or a subject in order to form a viable and justifiable judgment.

At the University of San Francisco School of Management, I am teaching my students to embrace critical thinking as a key skill and capability for future business and social leaders. And here is what I expect from my students as they embrace critical thinking as students of data science:

  1. Never accept the initial answer as the right answer.It’s too easy to take the initial result and think that it’s good enough. But good enough is usually not good enough,and one needs to invest the time and effort to explore if there is a better “good enough” answer.
  2. Be skeptical. Never accept someone’s “statement of fact” as “fact.” Learn to question what you read or hear.  It’s very easy to accept at face value whatever someone tells you, but that’s a sign of a lazy mind. And learn to discern facts from opinions. You know what they say about opinions…
  3. Consider the source.When you are gathering requirements, consider the credibility, experience and maybe most importantly, the agenda of the source. Not all sources are of equal value, and the credibility of the source is highly dependent upon the context of the situation (see the article “Reasons Why Doctors Can’t Manage Money”).
  4. Don’t get happy ears.Don’t listen for the answer that you want to hear. Instead focus on listening for the answers that you didn’t expect to hear. That’s the moment when learning really starts.
  5. Embrace struggling.The easy answer isn’t always the right answer. In fact, the easy answer is seldom the right answer when it comes to complex situations faced not in the world of data science, but also faced in society and the business world.
  6. Stay curious; have an insatiable appetite to learn.This is especially true in a world where technologies are changing so rapidly. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I wouldn’t want a cat making decisions for me anyway.
  7. Apply the reasonableness test. Is what you are reading making sense from what you have seen or read elsewhere (sorry, the Pope didn’t vote in the last US election)? And while technologies are changing so rapidly, society norms and ethics really aren’t.
  8. Pause to think.Find a quiet place where you can sequester yourself away to really think about everything that you’ve pulled together. Take the time to think and contemplate before rushing to the answer.
  9. Conflict is good…and necessary. Life is full of tradeoffs that require striking a delicate balance between numerous competing factors (increase one factor while reducing another). These types of conflicts are the fuel for innovation (see the blog “Embracing Conflict to Fuel Digital Innovation” for more details).

Many of the characters in movie “Jurassic Park” didn’t fare so well (that’s a common theme in all of the “Jurassic Park” movies). A bit of critical thinking beforehand could have prevented disastrous results (though the movies wouldn’t be much fun if dinosaurs weren’t munching on unsuspecting humans).


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