Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

Critical thinking skills in Computer Science

By bigbird in Op-Ed
Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 06:44:51 PM EST
Tags: etc (all tags)

I am a chemist, not a CompSci graduate. Increasingly, I have seen comments and even stories on Kuro5hin which display an apparent lack of research abilities or critical thinking skills.

Perhaps weblogs just tend to encourage and attract the kind of people who argue just to see their name on the page as an ego boost. Certainly some of these can be found here, and many more on other weblogs. Or is it a sign of something more serious?

Universities teach logic, math and coding in Computer Science, and appear to do a pretty good job (not a topic for this discussion, as it has been covered on k5 before). But do they teach enough basic research skills? Almost every other field from History and English to Biology and Chemistry includes writing papers - researching, reviewing or critiquing the works of others, using well-referenced, defensible sources. In essence, developing a personal BS-meter. Is that also a significant enough part of the CompSci curriculum?

In Computer Science, producing your own original work is the main emphasis, as is the case in any other field. The difference is that in CompSci, an individuals output is entirely based on their own effort, without much dependence upon or reference to outside sources. The only inputs appear to be a language reference, a computer terminal, and a compiler, with a solid background in theory such as data structures and coding efficiency.

There are a lot of computer science trained individuals on k5, and the discussion can be a little weak in areas other than programming / computers or personal beliefs such as politics, religion, and vi/emacs. Discussions on topics like environmental technology can make me shudder, with the wild assertions and unquestioning belief displayed by many individuals. And as for economics, well, let's just leave it at we do not appear to have many bankers or business types posting here, although there are a few can (and do) run circles around me on economic issues.

The days of the Renaissance man are sadly long gone. You can no longer expect to be exposed to and provide input on most areas of knowledge within a single lifetime, and must instead specialize in a certain field. But the need for the basic tools remains - the ability to form hypotheses, complete research, and validate your results remains in many areas of society. We depend on information, whether it come from the mass media, a specialty publisher or even an on-line source. We depend even more on the ability to discern bias, filter out the drivel, and flag the garbage for proper disposal.

Please understand that I am generalizing here, and asking what I believe to be a valid question based on my admittedly limited observations. There are an overwhelming number of truly exceptional individuals with computer science backgrounds who post on k5. There also appear to be many in the field with totally astounding levels of credulity, not to mention a poor grasp on issues not involving computers in the world around them.

Am I totally out to lunch here, or is development of critical thinking and research skills something that is not stressed enough in CompSci programs.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Does Ccomp Sci provide a well rounded education?
o Yes 8%
o No 21%
o Maybe 13%
o Other 3%
o Nothing does. Deal with it. 42%
o What do you need to be well rounded for? 9%

Votes: 91
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Kuro5hin
o Also by bigbird

Display: Sort:
Critical thinking skills in Computer Science | 52 comments (34 topical, 18 editorial, 0 hidden)
+1 to front page, but.... (3.33 / 9) (#1)
by 11223 on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:25:02 PM EST

In true CompSci, everything is standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton famously said. Applied programming (which is the application of computer science, which is applied mathematics) is little standing on giants and slightly more original. That said, any program with a good mathematical and theoretical basis provides a good thought-structure (similar to Cartesian rationalism) for further study. In that way, Computer Science is more or less like the rest of the sciences, for those who choose to view it as applied mathematics and not applied applied mathematics.

The biggest problem with any place like K5 (it's not K5's fault, but the fact that it's a weblog) is that research is near impossible in a place that's a free-for-all "threaded IRC" like any weblog. Things just move too fast for that. Real research and internal consensus on an opinion takes too much time, and so you see a noticible lack of it.

The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.

Interesting thought (4.10 / 10) (#2)
by ignatiusst on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:32:17 PM EST

I think what you are seeing are attempts to post quickly, not a lack of training in critical thinking and/or research skills.

I've noticed that although there are many in the k5 community that post quickly and intelligently, there are also quite a few who post quickly and horribly. I think that, if you look at posts that come out later on a topic, you begin seeing some well-reasoned responses.

I voted this at +1 fp because I know there will be a lot of people who disagree with me (and you). It will be interesting to see how everyone in the k5 community responds to being called dolts (note: that's my interpretation of the author's comments, not the author's actual words!).

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. -- Jonathan Swift

Uh-oh (3.33 / 3) (#8)
by bigbird on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:41:46 PM EST

It will be interesting to see how everyone in the k5 community responds to being called dolts

I hoped the following sentence would come through more clearly:

There are an overwhelming number of truly exceptional individuals with computer science backgrounds who post on k5.

Is there a different skill set? Perhaps the skills taught for centuries in university are not relevant to CompSci? Or, as you indicate, is it just speed and lack of thinking it through that leaves a general impression. I was worried that the story would be viewed as inflammatory, but too late now :)


For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Rom 1:16
[ Parent ]

Posting quickly (4.00 / 2) (#40)
by aphrael on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 02:43:02 PM EST

I would agree with this assessment. I find myself doing it a lot --- either responding quickly with thoughts that are fully formed but incompletely or incorrectly expressed, or *not* responding at all because I don't have time to come up with an intelligent, well-reasoned response, even though I want to.

Time is precious. Lunchtime, however, is an illusion.

[ Parent ]

Research for discussion (3.77 / 9) (#3)
by reshippie on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:33:06 PM EST

For me, at least, it's a matter of how you see the forum. With /. and K5, I see it as a big room with people all able to talk and hear each other. With this picture in my head, all of my posts are written as if I were simply talking to people. Admittedly, I'm a little more formal, but you get the idea.

Also, while the Internet is a GIANT source of research info, it's also a very immediate medium. I could do research for my posts, but frankly, I don't want to. I want to share my opinion with others, and see what they have to say. If I come across something, or know of something that's out there, I'll included it. Usually, though, I just say what I have to say and see if others agree.

Those who don't know me, probably shouldn't trust me. Those who do DEFINITELY shouldn't trust me. :-)

at least here (4.16 / 6) (#5)
by jazzido on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:34:02 PM EST

I'm on the way to the argentinian equivalent of the CompSCI BS degree, and i'm pretty unhappy with the quality of my overall education. We learns lots of maths (linear algebra, calculus, etc), many software design concepts, and such. but (i'm on my 3rd year now) i've never been told how to write a paper or to critically analyze others work.

so, answer to the bigbird's question is true. At least here.

"Patriotism is the last resource of scoundrels" (Samuel Johnson)

Computer Science maturity? (3.20 / 5) (#9)
by jfpoole on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:50:53 PM EST

Part of the problem might lie with the fact that few school start teaching CS at an advanced level. Most CS programs I've heard of have a course for CS majors (that most, if not all are required to take) that's just a notch above an introduction to computers course. If this were the way that physics were taught, it would be equivalent to people not knowing much about algebra, let alone calculus. By the time people have the skill set to forge out on their own and start reviewing the works of others, the degree's already over! Things do get better in post graduate degrees, but few people pursue those.

This will probably get better over time (as more people become computer literate, hopefully the basic CS courses will be dropped), but for now a person in CS looking to pick up critical thinking skills is best off taking courses in other faculties (humanities, for example).


Should this not be required though? (none / 0) (#48)
by Miniluv on Mon Dec 25, 2000 at 06:14:26 PM EST

Most liberal arts majors require a grounding in subjects other than the major, through "humanities" courses and the like. Part of this focus is, of course, to give you a diversity of knowledge, but the biggest benefit of this is that in these courses you usually have to do research papers, and they must be factually defendable. Very few schools anymore require a formal logic class, something that I myself am poorly trained in, and that's definitely something I see as rather lacking in some of the discussion here. Many of us, myself very much included, quickly enter into circular arguments without any real consideration of the logical implications of statements we're making. I attribute this to the overall shift in education towards more specificity and less "character building" as it used to be considered.

This is something I hope to combat during my own education, and one of the main reasons I'm looking primarily at Jesuit universities in the US for completing my bachelors degree. I'm also intent on avoiding CS programs, as I just don't see as much value coming out of them as is truly possible. The math is virtually identical in Electrical Engineering, Physics, CompSci, and one or two other scientific majors, with the applied area being where the specifics come in, so I don't see any huge advantage to majoring in CS compared to Physics or EE. A properly structured degree program will give me the time to take non-physics or EE courses where I can pick up some more advanced software design theory and applied principal, while also rounding myself out with a grounding in basic economics, history, literature and logic.

"Its like someone opened my mouth and stuck a fistful of herbs in it." - Tamio Kageyama, Iron Chef 'Battle Eggplant'
[ Parent ]

On a related note . . . (3.00 / 1) (#50)
by strawser on Wed Dec 27, 2000 at 08:32:15 AM EST

Something else . . . if someone views /. & k5 as representative, they may miss the fact that most readers seem to be very young. Mostly teens and early 20's. I don't know if anyone else has noticed (or remembers their own behaviour at that stage in life) that the average Sophmore with a few credits tends to think he's solved all the worlds troubles and knows all and sees all.

This isn't to say everyone at that age is naive, but it's kind of a general symptom of people in that age group.

Just an observation.


"Traveler, there is no path. You make the path as you walk." -- Antonio Machado
[ Parent ]
we are confused ... (4.00 / 9) (#12)
by speek on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 03:57:57 PM EST

... and we think we are superior to the average. We think, "we're on K5, we're a smart community". As a result, I think you have overly high expectations. You, and many of us, are expecting that the intelligence displayed here is greater than that displayed in other forums we participate in (and I don't just mean on-line forums).

Actually, I don't see much evidence of any improvement here over elsewhere. I see the same emotionally-driven mistakes, the same logical errors, the same blindnesses, the same unwillingness to listen. I also see individuals who are bright, just like in the real world. But, as a population, we're little different than any other on this matter. I'm always bemused by references to the "unwashed masses", as though they were someone else. Don't you know, that's us?

al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees

I disagree (2.50 / 4) (#21)
by aschafer on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 04:31:29 PM EST

At least we're not discussing lipstick fetishes or How to lower your blood pressure with olive oil and a dog. like the some of the "unwashed masses."

[ Parent ]
This is not a Computer Science only forum (4.00 / 10) (#15)
by jack_richins on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 04:16:17 PM EST

It's not like this is a CS only forum... no one verifies that this person has a CS degree and this person doesn't, and perhaps that is why you see a lack of critical analysis/reasoning at times and on certain subjects.

I think the difference between, say Chemistry, and CS is the number of people working in the field without a degree. Personly, I felt like my CS degree did a great job in teaching me how to think critically. But not everyone here at K5 has a CS degree and because of that you get some interesting perspectives. I enjoy, but you aren't going to get the same kind of conversations you would at Chemistry Conference.

K5 may not always have superb examples of critical thinking on some of the none computer topics discussed here, but you get some interesting perspectives and opinions that might never get voiced in a more "intellectual" crowd.

Important comment (3.00 / 7) (#18)
by simmons75 on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 04:26:42 PM EST

I posted a lengthier version of this as an editorial comment, but as it appears that this story will at least hit a section, I feel I must make a topical comment.

Folks, take this with a grain of salt. No, take it with a 1lb. canister of salt. The author makes claims that we lack reasoning skills and research skills, yet offers no evidence that any research was done in the writing of this article. Where's the research supporting the claim that k5 is overrun by /. kiddies?

Personally, I have my own BS meter that seems to be a little faulty, but it was off the chart on this one. You can't wrap bullshit in a pretty, pompous package and expect people to think it's gold.
So there.

He refers to discussion on k5 (4.00 / 3) (#29)
by Spinoza on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 05:12:21 PM EST

This may not qualify as comprehensive research, but it at least indicates that he didn't come up with this article in a vacuum. If he were to provide actual references to posts, he would be singling people out, which would probably be unfair to them.

How much research would satisfy you? A six-month study? This is just an article on a discussion site. It's clearly the author's own opinion, hence op-ed.

[ Parent ]

Still can't agree. (2.33 / 3) (#34)
by simmons75 on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 11:02:03 PM EST

Statements like the following,

>There are a lot of computer science trained individuals on k5,

need to be backed up if one's editorial is about CompSci students not knowing how to research. I mean, c'mon, it's an editorial about compsci students lacking research/critical thinking skills, apparently with no base other than the fact that the author *thinks* these things.

Note to the original author: if you're wanting to write about a group of people, please remember that not everyone is alike. I have a friend that I totally bewildered a few years ago. She semi-seriously made the comment, "All men are alike." I replied, "All women are blonde-headed bimbos." She gave me a quizzical look and said, "That makes absolutely no #@!$ sense!" I replied, "Exactly." You're basing your editorial on your perception of the quality of the posts, then make the ASSUMPTION that most posters are CompSci students/graduates. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Looks like you need to work on your research methods some more--along with your critical thinking skills.

I won't even comment on how pathetic that poll is.
So there.

[ Parent ]
Alchemy (3.90 / 10) (#19)
by slaytanic killer on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 04:27:19 PM EST

That is a very interesting question, are CS people credulous? Well some points beforehand:

. Many of the "CS" people don't post. In fact, you can't even assume a bell curve with those who post -- it is perfectly possible that those posting are those who are still forming their opinions. So every post responding to you now may be from the lower end of the curve.

. There is a limited number of forums on other scientific subjects. (If you know of any, you really have to tell me.) Therefore it is impossible to compare, much less find a control.

. People have to learn how to discern BS from somewhere. Can you think of a better place to find so much of it?

Now from what I've learned about physics, scientists wish to develop rules of thumb about what occurs in the world. This differs from the very masturbatory-seeming world of academic mathematics, where you create your own assumptions that drive everything.

Only recently has gullibility been bad for CS. In the past, errors were simple to detect, and mistakes showed themselves pretty quickly. If a mistaken opinion only loses you a few hours of your life rather than years, they remain economical to make. Now perhaps we are getting to the point where one person's mind doesn't scale well to the complexity of current software, so this time may be coming to an end.

And don't forget how long it took Chemistry to come to its rigorous state (if in fact it is rigorous, quantum physics or no). There was a word for Chemistry, and it was Alchemy. ("Put some lead in the foo, 'n it'll output a bar of gold!") I imagine CS's progress is very quick in comparison.

A quote... (3.00 / 14) (#23)
by Signal 11 on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 04:34:08 PM EST

"Everybody is an idiot except in their area of expertise"

Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
An idiot or not an idiot. (none / 0) (#49)
by strawser on Wed Dec 27, 2000 at 08:22:16 AM EST

> "Everybody is an idiot except in their area of expertise"

I disagree. People are either idiots or they're not. I know quite a few people who are great with technical things that have nothing to do with their jobs. My dad's a salesman, but he also codes and builds robotics. Why, beacuse he's smart. If you're smart you're smart. I just got into comp-sci because it's fun. I studdied accounting in college, but like learning new programming languages and new OSs better. By smart, BTW, I don't mean you remember everything you read, or you have read a lot, I mean you can solve problems with out having someone explaine a similar problem to you. I mean you're capable of thought. If you are, if you can solve problems on your own, then it doesn't matter wheather it's diagnosing a dirty carborator or debugging a perl script.

Just MHO.

"Traveler, there is no path. You make the path as you walk." -- Antonio Machado
[ Parent ]
No research hunh? (2.40 / 5) (#31)
by k5er on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 05:49:57 PM EST

I hardly think it is possible to learn computers without being able to research stuff. Try learning any *nix flavor and you will quickly learn you have to research your ass off at first to learn it. Just because research is not done by burying your face in a 1000 library books, does not mean research is not involved in computer science.
Long live k5, down with CNN.
Study and learn, yes (3.00 / 2) (#32)
by bigbird on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 08:24:01 PM EST

But research as in investigate, compare, discern, and differentiate like you would use to write an essay or term paper, I do not see how that is required to learn *nix.

Where you stated "Just because research is not done by burying your face in a 1000 library books, does not mean research is not involved in computer science", I implied no such thing. Far from it in fact. Plenty of research was, is and will be done in the field, or else I cannot see how it would exist. Like many other english words, the word research has a lot of meanings. My question was about the passing on of skills in the field - is there too much emphasis on the mechanics of coding, and too little on the types of development which create a well-rounded individual? Are enough of the skills taught that have been basics in all fields at universities for centuries? Does it even matter?


For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Rom 1:16
[ Parent ]

Well, huh. (4.00 / 2) (#35)
by simmons75 on Wed Dec 20, 2000 at 11:20:48 PM EST

"But research as in investigate, compare, discern, and differentiate like you would use to write an essay or term paper, I do not see how that is required to learn *nix."

Well, as one of my English instructors once told me, "write what you know." I think you should take that valuable bit of advice and go with it.

You're hung up on the definition of research, I suppose.

And though my degree is not in CompSci (it's in journalism, of all things) I minored in it. Far more time is spent on theory, IMHO. Essay/term papers are for fresmen and sophomore classes. I'm sure you had to take the piddly freshman and sophomore classes; you tell me.

And FYI, if you plan on writing anything else, you might want to work on YOUR critical thinking skills. When I read this editorial (and it is, in fact, an editorial) I interpreted your train of thought this way

1.) Kuro5hin's motto is "technology and culture, from the trenches"
2.) CompSci students would be interested in this
3.) many of the people interested in k5 lack research/critical thinking skills
4.) therefore, CompSci students lack research/critical thinking skills

I'm sure you see the flaw.
So there.

[ Parent ]
Well rounded individuals (2.00 / 1) (#43)
by k5er on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 05:53:46 PM EST

I will not argue that many "nerdy" individuals lack skills that create a well-rounded individual, but I think that this is due to their intelligence. They cannot be bothered learning stuff they do not care about. They tend to focus on what interests them, and for those that are extremely bright, they sometimes make many advancements in there field. I don't see why someone should concentrate all (or good chunk) of there efforts to become a well rounded individual. They are just sacrificing their time and potential. They should concentrate on what they like and be will be successful at.

Example: What if Newton or Einstien, instead of spending there time on Physics (and becoming very successful in their fields) concentrated on trying to become well rounded individuals and study all other things besides what they were truly gifted in, we would have lost out on some very valuable information and they would have been miserable simply because it is not what they wanted to do.
Long live k5, down with CNN.
[ Parent ]
Newton (none / 0) (#45)
by Mr. Excitement on Fri Dec 22, 2000 at 12:37:05 AM EST

When I read your post, I thought, "I could swear that Newton also wrote some books on theology!"

From http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/09202.html : (Towards the end of the article)

"Newton also built (1668) the first reflecting TELESCOPE, anticipated the calculus of variations, and devoted much energy towards alchemy, theology, and history."

I think you may have unwittingly shown why it pays to be "well-rounded."

1 141900 Mr. Excitement-Bar-Hum-Mal-Cha died in The Gnomish Mines on level 10 [max 12]. Killed by a bolt of lightning - [129]
[ Parent ]

Computing isn't really much of a science anymore (4.83 / 6) (#36)
by Lionfire on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 12:25:49 AM EST

I have done my BSc(hons) in Computing. I'm now headed towards finishing (any day now :) my PhD in Computing.

I'll be the first one to acknowledge that Computing as an academic field is no longer the science it used to be.

Academedic computing research used to be very scientific. Theories were proposed, experiments were devised and all the correct critical thought processes and procedures were adhered to. The field was populated with mathematicians, physicists and other who had been educated within a well established scientific field.

The current generation of "researchers" (including myself) have been educated differently. Computing is now more of an art than a science. Rather than proving theories and critical analysis, people in the Computing field are working in a manner equivalent to high-tech mechanics. We fix things that are broken and sometimes work out how to make something work a bit better or faster or add some interesting new gadget or feature.

I can't help but feel that this is wrong, but it is the way things are being done. Even my own research is not as "scientific" as I would like. It just "isn't done that way".

Some of this is probably because of the "computers are money" attitude. Real research is the better way, but requires a long-term investment -- and long-term isn't on people's minds when they start thinking about money. It just isn't competitive enough in today's market.

Perhaps this is simply the only place computing can fit in our society, but I can't help but feel it deserves better.

[ blog | cute ]
Hey! Emacs IS a religion (4.00 / 8) (#37)
by Spinoza on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 12:32:38 AM EST

I agree that computer science courses don't do much to teach critical thinking. I fail to see this as a huge problem. Other courses over-emphasize critical thinking, leading, to a mode of thought geared towards shooting down new ideas, but not developing any, as Edward De Bono has often pointed out. It is in some ways an advantage that this is under-emphasized in computer science.

This is not to say that critical thinking is unnecessary to a good computer scientist, but it is not as essential as it is to a philosophy major. Computer science is a discipline that revolves around solving problems. It is better for a computer scientist to have a mindset that is willing to try things and watch them fail than to dismiss ideas out of hand. The tractability of computer programming makes it easy and cheap to build prototypes that may not succeed, compared to other sciences and engineering.

It is more important for a computer scientist to be a creative thinker who has the mental apparatus to formulate feasible methods for solving complex problems. Critical thinking comes in to play, certainly, in the elimination of ideas that are utterly without merit. These sorts of ideas are more rare than you would think. Even a miserable failure allows you to understand the problem better, and as I said, failures in computer science are cheap. Good computer scientists understand that the first try will probably not be a success, and as Frederick P. Brooks put it, "always plan to throw one away."

Critical thinking about computer science concepts is a more involved process than it would be in any non-scientific discipline. For example, how does one critically assess the correctness of a pseudo-random number generator? It can seldom be done merely by looking at the algorithm or the code. This will eliminate only the worst examples. Beyond that a bank of statistical tests must be brought to bear on the output of the PRNG. Knuth devoted a large part of the second volume of his "Art of Computer Programming" to this. Designing this sort of analysis is beyond the level of effort one can ordinarily expect from undergraduates.

Good research skills, on the other had, will certainly serve a computer scientist well. Many of the best solutions to computing problems are highly non-obvious. Knowing where to look for these solutions can be a key skill. Luckily, the internet provides a useful place to start, without even entering the library. I'll admit that computer science courses could do more to introduce students to research.

Research skills should be taught in high school (3.66 / 6) (#38)
by enterfornone on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 12:57:28 AM EST

Not sure about your part of the world, but where I come from research, report writing etc are part of the basic education you receive in high school.

I did have to write a number of reports in first year Comp Sci (I only did first year, dropped out because I felt what I was learning was pretty much irrelevant to my career goals). The first was on smoking IIRC, and was basically just there to demonstrate that we could write a report. I also had a report of censorship on the net which was a main component of the introductory computing subject and a number of system design reports/presentations.

I wasn't actually taught research as part of the degree, it was just assumed that everyone already has these skills. If people don't have these skills after 12 years of basic education then there is something very wrong with the education system.

efn 26/m/syd
Will sponsor new accounts for porn.
Research skills should be taught early (2.50 / 2) (#41)
by bkeeler on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 02:58:17 PM EST

I'd go further than that. In my ideal world, everyone would be taught logic and critical thinking progressively, right along side math and English (or whatever your primary language might be), almost from the kindergarten level.

Every time I mention this in mixed company, the cynics immediately remkark that "they" don't want normal people to be able to think, or they'd be able to smell the BS in politics, religion, etc. "They" just want nice little Frederick Taylor style robotic factory workers.

But, as it is, the sad fact is that most people simply do not know how to think.

...until the word "Maudling" is almost completely obscured.
[ Parent ]

Differing degree philosophies (3.66 / 3) (#39)
by jynx on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 06:17:29 AM EST

I am an CS undergrad (in the UK), and I have quite a few friends doing CS at different Universities.

I think at least part of the problem is due to the fact that CS degrees seem to come in two different 'flavours'.

A lot of Universities teach CS degrees which are much more 'vocational', in which they seem to be teaching in order to set someone up for a career in the IT sector. On the other hand some courses are much more theory-orientated.

I think this is caused at least in part by the massive expansion in the fraction of people who go into higher education in the UK, and the corresponding expansion in the number of institutions with University status.

I think that a distinction needs to be made between the two types, perhaps by renaming less theory/reserch based courses 'Practical Computer Science', or by making them engineering qualifications rather than science.


Renaissance man is NOT dead (3.75 / 4) (#42)
by Skippy on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 04:37:59 PM EST

The days of the Renaissance man are sadly long gone. You can no longer expect to be exposed to and provide input on most areas of knowledge within a single lifetime, and must instead specialize in a certain field.
Renaissance people are needed now more than ever. No, you cannot be a leading researcher in several fields (what people really mean when they say Renaissance man) but you can have a good grasp on several AND be a well rounded individual.

The reason we need people like this is to allow all those specialists to communicate. Ever been in a room of specialists (especially computer specialists)who are UNABLE to talk to each other. It's not that they aren't trying, but that they lack the requisite common vocabulary. Renaissance people can act as translators/liasons between specialists.

# I am now finished talking out my ass about things that I am not qualified to discuss. #

It's a general problem (4.00 / 5) (#44)
by z on Thu Dec 21, 2000 at 06:35:37 PM EST

Should CS people have better critical thinking skills than other college grads? Better than the general population?

Considering the skills necessary for developing computer programs, one might think that CS people would have higher critical thinking skills. If a program in development fails with output X, the developer needs to be able to think of which actions A, B, C, etc could have caused it. The logical world of the computer program is one the developer created, whereas in the real world one may need to know actual laws of physics, chemistry, economics, etc. But one might hope the skills would carry over. Often they don't.

The real problem of lack of critical thinking skills is a general one. If you see it in CS people it's because they haven't learned those skills and just aren't that much different from the general population.

How would we promote the teaching of critical thinking skills? There are a lot of people who benefit from a credulous public: politicians, lawyers, public school teachers,...

The last group is a particular problem. Would teachers be enthusiastic about teaching critical thinking if their students could pick apart their anti voucher and other propaganda? I think of this because I used to belong to a secular humanist group. It's stated purpose included promoting critical thinking. Several issues of the group's newsletter included editorial essays, by a public school teacher who was active in the group, arguing against school vouchers. As you might expect, most of it was propaganda that had no logical consistency. Whatever sounded like it might appeal was thrown in.

Some members of the group wrote critiques of the essays, still, it was doubly disappointing. Not only was this a group dedicated to critical thinking, but the essays were written by someone who might be in a position to do something about the problem. Some people in that group seemed to think that "critical thinking" meant being critical of religion.

this article is ludicrously arrogant (3.33 / 6) (#46)
by streetlawyer on Fri Dec 22, 2000 at 03:11:28 AM EST

.... and I should know :p

For a chemist to claim that "critical thinking" is a magic ability that they have and CS students lack is laughable. From the point of view of social sciences and arts, the amount of truly critical thinking in any sciences course is minimal, and I'm not about to start settling points of precedence between a louse and a flea.

But, criticial thinking in an academic discipline does not map at all well onto critical thinking in the rest of life. Lots of very, very good economists of my acquaintance have ludicrously simplistic views outside their own field of competence.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever

Uncritical thinking is widespread in CS. (2.50 / 2) (#51)
by elenchos on Thu Dec 28, 2000 at 01:45:03 PM EST

There are plenty of reasons to believe that there is a lack of critical thinking skill in the computer science field.

Many people took the Y2K bug seriously because it was primarily computer programmers who were insisting that the worst would happen, and backing up that fear by hiding in a shelter stocked full of dehydrated water. Supposedly if anyone knew about computers it would be the programmers, right? No, they were the ones most taken in by the doom sayers.

It is computer science "professionals" who are some of the worst zealots in the irrational Holy Wars over the best language or OS or discussion site. Often it becomes almost painful for a such an advocate to discuss the issue on its merits, or to see any truth in the ideas of the "enemy." People with well-developed critical thinking skills would rarely if ever have their vision so clouded.

Being able to admit the flaws in something you like is one of the most important parts of this skill, and it involves the kind of honest self-criticism that programmers, with their immense egos, are dismal at. This is one of the reasons that open source software development is so efficient at finding bugs; the person who wrote the bug is very often simply not capable of seeing it, so the code has to be shown to many others before the flaws become visible. How often have you seen a coder look everywhere but in his own work for the cause of a problem? This illustrates how much emotional maturity is a factor in correct thinking, and why so many precocious young geniuses need someone else to look after them so they don't go running blindly after some crazy notion that they can't think clearly about. Once they begin to identify personally with something (e.g. Perl = my self-worth), they simply can't make sound judgments on that subject any more.

It isn't all bad news. Many have realized how important peer review is in writing good code, and the popularity of sites like K5 shows that many CS people on some level realize the need to have others check them. While the original motive for participating may have been a need for recognition and ego gratification, the outcome is often a moderation of the wild notions that programmers so often get carried away with.


It's probably not specific to CS (none / 0) (#52)
by tchaika on Fri Dec 29, 2000 at 05:40:21 PM EST

My university included components both on the practicalities of "doing computer science" (i.e. how to use LaTeX, how to conduct and write up experiments, academic/professional ethics, the basics of how to use published research, how to program in C, how to properly design graphs).

There were also cross-discipline papers on research methods and methodology designed to prepare people with the tools they need for researching for postgrad degrees, plus of course statistics papers.

So I would say, your chances of getting what you describe are probably pretty random, same as they would be in any other academic field.

It's not the responsibility of the computer science department to turn a bunch of geek introverts INTJ personality types who can't relate to humans <prod prod> into well-rounded individuals with eclectic interests. That's a journey people have to want to take...use your course electives wisely...and get a life :)

Last, in any public form those with the fewest intelligent things to say, say it the loudest. So I'll shut up now.

It can be done, but as a tradeoff. (none / 0) (#53)
by Sax Maniac on Sun Dec 31, 2000 at 01:44:05 PM EST

It sure was emphasized in my CS program. But, not directly by the CS major.

When I was in school, they had requirements called SI and WI, meaning speaking intensive and writing intensive. Speaking intenstive involved debate, or oral delivery of self-researched papers. Writing intensive was either a mini-thesis, or a series of researched papers with peer and teacher review.

What does this have to do with computer science? I was a CS major, but my degree is a Bachelor of Arts (in CS) not Science. Yes, I went to a liberal arts school. (Insert "do you want fries?" joke here.)

What is the difference between a BA/CS and a BS/CS? Well, as far as I can tell from my friends with the BS is more science and math. I took these abovementioned classes, plus English, history, philosophy, etc., at the expense of some advanced math and science classes.

So, is the tradeoff worth it?

My point is there's only so much time and classes you can fit into for four years. And, only you can make that distinction which is better yourself. For me, I've felt that I've used a lot more of my "Liberal Arts" skills in day-to-day life and work, than higher the math and science courses. (This is not because I haven't taken the higher math and science courses, I am just about done with an MS.)

Occasionally I hear some veiled attacks on people who went to a liberal arts school; I guess you can expect that when you work with mostly xS degrees. They don't realize I'm a BA, and I'm doing the same job as they are.

Does this mean I could have made it through a BS? I know I could have. Does it mean I would be better off? As above, I don't think so. Those "silly" SI/WI requirements really make a difference IRL.

Stop screwing around with printf and gdb and get a debugger that doesn't suck.

Critical thinking skills in Computer Science | 52 comments (34 topical, 18 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!