STILLWATER — As Americans debate the role of inflammatory political rhetoric and the ability of misinformation to incite violence, one local group is keeping its focus on the facts.
Civil discourse, adherence to reason and evidence, and equal participation are always on the agenda at meetings of the Critical Thinking Club, a group founded by Stillwater resident Lee Salisbury.
The idea for the club struck him about 11 years ago when Salisbury was in the woods cutting buckthorn.
“I was at a time in my life when I was rather frustrated with people who were liberals and people who were conservatives, and religious and non-religious, and it occurred to me there aren’t cases on all sides,” he said. “An epiphany occurred to me — it’s not what you think, it’s how you think.”
Salisbury, now an atheist who spent 14 years as an evangelical minister and 25 years in commercial real estate banking, got together with a couple of friends, George Kane and Bob Korn, and held the first meeting of the St. Paul Critical Thinking Club in January 2000. That group grew by word-of-mouth and in 2007 it decided to start a club in Stillwater, so Salisbury enlisted a neighbor, Bob Lepp, to seek out meeting space at FamilyMeans. Soon Dale McGowan, a charter member of the St. Paul group who taught critical thinking at the College of St. Catherine, started a club in the Minnetonka area. Salisbury has since assumed leadership of that club as well, so he attends monthly meetings of all three groups.
“We try to have a format that encourages everybody to participate. I’ve often said this is not like church where you go hear somebody give a talk and then shake hands and say thank you and walk out … or like civic clubs where you hear a speech. We want topics that challenge people to think, and we want a vigorous yet civil critique of the presentation and of the topic and the material presented — what is the evidence for the presentation, the validity of the evidence, and so on?”
Salisbury said there are no dues, no fees and no registration required — and coming to one meeting makes one a member.
Presentations are made by members of the club. Topics — the more controversial, the better — are emailed out in advance so attendees are encouraged to do preliminary research if they wish. “We’re always looking to the members to say ‘Now who’s going to speak next month, the following month, and so on.’” The speaker’s presentation usually lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, then the club breaks up into tables of six or eight people. Each is given a sheet of paper with a question or comment meant to spark about 15 minutes worth of discussion on an aspect of the presentation. Then someone from each table gives a review of their discussion, followed by a general question-and-answer time for the speaker.
At the most recent meeting Jan. 10, participants heard Dick Taylor, a student of the economy and 30-year teacher of economics in the Minneapolis Public School System, speak on the topic “1945-2007: Historical Roots of the Great Recession.” The focus was on events leading to the recession rather than the recession itself.
Members tend to be well-read individuals in their 50s or older, though there are members in their 30s and 40s. The club always welcomes new members, but with attendance averaging 30 or 40 at a meeting, the clubs aren’t out recruiting, Salisbury said.
“The idea is to get people to participate and not just sit there like a bump on a log and say nothing. They’re bound to hear things they don’t agree with. If somebody’s making a presentation and their facts are lax or inadequate, it needs to be pointed out. People are challenged to think about things in a new way.”
Topics range from science, politics and religion, to cultural issues. One of the group’s biggest draws was a talk on whether belief in God is compatible with critical thinking, he recalled. Other topics have dealt with the economy and taxation, the role of pornography in causing abuse, historical roots of the great recession, underachieving males, and whether Jesus was a historical person.
Though he has no formal training in critical thinking, Salisbury’s career in mortgage banking relied heavily on logic and reason, determining whether commercial projects should be financed and how, he said. Now retired, he has done freelance writing and public speaking on topics like humanism, atheism and politics. The lack of critical thinking in today’s world is what prompted him to form the clubs.
“It’s an idea that developed out of my frustration with people and the way they become ideologues, and pursue ways of thinking which reject the facts,” he explained.
The Stillwater Critical Thinking Club meets the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at FamilyMeans, 1875 Northwestern Ave. in Stillwater. The St. Paul Club meets the second Sunday at 10 a.m. for breakfast buffet at the Kelly Inn, and the West Metro Club meets the fourth Saturday at 10 a.m. Contact Salisbury at email@example.com.
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