Monday, May 30, 2011

The Importance of Critical Thinking

Guest Post from John

During a gathering of non-believers at a recent anti-superstition party, I was reminded that not all non-believers are necessarily skeptics with critical thinking skills. I guess I should have expected this situation as I do recognize that people come to non-belief through different paths. Myself, I can say that I traveled along the path of critical thinking and skepticism. Unashamedly, I consider the critical thinking and skepticism as a stable, reasoned path to follow and the best one to follow.

For the purposes of this essay, I will define critical thinking as logical, consistent method to evaluate information including raw data, analytical methods, data interpretation, and conclusions. Understanding logical fallacies, potential data error sources, and the difference between correlation and causation are essential components of honing critical thinking skills. Skepticism is an approach that uses critical thinking to evaluate the potential validity of a claim. Where multiple potential interpretations of a claim are possible, a skeptic would try to identify falsifiable tests to further evaluate the claim, or invoke Occam’s razor (where the explanation that uses the fewest new assumptions is likely correct). Skepticism and critical thinking are the basis of good science. As such, a skeptic often relies on the consensus of the scientific community to help assess claims outside ones knowledge base. Good science has allowed humans to advance as a society and to understand the workings of the universe.

In our daily lives, critical thinking and skepticism can be used to allow us to make sound decisions and avoid investing time and resources into wasteful pursuits. It also minimizes the cognitive dissonance that occurs when someone is conned or cheated. I enjoy watching ‘illusion’ or magic shows where the entire premise is the con or the cheat, but the performer acknowledges it as such and there is no personal disillusionment. That is not the case with the door-to-door snake-oil hawker or other disreputable salespeople where they will say or do almost anything to get your cash. This also applies to religious leaders who have their hand out, not for the poor, but for the good of the church.

Application of critical thinking and skepticism allows for the separation of reality from fantasy, and the separation of science from pseudoscience. This application has allowed most of us to recognize superstitions as nonsense. A good skeptic with honed critical thinking skills will understand that there are shades of grey between science and pseudoscience and should still support the investigation into phenomena that is poorly understood from a scientific point of view. Homeopathy, reflexology, astrology, numerology, phrenology, dowsing, and similar notions have all been scientifically examined and debunked and are considered pseudoscience. The purported methods and results from these pseudosciences have been scientifically debunked and it is a waste of time and resources to continue to support these ideas. There are, however, some ideas that are on the fringes of science that have yet to be fully studied or falsified that a skeptic would not or should not readily dismiss. These ideas include string-theory, M-theory, and the existence of Higgs boson. Spending research dollars into promising ideas such as these is therefore important to further our knowledge. Spending money on pseudoscience is wasteful.

When applied to religious ideas, the skeptic and critical thinker will likely become at least agnostic toward the idea of a god(s), if not an atheist. People who like the idea of life-after-death, heaven, or re-incarnation have not, in my opinion, consistently applied critical thinking skills, although I have encountered such people (including famous skeptics such as Martin Gardner). However, I have found that not all agnostics or atheists (non-believers) are necessarily skeptics with critical thinking skills. Without healthy skepticism and critical thinking, these people risk devoting time and energy toward debunked pseudoscientific pursuits.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Abandon All Hope, America

This is just depressing.  The NY Times article describes how denial of climate change is almost universal in the Tea Party universe.  And their reasons are just breathtakingly stupid:

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.”

So Mr. Dennison, a local electrician, trusts Rush Limbaugh and the Bible on this issue more than he trusts the climate researchers.  I think one big reason the deniers are winning the debate is that the carbon industry – mainly coal and oil companies – have been running a successful propaganda machine.  And I don’t think the average Tea Partier realizes that he or she is being used as a stooge in this debate.  If we can just pretend that climate change isn’t happening, we can avoid the difficult discussions about what to do about it.  And coal and oil companies continue to rake in huge profits.

I think there’s also a populist mindset at play here.  It’s a classic case of “Us versus Them”.  Rush Limbaugh got rich by shouting that “they” are all conspiring to control our lives and take our money.  Part of the “they” are the pinhead scientists who have ginned up global warming as a way to promote a socialist agenda.  This plays well to a crowd that’s already suspicious of the “Academic Elite”.  And the right-wing has used this very effectively in the current election cycle.

So what to do about this?  Climate change is not going away just because a large portion of the population has stuck their heads in the sand about it.  How do we move the discussion from “is it real?” to “what do we do about it?”  I’d like to think that education is the key, but honestly, I don’t think the people being cited in the NY Times article will ever be convinced.  I mean, these are the same people who still deny evolution.  I think it’s going to take activism on the other side of the debate to mobilize voters and elect rational people into office.   This won’t happen during this election cycle, but as the effects of climate change become more apparent more people will start to demand action. Unfortunately this is a slow process, and not very efficient.  But it seems to be how things work in this country.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Another Church Sign

Mrs. RH and I went for a motorcycle ride today to Lynchburg, TN, to visit some friends. We saw this sign there, and I had to take a photo of it.  LynchburgCOC

Isn’t this the opposite of what we should be teaching?   Don’t trust yourself?  What exactly does that mean?

Michael Mann Responds

Michael Mann, the climate researcher from Penn State who first published the “Hockey Stick” graph, has been under attack.  Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli has been investigating Mann’s previous employer, the University of Virginia, based on emails that were stolen from a climate research institution in Great Britain.  Cuccinelli’s fist subpoena was rejected by by a court, but he’s trying again.  It’s clear that Cuccinelli is on a one-man crusade against climate science and Mann.

On Friday Mann responded to attacks by Cuccinelli and others in an editorial in the Washington Post.  Read it – it’s excellent.  At a time when every single Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate denies the science of anthropogenic climate change, these words resonate:

“We have lived through the pseudo-science that questioned the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, and the false claims questioning the science of acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. The same dynamics and many of the same players are still hard at work, questioning the reality of climate change.

Burying our heads in the sand would leave future generations at the mercy of potentially dangerous changes in our climate. The only sure way to mitigate these threats is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions dramatically over the next few decades. But even if we don't reduce emissions, the reality of adapting to climate change will require responses from government at all levels.”

Mann also brings up another chilling point that I hadn’t thought of:

How can I assure young researchers in climate science that if they make a breakthrough in our understanding about how human activity is altering our climate that they, too, will not be dragged through a show trial at a congressional hearing?”

Are these ideological witch hunters going to be successful in discouraging good scientists from conducting needed research on climate change?  That would be tragic.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Annoying Church Sign

I live in a fairly rural part of the mid-South.  Churches are everywhere, and church-signs are very popular.  I’ve always enjoyed reading the signs and sometimes get a chuckle from the intended humor, or more often, the unintended irony.  But this one just kind of ticked me off:


I’m mean, do they really believe that a non-believer is worthless?  Or that it’s impossible to be good without god?  The conceit and smugness of these people are boundless.

How Do Airplanes Fly, Really?

I’m just a dumb rockhead, so I’m probably digging a deep hole by going here. But the excellent XKCD asks a question I’ve been asking for years.  As a private pilot I’ve always suspected that the Bernoulli explanation was at least part B.S.  Over the years I’ve asked some pilots, flight instructors, and authors of flight manuals this same question.  How do airplanes fly upside down?  The answer I get usually involves pointing the nose of the airplane up so the air has to travel longer over the upward (bottom) side of the wing.  But this never really made sense to me.  In normal flight a pilot can keep the airplane flying just fine in (slightly) nose-up, nose-level, or nose down positions simply by adjusting power settings. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that Newton’s third law is the more important factor in keeping airplanes aloft. The air strikes the bottom of the wing and deflects off, which pushes the plane up.  The shape of the airfoil has a lot to do with the stability and handling characteristics of the airplane, but I’m not convinced it’s the main factor in keeping the airplane aloft.

This is a fun explanation to prepare your kids for; it's common and totally wrong. Good lines include 'why does the air have to travel on both sides at the same time?' and 'I saw the Wright brothers plane and those wings were curved the same on the top and bottom!'

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Taking Action

I was catching up on my blog reading this morning and two posts caught my eye.  First, John Cole at Balloon Juice posted about an encounter with a bunch of elderly Fox News watchers.  When one of them made a ridiculous claim John called him on it: 

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, and when he said “You can’t even pray anymore. Christians get stopped from praying, but Muslims get to pray,” I lost it.

“When was the last time someone stopped you from praying,” I asked.

He seemed startled- “Me, never. But they…”

I cut him off- “And when was the last time anyone stopped anyone you know from praying?”

“Well, I don’t personally know of anyone…”

“So who exactly is stopping people from praying?”

I’m not sure it changed anyone’s mind, but I think it’s good to call out BS when you see it.  Ignoring the crazy talk just allows it to continue to spread.  I work with some very conservative people with pretty radical ideas.  I challenge them on it whenever I can.  If nothing else, it forces them to defend their beliefs.

The second post was from Hement, the “Friendly Atheist.”  It’s similar to the Balloon Juice post, but focuses on religion.  Why shouldn’t we argue with religious people and force them to defend their beliefs?   Again, letting ridiculous claims go unchallenged is dangerous.  Hemant uses the example of child vaccinations.  Of course we have to speak out against the anti-vaccination crowd, because their beliefs are irrational and dangerous.  Why shouldn’t we also speak out against irrational religious beliefs?  Religion is used to justify discrimination against women and gays.  It also provides cover for charismatic leaders who claim that they are “doing God’s will.”   If Sarah Palin truly believes that she is doing God’s work, then any crazy thing she says or does is justified.   Read Jon Krakauer’s  “Under the Banner of Heaven” for great examples what can happen when religious fervor goes unchecked.

Anyhow, read both posts.  They are well worth your time.