“Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically – without learning how, or without practicing.” ~ Alfred Mander, Logic for the Millions, 1947
First off, let me apologize for being such a slacker lately. I want to continue the blog, but I think this old baby needs an overhaul; a shift of focus, if you will.
Frankly, I’m tired of beating my head against the political wall, and as I alluded to a few posts back, I think our problems as a nation, and even as a species, have at its root the inability of vast swaths of us to separate fact from fiction and to make decisions based on sound evidence, reason, and critical thought.
1. willing to believe or trust too readily, especially without proper or adequate evidence; gullible.
2. marked by or arising from credulity: a credulous rumor.
We humans are a credulous lot. And it may very well mean the end of us. Or at the very least, lead us to a life that will be “less than.”
Less than what it was before. Less than what it could be.
William K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, 1877:
It is not only the leader of men, statesmen, philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe.
It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong. To know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We feel much happier and more secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. And if we have supposed ourselves to know all about anything, and to be capable of doing what is fit in regard to it, we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to begin again at the beginning, and try to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with—if indeed anything can be learnt about it. It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.
Richard Dawkins echoes this sentiment in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. He writes in Chapter 6, Hoodwink’d with Faery Fancy:
My contention is that trusting credulity may be normal and healthy in a child but it can become and unhealthy and reprehensible gullibility in an adult. Growing up, in the fullest sense of the word, should include the cultivation of a healthy sceptism. An active readiness to be deceived can be called childish because it is common – and defensible – among children. I suspect that its persistence in adults stems from a hankering after, indeed a pining for, the lost securities and comforts of childhood.
[ . . . ]
In childhood our credulity serves us well. It helps us to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors. But if we don’t grow out of it in the fullness of time, our caterpillar nature makes us a sitting target for astrologers, mediums, gurus, evangelists and quacks.
I would add to that list: politicians and anyone else trying to manipulate our actions for their benefit.
It may be easier to blindly believe, but it doesn’t serve us. Further, it doesn’t serve our community, our country, or the future of our species. If we allow ourselves and others to engage in sloppy reasoning, how can we know that the information given us is valid? Moreover, how can our neighbor or friend trust anything we insist is true if we are squishy in our rigor elsewhere, whether it is because we think a particular belief is not of any consequence or because, and this is worse, that belief fits in with our world view?
Michael Shermer explains the various ways we strengthen our beliefs in his July 2011 Scientific American article, The Believing Brain: Why Science Is the Only Way Out of Belief-Dependent Realism:
Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive biases that distort our percepts to fit belief concepts. Among them are:
Anchoring Bias. Relying too heavily on one reference anchor or piece of information when making decisions.
Authority Bias. Valuing the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about.
Belief Bias. Evaluating the strength of an argument based on the believability of its conclusion.
Confirmation Bias. Seeking and finding confirming evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignoring or reinterpreting disconfirming evidence.
On top of all these biases, there is the in-group bias, in which we place more value on the beliefs of those whom we perceive to be fellow members of our group and less on the beliefs of those from different groups. This is a result of our evolved tribal brains leading us not only to place such value judgment on beliefs but also to demonize and dismiss them as nonsense or evil, or both.
Belief-dependent realism is driven even deeper by a meta-bias called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs. Even scientists are not immune, subject to experimenter-expectation bias, or the tendency for observers to notice, select and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment and to ignore, discard or disbelieve data that do not.
We all do it. We all have our blind spots. The solution is being able to acknowledge this fact and to develop tools for mitigating this very human tendency.
William Clifford again:
Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent. [ . . . ] if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
The harm which is done by credulity in a man is not confined to the fostering of a credulous character in others, and consequent support of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak the truth to one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other’s mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe things because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant? Will he not learn to cry, “Peace,” to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive.The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if he should become even as they are. So closely are our duties knit together, that whoso shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
(Blue Lyon note: I have only pulled a couple of snippets from the ten-page essay. I highly recommend that you read the entire piece.)
I’ve never been one much for merely standing on the sidelines and yelling “You’re doing it wrong!!” If I see a problem, I want to be part of the solution. If the country suffers from a dearth of critical thinking, what can I do to (A) make sure I learn those skills for myself and (B) encourage other people to desire (and learn) to be critical thinkers too? And we all need to be critical thinkers. But I’m fifty-five years old. If my genes hold out the way the rest of my family’s has, I may have another 30 years or so on this blue orb. And time’s a wastin’.
Surely, it is of the utmost importance that we teach our children how to think critically, but not in a way that bores the shit out of them. Should I try to become a teacher? The thought appeals to me, but given the time commitment required to get a teaching credential, not to mention the money, I’m not so sure that’s the best option for me. Still, I’m dipping my toe in up at UNR and we’ll see if that leads anywhere.
In the meantime, what about us grown-ups? We are the ones making decisions and purchases based on information we are fed by those whose motivations may or may not be suspect. We are the ones falling hook, line, and sinker for all manner of pseudoscience, quack medicine and self-serving politicians.
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” – Carl Sagan
We can figure out when we’re being bamboozled. We can learn to identify an claim that is made using faulty reasoning. We can learn not only that statistics can be manipulated, but how.
In other words, we can start using what Carl Sagan called the Baloney Detection Kit.
We can learn to apply critical thinking if we want to. The question is, do we? Are we willing to give up some of our sacred cows for a clearer vision of the world?
I know I am. In the days and months ahead, I hope to provide more content relative to this goal. I hope you will find it of use.