About Thinking

16

Think up a short list of the world’s biggest problems. Now identify the one that gets the least attention. My pick is weak skepticism, something that most people fail to consider. But this daily disaster punishes humankind with consistent severity while getting virtually no mention from popular culture. And it’s not only the weak skeptics who suffer. It’s a planet-wide plague that slows human progress. Regardless of status or location, you have a stake in this. A primary reason our species is far behind where it could be socially and technologically is because we invest so much time, effort and wealth into things that are almost certainly not real or true.

Weak skepticism goes unnoticed because it is so pervasive and has been a normal part of the landscape for so long. Some of it may seem harmless (14 percent of Americans think Bigfoot is out there somewhere). Some of it may frustrate science literates (Nearly half of American adults believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.) And some of it is just plain weird (several million Americans may believe that "lizard people" run the country). But it’s all symptomatic of a huge problem that costs us dearly. Take a close look and the scale comes into focus.

Even during economically challenging times humankind doesn’t flinch at squandering trillions of dollars on pseudoscience and superstition. Every day, unknown numbers of people in every society suffer because they trust medical quackery over evidence-based medicine. Some of them die.

Written By: Guy P. Harrison
continue to source article at psychologytoday.com

16 COMMENTS

  1. Part of the problem is it is now fairly easy to present nonsense with similar slickness to a $10,000,000 effort.

    Think back 200 years. A definitive tome had leather bindings, engravings, hand tints… These were markings of a serious effort. Today all DVDs look the same. They can be filled with CGI animation making creationism look plausible.

    Another part of the problem is we have so much corporate sponsorship of nonsense — phony cures, phony diets, phony exercise, phony political ideas, religions, cults, free energy, penis enlargement… who use the latest Madison avenue techniques including doctored photos and misleading wording.

    The local supermarket invents new ways to cheat every week: for example piling all manner of pizzas on a freezer shelf with a sign saying 4 for $10. But when you get to the checkout, you discover most of the pizza are $10. Only 1/8 of them got the sale price. Even when you confront them, they claim this is perfectly legitimate deception. Corporations no longer have any compunction about cheating customers, if they figure they can still make a profit from it.

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      The local supermarket invents new ways to cheat every week: for example piling all manner of pizzas on a freezer shelf with a sign saying 4 for $10. But when you get to the checkout, you discover most of the pizza are $10. Only 1/8 of them got the sale price. Even when you confront them, they claim this is perfectly legitimate deception.

      You need a new country. In the UK, if a sign advertises a product for a price, that is the price. If the shop refuses to sell for the advertised price they are breaking the law. I got a coat “cheap” once, because the shop had mislabelled it. I thought it was a bargain, but didn’t know the circumstances until after the purchase when I overheard the shop manager giving one of the assistants a bollocking for cocking up the labelling. Of course, most of the time there will be small print on the offer and most of the time the “mistake” is the shoppers for not reading the small print.

      • In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

        In reply to #1 by Roedy:

        In the UK, if a sign advertises a product for a price, that is the price. If the shop refuses to sell for the advertised price they are breaking the law. I got a coat “cheap” once, because the shop had mislabelled it. I thought it was a bargain, but didn’t know the circumstances until after the purchase when I overheard the shop manager giving one of the assistants a bollocking for cocking up the labelling. Of course, most of the time there will be small print on the offer and most of the time the “mistake” is the shoppers for not reading the small print.

        Sorry, that’s not true. A price label on something does not constitute a binding contract. In the case of your coat the retailer would have been within their legal rights to refuse to sell you the coat at the wrong price. That they did demonstrates that they wanted your custom and chose to let you buy the item as a show of goodwill.

  2. Lets start with the sceptical community. It still has the debate (or did have up to a year ago when I last looked) whether religion is a suitable subject for their debates. Ditto political allegiance. For some reason these are taken as “values” that must be accommodated. They are not of course though they will be founded upon simple character values and aesthetics which ARE mostly a given. (Empathic/systemising, loner/party person, smart/unsmart etc.) They (politics religion) are mostly an undifferentiated wodge of dogma that you have been assured by someone you admired in your teens that they were a finely woven fabric spun from some great authority/intellectuals yarn or other.

    Pathetic.

    Not pathetic, but indicative of how difficult it is to be truly and consistently sceptical, is ex-libertarian, ex-AGW denier Michael Shermer. If the very publisher of the premier sceptical magazine can fail to see the dogma he thoughtlessly spouted for decades, then what hope the rest of us?

    Well, when some scales fell from his eyes and he wrote about it in Scientific American (brave!) he helped the rest of us enormously. If we, who like to think of ourselves as sceptics, can admit that being sceptical is like being an alcoholic seeking sobriety, that the struggle is never over, then, perhaps, we can take better care of our out-of-control thinking habit.

    • In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

      Not pathetic, but indicative of how difficult it is to be truly and consistently sceptical, is ex-libertarian, ex-AGW denier Michael Shermer. If the very publisher of the premier sceptical magazine can fail to see the dogma he thoughtlessly spouted for decades, then what hope the rest of us?

      True. He certainly deserves credit. Confirmation bias is programmed so deep into our psychological makeup that my skepticism turns to cynicism in hoping it can get any better. But it is and all we can do is keep working at it.

  3. I absolutely agree with the author about how important skepticism is but I absolutely disagree with his approach to promoting it. The idea of casting skepticism and rationalism as some moral crusade twists one of the fundamental requirements for skepticism. When you start thinking in moralistic terms about an issue you stop considering all alternatives equally and you turn on the emotional parts of your brain and turn off the rational parts.

    One of the fundamental requirements for real skepticism, skepticism that actually deserves the name, is that we are * most skeptical of our own ideas* Articles like this set up a moral dichotomy where there are the good (non-skeptical) ideas and the bad ideas. And I maintain that drawing that line is not something that can easily be done. A lot of criticism of GMO’s is totally irrational. But not all of it. And if I hear someone say criticize Monsanto’s GMO’s that are engineered to a large extent to withstand and thus encourage massive use of Monsanto pesticides it’s wrong for me to just dismiss that as irrational and unscientific.

    The claims of people like Andrew Weil about alternative medicines are BS. But the criticism that people like Weil makes of the medical establishment and the lack of basic listening skills and empathy that are so wide spread with US doctors are at least to some extent valid IMO.

    All statements should be subject to skepticism, even those, especially those, that appeal to ideas and values that we already have and thinking about skepticism in moral terms will make that less likely.

    • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

      Articles like this set up a moral dichotomy where there are the good (non-skeptical) ideas and the bad ideas

      This could end up in some self-defeating tautology if you’re not careful. We could be skeptical of our own skepticism and fall into some Humean cynicism? We have to draw a line somewhere in our worldview. Calling skepticism a moral imperative is not outside the lines in my opinion. In fact I think it’s necessary. Yes the line can be blurry at times, but as you suggested we should always question ourselves and our motives, but in the end we have to make a decision based on our own faculties. If we don’t promote skepticism as a moral imperative, what else is the solution?

      Using your example I’ve evolved from being anti-GMO to swinging to the other side by criticizing all anti-GMOers as irrational conspiracy theorists to being more tepid in my criticism of them. It’s a natural process we all must go through. I couldn’t have done that if I don’t constantly question my beliefs and the motives behind them.

      • In reply to #6 by Skeptic:

        …promote skepticism as a moral imperative…

        Exactly so.

        I’ve evolved from being anti-GMO to swinging to the other side by criticizing all anti-GMOers as irrational conspiracy theorists to being more tepid in my criticism of them. It’s a natural process we all must go through.

        Ditto. The question is highly complex and lazy-brain us are keen for clarity and resolution (read, feet up, having a snooze.) Dogma, inadequately examined received “wisdom” that seems to “hit the spot”, uses so much less energy…

        One trick I have adopted is to publicise what may be biases I may have before making a comment. I wish this were something we were all encouraged to do. Its a good discipline to remember where our biases may lie and it may help others to help us. A great article I can no longer find in New Scientist reported a problem solving test with groups of people, working alone and together. Group efforts were no more productive than combined singular efforts until the individuals were encouraged to report as honestly as they could how certain they were of their own contributions. Then group achievement exceeded the sum of the individual achievements. All opinions/knowledge could help if the suppliers were honest about what they thought of its reliability. (Secretly we know whether its strong or weak. Everyone claims strong to gain kudos and position. Identifying with group achievements can fix this.)

  4. Think up a short list of the world’s biggest problems.

    Here’s a visualization of causes of death in the 20th century. Take your pick, but based on what kills the most people, and assuming some degree of extrapolation over into our time, I’d say disease.

    This article starts off promisingly, but I confess to feeling a touch disappointed by how it becomes polemic as it proceeds. As willing as I am to encourage sceptical inquiry, an appreciation for rationality, and epistemological precision, I’m not exactly convinced it’s a widespread enough problem to be considered a “crisis”. The Third World’s relatively impoverished economic state and lack of welfare constitute a crisis, as does the impending cost of global warming and continued industrial pollution, and as indicated above, disease alone makes up a massive list of crises all by itself. While I can appreciate a hypothetical causal link between a culturally encouraged gullibility and societal problems, where’s the assurance that this is anything but speculation?

    • In reply to #7 by Zeuglodon:

      where’s the assurance that this is anything but speculation?

      None yet. And nicely sceptical if I may say so.

      I’m guessing the thinking behind this (which is reasonably fresh) is that whilst the standard answer Is usually given as disease, someone usually responds, no the real problem is the political will that can greatly ameliorate this with the provision of adequate healthcare, food, clean water etc. etc. But this latest proposal is perhaps that the lack of political will stems from an under-aware, under-engaged, voting public that in theory, at least, should be the source of that political will, politicians responding to the wishes of a voting public.

      Its a somewhat truncated piece.

      Can’t go back further than that…..I don’t think.

      • In reply to #9 by phil rimmer:

        In reply to #10 by Skeptic:

        That’s fair enough, but my point is that I suspect the OP overexaggerates the prevalence of, and harm caused by, superstitious or uncritical thinking. Even superstitious people aren’t superstitious all the time. For instance, while I agree that denial of global warming is a factor in the global slowness to respond adequately to it, I’m not convinced that dictatorships in African nations are down to gullibility so much as to straightforward conflict and force. It might be the case that simply offering international aid to rebel factions and unseating dictators would be a better policy than trying to teach the citizens critical thinking skills.

    • In reply to #7 by Zeuglodon:

      The Third World’s relatively impoverished economic state and lack of welfare constitute a crisis, as does the impending cost of global warming and continued industrial pollution, and as indicated above, disease alone makes up a massive list of crises all by itself.

      Isn’t this your rational, skeptical eye that’s able to view this as a critical reality that needs to be addressed? It’s a foundational premise that leads to accurately identifying and finding solutions to the real problems.

  5. There is a tendency for example to dismiss anyone who fails to swallow the Bush version of 9/11, just on the general principle that people who distrust the government are nuts, without examining any evidence. Ditto GMO, vaccines, high voltage lines, pesticides, fish quotas…

    To have an informed opinion, you need more evidence than which side the government supports. If you are unwilling to do that, you probably should not publicly express an opinion.

  6. Zeuglodon wrote: Think up a short list of the world’s biggest problems.
    Here’s a visualization of causes of death in the 20th century. Take your pick, but based on what kills the most people, and assuming some degree of extrapolation over into our time, I’d say disease.

    I would disagree; the biggest killer is conception, and after that actually living. If something hasn’t been conceived in the first place, it cannot die or be killed. Once having survived conception, an eventual death is inevitable..jcw

    • In reply to #12 by kaiserkriss:

      I would disagree; the biggest killer is conception, and after that actually living. If something hasn’t been conceived in the first place, it cannot die or be killed. Once having survived conception, an eventual death is inevitable..jcw

      Er, no. Living is a necessary precondition to death, but it would be fallacious to call it a cause of death because preconditions are not identical to causes. Electric wiring is a precondition to having a working TV, but you’ve avoided explaining a thing if you cite that as a “cause” for its failing to work. In any case, your comment contributes nothing to the discussion.

      AKA That was a pointless post, and you know it.

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