Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Something egregiously lacking in most of today’s online crowd. There’s too much gullibility, superstition, pseudoscience and plain twaddle online, but a lot of people accept it ass gospel.

The Responsibility of Free Speech


The stages of argumentIn January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.

I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:

People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.

Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.

Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.

As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:

Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.

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Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion


A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.

First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief,  although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.

I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?

For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.

Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:

…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

Dictionary.com adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:

…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:

…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.

Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.

It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns


Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Extraordinary Claims


Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Conrad Black: Off the Rails


Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

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Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth


LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

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It’s Official: Homeopathy is Bunk


Still Bullshit
“Homeopathy not effective for treating any condition, Australian report finds,” reads a headline in The Guardian this week. Well, that’s hardly news. But it repeats saying anyway. It’s a story about the latest in a series of studies that again and again debunk homeopathy as a treatment and conclude it is useless.

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) “…thoroughly reviewed 225 research papers on homeopathy to come up with its position statement,” the paper reported.

And on Gizmodo they said:

An analysis of over 225 medical studies and 1,800 scientific papers has found that homeopathy is ineffective as a health treatment. Its authors urge that “people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments.”

The scientists waded through a total of 1,800 reports; but only found 225 were actually controlled studies that lived up to the rigorous scientific standards required to make any claims of benefit stand up. So if any of them concluded homeopathy wasn’t bunk, it was because they failed the basic test for scientific rigour.

As The Smithsonian reported:

After assessing more than 1,800 studies on homeopathy, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council was only able to find 225 that were rigorous enough to analyze. And a systematic review of these studies revealed “no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions.”

Homeopathy is called an “alternative medicine” – which is bafflegab for claptrap. There is medicine or alternatives, and they don’t meet in the middle. It’s up there with the likes of iridology, reflexology, reiki, aromatherapy, healing crystals, naturopathy and magic incantations for utter medical buffoonery.

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