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.

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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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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