Tag Archives: critical thinking

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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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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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli

The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Smoking = Stupidity

Effects of smoking
I don’t know how to sugar coat this in some politically-correct, sensitive, caring way that doesn’t overtly offend anyone, but if you haven’t already figured this out by now, here it is: smoking is stupid. Really stupid.

Even worse, smoking makes you even more stupid while you do it:

Researchers tested the IQs of more than 20,000 healthy men between the ages of 18 and 21 who were either serving in the Israeli military or who had recently completed their service. Twenty-eight percent of the men in the sample smoked, while 3 percent were former smokers and 68 percent had never smoked. The average IQ of the smokers was 94, compared with 101 among the non-smokers. Men who smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day had an average IQ of 90. Although a normal IQ falls between 84 and 116, the difference observed in the study is still considered significant.

And if you’re a heavy smoker and heavy drinker, your IQ plummets to the point you’re going to find yourself watching Fox ‘News’ and thinking it was time to give Sarah Palin another chance. Or even Stephen Harper, if you’re binge drinking.*

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