Archive for the ‘Critical Thinking’ Category
(This article first appeared in slightly different form on the SWIFT blog of the James Randi Education Foundation.)
Opportunities to expose people to critical thinking occur frequently. Last week I received one of those emails we all get on occasion, one that had been forwarded several times, each time with a dozen or so addressees. The oldest email in the chain was dated November 16, but referred to an event that occurred mid September, 2009. I’ve posted it below, with the copy exactly as it appeared:
I hope this makes it to every person in Texas….we need to shut this store down FOR GOOD!!
Today I went to the Harwin Central Mall to pick up some crystals. The very first store that you come to when you walk from the lobby of the building into the shopping area had this sign posted on their door. The shop is run by Muslims. I couldn’t stay in the building, it made me so sick.
Feel free to share this with others.
Imam Ali flew one of the planes into the twin towers. Nice huh?
The first thing I did when receiving this was to Google for a list of the 9-11 hijackers, which I easily found on several sites, including an FBI press release. Of course, Imam Ali was not on the list. Since I’m a bit of a history buff (although by no means an expert), I knew that “Imam Ali (A.S.)” was the assassinated fourth Caliph, and the son-in-law of Mohammed. Disputes regarding the successors to Mohammed and Ali’s murder contributed to the conflicts that led to the split of Islam between the Sunni and Shia sects.
Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the anniversaries change dates as related to the Western calendar, and this year the anniversary of his murder happened to fall on September 11. This is a holy date to the Shia community, and each year millions gather to mourn and commemorate. This is a religious event, but it is also important historically.
I’m not a fan of any religion. However, I am against discrimination, stereotypes, ignorance of history, and a failure to check out facts. The news story was carried on Houston affiliates, such as the local ABC station, who covered the story : “The sign was posted on a store…What it said caused so much controversy it’s been blogged about on the Internet and store managers have been threatened and harassed.” (Emphasis added). Other news articles, referred to angry Internet bloggers, but also people who expressed apologies for overreacting without knowing the facts.
Those reactions, and the threats received by the store owners, were based on ignorance. Most Westerners have little or no knowledge of world history in anything but general terms, and that tends to be dominated by northern European or western hemisphere political events. History about religions is not typically addressed. Like everyone, I also get many emails forwarded to me that contain warnings, urban legends, and other false information that can usually be quickly verified by checking on online – in fact, Snopes covered this within days. Warning someone about flesh-eating bacteria on banana peels probably doesn’t cause anyone harm, but threats to boycott and false information that leads someone to be threatened or abused, can cause injury.
The store owner, Imran Chunawala, closes his shop every year for this anniversary, and was surprised by the reaction. When informed about the controversy regarding the date, he issued an apology and posted a new sign explaining who Imam Ali was, and the coincidence on it occurring on September 11 this year. (Note: The Christian holiday of Easter is also based in part on a lunar calendar, which is why it falls on a different date each year.)
The brouhaha was based on a misunderstanding, which has been cleared up, at least locally. However, the email came from a friend in another part of the state, two months after the incident. When I received it, I wrote a “reply all” to my friend, explaining the significance of the date, asked her to not forward it again and to send my note back to the person from whom she had received the email. Reactions were mixed. From her, a reply that ‘how could she possibly know about Imam Ali’ and from one other person, a thank you. I wonder how long that email will be passed along without being critically reviewed, researched, or even questioned, and what continued anger it may generate.
A friend recently asked my opinion on the existence of ‘absolute truth’. By the term ‘absolute truth’ I’m assuming we mean things which are objectively true, independently of our perception or ideas about them. In looking at the question, “is there absolute truth?” I’d begin by imagining just what it would mean were we to answer “no” as do the philosophical postmodernists. Does that mean that reality is determined by our minds? In other words, the closet has nothing in it until I open the door (that is a literal example by the way – not metaphorical!). Another example would be to say that germs really were not the cause of disease until we looked for them, at which point the universe changed. In such a world, it would be hard to imagine how the consistency we see in our observations maintains itself. But even if we were to imagine it does so because we are all truly of one mind, or some other explanation, it still doesn’t get us out of the predicament that to suggest this sort of illusory universe is an extraordinary claim for which we have no evidence.
Another possibility might be that the universe exists objectively and independently of our minds and perception, yet it is in a constant state of flux, meaning any ‘truth’ we establish changes from moment to moment. While it’s true that all things are in flux (even the laws of physics ‘evolved’ in some sense as the universe expanded), we can phrase certain statements more completely to account for that.
So, it’s really difficult to imagine a sound alternative to their being an absolute truth. Even in cases where our fanciful imaginations can pull off some illustriously self-consistent mental model whereby there would be no absolute truth, it inevitably fails the test of Occam’s Razor. Therefore, I’d have to go with there being an absolute truth. As strong supporters of science and the scientific method (which presumes an independently existing reality to even operate), Humanists are not postmodernist – they are modernists. There have, in fact, been several articles in prominent Humanist magazines criticizing the postmodern-left and their critique of science.
How do you define what is meant by ‘absolute truth’? It means the same thing a six year old imagines when you talk about what is true and what is false. It’s quite simple: there is one reality that is ‘just so’. If your statement is consistent with that reality, it is True. If it is not consistent with reality, the statement is False.
But here is the problem / error / issue / important point:
People often confuse this with the separate matter of whether or not we can know what those absolute truths are with complete certainty. In his book Natural Atheism, David Eller ludicrously defines “knowledge”. He has a very over-exaggerated certainty with regard to what he calls ‘facts’. Eller imagines that if we use correct ‘reason’ and our information is correct, that we will then be able to arrive at ‘facts’ which we can know are True, and this knowledge can be distinguished from ‘opinions’ or ‘beliefs’.
In my view (and in the traditional view) all of our thoughts on what is so are belief. ‘Knowledge’ is justified, true belief. Beliefs can be sound or unsound, rational or irrational, based on solid grounds or flimsy grounds, justified or unjustified, true or false. In these things, you have deductive matters and inductive matters. In deductive matters, when our logic is sound and if our premises true, then we can know with certainty that our conclusion must be true – but this doesn’t get us very far in practical terms. The problem is that we often don’t know for certain whether our premises are true. Furthermore, if we are making a mistake in our logic (especially for highly complex matters), we would not realize it. So, in any given case it is always possible we are wrong. As for inductive matters that is even worse because inductive logic, by its very nature, does not result in infallible statements. Most of the really important and useful thinking we have to do involves induction and in these cases, it is possible to have correct premises, perfect logic, make no mistakes, and yet still be wrong.
So… there almost certainly is a single absolute objective Truth, but we can only know that Truth subjectively. There is always the possibility we are wrong. This is why we must build in certain safeguards to our conclusion-making – both in our daily lives and in science so as to minimize our errors as much as possible. In science these things are formalized into practices and policies. They include things like: requiring confirmation from others through independent peer review and experiment, presentation of all methods and showing one’s work, the aforementioned Occam’s Razor, and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This is an imperfect and ongoing practice, but the only way we can be humble about our limited ability to know.
What about absolute truth in ethics? While many of my Humanist friends disagree, I believe even in ethics there is Truth. Even in a universe where reality ultimately boils down to nothing but “atoms and the void”, I believe the answers to ethical questions are objective and independent of our ideas, opinions, or beliefs about them. Whenever we answer an ethical question, we are either objectively correct or incorrect in that answer, just as if I had said that 2+2=5. Knowing that ethical Truth is another matter and something I plan to go into more in the future.
Thanks for reading!
Skepchick blogger and Houston Skeptic Society co-organizer Sam Ogden recently sat down with Dr. Eugenie Scott last month when she was in town to lecture at the Houston Natural Science Museum. Society member Chris of Dropframe Video (email@example.com) did a fantastic job of capturing and editing the interview, which is presented on You-tube. Part one of the series can be found here, from where you can link to the subsequent parts to allow for easier uploading. Enjoy!
Below is an adaptation of a talk I gave as part of a panel at DragonCon, called “How to Combat Woo”. My fellow panelists included Phil Plait, PhD, also known as the Bad Astronomer, D.J. Groethe of the Center of Skeptical Inquiry and host of the podcast “Point of Inquiry”, Jeff Wagg, Communications and Outreach Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Maria Walters, founder of the Atlanta Skeptic Society and columnist on the Skepchick.org blog.
My son attended the Naval nuclear power school a few years ago, including a crash course in chemistry, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, other subjects needed to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant. The students tend to be top achievers, interested in science and math, and would frequently ask for the theory. They wanted to know WHY not just how. The instructors would answer “this is outside the scope of this course, please just accept this so we can move on.” So my son and his classmates drew large black dots on the backs of their calculators, with Sharpies. When they were told to accept information for the sake of expediency, they’d ‘push’ this button and say “I believe.”
I told you that story so I can tell you this story. All of us have a button labeled “I believe” that we push. The button may be as simple as “I believe that my spouse loves me.” Or “education is a positive thing for society.” But most people of the world have other buttons that they push. I believe in magic, ghosts, witches, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, conspiracy theories, or one of a hundred versions of a god. And that button might as well be drawn in Sharpie, because it doesn’t work anymore, it is ALWAYS pushed.
I’m an engineer by training, and like to draw diagrams and pictures. I can’t think without a pencil or marker in my hand. If you’re like me, you think that if you can just explain something, a scientific topic for example, clearly enough, that your audience will nod their heads and say ‘oh, yes, now I see! You’re right, and I will adjust my thinking.”
The problem with those buttons that are painted on, they have to wear off. We, as skeptics, want to slice right through the armor that believers have plated up around themselves, which have built up by custom, upbringing, anecdotes, personal experiences, fuzzy thinking, and from lack of exposure to the scientific method.
It took me almost three years to get my own mother to check Snopes before she forwarded emails to me. I’m her daughter, you think she would trust me, but I still have to carefully work with her on issues with her health. Just this week, she told me, rather reluctantly, that she had gone to a chiropractor for some lower back pain, because ‘she was desperate”. This, from a woman with chronic kidney disease that reads my blog posts. I had to persuade my aunt to throw away her bowel cleansing kits and pills to ‘improve her liver function” even though she couldn’t tell me what her liver function was supposed to be functioning as. But, now they check Snopes, and were at least embarrassed to tell me about the chiropractor. These are intelligent women, but they have been told their entire life that these things work.
And, indeed, they DO feel better after a visit to the chiropractor. It’s a bit harder to explain the concept of ‘regression to a mean’ to them. But I could not do it AT ALL with a single clear, simple, unemotional explanation.
Rather than creating the Grand Canyon in a 40-day flood, presenting skepticism to those with a painted-on “I Believe” button is more a process of rain beating the mountains down into the ocean, of the weeds splitting the foundations. It is slow, it is one-on-one, and it can be frustrating. However, this is how we teach, one person at a time.
(This is a brief overview of the manufacture of paper and of plastic, and is not intended to be comprehensive, or a chemistry class.)
How do you answer? If you give what you think is the ‘correct’ answer, you say ‘paper’ or you’ve brought your own bags. Let’s examine that choice.
The paper bags used in grocery stores begin in the forest, with the timber industry. Even though trees are a renewable source, there is more to producing new paper than planting new trees. The paper industry is one of the dirtiest industries around. The chemicals used in the paper pulp process include sulfur, bleaches, and acids. The process uses huge quantities of water, which must be treated and cleaned, a process which also uses chemicals. According to a representative of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, paper manufacturing also receives a larger number of complaints than refineries on ‘nuisance odors ‘ which is a term meaning that the facilities emit very strong, disagreeable odors, as unpleasant to live near as a feedlot. Processing facilities must control odors to the same extent that they must control pollutant emissions. Odor is a non-trivial pollution problem.
Paper has a limited ability to be recycled. On each trip through recycling, paper must be chopped and shredded, which shortens the fiber length. Eventually, the fibers become too small to use and must be discarded into landfill, as do many of the manufacturing byproducts from paper manufacture.
What about plastic? Grocery stores bags are made of polyethylene, which begins as the ethane component of natural gas. The primary emission from polyethylene manufacture is from natural-gas fired heaters, which supply heat or steam for the process. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel, and natural gas wells are clean and low-profile – a valve sticking up out of the ground as opposed to the ‘pumping units’ associated with oil wells. The conversion of ethane into polyethylene is close to 99% efficient. The feedstocks for ethylene are basically ethane – clean and odorless, and steam. Additionally, polyethylene can be recycled almost infinitely. Even though the molecular weight of the polymer chains will change with recycling, it’s still plastic and can be reused. It is also inert- in some locations, polyethylene has been chopped into sand-sized bits and incorporated into heavy clay soils, to lighten them as you would do with sand.
The manufacture of polyethylene requires about 6% of the water that paper manufacture requires. As our population grows and the supply of fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, industrial usage of water becomes an important consideration in the chain.
Transportation adds more cost to the paper product than to plastic. Paper is heavier, so trucking costs, for a given ‘carrying capacity’ of the bag, are higher, as is the amount of pollution from the gasoline needed to transport the denser product.
Frequently, the public’s attitudes and beliefs about environmental consequences of our choices are shaped by sound bites and pictures from the media. Pictures of sea turtles with a plastic grocery bag stuffed into their throat, or a sea mammal with a set of six-pack rings caught around its head, are moving and emotional. These items do end up in the oceans, due to sloppy handling. However, legible newspapers from 70 years ago have also been mined from landfills. Searches on the EPA’s website will turn up studies showing that the TOTAL environmental impact from the manufacture and long-term landfill storage of paper bags exceeds that of plastic bags – from the mining of the raw materials (trees or natural gas), through manufacture including energy requirements, pollutants, water use, and hazardous wastes, to the volume of a bag in the landfill.
As skeptics, we must look at the entire picture. The issue is more complicated than I can discuss in a short blog post, but critical thinking skills can be used on these issues just as readily as they can on issues of quackery and pseudoscience. I posted this article in a slightly different format on a well-known skeptic website a few months ago, and was attacked for either being a shill for Al Gore or a shill for Big Oil. I’m not sure how I can be both at the same time, but it shows the knee-jerk reaction of people on hot-button issues. Although most people wanted to disagree with my statement that plastic is a better choice (as compared to paper), the only evidence given was that sometimes “bags end up in the ocean and get caught on bird beaks or swallowed by whales”. This is true, but the answer is not to ban plastic over paper, but to handle any bag properly through reuse, recycling, and proper disposal.
The option with the least environmental impact is to carry reusable shopping bags, or carry personal bags. However, if you are faced with a choice between paper or plastic, plastic is the environmentally responsible decision.
While not having achieved nearly the same degree of irrational thinking as Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccine brigade, SNL alumnus Dan Aykroyd has in the past few years surfaced as a UFO conspiracy theorist. I stumbled on this video of Aykroyd taken from an April 9th promotion of his Crystal Head vodka in Morris County, New Jersey, home of a recent high profile UFO hoax. In it he commits a few errors in thinking.
“Well I’ve seen two of them. They were flying end to end, wing to wing, at about 100,ooo feet doing about 20,oo0 miles per hour, zig zagging through the sky and meteoric bolides don’t do that. I’ve had unsolicited in seven states that I’ve been through at least twenty people come up and privately tell me their experiences. And they didn’t seem crazy to me.”
Aykroyd considers his own personal anecdotal experience to be valid evidence. Sometimes personal observances of unusual phenomena are helpful, but rarely in cases of unusual occurences such as UFO sightings. They invariably prove to be innaccurate. Steve Novella sums this up well:
“Sometimes people do report details, like windows or fins. They also report objects moving at fantastic speeds or carrying out seemingly impossible maneuvers. However, when viewing an object against the sky, without a clear background for reference, it is impossible to estimate size, distance, and speed, and we are subject to optical illusions. Such details are therefore not reliable, and there are numerous cases when they are demonstrably wrong.”
Meteoric bolides don’t do that, as Aykroyd correctly points out, but because of the weaknesses inherent in human neurology, he can’t really say for certain that what claims to remember is what really happened. We would have to know more to the story but I think that if there were a series of pictures or a video of the sighting it would have made the rounds by now. At best, all Aykroyd can claim is that he saw something which he could not identify. In reality, this could have been any of a large number of objects, including an alien piloted spacecraft, but it is a rather closed-minded argument from ignorance to assume that it is a visitor from another galaxy.
Many people who would not be deemed crazy, to use Aykroyd’s word, by most folks have reported UFO sightings. But even if these reports numbered in the millions it would still not serve as proof that alien beings are making pitstops here on earth. The plural of anecdote, as they say, is anecdotes not evidence. Even the most skilled observers have been fooled by ordinary objects. And all of us have had even so-called flashbulb memories become warped over time.
I hope Aykroyd does well in the vodka business, at least better than in his movie career since the 80’s. Regardless, as one woman in the video exclaims, proving there are some decent skeptics in New Jersey, “I’d physically have to see the little guys running around in front of me before I’d believe it.” While not completely accurate, as I’d settle for less than that, such as a few unambiguous photo series or videos that don’t fall apart under scientific investigation, her statement exemplify the classic skeptical adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.