Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dangerous Ideas

by Jamie Hale

What is Your Dangerous Idea (Brockman 2007) takes a look at some of the world’s leading thinkers and their most dangerous ideas. Some of the ideas in the book include:

Keith Devlin’s idea we are entirely alone

Devlin suggests there is no higher being and no higher purpose to our lives. Devlin does not see this as a bad thing. He believes the opposite. “The fact that our existence has no purpose outside that existence is completely irrelevant to the way we live our lives, since we are inside our existence. The fact that our existence has no purpose for the universe- whatever that means- in no way means that it has no purpose for us.” I have heard the argument many times if there is nothing else what purpose do we have none. My purpose is to have a happy life and enjoy time with my loved ones. Whether my mark on the universe is significant makes no difference as far as my personal happiness is concerned. I think spending too much time trying to figure out if there is something more de-values the time you have on earth. What is wrong with living your life for you?

Marc D. Hauser’s idea it appears that a wide variety of moral judgments are immune to cultural and demographic variation, including religious background.

Hauser further expands on his idea by saying “Controlling for age, people with only a high school education are no different from people with advanced degrees when it comes to judging the permissibility of harming another person in certain contexts. People with religious backgrounds are no different in this regard from atheists and agnostics.” There are religious people that have high moral standards and there are non-religious people who have high moral standards (depending on how you define moral standards). Classifying people’s morality based on non-religious or religious belief is a logical fallacy (Hasty Generalization). Moral standards are based on the teachings in the bible is common fallacy. Basing moral standards by cherry-picking passages from the bible may give us some moral guidance but the bible as a whole is full of horrible acts.

Bertrand Russell’s idea that it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.

This seems so obvious why should it have to be said. There are many people that believe things with absolutely no valid reason to believe. How many times have you heard just have faith in other words just believe? The essence of faith is believing something in the absence of evidence.

Jordan Pollack’s idea it is a very dangerous idea to consider science as just another religion

Pollack makes it clear this is not his idea but and idea held by some. This is a completely ridiculous statement often perpetuated by religious fanatics. Yet, the differences between religion and science are astounding. I have addressed this numerous times in past articles but to summarize science is evidence based and can actually be tested while religion is faith based and cannot be tested (religion is not science or similar to science in any way shape or form).

Judith Harris’s idea parents have no power at all to shape their child’s personality, intelligence, or the way he or she behaves outside the family home?

Harris says there is no solid evidence that indicates parents shape their children. She doesn’t see this as a bad thing. She says if people accepted these things it would get easier for children and parents. Parents would stop worrying so much about if they are doing the right thing when it comes to raising kids. Kids would appreciate praise more if it weren’t handed out in abundance. I think some kids are influenced by their parents while others seem to be affected very little. I can think of a few instances where parents provided their kids with bundles of attention and love but the kid grew up to be a menace to society. I am also aware of a couple of cases where the parents done a horrible job (in accordance to general standards) parenting but the kids turned out ok.

Matt Ridley’s idea the more we limit growth of government, the better of we will all be.
Ridley says, “In every age and at every time, there have been people who say wee need more regulation, more government. Sometimes they say we need it to protect exchange from corruption, to set the standards and police the rules – in which case they have a point, though often they exaggerate it.” I think in most cases the people that insist more government is needed have a vested interest. Ridely is not suggesting we abolish government but limiting its growth would be a good idea.

Roger Schank’s idea is school is bad for kids

I found Schank’s idea to be the most interesting in the book. I have held this idea for many years. I worked at a junior high school briefly and seen firsthand how disgusted and bored most kids were at school. I think most of them felt the same way I did when I was in school (bored, frustrated, and sleepy). Almost every kid I talk to hates school. Does that make it bad? That’s only part of what makes it bad. Other problems include the curriculum, the methods of testing, over emphasis on rote learning (memorization), unilateral paths of knowledge, under-emphasis on skepticism, grade inflation, compulsory attendance, social pressures, favoritism etc. Schank says, “ Schools should simply cease to exist as we know them. The government needs to get out of the education business and stop thinking that it knows what children should know and then test them constantly to see if they regurgitate whatever they have just been spoon-fed. The government is an always has been the problem in education.” Schank promotes the idea that learning should be guided by passion. Schank’s idea should be a wake up call to you if you are not aware of the state of formal education. Another thing to keep in mind is the common misuse of the word education. Formal Education is often nothing more than a business and it should not be mistakenly considered the only type of education. I would bet that almost anyone that has a wealth of knowledge in their respected field gained most of that knowledge on their own. In fact, even while in school you generally don’t learn in the classroom (if you learn). You simply take directions on what you need to learn out of the classroom (learn studying at home, library etc.). Ralph Waldo Emerson put it like this “We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a belly full of words and do not know a thing.”

Leo Chalupa’s idea what’s needed to attain optimal brain performance- with or without brain exercise- is a twenty-four-hour period of absolute solitude.

This means no writing, reading, phone, watching TV, music or any verbal interactions of any with another human. I tried this but I didn’t make it. I kept thinking about things I needed to write. At around the 16th hour I started writing.

You can check out ideas of some of the World’s leading thinkers at www.edge.org

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Good Thinking Goes Bad (Interview)

by Jamie Hale

The following interview was conducted with Todd Riniolo the author of When Good Thinking Goes Bad. Be sure to check out the podcast mentioned at the end of the interview. Good stuff.

Let’s talk about your book When Good Thinking Goes Bad. According to Michael Shermer it’s the perfect primer on critical thinking. What makes it the perfect primer on critical thinking?

I believe it’s a good primer for several reasons. First, the book emphasizes some of the hallmarks of critically evaluating claims in a reader friendly format that should be particularly useful for those who are being exposed to the process of skepticism for the first time. Second, the book also demonstrates how all of us, even when we know how to think critically, will in some instances abandon our skepticism making us more likely to accept foolish beliefs. Lastly, the book was written with students in mind. In fact, I use the book as one of several when teaching a course on skeptical thinking as it relates to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

Why is critical thinking so demphasized in our society?

Perhaps because critical thinking takes work. It is much easier in some instances to simply accept information for a variety of reasons. For example, we often do not have the time or motivation to question many claims; especially those that we already believe are true.

Do you feel that formal education programs generally do a good job of teaching critical thinking?

The best teachers are those that teach students the process of critical evaluation, which then allows the student to make up their own mind. Unfortunately, in many instances students are simply told what they should think. Critical thinking is a process, and often times this important element is overlooked.

What is the typical systematic progression in evaluating a claim? Let’s say we want to investigate the global warning crisis. At least some would have us believe crisis.

For any claim, whether it is global warming or psychic claims, the hallmarks of skepticism should be followed. Thus, we must demand evidence and rigorously evaluate the provided evidence. We must seek out expert opinion and employ the proper research methods when appropriate (i.e., double-blind procedures). We must interpret findings with the law of parsimony, and be wary of second hand sources, and so forth. Unfortunately, all of us do not apply the standards of skepticism consistently across claims (we are much more likely to apply the methods of skepticism to claims that we do not believe, while not giving those things we already believe a “free pass”). I point this out in my book by attempting to make a comparison between psychic claims and claims for global warming. This chapter seems to have upset some readers, but the intent was to demonstrate that we are all inconsistent with our skepticism.

Do you think critical thinking comes more naturally to some than others? Or is critical thinking more influenced by nurture?

The old nature versus nurture debate is one in which I can only offer my opinion, so take it for what it is worth. I assume that both nature and nurture play a role. Think about Tiger Woods for a moment. He was born with a predisposition towards a specific skill (i.e., golf). Yet, in order to maximize his potential, he needed to practice, practice, practice. It likely is the same with thinking skills. You have genetic range, which is then influenced by the environmental input.

I heard an interview with you on Point of Inquiry and you pointed out that Santa Claus was a good subject to use when exploring the critical thinking process. Please explain?

Many skeptics over the years have made a variation of the following argument: It’s no wonder that so many people are gullible since we teach our kids about Santa. I find this argument, linking Santa to widespread noncritical thinking in our society problematic on many levels (you’ll have to read the book for more details). Perhaps most disappointing from the skeptics who make this argument is that they provide no evidence (i.e., a peer-reviewed article) and appear to be misinformed about magical thinking in children (yes, there is a literature on this topic!). However, back to the specific question. Many skeptics, such as Carl Sagan, have recommended applied exercises to teach critical thinking. Allowing children to skeptically evaluate the Santa claim on their own, which most eventually do accomplishes that goal. Thus, a long-standing, highly cherished belief (as a kid, who doesn’t want Santa to be real?) starts to become questioned. In fact, most children start to ask critical questions, gather evidence, and develop alternative hypotheses prior to discovering the truth. Isn’t that what critical thinking is all about? I believe that Santa is a useful event for children to practice critical thinking on a widespread, culturally perpetuated myth, in a user-friendly format. For those that disagree, that’s ok. However, there still exists no evidence that Santa is linked with widespread noncritical thinking…

Who will benefit from reading When Good Thinking Goes Bad?

I think two groups. First, the novice, who is looking for an introduction to skeptical thinking. Second, the elite critical thinker. I attempt to demonstrate that even the best critical thinkers are prone to believe in some nonsense. This likely occurs because of the biases that humans possess, which likely provided us with an evolutionary advantage at one point in time, but makes it impossible for any individual to be a consistent skeptic. Thus, labeling ourselves as a skeptic does not guarantee that we will behave like skeptics in all situations, and my book attempts to illustrate this point.

Suppose someone reads this interview and they decide they need to become more skeptical about the world. They want to understand how to apply critical thinking to their everyday life. Where do they start?

There are many excellent resources (Michael Shermer’s work, James Randi’s work, Richard Wiseman’s work, Skeptic Magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, and so forth). I thought I would provide a resource that is not typically given in an interview like this. I would recommend Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, Applied Economics, and Economic Facts and Fallacies. So many of us have such strong opinions about economics issues based upon nothing more than personal experience or what we would like to be true. These books provide a critical look at a topic that is important for all of us, but so few people have taken the time to learn even the basics of the subject.

Some people seem to be very rational most of the time but when it comes to discussing religion their rationality goes out the window. I think sometimes people proclaim beliefs that they really don’t believe. They try to tell themselves they should belief whatever but deep down in they don’t and this creates guilt. Usually because everyone who surrounds them holds this belief (or so they say) they feel social pressures to believe the same. Would you agree? Why are some people rational most of the time but in this particular issue so irrational?

This is a great question, but I would not confine it to religion. If you substitute in “the environment,” “politics,” “dieting,” “multiculturalism,” “male-female differences,” and so forth, the same would apply. In part 2 of my book, I attempt to answer the question of why can a rational person most of the time be irrational on a particular issue. In fact, I would argue that this occurs with all of us, but we are unaware of when we ourselves are the irrational one.

Any other projects you are currently working on?

Glad you asked. I have just finished a rough draft of a book which attempts to answer the question of exactly how did Sigmund Freud first become a household name in America. I believe the parsimonious answer has been overlooked, but do not want to give away the answer. The book is also intended to be a supplemental book when teaching a history of psychology course, as it stresses the important of historical research and that history can be quite exciting!

Can you recommend any sources to help create a more intellectual environment?

When Good Thinking Goes Bad”!!!!!!!!!

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Todd Riniolo discusses his book When Good Thinking Goes Bad www.pointofinquiry.org/todd_c_riniolo_when_good_thinking_goes_bad/