Lamenting on the Uncritical Mind

I wish I had read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-haunted World when it first hit the bookshelves some 17 years ago. That said, I doubt I would have got as much from it back then and ultimately, that I didn’t read it back then is evidence enough that I wouldn’t have.

Retrospect is a funny thing.

Sagan laments in the book at the level of uncritical thinking and poorly trained people he had observed in much of his life. He focuses on the US, but does provide evidence from elsewhere and anyone whom has paid much attention would have already observed as much regardless where they are.

The situation hasn’t changed since writing the book and the problem isn’t one unique to the US.

Is it really a problem after all?

Certainly many of us feel it is, however societies are clearly evolving entities / populations. Like a gene pool, ideologies within a society make up an “ideas pool”, which ultimately make or break a society.

It has always been, but is even more so since electronic communication, that ideas share (often more easily than genes) between societies. The evolution of societies is refining, specialising and regardless of what it may appear like, they are becoming less physically aggressive.

The successful are no longer those with the most powerful gods or god-kings, but most clever in securing resources via more diplomatic means. Just look at the falling star of the US and the rising star of China, for instance.

I know there’s more to it and I’m simplifying the various situations immensely. The point is that societies are changing and that change is the result of expression, which amounts from a rearrangement and the removal / addition of ideas within the social pool. The civil unrest throughout the Middle East is a cry for democracy due to the expression of new ideas within the social pool (transferred from other societies).

Critical Scepticism as a Social Idea

Critical scepticism* comes and goes within the local ideas pool just like any gene that doesn’t hinder or enhance the fitness of a species. A bit like the biologist’s favourite example the Peppered Moth, it may be expressed in greater numbers at certain times because of short term conditions, but ultimately, it is an idea that remains in fairly low concentrations within societies.

I suspect we are not, but nature, inclined to be critical of evidence unless we need to. Indeed fiction, either written or presented, demands we forego critical review. Music insists we don’t acknowledge noises emanating from banging skins, vibrating strings etc, but rather focus on the harmony. Love leads us to see those close to us through rose-coloured glasses.

This isn’t to say that we couldn’t be, or shouldn’t be, more critically minded of evidence or that such societies would be any less enriching or creative. Personally, I feel the evolution of society will eventually achieve this higher plateau, as it is increasingly doing racial and sexual equality (admittedly, we are not there yet). However, we are a far way off yet and we have many other refinements to make before societies are well equipped with “nonsense meters”.

Sharing Sagan’s Lament

The reason I write about this now is because many of us share Sagan’s lament. I move among different arenas in my writing on this very bane. I know my readers make up individuals whom share this feeling and also those committed sceptics insisting evolution is false, that vaccination causes more harm than good, that anthropogenic climate change is rubbish, that there are no ceilings to growth that we could reach in our industrial endeavours.

The more I look into such topics, the further I see into the rabbit hole of the committed sceptics. Pick nearly any subject, hit it up on a good search engine and I bet you can find a group uncritically sceptical of it. For one reason or another, they have come to such a conclusion regardless of the weight of contradictory evidence. For a passive example to my Australian readers; just listen to Alan Jones for a while…

Perhaps critical scepticism remains in low concentrations within the ideas pool not only because it doesn’t yet enhance the fitness of a given society, but also because in low concentrations, societies can express various avenues for production that it otherwise could not; think homeopathy and traditional medicine (which has either not undergone strict clinical trials or failed them), the myriad of books on the so-called “Climategate”, Christmas/Easter (ironically as pagan as Christian) and even the types of political propaganda I’ve recently commented on here and here.

For the most part, political stability and profiteering currently favours a largely credulous society. Why should anyone expect education to teach critical thought better when we have this highly productive peak?

The Future Favours Accurate Information

As I said above, I do not think this will always be the case. It’s conceivable that such a critically sceptical and better educated society would be more productive, with the extra kicker of being so without an incessant call for growth. However, to move out of this current peak and to one more humane and better educated, we would first need to correct many disparities. That, I believe, is the key.

In such arenas of debate, it’s clear that evidence hard-won through critical evaluation will not be enough to challenge contrarians. They are immune to it for the most part and likely to be unmoveable in most cases. It’s a dead horse of a debate and I think, while we must continue to share this hard-won knowledge of the known universe, we need to tackle such debates in a different fashion – perhaps evaluating their evidence base, on its own right, without comparison to information discovered via science may be helpful. Teach them to be critically minded by taking their evidence into a serious review.

At the same time, greater focus on disparity is essential. It isn’t enough to work in ejecting outdated ideas from the pool. This needs to be complimented by additional ideas to replace the old ones. In many cases, new ideas alone can be enough to overtake old ones if their expression is dominant to the opposing ideas. Look at the heavy handed ideologies of the dark ages. They were horrible and did great harm to generations, but were ultimately weak when critically reviewed (hence all the executions). Eventually word got out about the challenging and more accurate idea and the dark ages were dead.

Living within the information age, the word is always out and while it may not always seem it, more accurate information is eventually dominant because it simply cannot be broken. Gravity can’t be undone no matter how much one may want it to be a miraculous inspiration. CO2 plays an important role as a greenhouse gas in our atmosphere regardless how much one may wish it to ignore passing longwave radiation. Homeopathy simply doesn’t have any active ingredients (which, in many cases, is a good thing because of the poisons suggested to be within them). The story of smallpox and the clinically proven very low risks involved with vaccination stand stubbornly in the face of the committed sceptics. One can throw a blanket over accurate information, but that will erode in time, not the information.

While there remains valid reason to lament and a constant need to transmit increasingly accurate information, the short term goals are not the same as the long term goals. Hoping committed sceptics will accept their standpoint is evidence-deprived in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence is a pipedream. It won’t happen. Equally, while we live at a point in time when “other ways of knowing” is a serious argument against scientific methodology (arguably Sam Harris built the final bridge between science and morality), we are many generations way from widespread critical scepticism. However, the path isn’t entirely invisible and we know enough about ourselves and our ideas to paved the way forward.

We shouldn’t stop at the lament.

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*I had to make the point here, seeing as there are groups whom call themselves “sceptics”, that by critical scepticism I mean to actually take the time to learn and understand the topic, evaluate the evidence professionally and if it’s found to be strong, write as much and if not, write as much – preferably within a peer-review process (ie. peers = professionals within the field) to have this new thought critically reviewed. This is a process that refines and improves our knowledge base, as a species, of the known universe and is incredibly powerful and useful to us.

What these self-proclaimed “sceptics”, or as I prefer, committed sceptics, offer is instead a rejection of ideas they feel cannot be correct. They do this without being able to, or without taking the time to, critically review and provide valid and condemning evidence to refute the standing approximation of the truth. This breed of scepticism is validated instead on anecdotal evidence or conspiracy (eg. “the experts are stealing our money”, “the truth is being suppressed by the status quo” etc).

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6 thoughts on “Lamenting on the Uncritical Mind

  1. Hi Tim , it would help if we learned to be detached in our criticism or scepticism of a subject , for example not to deny climate science purely because to accept it would mean to have to accept our whole way of life is unsustainable . I see this thinking all around me .
    I wish people would be more self aware of how their prejudices cloud and colour their “sceptical thinking” .
    As far as critical thinking becoming more prevalent in the gene pool I don’t see how as it doesn’t seem necessary to an individuals survival and they seem happier more interested in Lara Bingle than the Higgs Boson (I wish people would stop saying god partical ) .

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    1. Indeed.
      As for the comment regarding critical thinking / gene pool: I’m more comparing the “ideas pool” of a given society to the gene pool of a population. Some ideas are dominant, for one reason or another and expressed in higher numbers than other ideas. It’s basically Dawkin’s “meme theory”. From that angle, critical thinking is clearly not dominant in our current social structures and I’m suggesting the reason is that the peak production we have achieved with such an “ideas pool” puts critical thinking out of favour.

      Productive societies can be thought of in the same way as Sam Harris’s moral landscape. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities in which a society can express itself. It shifts across this spectrum and able to fill certain peaks because of the expression of the ideas within the pool.

      The current peak isn’t a great one. That both parents now need to work long hours and the kids are raised by schools and after-school care when a generation or two one parent could be at home (which they could afford to buy as well), when all this “time saving” and increasingly efficient production processes are now in place tells me we’ve failed. Not only that, but the need for growth to keep afloat leads to increasing waste and resource scarcity.

      However, it’s a peak. It’s hard to move from a peak willingly. It would be beneficial to move to a peak where critical thinking is commonplace. It would be more productive, but it would certainly work differently. It would also express different ideas and hold a different ideas pool. How we achieve it is the question.

      Certain people are more inclined towards Lara Bingle or Jersey Shore or Big Brother because their life is dominated by the expression of low-brow ideas. There’s a wealth of information out there that such people feel is beyond them. Science for one, as Carl Sagan says in his book, that many people believe is beyond them. They’re not too stupid or don’t have the brain to understand science – the educational system let them down. That’s not to say everyone as an Einstein within them or anything remotely like that. But science as a methodology isn’t difficult to grasp and it isn’t difficult to take that methodology and just ponder, or apply critical scepticism to new information or develop further in a field. With such rudimentary level understanding, such cheap thrills are quickly exposed for what they are. An active mind is a hungry one. A lazy one melts in front of the idiot box.

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      1. Yes I see what you mean by “ideas pool” will it change and evolve as it is tested against the reality of our environment so that those that enhance our survival eventually float to the top ?. This may take many thousands of years .

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      2. Natural selection (of ideas or genes) is a constant process, but as you say, it may take a long time for change to be discernible. On the other hand, an idea or gene that is a radical improvement could change the population within a few generations. The good thing about ideas over genes is that is it much easier to “artificially” select / develop new ones. If we realised this is as good as it gets within the peak of the idea pool, perhaps we have the motivation for change.

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