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Name: Dave Leigh
Location: Union, South Carolina, United States

I was born too young. And when I die, I'll still be too young.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critical Thinking for the New Year

One of the things I've noticed about social networking sites is that they really cut down on the blogging, and a bunch of other things I should be doing as well, both on- and off-line. Once in a blue moon I make resolutions, and as it so happens, the New Year coincides with a "blue moon" (the second full moon December). The only resolution I have for this coming year is to try to meter myself and give balanced attention to all the pokers in my fire.

There are a number of things I've not blogged about that I've mentioned on Facebook or elsewhere. Among them are the large number of really interesting sites I've found on the web, like Imagine user-created content made by people who really know how to do it. Then you have some idea of it's the open-ness of YouTube with the production standards of Hulu. Really awesome.

Here's one of the films I found there, by way of Brian Dunning's Skeptoid podcast:

"Here Be Dragons" is a 40-minute film by Brian Dunning about critical thinking, which should, in my opinion, be shown to every elementary school student. It's not a film that "debunks" anything... rather, it's about how to think logically and skeptically so that valid useful information isn't drowned out by a the cacophony of pseudoscientific and just plain bogus claims that bombard us every day. Dunning targets many of the "dragons" that plague modern thinking... areas of sloppy thought and pseudo-science that reflect thought processes stuck in the Dark Ages... a time when mapmakers annotated the unknown blank areas of the world with the titular label.

I've already heard criticism that the film doesn't address the biggest "dragon" of them all... religion. You can't be comprehensive in a 40-minute film, and Dunning deals with many, many more issues in his weekly podcast than in this film. Skeptoid is a fascinating podcast, well worth your time. Nevertheless, having been a long-time listener of Skeptoid, I know where Dunning's coming from, but I do wish he'd have given a more prominent mention of religion than he did in the film to make it clear.

In the film Dunning notes that not every belief needs to be debunked. Those that stand in the way of progress do. When you're looking at the "dragons" that are addressed in the film, note that they are measurable claims that are nonetheless unsupported by empirical evidence. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are wrong; but that, to the extent they are measurable, they fail. This includes such things as palmistry, homeopathy, ghostbusting, etc. What it does not do is address those claims that are not measurable. I.e., matters of faith.

The mere claim of the existence of God cannot be disproved; therefore it is in no way productive to even attempt to "debunk" it. It's a matter of faith, and faith in no God has no argumentative advantage over faith in God. Where specific, measurable claims are made, however, Skeptoid is on it like white on rice. Does faith healing work? Psychic surgery? New Age energy fields? These are areas ripe for critical thinking.

Keep in mind that Dunning is not out to do your thinking for you. Instead, he's telling you about logical fallacies and questionable debating techniques used to obscure the truth. You are encouraged to research and think on your own. And this is another sense in which "critical thinking" is "critical"... if something is debunked for you, then you're no better equipped to avoid the next scam that comes your way. But if you are taught to think critically, then you are nobody's mark.

So does this film slay the "dragon" of religion? No, nor is it intended to. Not only is that "dragon" not slayable, there are many skeptics that would deny it is a dragon at all. And those that do fare very poorly in debate, as I had previously noted with regard to Michael Shermer's poor showing in a debate on that very subject. Even a highly accomplished skeptic flounders against the immeasurable. Shermer's first and last mistake in that debate was agreeing to it at all.

But the bottom line is that it doesn't matter. The critical thinking techniques laid out by Dunning (and Carl Sagan, and Michael Shermer, James Randi, and others) are every bit as valid and useful to the clergy as it is to an atheist. Something that every human being on this planet should be aware of is that those things that are provable, measurable and demonstrable take precedence over those ideas that are purely held by faith. It's why the Vatican acknowledges a round Earth, heliocentrism, and evolution. So long as religion doesn't deny what is demonstrably real, there is no "debunking" to do.

And that's how it should be.

Do yourself a favor. Watch the film. Read the references Dunning recommends at the end.


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