Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Scientific Nature of Critical Thinking

The basic nature of critical thinking causes an individual who is engaged in his or her own life to use scientific principles of research to determine if an idea is fact or fiction. But for the many today who have been brainwashed by church and political leaders to believe that most science is just a “theory,” critical thinking will not come easily. In fact, it is not uncommon for me to hear students say things like, “all ideas have equal merit,” or, “the truth can’t be determined.”

That this attitude represents a major impediment to the safety and future of our own society is evidenced by the fact a wingnut from Australia, Ken Ham, can travel across the U.S. and earn $120,000 a year by giving pep talks about Creationism to elementary students and other captive audiences, the theme of which is that because no one was there but Adam and Eve and God, no one can dispute the Biblical version about the origins of the earth. (Just imagine what this line of reasoning would do to the criminal justice system.) Believing in Creation to the exclusion of all scientific understanding of the origins of the earth is in itself not dangerous. But the anti-science bias that it implies is.

I was reminded of this not-so-new anti-science bias, in of all places, the Sunday funnies this week. Doonesbury, ever the scourge of uncritical thinkers, devoted six color panels to the so-called “controversial” nature of science. In his sly, sarcastic way, Gary Trudeau depicted the hypocrisy of those who for their own agendas diminish the value of science in pursuit of their own ideologies by trying to claim that the great scientific issues of today, such as global warming, farm chemical poisoning of our water supplies, the Vietnam related Agent Orange link to cancer, acid rain, and tobacco’s link to cancer, to name a few, are merely “controversies” in which one theory is as good as another. In short, some people would have you think that evolution is “just a theory,” as if that would make it go away.

Let’s all remember that when Galileo and Copernicus in the 15th century used scientific principles to show the earth orbited the sun, the religious wingnuts of the time excommunicated Galileo and burned his colleague, Giordano Bruno, at the stake under the pretext that such blasphemy was “just a theory.” You know, a “theory,” sort of like the “theory of gravity.” (Easily tested by stepping off your second floor balcony.)

The same, of course, holds true for politics. By stressing rhetoric over research, paid pundits in the broadcast media and on the Internet would have you think that the war in Iraq is a good deal (for whom no one is saying any more) and that the press is only exaggerating the bad news as part of their persistent “Bush bashing.” However, if you know how to do the research, you can see for yourself the grim facts that tell the real story in Iraq. And you can read for yourself analytical pieces in highly respected, non-partisan foreign policy journals, such as the current issue of Foreign Affairs, that paint a picture of foreseen and continued folly.

Retreating glacier on Mt. Kilamanjaro - photo by Mark Bowen

Science has become politicalized, of course, because there are very huge dollars at stake. Big Oil, for example, has a vested interested in claiming that global warming is “only a theory,” a controversial one at that. In the scientific and university community, though, there is no controversy at all. Years of meticulous scientific research, outlined in great detail in such very readable books as Dr. Mark bowen's Thin Ice, put the controversy behind us and place the verdict directly on the greenhouse effect, largely created by the burning of fossil fuels.

There is a reason why all first-tier colleges require several semesters of science, even if one is not going to be a science major. Understanding the principles of research, collection and checking and comparison of data over many years and in many places, is fundamental to being an informed citizen in today’s society. Such citizens are equipped to take control of their own lives and make decisions that protect their own self-interests as well as those of the broader society. In my own view, we are in serous danger of becoming a second-rate nation is this assault on science and research continues much longer. The rest of the world will leave us in the dust, literally.


At 1:45 PM, Blogger Administrator said...

It's a question of science versus psuedo-science. The conflation of science and industry, as you point out, results in industry "experts" that claim one thing and real scientists that claim another.

It's a divide and conquer strategy that keeps the general public merely guessing at the real situation. Wing nuts like Ham merely fill the intelligence gap with their propaganda.

If people in a democracy can't determine critically the difference between psuedo-science and real science they can't make any actionable decisions regarding issues that effect them.

The same holds true for Iraq...most Americans don't know what really goes on there--only what they are told. The resulting vaugeness is then taken for facts in the MSM (mainstream media). No wonder the Pentagon wants to control the internet and destroy computer networks that it deems a threat.

Check out this BBC report. (choose open link in new window)

Indeed, the actionable intelligence on the web poses a serious threat to those who wish to control the message. It makes our work as educators all the more important--not to give the 'right' answer but to teach people how to make decisions based on sound reasoning.

This quote from Charles S. Peirce speaks of the method of tenacity which sadly passes for much public education today:

Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. (CP 5.379)

Peirce called for science as the preferred method for acquiring belief and your post echoes that call.

Mark Earley

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Shannon E. said...

Worth your posts are so informative and link heavy with research. I like that about your blog because it supports the idea that everything is an argument. You say what you find to be a fact and prove it.

At 6:49 PM, Blogger smithds said...

I like this blog too! I like your research topics they are very interesting to me. I had to do that in Geography and Geosciences dept. that was research heavy. I had more than enough but I like your insight. I am still learning to develop and conduct more of that. I'm a slow writer but I can find interesting things. Ya know.



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