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Friday Filosophy: Fools Following Fools

“Who’s the more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?”

- Obi Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

I bang on a lot about the importance of rationality, and critical thinking; not blindly accepting information as given, but checking it out first. However, there is a lot of information out there, and analysing in detail every piece of information received would actually be paralysing: every moment would be spent appraising information, leaving none available to act – thus rendering the information useless. So, how to approach all this information, from multiple sources?

I was thinking about it this morning, and realised I tend to lump sources into three major groups:

  1. Sources I know to think critically, and to examine claims even when they are from sources they generally agree with (striking examples of this were found after James Randi, widely admired and respected skeptic and critical thinker, posted a blog article expressing some doubt about the degree of global warming that is anthropogenic).
    Generally I accept information from these sources unless there is particular reason not to – which could be a marked diversion from accepted knowledge, or various signs of poor analysis on their part, or it conflicts with something I know well…. Basically I guess my default position is set on “accept” for these people, but the switch can still be flicked to “analyse” if they say something that raises a red flag.
  2. Sources that I know to spout bogus bovine bollocks (examples: Meryl Dorey, and Deepak Chopra (who laid this one recently: “The essential nature of the material world is not material; the essential nature of the physical world is not physical; the essential stuff of the universe is non-stuff.” – to which I would reply: “the essential reality of your words is non-reality”).
    I figure there are three options with these people: (i) read what they’ve said, then go to the trouble of investigating, and inevitably finding it to be bogus, despite often a veneer of attractiveness; (ii) read but ignore, despite any apparent plausibility; (iii) don’t read at all (this is my preferred option).
  3. Sources in the middle, whose claims or information I will check out to a greater or lesser degree depending on its goodness of fit with what I already accept about the world, before accepting.

I suspect others – including people on the “other side” on (non-)debates such as the vaccine manufacturoversy might well have similar “agree, disagree, analyse” groups. They simply allocate sources to these groups differently from me. ;)

If we are approaching this over-information problem in a similar way, I would say it’s not ok to cast aspersions on others’ thinking or intelligence – or perhaps even their overall approach to information: that being accepting as fact what their trusted source tells them, and not paying attention to what their “ignore” group say. To do so would be unfair, as well as causing needless offence – which would of course shut down any meaningful debate.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a sizable middle group (that is: sources whose contentions you require critical analysis of before accepting), then please, feel free to be offended by this: you’re a damn fool. – And by the way, that’s the case even if you’re “on my side”. If your world is divided wholly into people with whom you agree or disagree uncritically the result is that you will never apply any critical reasoning to anything: you will either believe or not believe, based entirely on the source, or the mouthpiece.

In this context it’s worth mentioning how I allocate to my ‘listen’, ‘ignore’, and ‘analyse’ groups, because this, I maintain, is where there is a difference between those in the rationalist/skeptic camp, and those who follow Chopra, and antivaxxers, and bioidentical hormones, and astrology, and homeopathy …. I will only decide a source is in my ‘listen’ or ‘accept’ group if there is good evidence that they (a) know what they’re talking about, and (b) display the kind of rational thinking and lack of bias that was displayed when prominent rationalists took James Randi to task. Conversely, I’ll only ignore a source once I’ve seen clearly that “the essential reality of their words is unreality” ;) … or if they write for HuffPo, which seems to be basically the same thing :P

Everyone else is in the analyse category – even if I like what they say (hell, even if I particularly dislike it, such as the Kirsch et al meta-analysis purporting to show that antidepressant medications don’t work … btw there are problems with his study that are apparent once you analyse it and its relevance to the real world, but that’s not the point of this post).

The point (again) is simply that I think we need to get people to start thinking. About everything.

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