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Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

January 3, 2011 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY ninjanoodles

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.

One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.

I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.

I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.

Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.

Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.

And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.

The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.

Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.

There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…

Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:

  • An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
  • Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
  • The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
  • The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
  • For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
  • Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
  • The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
  • The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
  • Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]

Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:

(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.

Procrastination and Present Bias

October 28, 2010 Comments off

Here’s a brilliant article that explores and explains why there’s a difference between the things we want to do later and the things we actually do later:

The Misconception: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.

The Truth: Procrastination is fuelled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

Netflix reveals something about your own behaviour you should have noticed by now, something which keeps getting between you and the things you want to accomplish.

If you have Netflix, especially if you stream it to your TV, you tend to gradually accumulate a cache of hundreds of films you think you’ll watch one day. This is a bigger deal than you think.

Read the rest of the article here: Procrastination by David McRaney

Now, not later…

Countdown to TAM London

October 15, 2010 Comments off

In about twenty minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the train station, which with then whisk me into London for the start of TAM London 2010, taking place at the London Metropole Hotel.

To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. Last year saw the inaugural TAM London, the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting event to take place outside of the US. It was a resounding success and was attended by people from all around Europe from all walks of life — some of whom were household names. During that weekend I made a number of friends, most of whom I have been in regular contact with ever since. Many of us have subsequently joined or started skeptic groups in our own communities and have become more active in our fields of interest.

This year the event is taking place in a bigger venue, as there are far more people attending, and I’m looking forward to seeing those same friends again this weekend, making new ones, enjoying the talks and performances — particularly the world première of Tim Minchin‘s Storm movie — as well as the chance to chat with and get to know people during the breaks.

If you’re a skeptic, atheist, humanist, secularist, or scientist, then the opportunity to commune meaningfully with like-minded people is not to be underestimated.

After all, who said only the religious get to have a social life and sense of community?

Pope Godwins himself

September 16, 2010 Comments off

Today marks the start of the Pope’s bullet-proofed whistle-stop tour of the UK paid, without consent, by the British taxpayer. In an amusing turn of profiteering, the large open masses to be conducted will be charged an entrance fee (£25 or so per ticket). This has, as you might expect, disgusted many of the faithful who are now refusing to attend. Which, in turn, has prompted a sudden decision to truck busloads of Catholic school children to the masses to boost attendance.

Can’t have a Pay The Pope extravanganza with mostly empty seats, can we?

In the Pope’s opening speech at the Palace of Holyroodhouse today — in a predictable example of skewed logic, cherry-picking and outright falsehoods — he has managed to Godwin himself with little effort. It occurred during the part of his speech where he needs to show how the Vatican and Britain are age-old allies, having stood together against the madness of the war in Europe during World War 2, rather than as the fervent opponent of the laws, rights and customs of this country that he really is (emphasis mine):

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews… As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society…

Full speech: Papal Visit 2010: Pope’s Holyroodhouse speech (Catholic Herald)

Yes, he actually said the Nazis were atheists, and believes that their ‘atheist extremism’ was responsible for some of the worst horrors of the previous century.

Many people unburdened with the inconvenient weight of knowledge use the Nazis, Pol Pot and other awful regimes and events as examples of the ‘dangers of atheism’. Their argument is usually that such things were done in the name of atheism or that the absence of belief in a god let them do such horrible things — the unspoken implication being that faith would have naturally prevented them from doing such things.

Rubbish. Utter rubbish. More than that — it’s outright falsehood. As I have written previously, as have many others, all-but-one of the senior members of the Nazi Party were committed Christians, believing that what they were doing was for God’s glory. Removing God from society was the furthest thing from their minds. What’s more: they were Catholics. It has been documented and proven beyond refute, and the Vatican knows this. That the Pope would spew such demonstrable drivel is an indication of how little he respects the people he is addressing. If you are one of his faithful, that includes you.

That a despot may have been atheist does not mean his actions were done in the name of atheism any more than, say, Tony Blair decided to participate in the invasion and destruction of Iraq in the name of being British. It’s an artificial connection based upon preconceived biases: the Non-Sequitur logical fallacy.

I’m pleased that the British Humanist Association has taken the time to publish a response to the Pope’s speech:

The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god. The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.

Full text: BHA Reacts to Pope’s first remarks on state visit (BHA)

As I have mentioned before, Ratzinger has form as a reality bender, fixer and enforcer in his former role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That department used to be called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. Note that last word. That’s right: the Inquisition. The Pope used to run the very department that rained terror and torture down upon Europe for over 500 years, though now it seems to focus mainly on relocating paedophile priests to new hunting grounds to prevent prosecutions that would reflect badly on the Vatican.

With that background and proven willingness to do and say whatever is required to advance the Vatican, I expect the Pope’s further public utterances in this tour to be equally… interesting.

Phil Plait says: Don’t Be a Dick

August 18, 2010 Comments off

There is a certain irony to this post, considering my previous post, but it’s worth my vaguely embarrassed shuffling feet.

As you may be aware, Dr Phil Plait is an astronomer, science blogger, author (most notably Bad Astronomy [Amazon|UK] and Death From The Skies! [Amazon|UK]), public speaker with magnificent on-screen/-stage presence, educator, and also skeptical activist and the former President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He’s also recently announced that he has a TV show called Bad Universe — the pilot airs on Sunday, 29 August 2010. Enough of the plugs…

During the recent The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 8 conference in Las Vegas, Phil gave a talk that generated quite a bit of controversy in the blogging world — including from a number of fellow skeptical activists. That itself is becoming increasingly more common, but what is entirely uncommon was the messages of Phil’s talk. You should watch it.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick (JREF)

You’d need to have been asleep to not have seen how deeply important that message was to Phil. I’d be hard-pressed to recall any speech I’ve seen or heard that is so deeply impassioned, compassionate and humanistic. Everything he says is correct.

It truly is far too easy to mock the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, to score cheap points, to shout the doctrines or proofs of our own position over others, to be abusive and insulting, to treat others as sub-human or idiots. You may say (as some of the talk’s detractors do) that this is justified in light of what they or those they identify with have done, but the fact remains that if you’re not behaving like a grown-up when discussing these topics, you’re deliberately expending time and effort showing others how smart you are while confirming both that skeptics are dicks and closing that mind to further discussion. I have better things to do with my time.

It’s impressed me deeply enough to see about how I can re-think my approach to the topics I write about. Stay tuned, sports fans.

Top 10 Signs You’re a Fundamentalist Christian

August 11, 2010 Comments off

Normally I’m reluctant (believe it or not) to post blatantly antagonistic anti-theistic posts, but I do make the occasional exception, as I am both qualified to and normally only do so to make a point. This is one such example.

Top Ten Signs You’re a Fundamentalist Christian

10. You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.

9. You feel insulted and “dehumanised” when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

8. You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.

7. Your face turns purple when you hear of the “atrocities” attributed to Allah, but you don’t even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in Exodus and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in Joshua including women, children, and trees!

6. You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

5. You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.

4. You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs — though excluding those in all rival sects — will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering.  And yet consider your religion the most “tolerant” and “loving.”

3. While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in “tongues” may be all the evidence you need to “prove” Christianity.

2. You define 0.01% as a “high success rate” when it comes to answered prayers.  You consider that to be evidence that prayer works.  And you think that the remaining 99.99% failure was simply the will of God.

1. You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history — but still call yourself a Christian.

/ Hat tip to EvilBible.com.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

June 12, 2010 Comments off

I’ve recently begun reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Amazon|UK), which is well overdue since the accompanying TV series has been my favourite piece of television since I was in primary school.

While reading Chapter 2, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” where he’s talking about evolution using his work with Nobel laureate H.J. Muller (discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis) and Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies as an example, a paragraph just jumps out at you:

The secrets of evolution are death and time — the deaths of enormous numbers of lifeforms that were imperfectly adapted to the environment; and time for a long succession of small mutations that were by accident adaptive, time for the slow accumulation of patterns of favorable mutations. Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of the millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million years mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.

What a magnificent turn of phrase. It sums up what we know of artificial and natural selection, underlines the breakthrough of its realisation, and wraps it into a beautiful philosophical illustration.

Knowing the TV series as I do, I’m looking forward to many more stand-out pieces such as this during my journey through the Cosmos, as it were. If you’re good, I may even share them with you…