A Serious Need for Critical Thinking

I have considered myself a skeptic for probably longer than I truly understood what the word actually means.

Of course, the most common career one can pursue, if one wishes to put their skepticism to use, is a career in the sciences. And I’m not a scientist. So my skepticism is more of a hobby or a pastime. I apply it when necessary and am more than willing to acknowledge that there are times when I choose not to act skeptically. (I have two stories about my ancestry where I readily concede that I don’t know the exact truth, but the stories are just too interesting to want to pursue the possibility that they’re not. So I’d prefer to talk about how they’re possible, than lose the narrative if it turns out that they’re not the exact truth.)

Of course, we should all recall HL Mencken’s statement about how no one has ever made any money overestimating people’s intelligence. So there’s always room for being skeptical when the opportunity arises. It’s why I’ve been blocked from posting on the Food Babe’s facebook page.

What’s really surprising is that in recent weeks, I’ve had two very visible places, where a healthy dose of skepticism are warranted.

First is what’s becoming a political matter in the town where I live. About a year ago, two wells in my township were closed due to elevated levels of some contaminant, partially due to changing standards maintained by the EPA.

In the past two weeks, I have received no fewer than five slickly-designed mailers trying to turn that fact into a political issue. Selective quoting of news items and declaring that a polysyllabic chemical name has been “linked” to cancer. No statistics, no nothing.

I’m not trying to say that I’m not concerned about the safety of the local water supply, but you’ve got to give me something more than “linked” to cancer before I think that — in the words of one of the robocalls I’ve gotten — a bunch of concerned local residents of all political persuasions know more than the experts in the field.

Election Day is coming up. And I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to vote either for the incumbents or their challengers. The conditions of the water, however, are neither.

The other place where a little bit of skepticism is warranted, is that I’ve been seeing a deluge of posts on my facebook feed, trying to sell some kind of wrap that is ostensibly designed to help a person lose weight and wear off age lines.

These posts all follow the same pattern: they show before-and-after pictures (some of which are minimally different) with an exclamation of how well it works and then to send a private message to the poster for more details.

The people selling this product are apparently running a business loosely modeled after what Amway does. One post that I saw was very telling in that someone attempted to criticize the product and rather than address the criticism, they chose to ask that people not complain because they’re trying to run a business.

Let’s ignore for a moment that if you’re running a business of any sort, you need to expect complaints, and alienating real or potential customers is not the way to do it.

I did a google search of the product in question and there has been no rigorous scientific study on the efficacy of these wraps or related products. That just leaves user testimonials as the entire basis of the information we know about the product. Which puts this product — if we’re being our most polite — a form of “alternative medicine”.

And remember what Tim Minchin said about that: you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been shown to work? “Medicine”.

Personally, I love the user review that said that the product is effectively a wet paper towel for $100 / month.

Of course, from what I’ve read of this, it’s the perfect Amway metaphor. The product apparently works as long as you continue using it and spending the money on it, so that would give a nice stream of income to the people selling it to you. So you’re really just better off not starting.

I really think that everyone would be well-served to pay attention to the song “Skeptic” by George Hrab. It would benefit anyone who might consider paying attention to the people who want to sell us some snake oil or upset local politics based upon nonexistent problems.


Planned Parenthood

I admit it.  I sometimes enjoy trolling fundamentalist Christian websites. Okay.  Maybe “trolling” isn’t the right word since I don’t actually inject myself into their conversations (much less try to goad them into anything) but you get the point.  It’s absolutely important to know what they’re saying even if you disagree with them.  

It’s not news that an organization known as the “Center for Medical Progress” (considering that the only thing they stand for is opposition to reproductive health care, I’d be hard pressed to find a less accurate name for this group, assuming Pigfuckers of America is already taken) has been publishing slickly edited videos in which they allege that Planned Parenthood illegally sells body parts from aborted and miscarried embryos and fetuses. 

Legitimate political debate depends at least partially on being well-informed and you can’t be informed if you’re being misled.  It’s not a new phenomenon to try to demonize those with whom you disagree, but to the uninformed or underinformed, this is where critical thinking skills are necessary.  

I admit it: I couldn’t watch much of the videos (I made it about fifteen minutes into the first one). I had to turn it off not because of what they were showing, but instead how baldly the producers of the movie were lying to make their supposed points.  

Let me ask a simple question about these videos: if Planned Parenthood is really doing illegal activity as presented therein (and openly admitting to it), why would the producers of the videos sit on the evidence for over a year, and then release it not to the proper authorities but instead to the public?

When historians look back on the presidency of Barack Obama, I suspect his legacy will be more positive than negative, especially in light of the opposition he faced at literally every turn. If his two immediate predecessors could be criticized for conduct unbecoming of the Oval Office (with Bush’s lies being far more devastating than Clinton’s), Obama definitely brought class, dignity, and honesty back to the presidency.   One of the negatives of Obama’s presidency, though, is the fate of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.  (There are others but they’re not relevant to this essay.). This is (or rather, was.  It was liquidated in bankruptcy proceedings in late 2010) an organization that helped motivate countless inner city youth and give them leadership skills.  Who knows how much worse off our cities would be without groups like this?

You may recall the similarly edited — and equally dishonest — videos created by people on a mission to discredit ACORN.  And I do fault Obama for not defending the community organizers more vigorously.  And I wonder if the success (at least in the eyes of the video producers) of that campaign at least partially emboldened the Pugfuckers of America.  I mean the Center for Meducal Progress.  I wonder if there’s any overlap between the producers.  

Some antiabortion activists are finally starting to show their hands.  They don’t want to just ban abortion.   They want to control all human sexuality.  This explains their vehement opposition to the so-called gay agenda because whatever else is or isn’t true, when you’ve got two or more people with the same sex organs grinding those organs together, lots of things can happen, but a pregnancy isn’t one.  

I do find it strangely ironic.  These are the same people who continually proclaim that our species is somehow superior to other animals.  Yet when it comes to sex — which, when you think of the myriad reasons why we choose to have it, actually is and can be a difference between us and most other animals — they’ll tell you it’s bad unless it’s to achieve a pregnancy.  Just like so many other animals.

I’m hard-pressed to come up with any organization that has done more to improve people’s lives, keep them healthy, and encourage responsibility in having a family, than Planned Parenthood.   Not only do they deserve praise, and more money than they currently receive, they deserve not to be harangued by these misinformed ideologues who want to roll back the clock to times when our lives were significantly harder and less healthy.