Friday, November 13, 2009

Critical Inability

Recently, my wife received an e-mail from someone we know claiming that if she forwarded the e-mail to eight people she would get a free T18 laptop computer from Sony/Ericsson. If, furthermore, she forwarded it to twenty people, the laptop would be upgraded to a fancier model. My wife, having a functioning brain and being familiar with such e-mail scams, deleted the message and from this point on will probably assume the sender is, if not dumber than a bucket of gravel, at least gullible as hell. Had the sender simply done some basic research, they would have found not only that this is an obvious scam that has been going on for years, but that there are inconsistencies in the e-mail itself - such as the fact that the “Ericsson T18” isn’t even a laptop… it’s a cellphone. But REALLY… who could spend even a few seconds thought on the premise of the e-mail without realizing that A. If Sony Ericsson gave away laptops to each person who sent out eight e-mails, they would go bankrupt faster than a Wall Street executive on a derivatives trading bender and B. if the benefits of sending out the e-mails WERE in fact so great, wouldn’t a large corporation like Sony/Ericsson be able to… you know… send out the e-mails THEMSELVES for much less expense than would be incurred by a one-laptop-per-eight-e-mail ratio?

Scam artists rely on gullible people for their schemes to work. They need people who believe what they’re told without thinking and without researching the facts for themselves. What they rely on, in short, is a large population of comfortable brain-addled suckers just arrogant enough to think they know more than their neighbors but without the critical thinking skills to back up that contention.

Before continuing, I should pause to point out what critical thinking is. It has been defined as the careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.

Or, to put it more bluntly, one needs a healthy dose of skepticism when examining claims. Sadly, in our society, the term “skeptic” has been viewed in a derogatory light. It was synonymous with “unbeliever” or “doubter” (or “cynic” although that term is itself woefully misunderstood by most people). Our society has been conditioned to accept that belief is a virtue and that skeptics are the killjoys who piss on the fantasy world of Heaven and unicorns and angels (and free laptops).

But critical thinking can not only save you from the embarrassment of getting suckered into an e-mail forwarding scam, it can also prevent you from looking like a bonehead for believing things that are easily proved false. On the same day my wife received the aforementioned e-mail, for example, I received a phone message at work from a woman upset that the news media wasn’t reporting that President Obama refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and she challenged any news organization to find footage of Obama reciting the pledge. I performed a simple Google search and in less than thirty seconds I was watching video of then-Senator Obama not only reciting, but leading the pledge on the Senate floor. (It followed an annoying and - I feel - inappropriate prayer to Jesus from the Senate guest chaplain, but that’s another rant entirely.) What I wondered was why the woman who called didn’t do the same damned thing I did before making a fool of herself by parroting a falsehood she heard from right-wing rumor-mongers?

And speaking of right-wingers, I am amazed at the number of claims made by the right that simply fall apart when examined critically.

One recent example: the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank concerned with educational matters, commissioned a survey of Oklahoma high school students on questions about citizenship and government. The survey was carried out by a conservative polling outfit called Strategic Vision. The results they obtained were shocking. They claimed, for example, that only 23% of Oklahoma high schoolers knew who the first President of the United States was, and that only 14% knew who wrote the Declaration of Independence. The results were distributed via press release and the lazy media reported them uncritically. People familiar with survey techniques, however, began to suspect there was something wrong with the results. (For example, according to Strategic Vision’s supposed data, not a single Oklahoma high school student out of the 1,000 students supposedly surveyed got more than seven of ten questions correct. NONE! Do they really think that out of 1,000 high schoolers there wasn’t a single brainiac-outlier-know-it-all who knew the answers to all ten questions - let alone eight or nine? From a mere statistical point of view, that’s close to impossible.) To make a long story short, the survey was replicated by others and this time the results were very different. In this instance, it turned out that 98% knew George Washington was the first President and 81% knew Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. (And that was with a sample set that included special-education students!) When asked for their interpretation of the discrepancy between their results and the replicated survey, Strategic Vision had no comment.
A skeptical view of this incident would seem to show that a right-wing organization paid a right-wing polling company to “obtain” results showing the public schools were failing. They would report this to the media in an attempt to show public schools are in sorry shape and should be defunded and that private voucher systems and home schooling are the answer. And hey, if the facts inconveniently show that public schools DO work, well, just make shit up and the gullible folks out there will eat it up while waiting for the UPS van to roll up the driveway with their free laptop.

Luckily, in the case of the Oklahoma survey, there were some knowledgeable people with enough skepticism and critical ability to expose what appears to be a fraud.

Same as with a recent clip on the Daily Show, which recently caught and exposed Fox News faking video footage to make a conservative rally appear more heavily attended than it actually was. Skepticism appears to be on the rise. It seems more common nowadays that when people or organizations try to pass off bullshit as truth, they’re more likely to be called out on it.

And I hope this trend continues. People who have selfish agendas rely on an uneducated and gullible populace to push these agendas on their behalf. Thus the private insurance industry can spread rumors of “death panels” if a government-sponsored health care bill is passed. And they hope enough people will uncritically fall for these lies to derail any hope for the passage of such health care reform. The reality, of course, is that the private health insurers are more likely to “stand between you and your doctor” than a government-run health plan ever will. In fact, I know a medical biller personally who has informed me that private health insurers routinely demand doctors change diagnoses of their patients if they want to be reimbursed for their services. Don’t believe me? Good. You’re learning. I don’t want you to take my word for it. Ask a medical biller and find out for yourself. They'll tell you.

If the gullibility and lack of critical thinking only affected the people directly involved, it would be a mere annoyance that could be accepted. But that isn’t the case. It affects us all. If a sizable portion of our population can be swayed by the truthless blustering of a television commentator or stump speaker or religious leader, we may all suffer.

If people would stop being gullible and do a bit of skeptically-minded research and fact checking, they would realize it’s highly unlikely you will receive a free laptop for forwarding a few e-mails, it is provably false that President Obama refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, it is statistically unlikely only 23% of Oklahoma high school students can name the first President of the United States, it is a scientifically-verified fact that vaccines do FAR more good than any potential harm, there's overwhelming evidence we really DID land on the moon, numerous scientific disciplines demonstrate evolution via natural selection is a fact, it is provably false that the ACLU is trying to ban crosses from Arlington Cemetery, it is – at minimum - not a politically expedient move for the government to appoint a “death panel” to kill your granny if they want your vote in the following election and it is exceedingly unlikely a divine being will reward you with 72 beautiful virgins in exchange for crashing a hijacked plane into a skyscraper. And our lives would be better for that realization.

In summary, skepticism, contrary to its bad PR, is a very good thing. Belief without evidence, meanwhile, far from being virtuous, is foolhardy at best and dangerous to yourself (and others) at worst. There’s nothing more anathema to a warm fuzzy ideology than a cold hard fact.

And for those who refuse to accept it, be assured reality has a nasty habit of kicking ones ass.


  1. I blame the whole thing on the writers for Scooby Doo introducing real monsters into the show. That was the last hold out for teaching sketicism to our kids.

  2. Luckily, we now have the Mythbusters, who not only examine things critically and scientifically, they also blow things up! And that's not even mentioning Kari who's super smart and super hot!!! *sigh*
    What more could you ask for?

  3. expanding on the critical thinking topic...I've always been amused at the fact that right wing types cannot see to think objectively about anything. Everything is very black and white, right or wrong. They won't acknowledge grey areas or give concessions as to where their opponents are right. That's one thing I've always liked about Obama; he's always looking for a good idea, regardless of its source. -Aaron Stengel

  4. Aaron: Good point. Sometimes problems are very nuanced and/or complex and require thoughtful objective solutions. "Black or white" simply won't work in finding a quick fix. And although in my screed I primarily pointed out BS from the right, in cases where the left uses BS in an attempt to push an agenda, I also want them to be called out on it. In fact, I think it's MORE important in that case since I want these policies to be based on the truth and objective data as much as possible.