A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘critical thinking’

“Graphic Sex for Twelve-Year-Olds”?

Teresa Tomeo

Image via Endow Groups.

This morning I was listening to Catholic Answers Live, a thing I sometimes do because I like to see how the religion of my youth is motoring along these days. And a recent episode, called “Parents’ Role in Chastity Education”, gave me real food for thought with these remarks:

Basic cable network MTV’s head of programming David Janollari has stated that his network’s goal is to reach out to twelve-to-thirty-four year olds. And what kind of content does Mr. Janollari think is appropriate for the twelve-year-olds he’s targeting? A graphic sex program, of course. In April MTV recruited Dan Savage, author of the tabloid sex column ‘Savage Love’, to lead the network’s new program Savage U. So I’ll just leave it there. Now you can imagine the content on this show.

Guest host Teresa Tomeo was, in part, quoting an article she’d read somewhere, adding her own commentary along the way. I won’t venture to guess which parts she was reading aloud and which were her comments, because that wouldn’t be fair.  But the language, whoever wrote it, says it all – “graphic sex program”, “tabloid sex column”, and that rather sarcastic “what does Mr. Janorelli think is appropriate?” It’s clearly calling on parents to get really worried about pornographic programming for preteens being broadcast all over the filthy airwaves.

It’s time for a little perspective.



Vaccine Hysteria!

The vaccination panic

Image via Pat Dollard.

There’s a massive community out there in Internet-land that wants to spread the news: vaccination is unhealthy. Vaccines are full of poisons that will hurt your children. Vaccines cause autism. And so on, and so forth.

Recently, the link between autism and vaccination showed up in the news when the medical journal The Lancet rescinded the well-known Wakefield study, the foundational study linking autism to vaccination. Essentially, the scientists who publish that journal have said they never should have published the study in the first place. But there are people out there who hold the truth of Wakefield’s conclusions as firmly as a religious tenet, and it will take more than a respected medical journal’s authoritative say-so to convince them that vaccines aren’t causing autism in children.


The Practical Charity Santa

Santa Claus

Image via Turn Back To God.

There’s a holiday tradition in my family. Ever since my husband and I met, we’ve made children’s charities a part of our Christmas celebration by purchasing and donating brand-new toys to children living in poverty. In fact, the tradition has been going on since before I met him: I started to secretly donate toys around the holidays as a teen with the proceeds from my part-time job. So I have a decade-long history with charity-giving for children.

And yet I’ve never had a year when the gift-giving process has been as difficult (or as satisfying) as this Christmas.

The reason seems simple to me. I’ve spent the last couple of years learning a lot about the needs of children – physical, social, intellectual, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and developmental – and I wanted to take those things into account as I picked gifts for my Christmas Children. I’ve learned a lot about what shapes the way we each think and feel about ourselves. Some of it has been intellectual “book-learning”, but a lot of it has been experiential. I’ve watched children grow. I’ve looked at myself more deeply. I’ve considered what trends in my past have shaped me into the person I became.

Even more so, though – most likely because of the recession looming over us – I’ve also spent a lot more time thinking practically about the conditions of real life for those who have substantially fewer financial resources to fall back on. That left me second-guessing a lot of the gift-giving possibilities at my disposal. Gift-giving with the poor child in mind is not the same as shopping for well-to-do kids. There’s a lot to think about.


The Demon-Haunted World

"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan

Image via Nullius in Verba.

Title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark

Author: Carl Sagan (my hero!)

Year of Publication: 1996

Genre Keywords: alien abduction, aliens, astrology, belief, credulity, critical thinking, culture, debunking, false memory, ghosts, hallucinations, history, human error, logic, reason, religion, science, skepticism, thought.

Summary: Brilliant popular scientist Carl Sagan takes on a culture of logical laziness in this readable and eloquent volume all about the errors we as human beings make in knowing and interpreting the world around us. He describes typical thinking errors like confirmation bias (our tendency to give more weight to information that supports what we want to believe), inconsistent logic, or confusion between correlation and causation. Along the way, he takes the American government and educational system to task for failing to create a citizen base with the knowledge required to think critically about information presented to them. He acknowledges, though, that it’s hard for governments to promote critical thought, lest they find themselves held accountable by a tough-to-manipulate electorate. For this reason and many others, Sagan argues convincingly, the world needs more skeptics, ready and willing to ask questions and ruthlessly demand the facts.

Who’ll Love It: If you’ve ever made the decision to doubt the received wisdom of any of the authorities in your world, at least some of Sagan’s words will resonate with you. Certainly he’s got a way with words and some highly amusing anecdotes. And fans of the Cosmos television series will practically hear his voice coming through the pages! But be warned – Sagan, like a proper skeptic, holds nothing sacred, and he does discuss ideas that will challenge any reader who takes anything on faith.

Carl Sagan is the reason Richard Dawkins and I agree on anything. Dawkins said in his review of the book, “My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl Sagan himself”. Amen! (Can you say ‘amen’ to Richard Dawkins?)

Want More? If Sagan’s words resonate deeply with you, or if they whet your curiosity and you’d like to learn more, I recommend the Center for Inquiry as a great resource. I’ve been following their “Point of Inquiry” podcast, and I find it fascinating, intelligent, and appealing. And I’ve just learned they have another pocast, “Center Stage” – I’m headed straight to iTunes to sign on. Check out their website for more on the very ideas Carl Sagan talks about in this book.

Scary Library: The Haunting of Willard Library

Willard Library

Image via Library Ghost.

Winter, 1937. It was a bitterly cold night in Evansville, Indiana, the kind of snowy winter night that sees most citizens buried under as many blankets as they can gather together. But at least one citizen was up and about – a solitary janitor whose name has been lost to posterity. He worked nights at beautiful Willard Library, keeping the building safe and warm by maintaining the coal-powered furnace overnight and attending whatever mundane maintenance tasks couldn’t be tackled during the day, when people came  in for quiet reading and study. In the early hours before dawn, as our hard-working janitor descended to the basement to stoke the fires yet again, he saw something he would likely never forget.

There was a lady there, clad all in gray, from the veil upon her head to the shoes on her feet. In the dim light, even her skin seemed gray. How could a woman possibly have gotten into the building? The flustered janitor fumbled his flashlight; it hit the hard ground, but it didn’t go out. He watched in shock as the woman before him dissolved into shadows, as if she had never been there.


Images Aren’t Real

I’m back from my vacation now, and I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to write about, but the first thing I want to point to is this site I found. Among many other things, Jezebel is crusading to keep unretouched images in the public eye, and they want you to understand why. It’s not to trash celebrities or to take famous people down a peg or two.

It’s to remind us that we’re not as unworthy as magazines, television, and the media in general would have us believing.

The basic idea: the more we’re exposed to the “before” images of celebrities looking like real people, the better we’ll each be equipped to remember that a celebrity doesn’t see her Cover Girl face when she looks in the mirror. She sees somebody pretty average, and it takes a lot of computer effects to create the “above-average” face needed to sell you whatever product the magazine is hawking.

And make no mistake, most magazines are selling something. If nothing else, they’re often selling you on the idea that you’re not good enough the way you are and buying some product will make you better.

Jennifer Aniston without makeup

How would you feel if you knew what Jennifer Aniston looked like before they Photoshopped her cover shot? Image via Jezebel.

For example: you look at Jennifer Aniston’s cover shot (above) and then you look at your own face in the mirror. Maybe you think to yourself, “Damn, I wish my skin was that vibrant and wrinkle-free”. Then you turn the page and what do you see? An ad for some sort of Olay skin cream promising to make your skin vibrant and wrinkle-free . . . like, say, Jennifer Aniston’s.

But check out that “before” shot from Jezebel. Even Jennifer Aniston doesn’t look vibrant and wrinkle-free without a lot of make-up, Photoshop, and other tricks of the trade that help her to attain the impossible standard of beauty we all see when we look at her. She’s not far above the rest of us ordinary mortals. She’s human, just like the rest of us.

And maybe if that’s true, it goes the other way too – the rest of us are beautiful, just like the famous women we idolize. Or, as Jezebel puts it:

Every day, a young woman somewhere sees one of these overly polished pictures for the first time…and has no idea that they’re not real. [. . .] What the girl does know is that the pictures show What Is Beautiful. She thinks they are reality. And maybe she doesn’t have someone in her life to point out that this is complete and utter bullsh*t. So we’ll do that, and we’ll do it over and over again just to make sure that everyone knows what’s up.

And as long as they keep making that point, I’ll keep passing it on. Why? Because I wouldn’t want my niece, my daughter, my sister, or my friend to think that if she doesn’t look like a Photoshopped picture all the time, she must not be beautiful.

Eggheads Have A Long Shelf Life

Eggs with faces sprouting cress for hair - a rather cool craft idea!

Eggheads sprout good ideas - and a healthier Canada. Image and concept courtesy of Youthwork Practice's craft page.

The latest issue of MacLean’s magazine (August 16, 2010) has a can’t-be-missed article about the direction Stephen Harper’s leadership is taking, and Canadians who believe in the value of critical thinking should pay attention. “Cracking Eggheads”, with a byline by Paul Wells, calls itself an article about “why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts on everything”.

The scary thing, though, is how the current system of government lends itself pretty handily to situations where it’s in a politician’s best interests to do what looks good on TV instead of what experts have shown will actually bring about the desired result. This could turn into a long-term trend in no time flat.

Harper is a politician who wants to continue to have power, so he’s focused on the optics of his decision-making. It’s particularly strategic, now that Ignatieff is the Liberal leader, for him to contrast himself against the “ivory-tower egghead” image by presenting himself as a salt-of-the-earth, keep-it-simple sort of leader. Anybody who’s distrustful of academia will gravitate towards Harper almost instinctively.

Here’s an example of Harper’s modus operandi taken directly from Paul Wells’ article: economic experts designed a comprehensive multi-year system of tax cuts for investment and income, tailor-made for Canada  to gain an economic boost. The Conservatives touted it in 2004 and lost the election. In 2006, they decided to simplify and switched to a simple GST cut. Sure, the experts pretty much unanimously agreed it was a dumb idea. But voters resented GST and liked the idea of paying less of it, so Stephen Harper’s popularity spiked. Says Wells: “The GST promise helped them win, and Harper’s team learned to treat conventional wisdom among specialists with a certain disdain.”

Double Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake

Let them eat cake. Image courtesy of Raw Food Nation. (Click for recipe!)

Did we create this by our electoral choices? Are we, the Canadian people, at fault here? I’m not sure we should let ourselves off lightly and focus on criticizing Harper. This is politics at the level of electing a student body president, where popularity trumps good ideas and solid research. If we’re voting based on who’s telling us what we want to hear, rather than based on smart decision-making and leadership, we probably deserve what we get. And we give politicians no reason to approach us with solid, expert-backed ideas if we’re willing to vote for whatever guy is going to promote an easy-way-out option. It might not be a good solution, but does it ever look like fun to us. It’s the reason why the grapefruit diet will always be less popular than the chocolate-cherry-cheesecake weight loss plan.

Do I really need to point out that its popularity doesn’t make it a good decision?

To be fair, and to complicate the mix somewhat, we also have to think critically about why Maclean’s is criticizing Harper’s thinking. It’s certainly possible (maybe even probable) for a journalist or media outlet to exhibit bias. But if the facts reported are correct, Harper’s government is making political decisions that conflict with expert consensus across a broad range of issues – crime, drug control, taxation, climate change, even data collection itself. He’s taking the lazy road. But the job of any head of state is (ideally) to set up our society and government in such a way that our country can achieve its goals and succeed. That’s different from a politician’s job. A head of state has to set aside political ambition and run the country in the smartest way possible. But a politician’s only job is to win.

Stephen Harper is a politician, not a head of state. He tells us what we want to hear, and we lap it up.

But I for one am quite concerned about the implications of a government lacking the humility to accept the advice of experts on policies that touch on their own areas of expertise. What’s more, experts are impaired in their ability to monitor policy success without a comprehensive census, so we may not even be able to find out if the policies our so-called leaders select for us have done any good for Canadians. Without any hard data, we’re arguing in the realm of opinions instead of making smart choices about what to do. Taking the teeth out of the census has crippled Canadian experts. Which doesn’t matter, I suppose, if nobody’s listening to them anyway.

Except it should matter, and I’m even more concerned that our government values their short-term goal – staying in political power as long as possible – more than the nation’s long-term goal – moving towards a better future for all Canadians. We elected these people. We voted for politicians who have long stopped caring how the history books will describe them once they’re gone. They don’t care about their legacy, and neither do we.  Their main interest is in what web polls and the blogosphere are saying – their level of popularity. And by swallowing their sweet-sounding rhetoric instead of looking closely at expert critiques of their policies, we’re telling them that they’re right to do it. Making Canada a better country doesn’t matter. Image is everything.

If we’re such a short-sighted society, being led by short-sighted leaders, how can we possibly survive the challenges that face us in the near future?

This has become a society where information mows you down every time you step out the front door – and if you don’t, it’ll come through your window and find you. It’s past time for us to learn how to sift through that information and decide what constitutes real knowledge and what’s just talk. Gathering knowledge is smart political action. We have to think critically, inform ourselves about the issues, and refuse to make decisions based on sound bytes and shortcuts. Maybe if we make long-term consideration a priority, we can turn the tides and elect a government willing to do the same for Canada.

I’m not much of a drinker, but believe me, I’d drink to that.

Stephen Harper raises his glass for a toast.

Cheers, Canada! Image courtesy of Maclean's online.

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