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Letter: Inconvenient truths

This letter from Leland McInnes eloquently sums up so many of the issues I keep returning to in Scanners (recently in regard to "United 93," "The Da Vinci Code," "An Inconvenient Truth") -- because, well, I'm obsessed with their vital importance: (film) criticism and critical thinking, skepticism, logic, conspiratorial thinking, art, religion, science, politics, you name it:

Joe Killin wrote a letter on the topic of theories and skepticism. There is a valid place for skepticism, especially in science where no result is ever certain, merely highly likely given the evidence. There is a distinct difference, however, between the skepticism that keeps an open mind and the sort of perverse skepticism required to reject well-supported theories.

There is a classic tale of Pyrrho, the founder of skepticism as a philosophy. He took the view that without certainty it was impossible to know which course of action was wiser. When out walking one day he found his teacher stuck in a ditch, unable to get out. After contemplating for a while, he walked on, having decided that he could not be certain he would actually do any good.

It is, in a sense, this sort of perverse skepticism that drives many to take what seem peculiar stances. For them a theory need only be shown to have points of doubt or uncertainty (as all theories do). This gives rise to an interesting rhetorical form that has become increasingly common: to attack theories by ignoring the mountains of evidence collected in support of them and focusing instead on a scattered array of diverse minor points for which a completely adequate explanation hasn't yet been formulated.

I wrote an essay discussing how documentaries like "Loose Change" and climate change skeptics both share that strategy, and it should be noted that the argument is equally true of those supporting Intelligent Design. In practice what we are witnessing is dialogue being reduced to a yelling match based on bullet points, with little or no interest in real content, and discerning where the actual preponderance of evidence falls. We now live with such a glut of information that no-one is actually interested in most of it anymore.

The reality is that any theory (outside of mathematical and logical theorems) will have points which are not fully explained. Given a format of debate where merely raising these points of uncertainty is enough to declare a theory as being on "equal footing" with any other, we quickly sink into absurdity. It is quite easy, using the style of Intelligent Design arguments, to construct a case (fully supported by peer reviewed journal articles) that gravity is a lie, and we should be teaching the controversy on that front.

Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but the growing acceptance of this perverse skepticism is worrying. It seems that with so much information available people are less and less interested in actually learning from it. Or as T.S. Eliot said "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Leland McInnes

Beautifully done! I urge readers to check out both essays linked to above. (The one about "teaching the controversy" -- gravity vs. Uncaused Force -- is brilliant and hilarious.)

This reminded me to also recommend several excellent and engaging popular books by Michael Shermer (head of, yes, The Skeptics Society): "Why People Believe Weird Things," a wonderful overview of the flawed perceptions behind everything from UFOs to near-death experiences to pseudoscience to Holocaust denial; "How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God"; and "The Science of Good and Evil : Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule." All of them invoke the kind of disciplined critical thinking that is the hallmark of true skepticism, not the dubious sort Leland McInnes so concisely demolishes in his letter.

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