Healthy Skepticism and Critical Thinking

Posted on November 21st, 2006 in Commentary by EngineerBoy

When I was in middle school we studied about a new ship built by Howard Hughes that was going to harvest nickel and manganese nodules off of the ocean floor. We learned that volcanic and tectonic processes had littered the ocean floor with hardened globs of nearly pure nickel, manganese, and other various metals, and that harvesting them with a specialized ship would be cheaper and more ecologically friendly than traditional mining and smelting.

We learned that the engineers at Hughes’ ship company had developed radical new technology that could be lowered from a surface ship to the deep parts of the ocean floors, and to identify and snag said nodules and haul them to the surface. The prototype nodule harvesting ship was called the Glomar Explorer. It was all very cool and interesting to science geek like me, and the nerd factor combined with the always mysterious and reclusive Howard Hughes made this subject incredibly interesting to me and my cohorts.

However, a year or so after learning all about the Glomar Explorer and the natural forces that created metal nodules, I then learned that the entire story was a lie. Well, not all of it, just the purpose of the ship was a lie – the ship itself had indeed been built for the purposes of retrieving stuff from deep ocean waters. However, what it was designed to do was to retrieve a sunken Soviet nuclear sub so that US intelligence could get their hands on it.

The short version of the story is that the US knew that a Soviet nuclear sub called the K-129 had sunk in water so deep that conventional wisdom said it was forever lost. However, the CIA wanted to get their hands on the sub, but were unable or unwilling to go through normal governmental channels to try to develop the technology needed to recover it. So, they contacted reclusive, patriotic billionaire Howard Hughes, and he agreed to put his not inconsiderable wealth and the technical expertise of his engineers to work developing a way to snag the sub. You can read a lot more about the Glomar Explorer here.

To say I was flabbergasted to learn the truth would be an understatement. I had been taught about the Glomar Explorer in school by my teachers, for crying out loud. Authority figures. Trustworthy elders. But they had been duped along with me. Yes, manganese nodules existed on the ocean floor, but not in quantities that would make it worthwhile to harvest. And yes, Hughes built the Glomar Explorer to grab stuff from the ocean floor with a giant claw. But that was all a cover story, which cracked within a year or so and the truth came out.

To top it all off, during the time that all of this was happening the US was also losing its political innocence via the Watergate break-in and cover up. I won’t bore with those details (because you should already know them), but suffice it to say that Watergate was a cold slap in the face with a dead mackeral to anyone who had unfailing faith in the rightness, justness, and truthiness of their federal government.

These two events caused me to really open my eyes and to carefully assess all the “facts” that I was taught in school, heard on the news, and read in the papers. It didn’t make me jaded so much as give me a healthy skepticism, and also an understanding that “truth” was a very slippery concept, and that the tellers of tales always filtered their stories through their own sensibilities (in the best case) and/or transmogrified their stories to suit their Machiavillian goals (the normal case (see, there’s that healthy skepticism)).

United Sheep of America

However, in America today I find an astonishing lack of healthy skepticism and critical thinking. It appears to me that people move through the buffet line of available political and social identities, pick the one they most closely identify with, and then cloak themselves in it without ever questioning the basic tenets and pontificating pundits of said identity. They pick their team and they stick with it, through thick and thin. Unfortunately, politics, government, and social reform are not a game and blind loyalty to one’s “team” is simply laziness, ignorance, pig-headedness, and/or stupidity. For more on the topic of American’s sheeplike tendencies see Believe and Belong: American Politics, Religion, and Sports elsewhere on this site.

But it’s not just those areas where people seem to follow blindly, it’s everywhere. For example, I know people who will put absolute faith in one single direct experience of one single person when making an automobile purchasing decision, and will flippantly dismiss rigorously compiled independent safety, performance, and reliability data. “Bob loves his Volkswagen Touareg, never had a problem.” Yeah, well, what if Bob is a strutting ignoramus who would never deign to impugn his own purchasing decisions? What if Consumer Reports says the Touareg has reliability rating of “Much worse than average”? Doesn’t matter, as all the empirical data in the world is meaningless because…well…because I don’t know why.

That’s a big blind spot for me, I have to admit. I pride myself on the fact that I can usually at least understand the other person’s point of view in most discussions/disagreements. But in this one I can’t fathom the logic (or lack of) in making such a major purchasing decision based on curb appeal and hearsay. Right now there are thousands of very unhappy Touareg owners out there who could have saved themselves a lot of greenbacks and heartache by doing 10 minutes of research before purchasing.

I have discussed this very behavior with several people who bought known-crappy vehicles that turned out to be very repair-prone, and asked why they wouldn’t check with Consumer Reports first. I universally got the same answer, which was that since a good rating with CR didn’t *guarantee* a good car, and a bad rating didn’t *guarantee* a bad car, that made the Consumer Reports ratings worthless. That’s really what they said. My response, of course, was that although they were correct that CR ratings provided no guarantees that didn’t make them worthless and that the CR ratings were still a strong predictor of reliability. But that logic fell on deaf ears. No guarantee equals no validity. Period.

Probability and Statistics

One of the most boring yet challenging courses I took in college was Probability and Statistics. One of the big things you learn in Prob and Stat is that there are very few sure things, and very few precise statistics. For example, a recent CNN story declared that “a new study adds to mounting evidence that older people who regularly attend religious services are healthier than those who don’t“. The article makes no mention of the fact that an equally plausible explanation is that older people who are healthier are better able to get up, get dressed, and get to and from church services. The article implies causality, meaning that going to church causes better health, but ignores the equally logical explanation that better health increases the ability to attend church.

My take is that CNN was merely reporting what the researchers reported, but this kind of lazy logic is pervasive, and the saddest part is that the American public accepts it. Not only accepts it, but doesn’t even notice it! I have discussions about these kinds of topics with (identity redacted to protect the innocent) and (ditto) and when presented with alternative explanations they respond with, yes, that could be true, but if it is then why are they reporting the opposite on the news? The possibility that the producers of news are either ignorant, apathetic, or manipulative seem to be unthinkable because, well, they’re “the news”, right?

There is an infinitely interesting book that relates to this topic called Freakonomics, which focuses in part on the confusion among the American masses between causality and correlation. All people have a tendency to look for things that are correlated and then try to figure out causality. Freakonomics relates the story of a dictator/king who noticed that the areas in his kingdom with the most doctors also had the most sick people. He concluded that doctors caused sickness and ordered the slaughter of doctors. We in the modern world can look back and cluck our tongues at the primitive foolishness of such a conclusion and action.

However, we in the modern world are guilty of similar dumb conclusions, if not necessarily on the same scale as slaughtering doctors. Violent musical lyrics cause teen murders and suicides? There may be a correlation between troubled teens and troubling music, but how about the equally plausible explanation that disturbed teens fixate on dark themes? Doesn’t that make as much, or more, sense? Charles Manson was obsessed with the Beatles song Helter Skelter, for crying out loud, and while that song does have some imagery none of it is violent or murderous. But Mr. Manson used the song as the crux to stir his devotees up into a murderous state and send them out to do his bidding. Would the absence of Helter Skelter have prevented the Manson Family murders? Highly unlikely. And Columbine? Disturbed, disaffected teens take guns to school and murder their classmates and we choose to blame…music? What about parents? What about teachers and counselors? What about friends? What about all of the normal social support structures that were supposed to catch and help these kids? It all failed. I’m sure it was because of music, aren’t you?

Okay Smart Guy, What If You’re Right?

So let’s say for the sake of argument that you agree with, or at least stipulate for the sake of argument, the assertions in this article. So what? The American public are ignorant lunkheads sitting around waiting to believe without question the next barely plausible report they hear from their preferred information sources. Who cares? And even more to the point, what could be done about it if it were true? The sad truth is nothing can be done directly in the short term. The causes of this mass gullibility can only be speculated upon, but my theory is that we are inundated with information to the point where trying to assess and process it all has become nearly impossible. Blogs, feeds, customized news pages, 24 hour news networks, headline news networks, satellite radio, traditional print media, etc, etc, etc. It can become so overwhelming that instead of trying to find and assess their own information, people instead find information sources that they put their faith in, and then consume the speculation, opinions, and conclusions from these sources as gospel. The selection of sources typically is based on finding an outlet that is loudly screaming the primary beliefs of the searching consumer.

I think and hope that the big pendulum of the universe will swing back the other way, back to hard news reported by reporters who are trying to satisfy their intelligent viewers, not infotainment recited by spokesmodels who are trying to hump their owners/sponsors. I know that there are others like me who want balanced, investigative journalism, not ratings-grabbing vitriol. However, it’s easier today for the media to make money by appealing to discrete, easily definable, thickly populated demographics than by striving to be an unimpeachable source of factual information. There are still truth-seekers out there, and I think it falls to each of us to shake off our lethargic passivity, get up, go to our windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”.

Go ahead, try it. Howard Beale, Bob Woodward, Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, Ed Bradley, and Edward R. Murrow would be proud of you.

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