Wednesday, June 8, 2011

God's Quality Control 7.0: Fairy Tale for Grownups

In this series I'll discuss some of my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups, which is subtitled "101 questions to shake believers' blind faith in the theory."

Before I start, I invite you to join me in offering some condolences. On May 26, 2011, Ray tweeted that his mother had died. Maybe now is a good time for us to recall that although we hate what Ray is doing in the world, he is, in the end, a human being just like the rest of us, with the capacity to grieve and suffer. Ray, we're genuinely sorry for your loss and your pain, you and everyone else who will miss her.

Now, let's talk about the two primary goals of this series. The first one is the obvious one: to perform my usual quality control services for the superstitionist community. The second goal, while less obvious, is the more important one, and hopefully will be useful to a wide audience regardless of metaphysical inclinations: I hope to demystify somewhat the concept of critical thinking. I get the impression that many of us don't really know what it means to think critically, and even more of us are frightened away from the idea because it sounds too complicated and seems to require too much specialized knowledge. I hope to show here that you need no specialized background, training, or specific knowledge in order to think critically. Further, I get the impression that many of us consider ourselves unqualified to think critically, because critical thinking seems like the domain of really smart people, and we tend to think of ourselves as not all that smart. I hope to show here that although some effort is required, the level of effort is not nearly so high as it may seem. You are smart enough. No, you'll probably never find yourself handing William Lane Craig's pseudo-philosophical ass to him, but you are definitely at least smart enough to follow a line of reasoning and determine whether it makes any sense or even warrants your attention.

I plan to cover Comfort's points in detail. You guys let me know if it starts to seem like too much or too little. I have some thoughts for those of you who find the level of detail intimidating. Don't stress about it. There won't be a pop quiz at the end of the series. Just take in what you can and try to recognize the broad brushstrokes. You don't have to understand every last trifle in order to recognize sloppy thinking and faulty conclusions. Hopefully this video series will help to demonstrate that and maybe even add something to your set of critical thinking tools.

The subtitle of the book is "101 questions to shake believers' blind faith in the theory." Let's talk about "blind faith." Why do I believe, for example, what I read in the June 2011 issue of Discover magazine: that there are about ten non-human microbes in your body for every human cell? Is it because I have some unconscious prejudice for swallowing whole everything I read in Discover magazine? No. Is it because the statement confirms my pre-existing biases? No. Why then? Because I have long experience with this magazine. What has my experience been? Almost every time I've explored any of the stories in this magazine—and over the years I've explored many—I've found them to be written by qualified, educated, knowledgeable scientists and science journalists, and supported by independent sources. I find that the topics discussed and the fact-claims made mesh harmoniously with topics and fact-claims that I've heard from other parts of the scientific community, even those engaged in only distantly related fields of research. I also find that my own hands-on experiences with the world, from throwing a baseball to washing the dishes to rubbing a balloon against my head until it stays there by itself, support (or at least fail to contradict) anything I've read in this magazine.

But even personal experience isn't quite enough. As I've pointed out in other videos, personal experience can't always be trusted. In the extreme case, some people literally hallucinate. Obviously we can't trust hallucinations. But even in every day life, we as individuals get the facts wrong all the time. Our perceptions fails us, our memories fail us, our biases mislead us. It turns out that we unconsciously deal with these problems all the time, by comparing our individual experiences and perceptions to those of the people around us. Just think how you would react if you were in the middle of a conversation with someone who interrupts you to say hello to a person that you think isn't really there. You would automatically know that something is amiss.

The scientific method is the formal version of comparing our experiences to those of the people around us. First, I deal with my perceptual weaknesses by performing experiments and observations repeatedly. Second, I deal with my bad memory by documenting my studies. Third, I deal with my biases by publishing my results, allowing other people to repeat my experiments and observations and compare their conclusions to mine.

I've already said everything I can say to show that this way of thinking is not at all blind faith. If you disagree, you'll probably consider this video series a waste of time, and there probably is no way to have a reasonable conversation about it. Regardless of what superstitionists may think of it, and regardless of whether someone slaps the label of "blind faith" on it, the scientific method—whether employed casually and unconsciously, or formally and carefully—is the best we have ever found for understanding the world in which we find ourselves.

That's 7.0. As always, I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on this and all the videos in the series. Thanks for watching.

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