Critical Thinking – Time for a Comprehensive National Curriculum

“If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence. If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?”
— Sam Harris

It seems there is no shortage of existential crises facing us here in the United States.  Some of these are global in scope and require a global response much in the same way the discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons, gases which were used in aerosol cans, were destroying the Ozone layer required a global response.  Climate change, ocean acidification, wanton destruction of forests and other habitats, pollution of the air, ground, and water for short term economic gains are just some of the issues that modern civilization has to deal with.  Each one, if allowed to proceed unchecked, is more than capable of destroying most of humanity’s habitat, if not all of it. All of these issues, in spite of the gravity and pressing nature each one holds, have been stubbornly resistant in gaining the global consensus that will be needed to successfully solve the problems they each present.

When we look into the situation a bit further, it becomes even more depressing to those of us who want the human race to exist and flourish rather than become extinct in a handful of generations. When I talk about a consensus I do not mean solving disagreements among groups as to the most effective way to mitigate the effects or which technologies would be the best to embrace in the short and long term.  No, the consensus I am talking about is way more basic than that:  It is gaining a consensus that these issues even exist.  But wait, there’s more!  The inability of our society to agree on what is real and not real is not limited to facing existential crises.  This intellectual paralysis has infected just about every aspect of our lives and, as with all paralysis, the effects couldn’t be more damaging.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

― Issac Asimov

Since Issac spoke those words the cult has become a full-blown religion with mega-churches and celebrity pastors. The ideas they preach to their millions of followers are a full-throated defense of anti-intellectualism and the moral duty of each congregant to advance this Zeitgeist into the culture at large.   In a particularly bizarre example of this celebrity grifter Franklin Graham engaged in a bizarre attack on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the county’s leading epidemiologist. The issue for Graham?  What is truth and who has the monopoly on it.  Graham posted this to his Twitter feed during the brush-up:

Truth

So let’s stop and take a look at the claims being made.  One one hand we have Dr. Fauci and the science of epidemiology.  This science has eradicated diseases that have plagued the human race for thousands of years. On the other hand, we have Franklin Graham who offers us, “Pestilence is caused by sin.” Now, while others may justifiably go after the utter moral bankruptcy of Graham, the fact we really need to consider is that millions of people unquestioningly accept Graham’s claim and actively reject the evidence of Dr. Fauci and science. Why this is so and, most importantly, what can be done to change this and get the nation as a whole back on the road to sanity is where we should be directing all our efforts.

A brief look at why this is so will allow us to put everything in focus. We’ll be able to see that the primary battleground is not in the political, scientific, or religious arenas. These are all secondary skirmishes.  The real fight is for the contents of our children’s education. This is not a recent battle; it has been going on for decades.  Anti-intellectual interests have been trying to get their narrative into the school system with such ploys as Intelligent Design buttressed by a well-coordinated political campaign against Boards of Education exhorting them to “teach the controversy”.  The defense against this effort has failed miserably and the result can be seen all around us from anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, homeopathic medicine, just to name a few.  While there was a robust defense in the courts with rulings all in favor of the science, there was no response to the attack by the educational system to the ideas that were introduced while the controversies raged. If, at the time, the educational system would have responded by instituting a mandatory national curriculum of Critical Thinking skills we may never have had to endure things such as the anti-vaxxers and the subsequent reappearance of childhood diseases in epidemic proportions that were virtually non-existent, for example. Certainly, the correctly predicted re-appearance of said diseases should have resigned the anti-vaxxer narrative or fable, as I like to call it, to the intellectual septic tank where it belongs.  Yet, they persisted as preventable disease after preventable disease made their reappearances.  They know the science; they wield all sorts of technical jargon in their vacuous arguments.  It is a lack of critical thinking that is the culprit.  Those educated in critical thinking could see right through their nonsense arguments and could have dispensed with it and their attempts to hijack actual medicine long before any child needlessly contracted a preventable disease.

Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher.  We are decades into this anti-intellectual mess and the halls of power in this country are filled with people who pride themselves on how little they know.  Worse yet, conspiracy theories and the people who push them, are now gaining political power if the recent primary elections here in the United States are any indication. We need to equip our children with the tools to stop and reverse this and we need to start now.  The most effective way of doing this is by making Critical Thinking Skills a required core curriculum nation-wide, K-12. A majority of the educators, the teachers, in this country would sign onto this effort wholeheartedly.  Many are already advocating for it. If we graduate a generation of children equipped with the robust education available to them augmented by the ability to reason correctly the intractable problems we now face will disappear and we will be able to find the needed consensus to tackle any problems we face. Finding a cure for Polio and putting a man on the moon are the results that critical thinking has given us. It can give us so much more if we put the effort into teaching it to all our children starting now.

A country with no defense.

As the pandemic rages across America, social media is filled with memes and personal declarations about the ‘right’ to choose to wear a mask when out in public.  Earlier this week, President Trump ordered that hospital data regarding COVID19 will no longer be sent to the CDC.  Instead, it will be sent to the White House.  A little further digging showed that the data will actually go to two private companies both owned by friends of the President. There is a coordinated campaign by the White House to undermine the credibility of Dr. Anthony Fauci as his statements regarding COVID19 are “undermining the President’s message.” The White House views this pandemic as a PR battle, not as a battle against a pathogen that is killing Americans and threatening to overwhelm our healthcare system to the point where it may very well collapse completely from both the number of cases and the attrition of healthcare workers from the virus.

I could provide example after example of the dysfunction in our political leadership and in our citizens in failing to deal with this pandemic. What is clear is that the American response to COVID19 has been a failure by any objective standard one wishes to use. The end result is that we must resign ourselves to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the crippling of thousands who are lucky to survive a bout with the virus, and the damage to the economy that has yet to be fully grasped. We may very well feel the effects of this for generations.

The response by the foreign press and my friends who live outside of the United States is quite sobering.  The most common sentiment I see is pity and confusion.  How could the United States, the world leader in science, be crippled by this virus? How much needless suffering is being imposed on Americans?  Why does the United States refuse to follow the practices of all the other countries that have beaten this virus and now report zero cases at their hospitals for days and, in some cases, for weeks? There are attempts by many political pundits to understand why this has happened but there is one fact that they all agree on: The United States was wide open to both the introduction and spread of this virus.  It has neither the infrastructure nor the will to fight this virus. The infrastructure has been dismantled by the Trump administration and various media outlets have convinced a significant number of Americans that science is only one opinion among many. The eyes of our friends and allies are filled with tears as they watch us suffer through this.

There are other eyes watching the goings-on here that are not filled with tears. They are watching intently at our catastrophic failure to deal with a pathogen that has a five to ten percent mortality rate at best. They see the rest of the world walling us off; a US passport is essentially useless at this point.  These eyes are also in possession of military-grade pathogens that have been engineered to be incredibly effective at killing their hosts. We are talking about mortality rates of 50% or better. At this point, it is even questionable if we could identify the pathogen before it killed millions of Americans.   Were we to uncover intelligence that something like this was about to happen, our intelligence communities would not be believed by a significant number of Americans and politicians. Our once great laboratories have been shut down and defunded and hundreds of scientists who specialized in the field of pathogens have been given their walking papers. The scientific capability to identify and fight something like this is gone. Our pathetic response to COVID19 shows every bad actor in the world we are completely defenseless against a concerted biological attack against this country.

We live in a culture that has become detached from reality.  We have people here in America that believe the earth is flat and is only six thousand years old.  Some of these people hold positions of immense political power.  The Vice President comes to mind as does the Secretary of State. They have deluded themselves to the point where they have left this country completely defenseless. Let us hope that none of the existential threats that are out there decide to take advantage of this situation we find ourselves in.

 

 

COVID 19 and Science Denialism

“Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.” Isaac Asimov, The Secret of the Universe

As of today, May 20th, 2020, COVID 19 has killed 324,962 worldwide.  Almost a third of those deaths, 93,533, have occurred in the United States.  We are currently conducting what I call the Grand Experiment here in the States.  In spite of the unanimous opinion of scientists and doctors, we are opening the United States back up, giving the virus back vectors that allowed it to spread and quickly threaten to overcome both the healthcare system here in the states as well as other healthcare systems around the world.  In the interest of higher stock prices, we are willing to risk both American lives and the sure destruction of the economy if the virus gets out of control.

Donald Trump has called this effort a “war”.  His critics claim he is simply using hyperbole so as to cement his legacy as a “war-time” President. In this instance, however, I agree with him.  Invaders can take all forms and come at us in many different ways. It doesn’t necessarily have to be rival gangs of mammals equipped with guns, aircraft, and explosives.  It could be an invasive species of insect that preys on insects beneficial to our agriculture or, as with the Zika virus, the insects can transmit a virus directly. In the case of the Coronavirus which causes COVID 19, we are the carriers as the virus spreads throughout our environment. So this is a war in every sense of the word; our opponent uses stealth so it is invisible.  Science, until it develops a vaccine or a treatment, such as Tamiflu for the influenza virus, has given us clear instructions on how to slow down the spread and, when followed to the letter as the South Koreans did, even stop it in its tracks.

Most countries have recognized the seriousness of this Pandemic and followed the science.  Three countries, the United States, Russia, and Brazil have not.  We are about to experience the full force of the virus while Brazil and Russia are at the very cusp. While the United States still leads the world in the number of new daily cases, 20,289, Brazil is second with 16,517, and Russia is third with 9,263.  Brazil is poised to start passing the United States in many of the categories, the most sobering being new deaths each day.  It is interesting that all three countries are led by a self-proclaimed Strong Man who is quite willing to ignore the scientists and other experts and instead follow his ‘instincts’.

While I could write volumes on Putin or Bolsonaro, living here in the United States I am way more concerned with the consequences here.  Each day the internet is filled with right-wing websites, blogs, and social media pages vilifying the science and the scientists who are tasked with fighting this war against COVID 19.  Their recommendations are viewed as liberal assaults on ‘freedoms’.  The issue of wearing a protective mask illustrates this anti-science/anti-expert sentiment like nothing else.  It is as if there were Londoners during the blitz who refused to turn their lights off to help stymie the German bombing runs in the name of ‘freedom’. No one could be that stupid, you say?  Hold to that claim and I can guarantee the right-wing in this country will make a fool out of you. Even if a vaccine is developed, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans would refuse it.  Why you ask?  Because the anti-vax community has convinced them that this is a surreptitious way of introducing a microchip into people in order to track their every move.  This they tweet, post, and IM from their cell phones that they willingly carry around with them everywhere they go.  Mad, isn’t it?

“I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
― Christopher Hitchens

There is an exception to this anti-science rhetoric by the right-wing.  One of the more common canards you hear is that modern medicine is hiding the cure for cancer and that all one needs to do is a search on Google and YouTube for both the proof of this claim and, more importantly, for the myriad of cures that are out there. One of my favorites is German New Medicine which claims, among other things, that “mainstream medicine is regarded as a conspiracy promulgated by Jews.”  You can find out about it and others here.  There is a notable exception to this narrative about cancer and the medical community. It happens when they or a loved one gets diagnosed with the disease.  Gone are the posts about the nefarious medical mafia and their schemes.  Suddenly we are all extorted to pray for the doctors so God will guide their hands and to pray for the unfortunate victims.  They sit silently in front of the cancer surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists, mouths shut, hanging on every word. “We must pay close attention and do what we are told by the experts in order to beat this terrible disease.” But what about the coffee enemas?  “Shut up, you are not a doctor!”  Sorry, I was just repeating what you told me a few months ago.

You can cut the hypocrisy with the same knife the surgeon uses to remove the cancer.

The Greatest Discovery Of All – Part 1

I’ve often posed the question to people, “What do you consider the greatest discovery in our species’ history?”  The answers are all over the board; all of them very good ones.  Many point to writing, some go even further back to the discovery of language.  Some point to our building skills, clothing, various monetary systems, and such.  Some will dive into science where there are a plethora of ideas all seeming to vie for the moniker of “Greatest Discovery”.  Darwin’s evolution, Semmelweis’s nascent discovery of antiseptic, the discoveries of anesthesia, vaccines, and the pathogen theory of disease are but a few that could be named. Astronomy would strenuously wave the flag as well, as would Physics and I could devote paragraphs delineating the many history-changing discoveries of both.

I’m sure the reader has thought of a number of things that they might offer as “the greatest”.  Let me ask the reader:  were the discoveries that came to mind discoveries about the world we live in?  Discoveries that changed how we lived, discoveries that lessened the suffering that for thousands of years seemed to be our lot?  I humbly suggest an answer that it was a discovery about ourselves, not the world external to us, that was the greatest discovery of all.

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”   — Christopher Hitchens

Up until this discovery, certainty was a hallmark of our understanding of the universe and our place in it.  We only needed to ask the religious leaders of whatever land we found ourselves in.  We can even do it today.  Take any religious leader that you know.  Are they absolutely certain about what they know?  This claimed knowledge and the certainty of it were beyond questioning.  In the cases of religions that were in the position of making an offer no one could refuse, questioning this certainty would cost your life.  Not giving verbal assent to those certainties would cost you your life.  There are places in the world today where this is the state of affairs and in those places where it is not, the religious continually yearn for a return to those days and are actively working on making that happen.  The discovery that I would offer rejected that certainty and in its stead claimed to be certain of nothing and to know nothing about the world operated.  It was that seminal grasp of our ignorance when looking out at the universe we found ourselves in is what I would claim to be the greatest discovery of our species.  It was that intellectual cornerstone upon which all the future great discoveries depended on.

Can we pinpoint in history when this happened?  No, I don’t think we can and even if we could point to a specific example, I would suggest that this epiphany has happened many, many times, over many centuries and in many lands. It happens today. It is the driving force behind science and the search for truth. The understanding of how little we know about the universe lights in us a quest to fill that void with knowledge. This knowledge has turned our existence from what Thomas Hobbs called, “nasty, brutish and short” into the lives that we experience today.

More to come….

Review |Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book the author delves into the perilous depths of predicting the future. Regardless of where you come down on the issues and his prognostications you will be thinking about this book long after you have put it down. The author takes two technologies still in their beginning stages, biotechnology and data processing coupled with ever more powerful AI algorithms and extrapolates the impact these two fields will have to economics, humans and the value of human life. The author uses a broad brush so the reader gets everything from the ‘rose colored glasses’ scenario to a bleak dystopian future chronicling the last days of the human race. One comes away with the impression that both scenarios are possible; it all depends on who gets their hands on the technology first and their subsequent ability to control it.

Of particular interest to me were the authors treatment of two subjects: free will and Humanism. Discussions regarding free will have become increasingly popular with a number of authors such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett recently releasing books on the subject. Dr. Harari’s treatment of free will is as good an introduction as I’ve seen to the subject. His treatment of Humanism is even better and, while I still have some issues with specifics he has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions and change some of my views. I would love to see Dr. Harari’s next book delve deep into Humanism. His historical approach to understanding a subject would work quite well with Humanism and add a great deal of value to the current discussions.

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Review |The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and FreedomThe Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting read/listen. Shermer presents a number of arguments to show and explain the apparent correlation between the advance of science and the advance of our moral sensibilities. Having considered Shermer’s arguments I am still not fully convinced that it is the rise of science and reason that is informing and driving the moral insights of society and is the prime mover of ‘bending the moral arc’ as Shermer calls it. We have had science and scientific progress in any number of societies over the course of history; the Chinese and the Arab world are two that come to mind yet there was no corresponding rise in either the standard of living or moral sensibilities which mimic Western society over the past 100 years. While I would agree that science is a necessary condition for moral progress to occur I don’t think that Shermer makes the case that it is a sufficient condition.

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