Skepticism in the Superempowered Era 2 – Assessments, Judgements, and Actions


Tim Roberts is the Founder/Administrator of Unsolved Problems. He self-describes in “A Brief and Almost True Biography” as follows: “I was definitely born lower-middle class.  Britain was (and probably still is) so stratified that one’s status could be easily classified.  You were only working class if you lived in Scotland or Wales, or in the north of England, or had a really physical job like dustbin-man.  You were only middle class if you lived in the south, had a decent-sized house, probably with a mortgage, and at work you had to use your brain, at least a little. My mother was at the upper end of lower-middle class, my father at the lower. After suffering through the first twenty years of my life because of various deleterious genetically-acquired traits, which resulted in my being very small and very sickly, and a regular visitor to hospitals, I became almost normal in my 20s, and found work in the computer industry.  I was never very good, but demand in those days was so high for anyone who knew what a computer was that I turned freelance, specializing in large IBM mainframe operating systems, and could often choose from a range of job opportunities. As far away as possible sounded good, so I went to Australia, where I met my wife, and have lived all the latter half of my life. Being inherently lazy, I discovered academia, and spent 30 years as a lecturer, at three different universities.  Whether I actually managed to teach anyone anything is a matter of some debate.  The maxim “publish or perish” ruled, so I spent an inordinate amount of time writing crap papers on online education, which required almost no effort. My thoughts, however, were always centred on such pretentious topics as quantum theory and consciousness and the nature of reality.  These remain my over-riding interest today, some five years after retirement. I have a reliance on steroids and Shiraz, and possess an IQ the size of a small planet, because I am quite good at solving puzzles of no importance, but I have no useful real-world skills whatsoever.  I used to know a few things, but I have forgotten most of them.” Here we discuss the making of assessments, of judgements, and actions based on those judgments.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If we take the distinction between false ideas and bad ideas seriously, and if we want to take critical thinking seriously, what distinguishes critical thinking from ordinary thinking?

Tim Roberts: Ordinary thinking is a general term referring to brain activity of which we are partly or totally aware.  It may be directed or random, and any conclusions reached may be correct or incorrect.

Critical thinking is the application of logic and rationality to ideas of all kinds. 

Jacobsen: Is there such a thing as critical thinking without scientific thinking tied to it?

Roberts: This depends on what is meant by scientific thinking.  It is not a phrase I would use. 

Jacobsen: What level of dishonesty seems healthy if looking for some social lubrication?

Roberts: Well, I would say as little as possible, but unfortunately, this is not the case. 

Ninety-nine per cent of parents are dishonest to their children, of course, since they tell them that Santa Claus exists, and lives at the North Pole, and rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeers, and many other fictions.

They do this with good intentions, but nevertheless are being deliberately dishonest. 

Even amongst adults, we often feel obliged to tell untruths.  At a dinner party, only the harshest guest will feel able to tell the host that their main course was tough and tasteless, preferring instead to say that it was very nice, and maybe even that they are an excellent cook…

The theme of having to be completely honest has been used as a basic plot line in several movies and TV shows, of course – all, necessarily, comedies.

Jacobsen: When is it appropriate to raise some of these issues of critical thinking about homeopathy or televangelists in conversation?

Roberts: There is a maxim that was first uttered by David Morrison, the Chief of the Australian army, that has become very cliched over recent times – that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. 

So when one comes across nonsense, or untruths of any kind, which we consider deleterious, we should call them out. 

At least, in circumstances where such calling out will be less harmful than letting such nonsense stand without being challenged.

Jacobsen: If we’re taking post-colonial societies, e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the United States, what are some issues specific in their cultures needing more critical thought in the areas of health and medicine? Because these issues have the capacity to ruin healthy lifespan for people who take frauds and charlatans, and bad medicines, seriously.

Roberts: Yes.  The danger of homeopathy, for example, is not the practice of homeopathy itself, which is harmless, but rather that it may act to dissuade some from taking proper medical advice, to their severe detriment.

The most important development here would be the introduction of a compulsory course on critical thinking being introduced to the school curriculum.

Another radical idea would be for politicians and others to be called out when they make statements contrary to scientific evidence, without providing any relevant background.

And certainly advertising of certain products should be subject to far tighter restrictions than currently exist in most countries.  While few would allow a statement such as “product xyz relieves back pain”, if it does not, almost all allow such statements as “product xyz may relieve back pain”.

Jacobsen: Why do lawyers get such a bad rap?

Roberts: I don’t know.  Personally, I am a great admirer of many aspects of the legal profession.  But having said that, the very nature of a lawyer’s work compels the suggestions of untruths, and the use of exaggerations, and the employment of deliberate deceptions, if they believe these to be in the best interests of their clients.

Jacobsen: What are some first pass and second pass critical questions to ask about these issues?

Roberts: The deliberate telling of untruths amongst politicians from many countries has reached an all-time high, I think.  So has the use of polemic to further one’s own interest.  Even the very worst and most terrible politicians in history – think Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc – have generally ordered the carrying out of horrendous acts believing them to be based on some patriotic national interest.  Nowadays, they are more likely to do so purely for personal aggrandizement.

But it is not just politicians.  The whole of the marketing industry is largely concerned with exaggerations and misdirections. 

Used car salesmen almost always spruik the good points, and deliberately hide the bad.

Pharmaceutical companies will push the benefits of their own medications, often to the detriment of others.

But no profession is totally immune from such temptations.

Hence, the importance of using critical thinking to distinguish truths from falsehoods, and opinions from facts.

Jacobsen: How do we demarcate a respectable or reputable scientific journal from one that isn’t?

Roberts: In the same way we distinguish a good scientific paper from a bad one.  By peer review.  This is not a perfect system by any means, but it beats by a long way all the others.

Jacobsen: Why is Wikipedia a “most excellent resource”?

Roberts: Well, I am sure I will get flak for this, because Wikipedia is often talked down and sometimes even ridiculed by the intelligentsia.  But given that most of us do not have the time, willingness, or expertise to search out original sources, and then, any critiques of these, then Wikipedia is a high-quality alternative.

Would I rely on Wikipedia to build a nuclear power plant?  No, of course not.  But if I want a quick understanding of the basic principles involved, then it is an excellent resource.

In my experience, Wikipedia articles emphasize facts over opinions.  And facts that are erroneous tend to have a very short half-life, because of its underlying architecture whereby misleading information can be, and usually is, speedily removed.

Jacobsen: Why aren’t the tools of critical thinking taught in primary school?

Roberts: Probably for historical reasons.  Most systems have been built on the three ‘R’s, and a basic understanding of a second language, and history, and geography, etc. 

I think the notion that critical thinking is a vital component of everyday life is a relatively recent one.  Education systems have not yet accepted this idea.

Jacobsen: What is “judgment” in this sense of critical evaluation as opposed to gut instinct?

Roberts: Gut instinct can be wildly right, or wildly wrong.  It is therefore not a reliable guide to good judgement of anything.

Jacobsen: Is a bank account size another distinguishing factor between the religions of the world and the cults of the world, as opposed to size alone?

Roberts: Well, I’m not sure what point you are driving at here.  Religions tend to be richer than cults because there is obviously a strong correlation between the number of followers and the size of the bank account, as you put it.  But that does not preclude religions being cash-poor, or cults cash-rich.

Jacobsen: What makes “extreme political views, and strong religious beliefs, and an acceptance of pseudoscience, ESP,” and so on, still common in high-IQ circles? Is this a problem equitably split between the young and the old, and the men and the women of the high-IQ world?

Roberts: From my own observations only – I know of no real research into this – a very high IQ tends to indicate a greater likelihood of mental health difficulties.  How strong any correlation is, I cannot guess.  But presumably if there is indeed a correlation, then this makes one more open to delusions and false beliefs.

Regrettably, perhaps, I have spotted no such correlation – except perhaps for a negative one – between a high IQ and the ability to think critically.

Women in the high IQ world?  Are there any?  It seems to be a world inhabited almost exclusively by men.  Not because of any male superiority, I am sure, but perhaps rather because having a high IQ speaks to men’s absurd egos, rather than to women who prefer to pursue more important things. 

How’s that for a generalization to finish on?


Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Tim.

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

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