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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Introducing... the World's First Critical Thinking Tract!

At least, as far as I know it is.

Here's the draft:

How Can We Avoid Snares and Delusions?

Every day we face urgings to buy something or believe something. "Buy this and you will be sexy." "Believe this religion and you will find peace." "Support this candidate and he will make your life better." How can we know what to believe?

Many people choose to believe something because believing it makes them feel good. Doug Henning, the famous magician, wanted to believe that Transcendental Meditation could cure his cancer. So rather than get scientific medical treatment, which would almost certainly have let him live a long life since his disease was discovered at an early stage, he relied on TM to cure it. His belief made him feel better, but ultimately it killed him, because it wasn't true.

Sometimes a group of people adopts a belief because a leader with a very persuasive personality tells them something that makes them feel special. In the 1930s, the German people believed Adolf Hitler when he told them they were destined to rule the world if they followed him. Instead they got a wrecked economy, millions dead, and an occupied country. Their belief had made them feel special, but ultimately it ruined them because it wasn't true, either.

Often people believe something simply because it's traditional, and they've been taught that it's wrong to question it. The people of Easter Island thought that whatever problems they faced, they had to please their gods to get their assistance, by building huge stone figures of them. In the process they used up all the trees on the island, and subsequently starved to death. They had stuck to their belief because it was traditional and they thought it was wrong to question it, but it ended up killing them because it wasn't true either.

So we can see that believing something simply because it makes us feel good can be a terrible mistake. So can believing something because it makes us feel special. And so can believing something because it's a tradition that we've been taught not to question.

So, how can we tell what's true? Sometimes we can tell just by looking for ourselves. In the Middle Ages, people believed the Earth was flat, because that was (they thought) what people had always believed. But all they had to do was watch a ship disappear over the horizon, with the topsail disappearing last, to see that the world was curved. Most didn't do this simply because they weren't in the habit of looking for themselves. The Church told them the world was flat, and they weren't supposed to question the Church.

When we can't check something for ourselves, that doesn't mean we have to rely on one person's word for it. We can see whether other people are saying the same thing, or whether there are different opinions out there. Then we can ask ourselves, Why does that person say what she does? Has she had the chance to see something I haven't, or is she just saying it because it makes her feel good, or because it's her family's tradition, or because she can make money off of me by getting me to believe it?

Another way to avoid snares is to look for counterexamples to something we believe, or are being asked to believe. For instance, you may have been told there are more murders on nights with a full moon, and you may have heard stories to support this. But rather than assume this is true, we can ask ourselves: If a murder occurred on a night with a half moon or a new moon, would anyone have noticed? Or would they only remember the times murder was committed under a full moon, because that's what we always hear about? And then we can check for ourselves in the newspaper archives and discover that just as many murders occur under each phase of the moon!

So now we've seen how dangerous it can be to believe things for bad reasons, and we've seen some of the ways we can test the many claims we encounter in life, or may even find ourselves repeating to others without ever having checked them out for ourselves. Above all, the single best defense against these mental snares is to acknowledge that it's okay to not know. No one can know everything about this huge world of ours, and because there are so many bad -- yet tempting -- reasons to believe things, we often can't rely on what others seem to know either. And that's all right!

If you now see the importance of protecting yourself from snares and delusions, try making this pledge to yourself right now: "I understand that I can only see a little bit of my world, but what I can see for myself is what I can know most reliably. I will try never to believe something just because it makes me feel good or special, or because people tell me it's wrong not to believe it. I will try always to check what I believe or what others want me to believe for myself if I can, and if I can't, to see whether others believe differently and whether they have better reasons for believing what they do, than I have for believing what I do. I will never be afraid to admit that I don't have all the answers. And no matter how strongly I believe something, I will always be open to evidence that I'm wrong, and will search out such evidence as a way of resisting the temptation to only see things that confirm my beliefs. Finally, seeing the value of these critical thinking skills, I will encourage others to learn them too, will offer my assistance in practicing them, and will likewise ask for their assistance. In this way we can help protect each other from the temptations of mental snares and delusions."

Anticopyright -- Feel free to reproduce and distribute this tract, so long as this paragraph is included.

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