Sunday, December 11, 2011

Looking forward to Bob Carroll's new book

Carroll, the author of "Skeptic's Dictionary," both a basic go-to guide for skeptical thinking as a book AND a continually updated website of skeptical analysis and critique of claims in religion and theology, philosophy, alternative medicine, fallacious thinking and more, was kind enough to send me an electronic draft copy of his latest work, "Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism and Science Exposed."

I'm near the end of this book, which explains and documents how and why skeptical, critical thinking activities are "unnatural acts."

Here's a selection from the start of Chapter 8, "The Fallacy-Driven Life":
Fallacies are errors in reasoning. They drive the thought-engine of most people most of the time. We did not evolve to seek truth, beauty, and goodness. We evolved to survive and mate. Everything else is window dressing, including our so-called noble reason. Shakespeare may have mesmerized audiences with his lines:

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

In fact, man is an irrational animal, driven by his needs, fears, and wants, and following logic or reason only if it suits him. Our natural way of thinking, of making judgments, of identifying causal connections is to jump to conclusions on flimsy evidence. Critical thinking is unnatural. Following our feelings and emotions is more likely to motivate our behavior than well-reasoned arguments. We are as likely to be persuaded by irrelevant appeals as by relevant ones, and are more likely to produce slanted, selective, biased, one-sided, incomplete arguments than well-reasoned, fair-minded, accurate, complete arguments. We make assumptions that aren’t warranted, create straw man arguments out of fragments of opposing viewpoints, offer up false dilemmas, and draw conclusions hastily. It’s amazing we’ve made so much progress!
Carroll, from the point of a professional philosopher and skeptic, takes largely the same view of human nature as behavioral psychologists and economists such as Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky.

But, Carroll gets his terminology right. I can't mention the number of times I have pointed out that a global warming denier's claims should be pulled under the credibility microscope because he works for a place like the far-right think tank, the Heartland Institute. He notes, on that:

The ad hominem fallacy is often confused with the legitimate provision of evidence that a person is not to be trusted. Calling into question the reliability of a witness is relevant when the issue is whether to trust the witness. ... Good refutations of arguments try to undermine the accuracy, relevance, fairness, completeness, and sufficiency of reasons given to support a conclusion. ... The fallacy in the ad hominem argument is due to the irrelevant nature of the appeal made, not to its falsity.
Regardless of one's political stripe, whether, libertarian, conservative, liberal or left-liberal, Carroll exhorts us to be more critical in our thinking about political events, scientific claims, sociological and psychological pronouncements and more.

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