“Uncritical thinking kills”

The last few weeks there have been a slew of postings and releases (to feature only a couple) regarding the rise of deadly measles and other once fully contained contagious diseases in the U.K. and the U.S. due to people not vaccinating. Enough people in some places have stopped vaccinating as to weaken the “herd immunity” allowing disease to spread through a community. Fortunately in the U.S. and U.K. people have been getting treatment in time before anyone has died–but people in less modern anti-vaccine propaganda soaked regions aren’t so lucky: “What is the Harm?” Doesn’t it scare anyone that in 2008, because of anti-vaccine scaremongers, polio could make a comeback?

And is it likely that yet another high-quality, indipendent study on the supposed link between Autism and vaccines has come back with a resounding result of “no connection” will make any difference to these people? I seriously doubt it.

Here’s the point of why I’m finally commenting on the subject: Phil Plait just posted his thoughts on the dangers of uncritical thinking in general, and why we cannot with any human conscience sit idly by while superstition and unreason and uncritical thinking can have real, tangible, harmful effects:

… I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not what to think, but how. …

His post is sparked by a death as the result of fear around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which came online this week. Yes, the absurd fear surrounding the LHC, not the LHC itself, resulted in a death. A couple of days ago two classmates walked into class talking about the LHC and in only half-joking tones were asking each other what they thought of the possible results of the LHC–including Earth destroying black holes and reality destroying chain reactions. Two supposedly educated people who have allowed themselves to be duped by a sensationalism spewing mass media which cares only for gaining readership/viewers and nothing for actual facts and truth and real news, who are comfortable with accepting what they’re told and not checking things out for themselves. It would… should, only take a couple of minutes for a person to think:

“Hmmm, the LHC sounds like a massive endeavor involving a lot of scientists, researchers, and technicians to come up with and build it. Something on that kind of scale would surely have been so thoroughly studied that any possible negative effects (especially the destruction of the universe which presumably would include the death of all the scientists, researchers, and technicians and everyone they love and care about) must either be negligible or non-existent.
Although, people have been on large scales wrong before or have been willing to take huge deadly risks–but usually on subjects involving religion, politics, and/or war–not cold and calculating science.
I doubt there’s anything potentially seriously dangerous about this, but I could be wrong. I should check this out by using critical sources that don’t have as their primary agenda to spread entertainment, fear, sensationalism, yellow journalism as “news”….”

Uncritical thinking has nothing to do with intelligence or education, but everything to do with, as Phil emphasizes, how to think. The human brain has evolved awesomely (in the true sense of the word) to be capable of such incredible ability and reason. We’re amazing pattern recognizers. We can deduce and we predict outcomes. But we’re also still incredibly primitive in the amazing capacity we have for logical fallacy and cognitive bias. Because each and every one of us have our own darlings, our own one or ten superstitions we believe in, or mystical/mythical beliefs, we really want to be able to say out of rationalization for our own peccadilloes “Oh, what’s the harm of letting people believe what they want, live and let live.”

The problem is that people die, people harm other people, over uncritical beliefs and thinking. Uncritical thinking has more at risk than a “harmless” $2 /minute call to an astrologer: uncritical thinking can kill. The most important thing we can do is not go around telling people “what you believe is wrong,” but telling people “this is how you examine and test what you believe” and then have the courage to apply that critical reasoning to your own beliefs as you desire to have other people do unto their own.