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Critical thinking, evolution, and how to not be dismissed as a total idiot

As you’ll likely recall, I had planned a post about Darwin pareidolia.  I have about twenty tabs open in my Firefox right now, most of which having something or other to do with this, but the remainder are actually sort-of related to this, to pareidolia in general, and to the creationism v. evolution debate.  To make matters worse for my ability to focus on this topic, the other day, a co-worker and potential lurker messaged me on instant messenger regarding the Large Hadron Collider.  The gist of this conversation went something like:

<him> hey, have you heard of the LHC?  sounds like a bad idea to me.

<me> *rants for 30 mins about how stupid people are for thinking it’s a bad idea, barely letting him get a word in edgewise*

There’s definitely going to be another blog post in the future about the LHC, especially specifically about the doomsday sayers and the impossibility of their hypothesized scenarios (none of which have any basis in science outside of the fact that the doomsday scenarios themselves have a kernel of scientific truth — like, say, making a black hole, which the LHC is completely incapable of doing outside of micro black holes that evaporate instantly).  But for now, I’m going to point out that the funny thing about this is that there’s a common thread in these topics — people’s inability to perform simple feats of critical thinking.

A girl in India committed suicide recently after their news media showed report after report on how the LHC would destroy the world — this belies a total lack of critical thinking on her part (or the media’s for that matter), and that lack of critical thinking led to a tragic death.  Hardcore “Darwinists” (who believe in the theory of survival of the fittest, not exactly Darwin’s main point) would call that “cleaning the gene pool”, but I call it a sin and a shame.  Critical thinking is a learned skill, not something that someone has to have a particular aptitude toward, and people die all the time, in shameful and totally preventable ways, because of a total inability to think critically.

Regarding pareidolia in general, most of them are considered miracles of some sort by people who “believe”.  Consider, however, how many people there are of your particular faith.  Consider the number of icons (e.g., a hooded woman, a cross, a man with long hair with his arms out at a 30 degree angle) in your faith.  Consider how many things you actually look at that have patterns in them, in the run of your average day.  Someone, somewhere, is going to see something that sort of kind of looks like one of those icons in one of those random patterns, just by virtue of the number of patterns that we’re looking at.  The human mind is capable of interpreting patterns in things even when there’s no pattern there.  For instance, a man found an image of Jesus in his dog’s backside (with the anus as his head).  There’s no real “pattern” to his dog’s backside, outside of the same pattern that exists on every dog’s backside.  But it’s there because you’re looking for it.

By the same token, while religious folks are finding Jesus and Mary in toast, grilled cheese, grapes, Cheetos, pebbles, salt stains (this actually looks more like a giant vulva to me), Neapolitan ice cream (this one actually looks more like General Zod), and hard water deposits on shower curtains and either selling them for absurd amounts of money on eBay or building tourist traps to sift money away from the religiously credulous, you never hear about “evolutionists” finding images of Darwin in walls or their carpets or scientists finding images of the Big Bang in toast except in jest.  (You do occasionally get cranks claiming to see a face on Mars if you squint and look at the images in just the right light, but that’s less pareidolia by scientists than pareidolia with science peripherally involved in actually obtaining the images.)

By the way, there’s no such thing as an “evolutionist.”  There are scientists and people who believe in science, who believe in evolution only until science proves otherwise, as science itself is notfaith-based” outside of trusting that other scientists are being honest about their work.  (This is necessary because not every scientist can test every single pillar on which their own research stands.)  “Evolutionists” would in theory, if they existed, go on believing in evolution even if a better science comes along.  To be able to accept something as convoluted, complicated and incredible as science, you have to be able to think critically and accept that science itself is forever changing and — dare I say it — evolving.  Because it’s changing and evolving with every new fact that’s discovered, whole areas of knowledge have to be revised and occasionally thrown out entirely.  That means that while you might not know everything there is to know about science, and have to trust others to do research in fields outside of your own (especially using other people’s research as a jumping off point for your own), others likewise have to trust you to revise accordingly, honestly, when you come across new facts yourself.

This is where Bob’s hatred for junk science comes in — because much of the science that’s being done today is being done at the behest of a vested interest who wants the science to fit into their preconceived notions — they come up with a conclusion, and ask the scientists to build the science to support that conclusion.  This is dishonest, and as such any science that’s predicated on supporting something that has otherwise not been hypothesized from existing facts does therefore not have a proper foundation and is not trustable.  (Bob and I take this to different ends with regard to the concept of global warming — he feels that the science supporting anthropogenic global warming is not predicated on previous research, while I feel the science denying it is not predicated on previous research.  Regardless of who’s right, the issue is that one or the other is not properly founded.)

The toast link above was actually made using a laser torch specifically to create the image of Jesus.  This plays into my point — the credulous see what they want, if you tell them that’s what you should be seeing.  The incredulous, the skeptics, the critical thinkers, disbelieve things first and apply logic and reasoning to come up with a more reasonable theory as to why something happened.  An image of Jesus appeared on your toast is less likely a sign that a magic ghost wants to prove to you that he exists, than it is that your piece of bread happened to cook in a specific way because of the random variance of the ignitability of the molecules that make up that bread. The second theory fits the scenario of “Jesus-image-on-toast” equally well, and employs bits of science we already know as fact (e.g., if you apply heat to bread it will dry and turn brown to varying degrees with varying patterns depending on the heat applied and the composition of the bread).

You’ll also note that the way scientists use the word “theory” is much different from how others use the same word.  A theory is not a bunch of ideas pulled out of ones ass.  A theory is a set of predictions based on the facts at hand.  In a post I read recently regarding how to talk to someone who believes in evolution (e.g. me) without being dismissed out of hand as an idiot, the example was given that one can develop a theory regarding how old rocks are based on the fact that one layer of rocks is dated at 20 million years old and another, deeper one is dated at 100 million — you can safely assume, using the theory that the stuff above is newer than the stuff below, that the layer of rocks between those two layers will fall somewhere between 20 million and 100 million years old.  You don’t necessarily have to carbon-date every single grain of sand between the two to get a full accounting of years 20,000,001 to 99,999,999 in order to prove that theory correct.  Take a random sampling, find that it’s 40,000,000 years old.  Take another deeper one and find it’s 50,000,000.  Take one between those and find it’s 46,000,000.  The theory seems to be holding firm, and yet it’s still a theory.  But given the new scientific evidence that one might discover stating that there was some sort of cataclysm and a large amount of the rocks were toppled onto their sides or upside-down, you might find that a layer or two are reverse-ordered.  This indicates to you that while your theory may still hold (that newer stuff is deposited on top of older stuff), but that there’s a wrinkle — that the order can get mixed up if rocks get moved around in earthquakes or volcanic eruptions or whatnot.  The theory is therefore revised based on new data, but is not disproven.

This is the same way evolution, while being “just a theory”, has held strong for almost two hundred years, being revised and attacked and revised again without ever being totally knocked down.  If evolution could be knocked over by such fallacious arguments as “the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved from anything else”“peanut butter jars don’t spontaneously generate life” or “bananas prove intelligent design” (warning: Kirk Cameron content, my sincerest of apologies — also, he’s disproven by the real history of the banana), it would have been done long, long ago, and there wouldn’t be such an ongoing raging debate between scientists, many of whom are also religious, and the credulously religious who believe incorrectly that science is trying to disprove their beliefs.

The theory of evolution, incidentally, says absolutely nothing about the genesis of life on this planet.  Anti-evolutionists love to argue that we can’t prove that abiogenesis started in the primordial ooze, as though primordial ooze is so much less believable than an invisible magic man in the clouds.  The thing is, the primordial ooze theory is just one way of explaining abiogenesis, and there are a great number of others (including, for instance, panspermia, autogenesis, and lipid replication).  Evolution simply explains what happened between abiogenesis and what we see today, and makes predictions based on the existing fossil record that other forms should exist as links between certain creatures (e.g., transitional fossils).  And it’s completely correct in doing so, having correctly predicted the existance of a ton of transitional fossils we hadn’t yet to that point discovered.  The theory has been borne out in every single case, including their most recent find of a transitional fossil between fish and amphibian named “tiktaalik“, reducing to rubble anti-evolutionists’ staple argument that no fossil link between fish and amphibian has been found therefore it’s impossible for evolution to be true.  Please pay no attention to Kirk Cameron’s “crocoduck” argument (meant to prove a missing link between ducks and crocodiles), because the evolutionary tree does not predict any such creature where both creatures’ common ancestor is probably so absurdly far back it looks nothing like either, and also Kirk Cameron is a fucking tool.

Counter-intuitively, because every time a “missing link” has been found it also creates two further “missing links” between the two original links and the new intermediary stage, anti-evolutionists argue every time a “missing link” is found that the case for evolution has gotten worse.  Again, this is another example of a total and fundamental lack of critical thinking on their part.  Evolution predicted it before we found tiktaalik, we found tiktaalik, this lends weight to the theory.  It does NOT “make our situation worse” by doubling the number of “missing links”.  Sorry folks, that’s just prima facie stupid.

Beyond all of this, science, and the evolutionary theory, explains “how”.  Not “why”.  Religion explains “why”, and those two questions do not overlap at all.  If you thought you knew “how” because “how” always irrevocably equates to “God did it”, then you learned the wrong lessons from your religion.  Basically, I’m saying, you’re arguing the wrong point.

As an example of the logical fallacy of trying to argue against evolution from a creationist standpoint, look at a word doublet puzzle, where you have to transform one word to another; for instance, change “FIRE” into “HEAT”.  The rules are that you can only change one letter at a time, making every transition a valid word.  A scientist writes: “FIRE > hire > here > herd > head > HEAT” and solves it correctly in four steps.  An anti-evolutionist writes: “FIRE > GOD DID IT > HEAT”.  In other words, you’re missing the goddamn point of the goddamn puzzle and getting pissed off at the people who are actually trying to solve it.

Phil Plait at BadAstronomy puts it best:

Question authority. Be skeptical of claims. Ask for evidence. Apply good logic. Avoid bad logic. Analyze the results. Look for bias.

And doubt. Doubt doubt doubt. It’s one of the greatest strengths of the human mind, and perhaps the least used of all.

By virtue of following these tenets, you can call yourself a skeptic.  Being a skeptic is a noble and admirable thing.  I am a skeptic about a lot of things.  Bob is a skeptic about a lot of things as well.  However, calling yourself a skeptic because you’re skeptical of science itself (but conversely not skeptical at all about your chosen religion) is a misnomer, and makes you an idiot incapable of using the language that everyone else is using.  Language means what it means because everyone agrees to it beforehand, and after it’s been used in a particular manner you are not allowed to change it.  You can’t coopt the word “skeptic” simply by being skeptical of theories with a good deal of evidence, any more than you can coopt the word “theory” into meaning “that which has no proof backing it up”.  If you’re going to argue this point, you will fail.  Fair warning.


  1. Me says

    Thank you. Very well written. And I also thank you for pointing out that while you and I disagree on things we do so in a rational way without resulting to name calling (except in the case of Clifton). Thank you also for pointing out that being skeptical (with a valid and logical point to your skepticism) is a good thing rather then a bad thing. Lately being a skeptic in anything has been seen as a negative, to the point where some people have actually suggested the governments of the world make it illegal to be skeptical of some things. Who knows what inevitable cesspit that particular little bit of legislation would have led us all into.

    I do have one question for you. Given the world we live in, and indeed where you work, what makes you believe that there is any such thing as critical thinking left in the world, outside of a few small independent science labs? There is far more evidence to suggest that we as a race are becoming dumber not smarter. And I point to this article (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article4735469.ece) to underscore my point that some are indeed becoming dumber and the media is printing their words. Yes the article argues against what the good Rev Professor Michael Reiss, a Royal Society scientist no less, says but this man is a member of the Royal society in the UK and that carries with it some prestige. Printing his words gives him validity no matter if he is right or wrong. And if you know that someone was drunk when they saw a UFO, why would you even mention that you know someone that saw a UFO. (I know that’s a stretch as an analogy, but seriously, when it comes to arguing against science in a science class, drunks seeing UFOs are an apt analogy.)

    I would like to abuse the term theory for a moment here and I apologize for what I’m about to do but I feel that it will underline nicely your points about people misusing the word. Currently there is a *theory* in schools that all students should learn at the same speed and level. In the US they call this “no child left behind”. I saw the beginnings of this in the early 90′s when parents began to complain to teachers that their child wasn’t being allowed to do the same things as other students were. How has no one, not even parents realized how horrible a *theory* this is. You are forcing all students to learn at the level of the slowest student. I don’t have the time to expound on how bad this is going to turn out.

    In the business world, well the only way I can even come close to describing the stupidity rampant here is to point out that Managers have taken to calling themselves leaders yet have no idea what it is the people they are leading even do. ‘Nuff said about that.

    As for the loss of critical thinking in other areas, well I’m not actually sure it even existed in politics. Government leaders are suddenly spouting more and more religious sentiments in their speeches and invoking the name of god. Has no one in any of the various departments that provide support to these talking heads reminded them of history? Countries are not made up of people who all believe the same thing. You are invariably pissing off someone in your own country when you speak of god, simply because it won’t be *their* god. Pissing off people over god is a sure way to get civil strive. I point to Northern Ireland as my proof of two religious groups that even speak the same language and yet can’t get along.

    And in western society as a whole there is the all pervading believe in the last 25 years that the world governments owe the people a living. People have come to believe that they are entitled to a good life and that it’s up to governments to provide it somehow.

    Critical thinking has been eradicated in our society the same as common sense, accepting responsibility for our own actions, and providing for ourselves. People now accept only ideas that are in the consensus of the population (which is why I particularly hate that word. A consensus is a bad reason to accept anything as fact). They believe their ideas even when they fly in the face of logic and facts. I admit that in some areas I too believe only on faith but that is because I haven’t yet seen the facts I need to see to change my beliefs. That doesn’t mean I’m right and I am certainly open to changing my beliefs if the evidence conclusively proves me wrong. Sadly I am a rarity in today’s’ society, someone open to changing my way of thinking. The majority of people believe in things that can’t be supported by any sort of facts at all and I doubt that even if you were to show them conclusive proof of something they would still call you a liar and tell you how wrong you are. (flat earthers, people that believe the moon landings were a hoax, and ANYONE that believes a political promise)That’s because we have lost the ability to reason logically.

    I am exited about the LHC and what it might or might not find. I think this is a step in the right direction because I have always maintained that no matter how you believe the universe came to exist it required a leap of faith of some sort as there is no proof of anything. Some say the big bang and some say creation. Who knows? I certainly don’t. What I do know is that right now my biggest fear is that the LHC will find nothing at all or even worse experience some sort of accident. This will give the creationists the ammunition they need to shut it down and push us into the dark ages once again. If that happens we can all forget about even hoping that critical thinking will ever become the norm again.

  2. Miranda says

    Firstly, I’m not going to get into my opinions on the above rantings, lets just say I disagree with some things that were said and leave it at that, I don’t like trying to argue my points online like this, chances are something will get misunderstood or I will simply misrepresent myself because I am not as verbose or well written as I would like to be and simply lack the methods to accurately get my poitns across.

    So on to something I thought was damn funny. Speaking of the imagines of divine figures appearing on bread. Do you remember the lady who sold her grilled cheese sandwhich with the image of the virgin mary on it to a casino for a ridiculas amount of money? Well, I was watching Miami Ink one night and guess who should walk into the tatto shop by the grilled cheese lady. To get a tattoo of her virgin mary grilled cheese sandwhich. I kid you not, she got a tatoo of the sandwhich, complete with the one bite she took out of it, on her chest, just above her heart. I’m all for letting people believe what they want, even if I happen to find that belief silly, but I have to admit I laughed a lot when I saw her getting a tatto of a grilled cheese sandwhich.

  3. says

    Oh, Miranda, that’s why I wrote it… I’m inviting debate. Please disagree with me! Even if you’ll likely never really convince me that I’m wrong, debating with me helps me sharpen and focus my own arguments. And besides, that way I get to know more about how you think, which is important to me in knowing and understanding those people I call my friends. It’s also primarily why I tolerate Bob. ;)

    I do feel there is some critical thinking ability left in this world, if only because I exist. If someone like me, with all my foibles, is capable of the feat, then someone else out there likely is too. Besides, look at all those links I collected in that post. There’s a lot of really interesting and, dare I say it, CORRECT, analysis out there. You just have to sift through the chaff to get it. The same with politics — there are honest politicians out there. They’re mostly the ones with the least experience in politics, though. (And Bernie Sanders.)

    I’m saving most of my LHC discussions for an upcoming post wherein I tear apart not only my friend and coworker as mentioned in this thread, but also the troll mentioned in my most recent post. Sorry, but there’s enough “there” there, that I have to try to play this close to my chest.

  4. says

    That’s hilarious. I did some googling myself and saw that apparently she got it done on Miami Ink — meaning there’s gotta be video out there somewhere. Go forth and obtain this video, my minions!

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