About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
It's a tough world for skeptics
These are some of the results of a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press, and there is plenty of empirical evidence to cause a skeptic to despair. Some of the details of the results are intriguing to say the least. Why, for instance, would Catholics, single people and those who never attend religious services be more likely than average to believe in ghosts? And why should it be that 31% of liberals report seeing a ghost, compared to only 17% of conservatives? Surprisingly, belief in witchcraft is more common among urban dwellers (so much for the stereotype of the country bumpkin), although most of these are poor and minorities (themselves among the poorest urban dwellers), and therefore – unfortunately – less educated. ESP, apparently, is more to the taste of sophisticated urbanites, with 51% of people with a college degree believing in it, as opposed to 37% of those with a high school diploma or less.
The very idea that someone can get through college and have about a 50-50 chance of believing plain nonsense is rather depressing, though it does account for the abysmal state of our democracy: presumably, if you are gullible enough to accept telepathy and clairvoyance, then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction are an easy sell. Which is exactly why I think these figures are extremely worrisome: gullibility is what psychologists would call a “portable” characteristics, i.e. it applies to a variety of contexts, so that if you accept one sort of nonsense you are more likely to accept another.
Of course, critical thinking – the antidote to gullibility – is also portable across contexts, which is why one could make the argument that the very point of education ought to be to increase people's ability to think critically, to equip them with the best baloney detector they can muster, to use Carl Sagan's famous image. How is it, then, that highly educated people believe in ghosts and paranormal phenomena? Because most of our education, from elementary school to college, has little to do with critical thinking and much to do with rote learning of mountains of useless facts. Our students and teachers are “accountable” by means of idiotic standardized tests that increasingly waste a lot of valuable educational time while failing to produce the sort of thinking citizens that a vital democracy desperately needs in order not to turn into mob rule or an exercise in sheep herding. Oh, wait, maybe all of this isn't happening by chance after all. Could there be (malevolent) intelligent design behind the failure of our educational system? I better stop there, or I may start believing in conspiracy theories...