Being Tough-Minded in an Age of Credulity

Not too long ago, I listened to a friend of mine speak enthusiastically about some food supplements which he was convinced would clear the toxins that ravage the bodies of polluted city dwellers like us. Knowing that he had some medical problems, I tried to be sensitive to his anxieties and refrained from making any comment that might undermine his hopes to have his health restored.

Being Tough-Minded in an Age of Credulity 

By Dr. Ng Kam Weng

Asking troubling questions can irritate friends. More seriously, speaking the truth can lead us to challenge intolerant authorities. Unless we have moral courage we end up hedging our positions and lapse into fuzzy thinking. Taking responsibility and acting with integrity are indispensable conditions for tough-mindedness.

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Not too long ago, I listened to a friend of mine speak enthusiastically about some food supplements which he was convinced would clear the toxins that ravage the bodies of polluted city dwellers like us. Knowing that he had some medical problems, I tried to be sensitive to his anxieties and refrained from making any comment that might undermine his hopes to have his health restored.

What troubled me was that my friend, who is an educated and successful professional, failed to apply his critical faculties to assess and judge the claims that accompanied the sales pitch of the purveyors of health food products. Shouldn’t he have insisted that their claims be substantiated by evidence so that it is clear just what ‘toxins’ are involved, and what are the active components present in the food supplements that will ‘detoxify’ the body’?

This reminds me of the occasion when I was listening to a radio talk show. The guest speaker suggested that he could bring about better health through touch therapy. He claimed to be able to retune our bodies just like a piano tuner retunes a piano. On yet another occasion, when I was in a local bookshop, I was equally astounded to overhear an ‘expert’ giving advice to a customer about how to prepare a health drink. To do this, he recommended that fresh flowers be placed in distilled water. Flowers supposedly contain the essence of good health as epitomized by their beauty. According to the ‘expert’, ‘vibrations’ from the flowers would be passed into the water that we can then drink to restore wholeness to our bodies.

Given my physics background, I wanted to ask, “Vibrations?  How interesting! What instrument can I use to detect these ‘vibrations’ and measure their energies?” Unfortunately, such a question would have simply appeared trivial, if not futile, since existing physical instruments are inadequate to measure such ‘higher’ energies. Instead, I was tempted to claim tongue in cheek that I had finally located the elusive Chinese moon fairy, although it would be pointless to ask me for evidence since the fairy has this mischievous ability to keep herself just out of the range of all our telescopes.

These episodes cause me to wonder why so many qualified professionals remain vulnerable to unproven claims based on pseudo-science. Certainly, they point to the failure of our education system to produce tough-minded people who can analyze issues critically and accurately. Maintaining a critical posture is necessary precisely because some of the food supplements may well contain some benefits. It would be unfortunate if the food supplement industry suffers from credibility problem if subsequent scientific testing reveals that the benefits have been exaggerated. The problem is made worse when enough purveyors of food supplements also make unfounded claims based on superstitions rather hard science.

Two more illustrations come to mind. Many businessmen eagerly seek out feng shui masters to engineer their work place so as to maximize their prosperity. To be sure, feng shui does embody a tradition of common sense in landscape planning that addresses the aesthetic and psychological needs of human beings in their habitats. I am even prepared to grant it the status of  ‘proto-science’ in ancient societies. However, I cannot accept its talk of ‘energy channels’ and harmful ‘darts’ as meeting the standards of modern empirical science which are foundational to reliable knowledge.

I can only point to the psychological origins behind the popularity of feng shui. Is it not the case that highflying businessmen are acutely aware of their vulnerability to economic forces that can unexpectedly bring huge financial loss? Hence the temptation to resort to feng shui masters to control chaotic forces and avert disasters.

While businessmen suffer anxiety about their corporations, affluent professionals burdened by the pressures of urban living are anxious about their physical health. Consequently, alternative health ‘experts’ gain large followings with their promises that alternative medicine and meditation will restore the energy balance of stressed-up bodies.

But why should resorting to alternative health care be problematic? After all, some people claim to have benefited from these practices? I would have no problem if these therapeutic masters openly admit that they are offering a form of life philosophy and religious practice. What I find troubling is the absence of protest from our science educators when these practitioners claim to be doing science. Are our science educators simply too cowed by demands of political correctness to challenge dubious scientific claims?

Carl Sagan once pointed out that the credulity of contemporary man and his naïve acceptance of pseudo-scientific claims are the results of scientific illiteracy among the populace. I would like to add that much credulity follows from our way of life that prefers to avoid the hard work of critical thinking. I often come across friends who nonchalantly brush aside demands for rational accountability with suggestions that life is too complicated and that we should allow for different choices. Unfortunately, mental sloth causes people to develop an unconscious cynicism and a practical relativism that reduce issues of truth to matters of personal preference. Given our indifference to rational public discourse, it is therefore not surprising that our political culture has degenerated to one where protagonists resort to manipulation rather than moral persuasion based on the force of logical arguments.

I cannot expect our people to change overnight since critical thinking is a habit of the mind, a result of long-term and purposeful development of our critical faculties. Nevertheless, I hope that the following suggestions for a counterfeit detector will constitute a small beginning for those who aspire to become tough-minded.

Tips for a counterfeit detector:

– Give argument from authority a respectful hearing but don’t allow it to settle the issue.

– Seek independent confirmation. We cannot take the word of in-house ‘experts’ such as pharmacists employed by the manufacturer. Nor should we accept generalizations based on subjective personal testimonies or small sized sampling.

– Consider alternative hypotheses that attempt to identify underlying causes. Give preference to explanations that require the minimum unproven assumptions.

– Ask at least in principle how a hypothesis can be falsified. This requirement ruthlessly forces people to become concrete in their claims.

Fallacies are easily found in textbooks on logic. For starters watch out for the following:

– Appealing to ignorance, e.g., “Since there must be other worlds, there must be UFOs”

– Undemonstrated correlations, e.g. “the confluence of stars and the gravity of Saturn influences our moods and fortunes.” Consider the claims that “meditation and manipulation of higher cosmic energy promotes world peace.”

– Begging the question, e.g., “the stock market fell yesterday because of technical adjustment or profit taking by investors.”

– Appeal to ambiguous words, e.g., ‘cosmic energy’ and ‘astral vibrations.

– Flights of fancy, e.g., “amazing accuracies are found in Nostradamus’ message.” In reality, the original writings are couched in hopelessly vague predictions

– Selective observations, e.g., so-called discoveries found in von Daniken’s writings. His conclusion that the Ark of the Covenant was a piece of electronic equipment can only lead to short-circuit. One also wonders how the Mayan picture depicts a ‘spaceman’ if underneath his seat is a snake!

Asking troubling questions can irritate friends. More seriously, speaking the truth can lead us to challenge intolerant authorities. Unless we have moral courage we end up hedging our positions and lapse into fuzzy thinking. Taking responsibility and acting with integrity are indispensable conditions for tough-mindedness. Hopefully, our country’s leaders will also be more careful with their statements and public policies if our citizens are more tough-minded.

Some people fear that tough-mindedness brings about dogmatic zealots. Such fears are unfounded. On the contrary, tough-mindedness promotes toleration. When we exercise our critical faculties we become more conscious of our limitations and the ambiguities of human interactions. Our desire to work together in arriving at complex truths of life encourages us to discuss, debate and to agree to disagree with fellow men. To echo Thomas Aquinas, “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.”

Ng Kam Weng

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