Saturday, 4 August 2012

I blame teachers

I also blame the Ministry of Education, BTV, the newspapers and you, all of you who have children. You are all failing them by not giving them the most powerful skill they need to survive in the modern world.


Skepticism and critical thinking are increasingly essential because the forces of superstition, criminality and exploitation are all forging ahead, finding new ways to scam us and take our hard-earned money away from us. Never before has there been a greater need for a link between science-based scepticism and consumer education.

Some of the problem can be traced to sheer gullibility of course, perhaps naiveté is a more polite term. A less polite way of expressing it is my frequent observation that some people should not be allowed to leave home without their mother. They clearly need guidance on some fairly basic things. You don’t actually need a skeptical outlook to know that if you sign a contract you must abide by it, do you? You don’t need a PhD in Philosophy to know that furniture stores aren’t going to let you walk away from a credit purchase until they’ve got all the money you promised to pay them, do you? You know already that loan sharks, particularly the ones who refuse to register with NBFIRA, can’t be trusted, don’t you?

Skepticism and science are inextricably linked. You can’t be a true scientist unless you embrace the skeptical approach wholeheartedly. This approach is simple. Don’t believe everything you’re told just because someone told you it and that there’s nothing that shouldn’t’ be questioned. Once you adopt that approach you see things in an entirely different light.

What about an example? You may have seen that various New Age, mystical or “self- empowerment” gurus encourage their paying participants to try fire-walking. This, they claim, is a powerful example of “mind over matter”, of the human mind achieving what sounds like a miracle: walking barefoot over hot coals.

It certainly sounds impressive. How can people do this without experiencing horrible burns? How can their feet touch coals at several hundred degrees without damage? It must be magic, surely?

No, it’s not, it’s just physics. It’s about the conduction of heat.

Consider this as an explanation. Imagine a chicken roasting in your oven. It’s been there for an hour and is cooking at 180C. Everything inside the oven is at exactly 180C. Imagine that you opened the oven door and put both your hands inside the oven. With your left hand you touch the skin of the chicken and with your right hand you touch the stainless steel roasting dish containing the chicken. You touch both for exactly three seconds. What would be the results?

It would be simple. The fingers that touched the chicken skin would have felt warmth. The fingers that touched the steel dish would no longer have any skin on them and you’d probably be on your way to hospital. Anyone who’s ever spent time in a kitchen will have experienced this. Touching hot metal is agonising. Touching food that’s at the same temperature doesn’t hurt.

That’s because metals like steel give up the heat they possess very quickly, organic substances like chicken skin and even coal give it up slowly. It’s why the coals in a fire can stay warm for hours, they give up their heat quite slowly.

That’s why you can walk on hot coals. It’s not magic, it’s not mind over matter, it’s just physics.

But this can go wrong. The so-called self-help guru Tony Robbins has been encouraging people in San Jose to do the fire-walking thing to help them “unleash the power within”, presumably after he’s unleashed their money.

Unfortunately for 21 of Robbins’ victims, sorry I mean participants, something went horribly wrong. They all ended up with second and third-degree burns to their feet. I wonder who’ll be paying their medical bills?

I suspect this is just more physics. While it’s safe to walk on hot coals, the organisers usually let them cool down a bit before allowing the gullible punters to “unleash” their powers. It didn’t work this time.

But that’s not the only thing that didn’t work. If you adopt the skeptical approach you are forced to ask some awkward questions. What evidence, for instance, is there that motivational speakers like Tony Robbins actually offer any benefit to their clients? What good does all this up-beat, positive thinking actually achieve? I suspect that motivational speakers are a bit like prostitutes. Using their services might feel good at the time but afterwards you just feel dirty. You secretly know that you gave into a dirty temptation. You know you shouldn’t have but you also know you’ll probably do it again sometime soon.

It’s not just innocuous motivational speakers you should question. Above all you need to question pseudoscientific health claims. Any Facebook user will have seen an online advert for a product called Baariz that claims it can “treat HIV/AIDS” and “cure” AIDS. Isn’t this obviously a lie, or am I just being too skeptical?

Of course it’s a lie and a criminal one too but if you don’t have your skeptical brain operating you might fall for this nonsense as well.

I DO blame teachers for this, and the people that employ them. I think we should expect that our children will be taught critical thinking at school, surely it’s a skill as essential as arithmetic and language?

The risk we run if we don’t demand that this is taught is severe. Things will just stay the same. More and more people will fall victims to scams, will be financially ravished by loan sharks and will be seduced by sharp-suited motivational speakers, fake prophets and New Age nonsense-peddlers.

The thing they have in common is their desire to take your money in return for a disease of one form or another.

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