Old Business: Spying on Americans
If you have an hour, I would recommend listening to Former Vice President Al Gore’s speech on the Executive abuse of power, available at C-Span, or read the text(pdf). I agree with his overall sentiment. In this mid-term election, the one issue that all candidates should be forced to ask is their position on whether America is going to have a Constitution with a system of checks and balances, or an unchecked autocratic unitary executive.
If I were to name one thing, within the capacity of almost every person, that would do the most good for the present and the future of the human race, it would be to dedicate a couple of hours each week to the study of logic and reason. By this, I mean buying a text book of some type such as Copi and Cohen’s “Introduction to Logic”, or simply starting off using the links that I provide under “Links” to the right, to get a basic understanding of the principles of logic, so as to better understand and apply them.
If possible, I would recommend getting together in a meeting of sort, a logic session, with somebody who has studied the subject, at a regular weekly session. Pains should be taken to make sure that these sessions do not focus on conclusions, but the validity of arguments themselves, recognizing the fact that a person with a poor argument in defense of his position is not necessarily wrong.
One of the things that prevent us from efficiently solving other problems is the amount of time and resources that get devoted to "solutions" that simply make no sense. Consider the posting that I wrote concerning the inconsistent triad associated with intelligent design http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2006/01/philosophy-of-design.html . We would avoid wasting a lot of time and effort if people could simply recognize, "Oh, inconsistent triad. That can't work. Let's try something else."
Note: The inconsistent triad is not proof that intelligent design fails. It is simply proof that it cannot take a form that includes this inconsistent triad. Logic does not always give us the right answer, but it does tell us the more fruitful areas in which to search.
Actually, I am using the term ‘logic’ in a loose sense to refer to four different sets of rules governing rational thought. The four areas that I think deserve attention are:
(1) The Informal Fallacies. These are rhetorical tricks that people use when they seek to trick you into accepting their conclusion. The informal fallacies can be persuasive. Yet, each of these tricks are fundamentally dishonest or misleading.
For example, Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that the Bush Administration was misusing intelligence to mislead people about the degree to which Saddam Hussein was a threat to America. The Bush Administration could not defeat Wilson's argument, so they sought to attack Wilson instead by suggesting that his wife (CIA-operative Valerie Plame) got him the job of investigating the issue. This rhetorical trick employs the fallacy "argumentum ad hominem." A morally responsible person would stick to the facts.
To the degree that people understand and can recognize informal fallacies, to this degree they will be less easily manipulated and misled by those who use these rhetorical tricks.
(2) Techniques of Neutralization. Developed by sociologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza as a way of understanding the behavior of juvenile delinquents, this is a set of mental tricks that all types of people use to convince themselves and others that they are good people, when they are not. A rapist, for example, will try to cast his act as one of justified retribution against a woman who deserved what she got, or convince himself that certain nonverbal clues suggest consent, or that all women like rape.
The Bush Administration used similar techniques of neutralization to convince itself and others that it was justified in attacking Iraq. It invented a level of threat that did not exist, and asserted that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks so that they could cast the invasion as just retribution.
A better understanding of the techniques of neutralization will make it harder for people to use them to rationalize away the wrongs that they have done, and the wrongs that they plan to do.
(3) The Scientific Method. The debate over intelligent design suggests that too few people actually understand what science is.
Take some observations, make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and then confirm or falsify the original claim. Make sure that the experiments actually do test the hypothesis.
Actually, we use this method every day. A person commuting too and from work forms a theory that he can make the trip faster using an alternate route. He takes the route, and verifies or falsifies his original belief. At home, he forms a theory that his favorite spaghetti sauce recipe would be better yet if he added garlic. He adds garlic, and tests the result.
Scientists have not invented a new and different way of thinking. However, the nature of their profession demands that they perfect this method with training and practice, the same way that a person can become a better tennis player with training and practice.
(4) Formal Logic. The rules of formal logic can get very complicated. Yet, the easiest of these -- simple propositional logic -- are within the grasp of Junior High and High School aged students. There is no reason for not to arm these children with these particular tools (in addition to the tools discussed above).
Anybody who wants to be able to better spot when others are trying to BS them into accepting something has reason to spend some time each week improving his ability to perfect that BS. To the degree that people developed these skills, the nation itself would be better off.