Monday, July 18, 2016

Critical Thinking and Perspective Mythologies

(This is a continuation of a series of postings beginning on July 8.  It would be best to start reading at that point.)

Last time I gave examples of how the personal mythology can lead us astray within the dimensions of discipline and responsibility.  The same approach applies to critical thinking and perspective.

One of the primary tenets of critical thinking is to question everything, or at least take a little time to consider.  Several experts from diverse fields have published books recently on the tendency of people to “think fast,” as one author puts it.  We have inherited from our distant ancestors the instinct to react to possible danger and not hang around to determine if that shadowy thing in the bushes is a snake or just a twig.  This instinct serves us well when crossing a busy street but can get us into a lot of trouble when shopping or making health decisions.  In most situations in modern society, we can easily find the time to make deliberate, well thought out decisions instead of knee-jerk reactions.  But that is harder work, and as in the case of discipline the path of least resistance is more appealing.  We don’t check facts; we often just decide and move on.

People who put the same value on supposed facts they hear from friends and neighbors as they do on those from doctors and other reliable authorities are particularly vulnerable to consequences of poor critical thinking.  So often we hear examples of a new scientific study that contradicts previous studies.  Instead of trying to understand why this happens, many get discouraged and disregard all studies preferring to believe slick advertising that promises a miracle cure.  When it seems to work for a friend, neighbor or celebrity, they latch on and make it part of their mythology.  That is why so much is wasted each year on dietary supplements and alternative medicine, despite a lack of evidence and reasonable warnings about possible dangers.

One reason for the confusion and rejection of science is that many scientists are as prone to cling to their own myths as anyone else.  One good example is the low fat vs. low sugar controversy among dieticians that I wrote about in May of this year.

It’s not just medicines, but Fung Shui, fortune telling, communicating with spirits, ESP, telekinesis and a host of other practices.  These become part of the mythology on the weak basis of anecdotal evidence, that is, just stories or someone’s word.  When faced with reality, they counter with other single examples, personal experience, celebrity endorsements, or merely insults against the challenger.

The list is long, and some enterprising individuals and companies make fortunes pushing these products and services.  They maintain a following, sometimes even in the face of public disgrace and arrest, because whole mythologies are built on this unscientific foundation.  And it’s not just a matter of throwing away money.  In one recent case, a Canadian couple was convicted in the meningitis death of their 19-month-old son because they relied exclusively on natural remedies and advice from a naturopathic doctor.

Critical thinking is so prevalent that nearly 40% of these essays show real-life examples from the daily news of how weakness in this area has the potential to result in unhappy consequences, money thrown away or worse.

The last of the key dimensions is perspective.  People with perspective develop an appreciation for what they have.  They feel real gratitude for how blessed they are.  A lack of gratitude turns into a kind of greed.  Similar to the greed that bankers and hedge fund managers are accused of, this greed pushes people to want more and more.  They are unsatisfied, even after a day of shopping, haunted by this deep feeling that they haven’t got enough or aren’t enough, or that things just aren’t right and the deck is stacked against them.  They feel deprived, even as the personal storage business thrives by renting extra space to store stuff that can’t fit in the houses, basements and even garages as cars in the suburbs are parked on the street.

This is brought home by the popularity of the word suffering, at a time when real suffering in the traditional sense is unknown to the majority of Americans.  Advertisers and the media urge us to think of the slightest discomfort or inconvenience as suffering in an attempt to get us to act or to react.  Because of the mythological belief that we deserve more and deserve better in all aspects of life, many people eagerly agree with this message.  We are suffering and need the magic pill, miracle cure or motivational program to make us pain-free, materially satisfied and to see ourselves as a success as we let the rest of the world define it.

In a sense perspective wraps everything up, as we need critical thinking to see through the hollow promises and to help separate what’s important from the trivial, discipline to make the time to reflect, and responsibility not to blame all our woes on someone else, therefore expecting someone else to fix it.  But perspective adds the calming outlook that not everything in life is a tragedy.  We struggle with perspective because many opposing messages and ideas have been adopted into our personal mythologies with no shortage of people and institutions to reinforce them with a constant stream of political and advertising hype.

So, as with the other dimensions discussed previously, problems with critical thinking and perspective arise from deep-seated assumptions in our mythologies.  They are not a matter of being stupid or unaware.  They are not a matter of being evil or greedy.  The behaviors are fully justified by underlying beliefs that each individual has not taken the time or awareness to sufficiently challenge.

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