Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Critically Thinking

I recently read these two new papers in PLOS Biology here and here on migrations, and how the phenomenon of migrations can place species more at risk from anthropogenic forces. The species that migrate are more at risk for decreasing numbers and endangerment. They outline how people’s settlements and activities (forestry, mining, highways, etc) affect these populations, and underline how important it is that scientists open communication channels with communities and the governments in order to protect the animals.

However, to make informed decisions about these species’ populations, the people involved do not necessarily have the background in science needed to understand the subtleties. Which is OK, nobody can understand everything about everything, and this is why it is important to know WHO to trust, or at least know their real agenda’s. I do the same when it comes to investing my money, politics (to a certain degree), and world events.

So I have often wondered, can we inform future citizens while they are in school? Start in elementary; teach them how to make informed choices, what sources to trust, which to ignore, and ultimately how to think critically.

A not-so-recent example is the vaccination hoopla. Anti-vaccinationists have sexy campaigns that target the general population with limited knowledge of what vaccinations are and how they work. However, how many of these anti-vaccinationists are actual reliable scientists* that have studied vaccines? Do not just look at what they actually say, but understand their motivations. Are they looking for someone to blame? Are they looking for a conspiracy? Do they want your money? Do they want their 15 minutes of fame? Also realize that some information is correct, but taken out of context. Such as the claim that vaccinations don’t work all the time anyways, so why get them? Well, some vaccinations do not 100% for everyone, but this is not a problem usually because of herd immunity, which is kind of a communal vaccination. The more people that do not have the vaccinations, the more susceptible those individuals are.

So this post is not about vaccines or species in trouble, but being aware of where you get your information and becoming informed to make better decisions. The internet is wonderful, but only if you know what information to trust. And sometimes, it can come from a completely reputable place, but the science itself is sometimes wrong. And this is good. If it were never wrong, then scientists are not doing their job. So also look critically at scientific papers, at scientists, at EVERYTHING you read & hear! People that are reputable and trustworthy will help you understand, not just keep repeating the same things over and over. Use your own common sense.

So let’s start teaching our children how to learn and what to trust. Lets start teaching adults, politicians, anyone who will listen how to do the same. And next time someone says that they would rather you drive your huge SUV all over instead of walking/biking/busing, think of all the scientists that are warning you of global climate change instead of the politicians warning you of the economy. Economies can always rebound, but can the Earth? Do you want to find out? And think … would you rather get your financial information from a trained analyst or from an 8 year old on a playground?

End of Rant

* Reliable Scientists are those that actually study the subject; so NO I don’t mean those other CAM people (Complementary and Alternative Medicine Practitioners) that mostly are people trying to suck as much money out of you as they can.


C'est Moi - Selina said...

You wrote:
"So I have often wondered, can we inform future citizens while they are in school? Start in elementary; teach them how to make informed choices, what sources to trust, which to ignore, and ultimately how to think critically."

On one hand I agree that people should learn critical thinking, and even at an earlier stage in school. However, dictating trustworthy sources may be very tricky.

First of all, even scientists can be "agendized" and may produce tainted results.

Secondly, I have to mention religious people who turn to their religious books as a trusted source, even if they contradict scientific enquiry. In this day and age, people will demand that their resources are as reliable or more reliable than others.

Thirdly, we live in a society that when the Government encourages or propogates programs to the general public, backed by all the research they have, they still come back with an "improved" option later. Labotomies and eugenics were scientific practices, backed by science and followed through by the Government yet now, if any one mentions it, they are to be villified. Such archaeic attitudes. Monstrous behaviour.

We have to find a middle ground. As Rumi said:

Outside of right and wrong there is a field. I'll meet you there.

The Real CAM said...

Respectfully, I think that you missed the objective, and that is not to dictate anything (learning by rote is never a good idea), but to learn the type of sources to trust. ie. asking a cosmetologist or a dermatologist about your skin if it is cancerous (I'll give you a hint and only one is a doctor!). I'm far from dictating, "Always trust the government", or even "Always listen to your mother, she always knows best", as many parents have shown, and do show that they react by the heart first and head last.

Also, critical thinking can help with making decisions regarding governmental programs. Having informed citizens decreases the liklihood of non-ethical programs, because people are informed, know the majority of the science, and can let their individual morals and ethics guide their decision process as to whether they agree or not. This is why informed people have their own opinions on the same subject, because their own morals guide them. Of course informed critical thinking only helps when the government subscribes to an open information policy.