Saturday, June 11, 2011

Top Five Problems Caused by Bad Critical Thinking in San Diego County

It's easy to get fixated on beliefs, rather than on the differences those beliefs make in the world. Consequently I've been making an effort to focus on the concrete issues that are local for me where socially-spread, group-based poor critical thinking has had a clear negative impact. All those qualifiers are there so that we don't give anyone a free pass - i.e. the anti-vaxxers can be just as pernicious as the Catholic church in terms of their damage to children, regardless of whether they appeal to invisible spirits to justify their beliefs. This definition also requires the beliefs to be socially-spread. One person who thinks they can hear internet rays in their heads doesn't count, practically speaking, because they're not going to convince anyone else and they don't have political pull.

So what kind of problems am I thinking about? Everything from abuse of individuals to superstition-motivated state interference - but it has to be causing a concrete problem. So for example, we have a Creation Science Museum here. I haven't included that on the list. Why not? Yes, it's delusional, a waste of money, and can reasonably be expected to erode critical thinking skills - but let's look for evidence of a concrete impact, so we can focus our efforts. If we can point to schools that have started teaching creationism because of this place, then that's evidence.

I challenge skeptics and atheists in general to try to think this way more often, because it will give us more of an action orientation and show that our beliefs matter, as opposed to just being ammunition for debate and comments sections. Such focus will make us that much more effective in improving the world. Here's my list for San Diego County in no particular order. I invite comments or additions of your own issues.

1) Anti-vaxxers. San Diego is (in)famous for a 2008 measles outbreak, and California as a whole has been having a record pertussis year. Surprise! This is a huge concern and it's having an immediate impact. I'm probably most worried about this, of all issues in San Diego. Vaccination has been one of the real triumphs of healthcare in its contribution to human happiness, and it's being reversed by people who seem chiefly interested in selling books and over-inflating their egos. Sadly, one of them is a licensed pediatrician who is just over the line in Orange County.

Proposed action: 2-fold. 1) Educate parents, not only about the benefits of vaccination, but about the unethical charlatans who
I'm completely in favor of character assassinations on these clowns if it achieves the effect of bringing vaccinations back up; the nice thing is, you can character-assassinate them just by telling the truth. 2) Licensure - dispensing demonstrably dangerous medical advice (for example, that measles isn't that bad) must earn some scrutiny from the relevant governing bodies. I don't know what I can do at my level but I'm going to look into it.


2) Child molestation by personnel in the Catholic Church. Still going on, and still affecting people's lives, and still the organization is dragging its feet or in some cases allowing people to keep serving across an international border.

Proposed action: There is already a well-organized response with legal resources. One of the most prominent organizations is SNAP. If you agree that this is a big issue, you can visit their website and give time or money.


3) Access to reproductive health services, especially for women. There are a number of Planned Parenthood clinics throughout San Diego. However, it is a certainty that there are fewer women and families who use them, or would even consider using them, than the total number that would benefit from their services.

Proposed action: again, volunteer your time or donate. (See a theme here? If you don't break a sweat, you're probably not making a difference.) There is a community outreach function that you can be a part of. The good news is that working hard on a cause with like-minded people is fun and rewarding. Next time you're bored on a Saturday...


4) Religious objections to stem cell technology have absolutely damaged the progress of biomedical science, not to mention America's competitive edge in this part of the biotech industry. In particular, the Bush administration's executive order limiting funding for stem cell research not only delayed basic discoveries, it created an air of uncertainty about the commercial future of stem cell research in the United States. Biotech is a big part of San Diego's economy, and this undoubtedly hurt us. Investors are very skittish about putting money into industries that have a history of being subjected to the whims of regulators, and the tone this set has stayed with us.

Proposed action: Being optimistic, this storm may have passed. I haven't heard an ill-informed legislator bring it up for awhile. If you're not an angel investor, you don't have a lot of direct control over this one - but you can pay attention to how your reps vote, and you can frame the issue in terms of what the objecting social conservatives care about: losing our edge to East Asian competitors, government interference in business, and damage to economic growth. Not to mention potential treatments for diseases that strike close to home for many social cons, like dementia and heart disease.


5) The Mount Soledad Cross: non-Christian veterans and Americans are made to feel unwelcome. The cross detracts from what should be a public space for everyone. Although I don't like looking down Rose Canyon and seeing it up on Soledad, I have to admit that it's among the things that troubles me less, in terms of its immediate impact; certainly less than the anti-vaxxers or our delayed stem cell enterprise.

Proposed action: Attorney James McElroy has been fighting this fight for all of us for many years and exemplifies the approach we should all be taking to issues that trouble us. Do something! Support McElroy and the Southern Poverty Law Center of which he is a member. Not only is this case still alive, but just two weeks ago Duncan Hunter amended a bill that would not only let the cross stay, it would in general make religious symbols acceptable as war memorials. If that happens then the Soledad cross absolutely would have had a negative impact beyond the discomfort and disappointment it produces itself.


Is there something that should be here that's not? And more important, how serious are we all our skepticism and rationalism; that is, do our actions match our claimed beliefs? One good metric - say it with me - have you given time or money to these causes, or to umbrella and educational organizations? Here are some good ones:

Camp Quest - the Secular Summer Camp (you can REALLY make a difference here)

National Center for Science Education

Secular Coalition for America

Project Reason

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