Monday, 16 January 2012

Classification and Critical Thinking

As you may have read in my last post there are many ways for classifying a given group of people such as the religion they practise, their sexual orientation, their cultural and societal backgrounds, their politics, their physical characteristics, and their individual practises.

This covers a lot of territory as you can imagine, but is it really necessary to classify people into these groups? Well it's not necessary per say, but humans as a species are for the most part classifiers it is one of the ways we make sense of things, and we've been doing it for a few hundred thousand years or so, so the chances of us being able to break the habit is pretty slim. I say a few hundred thousand because anatomically modern humans first appeared around two hundred thousand years ago. Before this there were other species of primates such as Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy and her kin) which go back around three million years, and primates themselves go back around sixty-five million years. Now we have no way of knowing whether our predecessors classified things and likely we'll never know, but the chances are pretty good they did even if in only very rudimentary ways. In any case we as modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens in case your interested) do classify things, and this tends to create problems (some intentional, and some not) in this little old world of ours.

Now why we classify things is a topic worthy of a lot of study and it has been studied for quite a while, but this blog is not a do it yourself degree in sociology, or psychology, so we'll leave it at that.

As the header for this blog states I'm going to be talking about critical thinking, and classification is one component of this subject. When we think critically we are forced to divide things into the plausible, and the not plausible (to put it very broadly, as there are typically varying degrees of plausibility). But before this is taken the wrong way I must point out that when someone thinks critically this does not mean that they simply take a firm unwavering stance on something, and let the dice fall where they may. This is what differentiates critical thinking from skepticism. Critical thinkers are by nature skeptical, but skeptics in many cases are not critical thinkers as they have already decided what the answer is.

Now there is nothing wrong with being a skeptic, but if you are then you have to be prepared to defend your ideas, as many people will automatically consider you to be against any idea that is somewhat controversial - in other words you become one of those dreaded "debunkers". And once you've been classified as a debunker, then it'll stick with you and will automatically be transferred to pretty much any topic that is even the slightest bit off centre.

It is much better to publicly classify yourself as a critical thinker (at least in my opinion), as in this way you don't automatically have a prejudgement against you. And you can reinforce your case by saying you are willing to entertain the notion that certain phenomena are possible, and then investigate what really is the story.

An example seems to be in order here.

Let's say you encounter a person who says they believe their house is haunted, because they hear footsteps at night.

Now a hardened skeptic would likely dismiss this as total nonsense, and thereby cause the person to not only consider them as being a rude git, but also likely cause the person with the belief to be embarrassed. If this is done enough times then I would assume it could lead to further distress on their part.

But if we look at this same scenario from the point of view of a critical thinker then we get a totally different outcome. The critical thinker who is told about the belief that there is a ghost would take the person at face value rather than making an automatic judgement and try and find out why they believe this. Ultimately this might lead to the person allowing the critical thinker to investigate the problem, and thereby determine what the noises actually are. This second solution I feel goes a long way to reassuring the person with the belief, and ultimately is much more productive as it no only confronts their fears, but it also instructs the person. Additionally it's unlikely they'll think the critical thinker is some rude git either.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

Definitions Part II

Yesterday's article was about computer, and I realize that it is probably too late to change the common usage of the term "hackers" to "crackers", but if we try who knows. But enough said about computers.

The real focus of this article is with regard to the term "tolerance". Now by definition (once again courtesy of Apple) we get: "1 the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviour that one does not necessarily agree with : the tolerance of corruption | an advocate of religious tolerance." For the root term Tolerate we get "allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference : a regime unwilling to tolerate dissent. • accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance : how was it that she could tolerate such noise?"

Now both of these definition point toward enduring, or putting up with something, which makes me wonder why politicians, religious leaders, the media, and many many others continue to use this term when speaking of things such as gay rights; other religions, cultures, societies, practises, etc. So if anybody says something like "I/We should all tolerate …" then anybody who can use a dictionary should be able to tell that what they're really saying is something like "I/We really consider these people to be wrong but we'll put up a facade to make it look like we are supporting them in hopes that nobody will notice. So how can we make it look like we're helping them, and how can I/we look like the good guy at the same time?"

Now I don't know about you, but that sounds like one hell of a lousy attitude to take / put forth. In fact let's assume that this mystery person is an elected official. If you voted for this person, and then based on the above paragraph found out that they tolerate something that you believe very strongly in, do you really think you'll be getting proper representation from this person? Come on now - be honest with yourself!

Now if we switch gears slightly, and change to the term acceptance we have a totally new definition: "agreement with or belief in an idea, opinion, or explanation."

If we all accepted the fact that things such as gay rights; other religions, cultures, societies, practises, etc. we're alright and then went on with our lives wouldn't this world be a better place? After all if we did then the hypothetical person up above would be saying "I/We realize that people all over the world are different, and that they all have different opinions, backgrounds. I understand this, now let's get on with solving the problem at hand."

Personally I accept that there are people in this world who have different religions (in fact there are somewhere between 400 and 1000 depending on how you classify them), different sexual orientations (a good handful of those too), that come from different cultures (probably a few hundred of these as well), were raised under different societal structures (a few hundred more, although there will be a great deal of crossover with the cultures), their political ideology, their physical characteristics, and their individual practises as well. But are any of these really all that important?

Now can we please get along and solve the various problems this world of ours has?


Saturday, 14 January 2012

Definitions Part I

It never ceases to amaze me that certain people either don't understand how to use certain words in the English language or more typically are not interested in using the proper word for something. Now if this mystery person was brand new to Canada then this is understandable, but unfortunately the vast majority of the people I'm referring to are not. In fact the majority of them have English as their first (and sometimes only) language - like yours truly. As an aside I've tried to learn other languages but haven't been overly successful - I took German twice, then switched to Plains Cree. I did pretty good in Cree, but without anyone to speak to you tend to lose the ability to speak quite quickly. In addition the majority of the people I'm whining about are professional writers / journalists / broadcasters, etc.

In any case the point I was trying to make was that certain people either intentionally or inadvertently tend to misuse words. As an example take the word "Computer Hacker" or simply "Hacker" now when the term was first coined it was referring to a person with fantastically good programming skills that was able to get into programs and alter the code to enhance their capabilities.

When Microsoft Corporation and the Windows operating systems came to be, they were followed a few years later by viruses. Now by definition (according to the dictionary built into the Apple operating system) a computer virus is: "a piece of code that is capable of copying itself and typically has a detrimental effect, such as corrupting the system or destroying data." Because of this the term "Cracker" was coined to describe someone who writes viruses, with the link being made to "Safe Cracker" who is a person not known for getting into safes to make them more efficient, but one who gets into them by breaking them (with the added incentive that s/he also likely will steal whatever is inside.

Now granted that while a person who writes viruses does need good programming skills this does not make them a Hacker, this makes them a Cracker. I realize it is likely too late to change things now, but I would be nice to see one author somewhere write a column that explains the difference, and shows that journalist today are capable of doing research rather than living within the world of five second sound bites.

More on this from a non-computer perspective tomorrow ...


"Being A Scot" by Sir Sean Connery & Murray Grigor

Publisher:London [England] : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008. ISBN: 9780297855408 Characteristics: 311 pages :,illustrations (chiefly ...