Thinking thoughtfully: Consumer’s guides to breaking news

56391120It’s the end of the year, a time to reflect on what went wrong and how to fix things in our lives. Well, one GREAT effort we all can make is to be a bit more thoughtful about thinking.

Information is not the same as KNOWLEDGE. We are barraged with information. Constantly. And I’d guess more than half of it is unsubstantiated, not quite right, or downright untrue. Knowledge takes more effort. It’s a consideration of the information and placing it into a framework of how the world is or a model of the way things work. Information can mislead as often as lead. Knowledge can be enlightening and is part of who you are.

We can always use more knowledge. We can probably do with less information.  Quality information is only what’s good for most of us (unless you are in a profession that can capitalize on bad information).

Here’s where the skepticism comes in. Continue reading


Science sites blunder badly on solar farm “dumb town” story

Practical skepticism means using critical thinking everyday. Sometimes the news sounds TOO RIDICULOUS to be true. That should be a flag to question it or at least read VERY carefully before passing it on. A recent story about a North Carolina town who rejected solar panels was not quite what the headlines said it was. I wrote about it over at Doubtful News.

Sure, two commentators (who may be related) said at a public council meeting they had some concerns about the proposed solar farm — that it would mess with photosynthesis of plants and suck up all the energy from the sun. But those weren’t direct quotes and we aren’t clear exactly what was meant or the context. Perhaps they misspoke or meant something a bit different than how it was reported.

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On our attention being called to… a sea serpent

This is not a fairy tale.

Once upon time, top scientists of the day expected to discover a genuine monstrous sea serpent that sailors said they saw with their own eyes. The ocean was and still is a source of rich stories of strange encounters with mysterious beasties.

There are hundreds and hundreds of “sea serpent” reports from around the world. (And, mind you, that’s just from the sea, not from lakes or rivers!) They originated with ancient sea-going cultures – Scandinavia, in particular – and the tales travelled around the world just as fast as people could travel.

One of the most famous sea serpent sightings given serious scientific inquiry has been that of the creature seen by the crew of HMS Daedalus in 1848 after they had rounded the southern end of Africa ( on the west side) in the South Atlantic. The Captain himself reported on the sighting to naturalists and the newspapers of the time: Continue reading

Grandparents targeted by scammers

One vulnerable population to scammers is the elderly. They are less likely to be up on the latest scam warnings on social media and they may assume that people are being truthful and not out to deliberately rob them. But they ARE. Our grandmas and grandpas need to keep practicing practical skepticism.

The US Federal Trade Commission is warning people about a trick to get grandparents to fork over money they will never see again. Continue reading

Bad thinking traps

Our brains are designed to find us food, safety and mates. We have adapted our brain processes to deal with all the claims and questions of our modern world. We often mess up. Learning and applying critical thinking takes practice and understanding.

Martin Bridgstock does a fine job of explaining skeptical concepts and applications in his book “Beyond Belief”. In it, he describes three typical traps that we humans fall into that gum up our thinking [Bridgstock, p 48-49]:

  • Make incorrect conclusion or explanation when data is insufficient to support it,
  • Seek and find patterns and meaning where there actually are none,
  • Feel that there must be “something more” than what we see or to our purpose.

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When “you decide” is a cheap trick

Today, a lesson on pseudo-skepticism, or false skepticism – it looks and sounds like critical thinking about an extraordinary claim on the surface but a shallow dig reveals it is a ploy to make you feel smarter.

Think back to a typical unsolved mystery television program or media piece on a questionable claim. Has it ended with the proposition “you decide?” Posing this question at the end of a presentation of evidence feels democratic. It appeals to your vanity as a smart, responsible person weighing the information. You can choose to believe or not, use this or not, pick this one or not. It’s YOUR choice. Or is it?

Your decision is only as good as the quality of information that goes into it.

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When a cryptid isn’t a cryptid

By Kurt Broz

Last April I was assisting other biologists in surveying for a protected species of toad. While walking a dry creek bed far from civilization in the late evening, amid the standard sounds of bats and crickets, we heard a terrifying call.

Keeeeeooowwwww! Keeeeeeooooowwww!

This sound was almost primate-like. The other two biologists were entirely baffled as the call was certainly not from a species known in southern California. I imagine people unfamiliar with the natural world could easily mistake it for any number of animals, real or fictional.

This happens more often than you’d think, even for trained biologists. Having a solid understanding of the natural world or a completing a biology degree doesn’t make you impervious to being mystifed or making a mistake. As a skeptical scientist, though, we refrain from jumping to absurd conclusions or calling something an undocumented new species.

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