When I got in my car to go to work that afternoon, the thermometer registered 98º. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles’ west valley, it said 109º. The commentaries from coworkers on the weather were understandably predictable, until I heard this one: “Yep, feels like earthquake weather.” At least one person chose to stay home that day for fear of a heat-induced temblor. As I listened to them discuss this supposed correlation between meteorology and geology without a trace of irony, I realized I was surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who had never stopped to think about how ludicrous this all sounded.
Now, Southern California has certainly spawned its fair share of screwball ideas. The sheer number of psychics hawking tarot readings, alternative medicine practitioners, and feng shui design consultants is astounding, which suggests they must not lack for a gullible and paying audience. But “earthquake weather” was a new on me. Still, it occurred to me that this was just one more example of people’s willingness to believe almost anything without stopping to think or consider the evidence for it.
I believe what this country needs is a good 5¢ dose of critical thinking. Beyond New Age fads and 9/11 conspiracy theories, I see a lack of critical thinking, mental laziness really, as a pressing issue that impacts many aspects of our national life. Why are we still debating the validity of evolution, the value of stem cell research, or the veracity of global warming when the evidence is readily available? Why were we not outraged as a nation at the lack of evidence to justify the war in Iraq? Why do we have to appeal to “faith-based initiatives” to solve social ills? Rather, we should look at the results, analyze the evidence, and make policy decisions based on facts and data, not wishes and dreams.
Which brings me to the crop of current Presidential candidates. Neither John McCain, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama ever responded to multiple invitations to participate in Science Debate 2008 on April 18. But five days earlier the Democratic candidates spent two hours professing their personal piety in a nationally-televised forum on faith. And now candidate Obama has announced that he will expand President Bush’s faith-based initiative.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement of what one Administration official derisively referred to as “the reality-based community”. We have our blogs and podcasts, our conventions, our magazines and websites, and we wear with pride the monikers: rationalists, skeptics, inquirers. Better to be a member of a community based in reality than one with its collective head buried in the sand.
I was recently asked in a casual conversation what my astrological sign was. I replied, simply, that I don’t have one. The questioner looked at me dumbfounded. “My life isn’t controlled by the aparent position of the stars on the day I was born.” And I said it without a trace of irony.