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And now for a brief bit on applied critical thinking …


Logical reasoning and critical thinking are habits. And like all habits, they can be cultivated and nurtured through various forms of positive reinforcement, or they can be suppressed and even eliminated with sufficient amounts of negative reinforcement. So there is never a good time to abandon rational thought on the excuse that, just in case, this one time, it might be wrong. Error is the risk we take when we attempt to say what is true. Error is the guarantee we ensure when we give up on that attempt – ironic, since the excuse for giving up is to avoid error. I bring this up, because the excuse is often presented by persons insistently advancing some demonstrable piece of nonsense that, “It is better to be safe than sorry.” Which is to say, some abjectly ridiculous claim is asserted with the statement that, “I don’t know if this is true or not, but blah blah blah blah.”

As a matter of fact, No, it is not better.

As an analogy, consider this: there is a phenomenon known as “clear sky lightning,” in which a lightning bolt will be emitted from a thunder head, travel horizontally many, many miles, and only then turn earthward to strike the ground. The distances traveled have been measured as high as 25 miles, and the skies immediately above the area that is struck can be absolutely clear. This is the phenomenon known as the “bolt from the blue.”

While rare, this phenomenon is well-enough known that the phrase “bolt from the blue” is cliché. And the human consequences can be quite tragic. Back in the 1990’s, when I was still living in Chicago, a 17 year old youth, out playing baseball (I believe in center field), was struck dead by such a bold-from-the-blue. The mind absolutely beggars at the horror and arbitrariness of such an event. And yet it really happened.

Suppose, now, we apply the above criterion, and assert, “I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is better to be safe than sorry.” What policy would THIS line of reasoning lead us to? Never playing baseball in an outside field? Never going outside again? (Since the most dangerous place in your house is your own bathroom, consider what that last would entail!)

Now, there are some risks that merit serious consideration. For example, I am convinced that a sound argument can be made that, when entering the freeway in your vehicle, it is better to observe the flow of traffic and adjust your maneuver accordingly, rather than merely closing your eyes and standing on the accelerator. Perhaps this seems like an extreme, and not very good, example. But recall the already mentioned fact that the most dangerous place in your home is the bathroom. What sorts of risks are you prepared to avoid in the name of being safe, rather than sorry, so as to quarantine those risks from your daily experiences? If you do not find this question patently absurd, then I am reasonably sure I do not want to hear your answer.

Everything about the world, and about living in it, entails risks. The only real questions have to do with which of those risks are more substantive than the others, and what sorts of mitigations are possible given what we can reasonably forgo. There is a small possibility (about one chance in a million) of being exposed to an extremely deadly toxin from eating raw peanut butter. There is a small chance of being struck by lightning on an otherwise clear day. Those chances increase dramatically as one disregards the signs of incoming thunderstorms and fails to adjust one’s behavior accordingly. The chances of having a devastating accident while entering the freeway without paying proper attention are disturbingly high.

Because of this, the real question that ought to be addressed is not one of “safe or sorry?” Rather it is one of “reason or regret?”

And this brings me to the pet peeve at the center of this post: the habit of disregarding reason in the name of a baselessly “perceived” risk that is so impossibly distant as to exercise no functional presence in people’s lives manifests itself in ways from the absolutely trivial to the genuinely dangerous. Thus, for example, people who forward Internet hoaxes (because, after all, it’s better to be safe than sorry … ), either via email or (more commonly, these days) through social media, are logically no different than anti-vaccine ideologues with their infantile twaddle inflating the risks associated with vaccines (which are “real” only in an abstract, mathematical sense) while disregarding the very real physical threats to entire groups associated with undermining the herd immunity that vaccines provide against dangerous diseases.

Consequently, it is important to resist failures of basic logic and critical thinking even in trivial matters. The habit that abandons reason in little things is the same habit that abandons reason in the large ones as well. Yet the habit of unreason that manifests itself in little ways (forwarding fatuous nonsense on Facebook, for example) is by far the easier one to resist, and replace with the habits of logic and critical thinking. By applying logic and critical thinking to seemingly small things, like social media, one is growing and developing those habits of real thought and inquiry – as opposed to thoughtless, knee-jerk reactions – that will be ready to serve immediately when confronted by more serious issues.