The beauty of a background in philosophy and critical thinking skills is that the knowledge you learn can apply to so, so, so many areas without extensive study of particular topics. While my strong suit is obviously arguing against religious claims, I can apply my skills from doing this to many other domains; my ‘logical fallacy sense’ goes off when I listen to ‘9/11 truthers,’ holocaust deniers, ‘alternative medicine’ proponents, creationists, moon landing deniers, etc. There is, of course, a great deal of nonsense out there and everyone can’t be expected to know everything, but a good knowledge of critical thinking skills can help one refute bad arguments.
Once I expanded my skepticism to other issues because religion such as ‘alternative medicine,’ evolution denial, and 9/11 conspiracy arguments, I noticed that the arguments presented follow a very similar flawed structure. Arguments from ignorance, shifting the burden of proof, inappropriate appeals to authority, ad hoc explanations, and much more are the order of the day. At a basic level, an ‘alternative medicine’ proponent saying “you can’t trust big pharma” (therefore ‘alternative medicine’ wins out and you shouldn’t use ‘Western medicine’) is no different than a 9/11 truther saying “you can’t trust the government and the mainstream media” (therefore there was a conspiracy and whatever the mainstream media and government says about 9/11 is false). A false dichotomy is a false dichotomy. A non-sequitur is a non-sequitur is a non-sequitur.
I’ve listened to Eugenie C. Scott and Massimo Pigliucci demolish creationist claims and defend evolution and noticed that the tactics they’ve used, although they were used in discussions/debates about evolution and creationism, can globally be applied to discussion of other issues. A very common creationist strategy, for example, is to attack evolution…but provide no good reason to accept creationism. Similarly, 9/11 truthers say “the ‘official story’ is unbelievable, look at all the problems with it” and believe that this is enough reason to accept a conspiracy claim…when they’ve provided no evidence to support the conspiracy claim.
In a post I authored titled “9/11 Truthers and Creationists are Strange Bedfellows,” I demonstrated how creationists and ‘9/11 truthers’ commit very similar errors in critical thinking. While these are two totally different topics, we can see the parallels in flawed thinking without even knowing much about the individual topics and happily dismiss the bad arguments!
As I expected, ‘9/11 truthers’ didn’t like this post didn’t like this post and claimed that I was comparing them to creationists, but this simply is not the case; I discussed how the methodology of ‘truthers’ and creationists is similarly flawed. Ironically (or not), they misrepresented what I was saying and missed my point…and then went on to make the same errors I outlined in my post (false dichotomies, cherry picking, inappropriate appeals to authority, using discredited information) and added some personal attacks.
Skeptics can, at times, feel quite burdened by the great deal of information out there and can’t possibly be expected to know of every conspiracy claim and how to refute it, but a mastery of critical thinking skills including specialization in one area, knowledge of logical fallacies, and a good amount of ‘practice’ from listening to debates and participating in discussions can be very helpful. While Michael Shermer, for example, can go toe-to-toe with ‘truthers’ better than I can, I can still notice the flaws in their methodology by explaining how there are committing critical thinking errors and explaining how logical fallacies are being committed.
Those in the ‘skeptical community’ and ‘atheist community’ would do a great service for themselves if they had a good understanding of critical thinking skills and a background in philosophy. While some do, I constantly lament a lack of this in the ‘movements’ and am doing my best to ‘fill in the gaps’ and do something about it by educating and making complicated concepts understandable for my audience. Much to the chagrin of the ‘philosophically unwashed’ (as my former teacher Professor Visgilio used to say), you can use philosophy in everyday life.
For some more examples of my application of critical thinking skills to tackle various arguments, please read the following blog posts: “Critical Thinking About Vegetarianism,” “Dr. Oz is full of logical fallacies,” “Conversation with a Born-Again Christian and Science Denial,” “My Skeptical Adventure with Chiropractic…” and “Taoism and the Naturalistic Fallacy.”