What We Stand to Lose: Why Social Progressives Need Philosophy

philosophyIt might sound old and boring, but we need philosophy now more than ever

It’s great that gay marriage, feminism, and similar social causes are gaining ground — if not in the law, at least in our culture, and that means a lot. I am pretty sure that, recent setbacks aside, we will overcome the biggest legal hurdles related to these issues within a generation or two. There will be a great deal more work to do after that, just as there still is with racism, but there is certainly reason to celebrate. Unless there is a huge upset in the near future, things seem to be heading in the right direction. The world is changing.

I’m concerned about the transition, though; I don’t want us carrying a bunch of unnecessary baggage into the brave new world we hope to create. It’s one thing to be open-minded and another thing to be entirely uncritical of nice-sounding ideas, but the latter is often what seems to be happening with many would-be allies of progressive causes. Whatever profound-ish phrases or thoughts happen to strike our fancy tend to circulate around the Internet before becoming near dogma.

Take, for example, the immensely-popular Facebook page The Mind Unleashed, which regularly publishes New Age-y advice. I have no doubt that the owners of that page are social progressives, but honestly, most of the page’s thoughts are nonsense that sounds nice. For example, “The strongest drug that exists for a human is another human being,” published on the page on July 23rd. Sure, humans can help each other, but you know what? Antibiotics are going to help you more than a friend will when you have an infection. Chemotherapy and surgery will save your life when you have cancer, not a supportive spouse. People are great, but with as much anti-science, anti-medicine nonsense circulating these days, the last thing we need is more bullshit sentiment about drugs.

If that sounds reactionary and overly-literal, consider that the page also claims to have found “The Mother Of All Antioxidants“– gluthione — which is a dubious claim unsupported by any medical research. It is curious that the claims of the article linked by the page are so much greater than those of the WebMD page. Wait, it isn’t curious: Facebook is a marketing platform, and companies stand to make money off of misguided people with good intentions. WebMD, on the other hand, is strictly informative. The Mind Unleashed, however, likely makes a killing on ads and click-through.

The Mind Unleashed is but one among many sources of nice-sounding BS. Oprah and Dr. Oz have their fair share of influence, and while they may have done some good for socially progressive causes, they also tend to promote pseudoscience and bad reasoning. Then there’s the Food Babe, whose overblown claims about GMOs and health are wholly unscientific yet tremendously popular. It comes as no surprise to me that while researching her, I discovered she was voted Dr. Oz’s “Healthiest Facebook Page.” I cringe in disgust.

On the Christian progressive front, I find that things like the Carnival de Resistancewhich this year embedded itself at the popular Wild Goose Festival, embody a pseudo-spiritual rehashing of these same tired tropes of caring for the earth = being against scientific tampering with plants, taking up Monsanto conspiracy theories, and so forth (short note: as a Christian progressive, I don’t much care for the linked article, but it’s the only place I’ve seen document the more questionable activities of WGF). Never mind you that we wouldn’t know the earth was in trouble but for science, and never mind you that the only real way out of the mess we’re in is with more science.

Who can save us now?

The cure for many of these ills is philosophy. Thanks to the Internet, people consume a massive amount of information on a daily basis. And because no one can know everything, all of us regularly encounter information which extends waaay beyond our levels of expertise. Accountants, retail clerks, and doctors alike read articles and see informative photos making claims about medicine, geology, nutrition, economics, and so forth. The problem is real: how the hell do we sift through all this information?

The Internet Age requires us to formulate new virtues. In particular, we need to know what expertise looks like and how it behaves.

1. Who is an expert? How do we know he/she is an expert?

Lots of so-called experts, like Food Babe and Dr. Oz, are not experts at all. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are no experts — or at least there is no one who is an expert on their own. No expert exists in a vacuum. Real experts like scientists, philosophers, historians, and so forth may have individual expertise, but none of them are wielding their expertise except when they are discussing ideas that have gone through peer review or perhaps informally discussed their work with a variety of other experts. It’s not just, like, their opinion, man. Food Babe and Dr. Oz are not experts, because they say stuff that no one has actually tried to test.

2. What is a sound conclusion?

The actual answer to this is complicated, but there are some pragmatic steps you can take to defend against bad reasoning. In short, demand evidence. And bear in mind that procuring good evidence takes some expertise in statistics and sampling. People may try to trick you with anecdotes or pander to your pre-existing beliefs, such as how Food Babe preys on fear of authority and how fundamentalists try to capitalize on feelings of piety and cultural superiority, but you have to be better than that. It takes practice, but we all need to get into the habit of identifying the claims made in articles and on webpages in order to check whether those claims have any support. Much like Wikipedia, we need to slap a mental “[citation needed]” sticker on all kinds of content that we face every day.

New virtues for a new era

The dawn of the Internet surely provides new challenges, and we need to adjust our societal virtues in order to survive. I’m glad that increased communication has broken down many of the walls preventing social justice, but we may just end up ushering in new kinds of insanity if we do not proceed carefully. The advice I have given here just barely touches on what we will need to survive in the information age, but it is a good start, and I hope we as a society manage to adapt to our new technology before it confuses us beyond repair.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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5 Responses to What We Stand to Lose: Why Social Progressives Need Philosophy

  1. Good post. Philosophy is one part, but critical thinking skills and evidence based thinking are two others. Of course, education is the fourth arrow in the quiver.

  2. insanityranch says:

    It seems to me that the most important virtue is epistemic humility. We all have the tendency to overestimate how much we know, and how close our worldview is to The Truth. This tendency is only increased to the extent we are young, successful and privileged. Our education system treats being wrong (or rather, being shown to be wrong, since we are all wrong all the time to some unknown extent) as failure, instead of teaching us to treat that moment as an opportunity to improve our knowledge or understanding. As it happens, practicing being wrong WELL would also be useful in helping us to identify experts. Scammers make confident, sweeping statements, and their confidence is contagious. Experts tend to hedge their claims — this is true under these circumstances, and taking A, B, and C into account, but ignoring D for the moment… We tend to see that as intellectual weakness, as lack of confidence, or as timidity, and discount it.

  3. Chris Thomas says:

    Good article. A basic understanding of statistics and how to read, interpret, and apply a scientific article are important as well. I always love to read the letters to the editor section of a scientific journal where the “experts” rip each other to shreds over which statistical analysis should have been applied and what the data really demonstrate.

    I love to ask people why taking vitamin C for a cold is such accepted dogma when the science supporting that notion is sorely lacking and based solely on postulates that were never borne out in any study that I am aware of. The simple answer to the question is that Linus Pauling was a brilliant biochemist who won a Noble Prize for figuring out the secondary structures of certain proteins.

  4. Pingback: Robin Williams, Matt Walsh, Morality, and Mental Illness | The Discerning Christian

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