Fooling Ourselves and Critical Thinking
I've been devouring science lectures and audiobooks for weeks, and it doesn't seem to be letting up. I've been re-watching/listening to Cosmos, I've started watching 'Wonders of the Solar System' with Prof. Brian Cox, and I'm currently listening to 'The Demon Haunted World' by Carl Sagan.
Why should this matter to anyone else? It probably doesn't, though I certainly recommend all of the above to virtually anyone. The idea that I want to get across, though, is one that Carl Sagan spent years arguing for - that we all are capable of thinking scientifically and skeptically; we can all be scientists.
If you watch a great deal of television, you tend to find more and more characters which are portrayed as complete morons. Of course, we have all felt this way from time to time, but I think that all of us are perfectly capable of critical thinking skills. In fact, I argue that everyone thinks skeptically at least some of the time, but most people seem to 'leave their brain at the door' when it comes to certain aspects of their lives.
For instance, I have always been skeptical about God and religion in general (though I've certainly had my lapses in judgement), but for most of my life I believed in ghosts, as well as a host of minor newage beliefs, like astral projection and whatnot. Also, I'm skeptical (even cynical at times) when it comes to television commercials and other marketing campaigns, and I suspect that many other people are as well.
Why, then, are we so good at fooling ourselves?
I can't guess as to how other people's minds work, but I can offer my own perspective. When I watch something like Cosmos, or when I look at high-resolution panorama photos from the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, I get a distinct feeling of wanting - wanting to be there, to see these things firsthand, to be able to touch Martian rocks which may have never been touched by any other living being. I really, really want to be able to do that, so the ideas of 'astral projection' and 'remote viewing' are extremely appealing.
What it really boils down to, though, is a rejection of reality, and it can have unexpected consequences. For instance, if I accept that I can visit Mars without ever leaving my own home, why should I bother supporting scientists' endeavors to get there? More interestingly, it may actually keep me from working towards actually trying to reach that lofty goal. Regardless of the likelihood of my being any part of a manned mission to Mars being extraordinarily slim - it's still higher than my being able to project my consciousness outside of the body which produces it.
Ultimately, I think that most of us are in doubt about our pet beliefs, and it is unfortunate that so many people have been conditioned to ignore that doubt, or else to simply attribute it to an outside source and call it 'evil'. Our ability to doubt and to question is absolutely crucial, both for the future of scientific inquiry and, I suspect, for the future of the human race.