Critical Thinking in Commercial Endeavors
April 13, 2006
Presentation to CSICOP — April 1, 2006
Ladies & Gentlemen:
It is a pleasure to attend the 30th birthday of CSICOP and share a few stories about how critical thinking has impacted my life work.
I had the good fortune to grow up in Windsor, Colorado and become a childhood friend of Ken Frazier. We both dreamed of the future and were sure that science would improve that future. We spent countless hours discussing the latest science fiction ideas and comparing those ideas with what we were learning in science classes. Post university, our paths diverged but I continued to stay in contact with Ken, often through his work as editor of the National Academy of Sciences journal, then Science News, and for nearly thirty years through the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer.
I shed many of my metaphysical beliefs. Dousing to find water did not survive the article on Randi’s tests. PSI capabilities, so common to science fiction, did not stand up to CSICOP fellows work — people like Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock.
This exposure to critical thinking has played into my work and life view, and I hope it will be interesting to you to learn about how skeptical thinking has impacted a couple of these views.
First point: I observe that the world always forms mind-sets, or what Thomas Kuhn calls paradigms. The audience is of course familiar with how conventional wisdom, or indeed beliefs, clings to existing paradigms, often in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. What excites me about the history of science is the phenomenal progress that has often followed a fundamental paradigm shift. Unraveling the mysteries of the universe began in earnest once we shed the earth-centric view. But these changes are slow and hard fraught. I have come to believe that obsolete mind-sets impose a great cost on society.
Second point: Mind-sets create advantages for certain groups. Sometimes these mind-sets confer status and respectability on their priests. Often the claims confer monetary advantages. Those claiming aliens visited Roswell created quite a business of books and tours. The folks claiming advantages for homeopathy make a great deal of money selling pure water.
Third point: Those who benefit from specific mind-sets often seek to improve those advantages by causing governance to enact rule-sets that make it illegal for citizens or businesses to behave in ways against the mind-sets. The Taliban made Islamic Sharia the law of Afghanistan, with significant personal benefit. School boards seek to block out those messy evolutionary facts that challenge their view of the bible as literal revealed truth. There will always be folks seeking rule-sets that confirm their beliefs or mind-sets.
Fourth point: These mind-sets develop in the commercial world as well as in science and religion. And, although this may surprise some of my academic colleagues, some people are even more interested in money than in academic status. They lobby government to enact rule-sets that benefit their firms.
The Old AT&T;, after I am sure much deep study, concluded that it was in the national interest for government to continue to enforce AT&T; absolute monopoly over voice communication. The Chairman of AT&T; told Congress in the early 70’s that if the laws allowed connection to the network of communication equipment made by any firm but AT&T;, there could be a nationwide communications failure. Happily, Congress did not buy AT&T;’s self-serving logic, and the communications revolution picked up speed.
What you may not be aware of is that the same AT&T; testified before a congressional committee chaired by Congressman Al Gore and argued that the internet could not possibly develop without monopoly control — Gore’s committee rejected this request for a limiting rule-set, and may have truly fathered the internet.
Which lends me to energy. Energy is the world’s largest and most important industry. Our standard of living improvements have been driven by the availability of useful work — by replacing drudgery with affordable energy.
Energy use also is behind what I believe to be the most serious environmental problem humankind has ever faced — global warming. Last year alone, our global energy system released an amount of CO2 that took nature 400,000 years to store. Two thirds of all US energy comes from fossil fuel.
The world would benefit from building electric and thermal generation options that reduce costs and reduce pollution. The prevailing energy mind-sets assume it is not possible to produce it cheaper and cleaner. The power system is large and ubiquitous, it must be economically optimal. Thus any changes that lower pollution must, by definition, raise the price of electricity.
The great bulk of the public is still in the mind-set but it is false. The power industry is governed by very strong rule-sets that make the delivery of electricity a monopoly — that ban private wires. Would be power entrepreneurs who seek to develop more efficient approaches can not, by law, deliver the product to their customers, except through monopoly wires. This blocks local generation, which blocks energy recycling. As a result, we burn double the fossil fuel that would be burned by an optimal system.
The presentation shown is about our business of recycling waste energy streams. The point is to demonstrate how critical thinking and refusal to accept existing mind-sets has identified ways to cut in half the fossil fuel used to generate electricity, while reducing average electric prices. But governments have enacted rule-sets that block such optimization.
The conclusion is to me, profound. Critical thinking is just as important in commercial enterprises as in science, education, and medicine. And the obsolete mind-sets and rule-sets have a great cost to the planet and to all of humanity.