Saturday, 19 July 2008

The importance of antidote

There are many reasons I see such a strong link between philosophy and scepticism. One of these is probably bias on my part, being a great lover of both and prone to making connections. Another prominent reason, however, can be summed up in the word therapy.

While in other contexts this is a word which would set off some alarm bells - it's one which is used extensively by Supplementary, Complementary and Alternative Medicines (my favourite acronym) to give the illusion of competence where none exists - in this context, it is therapy of the most genuine and beneficial sort.

Acupuncture ModelPeople suffer from misconceptions. It's just a fact of life that this is the case, and there's nothing we can do to completely prevent this on a global scale. What the philosopher or sceptic is able to do is analyse an argument or a stated position, and identify fallacies. They can then determine the appropriate way of dissuading the person from that misconception (though of course there must be a degree of willing on the part of the subject). This diagnosis-treatment approach is why this particular brand of philosophy is known as therapeutic - and the parallels with scepticism are striking.

This process in scepticism is aided substantially by the wonders of the interwebs and the ever-growing freedom of information. Someone insisting that acupuncture or homeopathy has a proven track record in clinical trials? Ask to see the published research - or better yet, show them the reams of research which contradicts their position.

Of course, an important part of any therapy is to treat primary causes rather than the symptoms alone; and the source of so much of the ignorance and misunderstanding in the world is the mainstream media. For the majority of people, who do not get their news from the internet, the main sources of information are television and the dead tree press - the worst of which are the tabloids. It seems impossible for a story to appear in The Scum that isn't in some way serving the editorial agenda, every story spun to promote the paper's pet worldview.

An example: for one reason or another, lately there has been a rise in awareness of knife crime in the UK; the government is pledging new measures to combat it, and the opposition are using it as further "evidence" that society is going down the pan. The latest crime survey figures were recently splashed across the headlines - crying out things like "crime wave" and "a stabbing every 4 minutes in Blade Britain".

Now, I've spoken before about the evil of statistics in the media, and this is another case of the media twisting the figures to suit their agenda. This is where we need our antidotes, and there are few as effective at bursting the hyperbolic bubble of social commentary as Obsolete, and in this case he certainly doesn't disappoint. His entry on the subject reveals the figures behind the hysteria: 6% of violent crime in England & Wales in the last year involved a knife.

Without going into too much detail (head over to Obsolete's article if you want the full load), the basic point here is that crime is down - and even knife crime in particular has seen a (albeit statistically insignificant) decrease in the last year. Where, then, does this apocalyptic vision of a Broken, Blade-wielding Britain come from? Speculatively, I would have to say that it's probably the media themselves; though the Why is a different matter.

But can you imagine how hard it would be to get the facts were it not for the internet? How much more widespread the influence of the media would be? I shudder at the thought, to be honest.

The internet is a wonderful resource, and one of the best uses to which it can be put is as part of the therapeutic process of scepticism, treating misconceptions and bringing the "antidote" of actual facts to a wider audience.

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