Diego Fontanive on Critical Thinking and Psychobabble

 

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Diego Fontanive founded EOF. His background is in sociology, psychology, and critical thinking.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Most people would not disagree with the idea that they have the right way to look at the world. How does EOF as a project and as a set oft tools convince people that they may have some misconceptions about the world?

Diego Fontanive: This is a very delicate point. We want to be right, especially when a viewpoint is being stuck in our head for a very long time – especially years. What I am saying is a delicate approach, mostly, you cannot approach people directly.

Also, I think this is why showing people facts and evidence, especially when the belief is very much ingrained, doesn’t really work because they will eventually apply a confirmation bias and a modality of thinking to justify their belief in another way, in another modality [Laughing].

I have a name for this approach. I call it “Circumnavigation,” which is trying to place doubts. Fundamentally, we don’t want people to think the way we think. We want people to think in a way capable to think for themselves and to be as objective as possible.

We plant seeds. I think a good and simple approach is to ask, “What do you mean by that?” When people talk about their beliefs, they tend to be very fast: lexically, verbally, and cognitively.

I think it is wise to stop them when it is possible, of course, and to ask, “What do you mean by that? What do you actually mean by that?” For example, let’s say something like this, a typical situation when someone faces the lost of a loved one.

Usually, somebody says, “This person is in a better world and enjoying a better life.” I will ask, “What do you mean by that? You just don’t know that.” Another example, when some people say (which has happened to me), “Buddha achieved enlightenment.”

My approach would be to say, “Nobody probably met the Buddha. He is an invented figure. The scriptures about the Buddha have been written between 500 and 800 years after they were supposed, after the existence of the Buddha. We just don’t know. Not knowing is not a disturbing point of analysis, it is aactually a beautiful starting point of analysis.”

In a superficial way, this is the type of analysis that we have.

Jacobsen: You have met James Randi, so have I. Was he a hero or inspiration for that the work that you do?

Fontanive: I would not use the word “hero.” I know it is a way of the language, but a hero implies an authority, but I do not think to make an authority of any figure because it eventually can lead to falling into biases. I believe it is a little bit of processing of venerating, which I do not like.

I have a lot of admiration for James Randi for sure. I do not have heroes. I have people who I do admire. He is an incredible person. I appreciate his passion despite his age, to go on. He is almost 90 now.

Also, his kindness to approach people of different beliefs without trying to impose reason on thebut trying to make them reason. It is an enormous difference: between imposing and making people reason.

I met him. We had interesting chats and conversations, but I think we were along the same lines. I have a total admiration for what he has done and is doing. I do not want to make people into heroes.

They are people. They have their fallacies. I would really avoid this process of giving authorities to certain figures. This could be a little bit of a problem. There are people who are not scientists who tend to get too much authority, e.g. social science.

They may have things that are supposedly science but aren’t, mumbo-jumbo, such as some of social psychology. There are New Age ideas, or psychobabble coming from motivational stuff in psychology.

I think giving authority to something or someone distracts us from evaluating what the theory is, the person is, and so on.

Jacobsen: If you could some of the ideas in social psychology, in particular, as well as some of the New Age ideas, what are some of the common fallacies between both camps – so to speak?

Fontanive: On the topic of religion, religion at least has a structure. A religious person doesn’t have much freedom to create a new theory or way to approach religious ideas (in a new way). People have to stick to the scriptures.

At least, there is a formal structure. Modern spirituality or the New Age does not have the structure. There is a lot of freedom to invent our own beliefs. That, maybe, eventually go together with the New Age beliefs.

This is the problem in the New Age because there is something really dishonest going on the in the New Age movement. What they do, they kidnap scientific concepts, even scientific theories, and the twist them in order to satisfy their theories or beliefs.

We often, for instance, in New Age social media – groups, pages – see things like “Scientific study says that we have some vibration or field” and so on.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Fontanive: Unfortunately, this goes unseen by the many because the many really believe – because they don’t check the sources. They don’t evaluate the soundness or validity of the article or the claim.

Also, because our brain is wired to be gullible, and then also because they are more prone to believe that science really found some New Age concept is actually true, I think it is dishonest.

I think it is really confusing somehow. It contributes to the amplification of credulity in people’s minds. I believe, unfortunately, that this is also the reason that New Age is penetrating the field of psychology and psychotherapy.

Because there are many psychologists or psychotherapists, that, nevertheless, are quite gullible people. They don’t evaluate the validity of certain claims. They believe that ideas about positive thinking affect our health in a physical way are true.

In psychology, there is no evidence whatsoever, so far, that stress causes physical problems. It sounds strange, but really there is not evidence of something like this so far. Psychological theories cannot be tested in a lab.

It is based on statistics. It can be highly fallacious. I think it goes back to the method of education. We do not have an education based on critical thinking and critical analysis. This is a big problem, especially today where we are facing an overload of information every day.

We do not know how to filter it out.

Jacobsen: What do you think people who hold the title of “skeptic” as almost a placeholder of personal nobility? They look at it as a way to belong to a group. How do they deceive themselves into thinking that they are skeptical in general when some within the movement that would take that title of skeptic just aren’t?

Fontanive: I have been discussing this point during my recent lecture I did in Poland at the European Skeptics Congress. I was talking about memes. In a way, skepticism can be a meme.

A meme is a unit of culture or an idea. The characteristic of a meme is that it does not care about self-analysis. It only cares about replicating itself. There are many people that call themselves skeptic because it feels safe to belong to a certain community.

But, in fact, there are no skeptics at all, especially with their own ways of thinking or of mind including emotions. For instance, a person can define himself or herself as a skeptic person, but maybe this person struggles greatly because of emotions.

It is easy to take shelter into a group, believing to be something. It is something that somehow nourishes our identity. Our sense of belonging to something, even out self-esteem. I came across a lot of people who claim to be skeptics and aren’t really skeptics at all.

Again, I believe that this is a problem of education. Then there are extreme skeptic people, which is not really quite healthy.

Jacobsen: What do you mean by that?

Fontanive: [Laughing] This is also a problem in science. I also came across these kind of people. They are extreme. It is a bit hilarious. I remember, recently, I was talking about how easily we get conditioned by external influences and memes.

Another person said, “Do you have scientific evidence for this? Can you prove it scientifically? Because if you cannot prove it scientifically, then you shouldn’t talk about it.”

Wait a minute, [Laughing] I do not think I need scientific evidence to prove that we can get conditioned quite easily. I think the evidence is right in front of us and historically speaking. I think this extremism is not about skepticism.

It is not healthy. It is not healthy for science. It is not healthy regarding accurate processes analysis and not healthy for thinking. I think it somehow derives from a personal sense of identity that has nothing to do with science.

The beauty of science is that there is not scientific authority. If we mix it with someone thinking, “I am scientist. You are not a scientist and cannot be saying anything with scientific evidence. Therefore, I should be the one providing the evidence…”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Fontanive: [Laughing] Science is science. Scientists are people. People have brains. Brains are fallacious. Even in that case, I will approach these people the same way, “What do you mean by that?” Then it depends.

Jacobsen: I want to touch on a prior point about psychobabble speak. That prior point was touching on the psychobabble within the psychological community, so as a general point, but those that have gone into the mainstream.

They have been taken over by more or less religious movements or aspects of non-critical thinking taken home. For instance, I would point to Alcoholics Anonymous. They have a wide reach. They impact many lives, especially at addiction to at least one substance.

How do you see a way out of that, reversing the innervations of those into the mainstream?

Fontanive: Regarding the mainstream psychological approaches: I believe that many of them are definitely serious and willing to stick to proper evaluations of psychological theories. However, problem is that on the contrary of many other fields of science, psychology cannot be tested in a lab which means that it’s mainly founded on theories and analytic results. This means that it’s relatively easy to come out with psychological advices which sound like good, positive ones, but based on biases or even magical thinking, as well ignoring that what feels good is not necessarily what’s right, (not right as a value but right in objective terms).

Due to the modern proliferation of internet communication and online material plus actual businesses based on divulgation of countless of different psychological approaches we can found on magazines and articles online for instance, (which are also in competition with each other because of business’s purposes); it seems that a lot of made up material regarding psychological suggestions is actually delivered to the public arena in all sort of ways. It also seems that what is going on within some branches of mainstream psychology is a sort of glorification of modern ideologies concerning positive thinking, self-help, life tips and achievement of happiness at every cost. These approaches are substantially ideological: they are de facto ideologies, as well they merely dumb down critical thinking and our intelligence itself and factually block the necessity to cultivate high order thinking skills, which is to me a social urgency today since the overload of information we receive and process everyday is getting faster and faster and more and more overwhelming, as well it imposes us to be more and more accurate with the ways we receive it and also the way we think itself.

There are many blind spots in modern mainstream psychological approaches, for instance it seems that circumstances where a psychologist is also a religious mind do not represent a problem at all, while it is a problem, or where a psychotherapist carries spiritual or even paranormal beliefs and so on: it usually remains an undisturbed thing. Back to less extreme circumstances; there is a major misconception that makes many people ignore that if a person adopts mainstream psychological theories, whether it be a professional or not, that circumstance does not necessarily mean that the same individual also possesses a strong training in hard core critical thinking skills. So for instance; tips like   ___‘do you have a low self-esteem? Then try to go out and socialise’__   are merely superficial ones, as well they can even establish a sort of shallow dependence which has nothing to do with a logical, sober and mature self-esteem but it has more to do instead with an addiction to urges about receiving attention and in fact depending from people’s support and consensus. On modern social media these addictions are currently very devastating, psychological speaking, for so many fragile or even less fragile minds!

A.A. for example is a classical representation of parts of what I’m highlighting: because of the religious characteristics such groups-therapy often adopt; they attempt a recovery of alcoholics through religious mindsets which can eventually result in a positive end of the addiction but then it all turns into a form of psychological dependence to irrational ideologies such as ‘surrender to Jesus’ stuff and so on.

To me the solution is called education, everything goes back there; to the field of education, or better to say to the necessity of reforming education which is also the primary concern in a series of programs I’m developing for experimental educational projects and institutions. This requires at first a process of ‘educating the educators’ and the policymakers before approaching the students and individuals in general. If people are trained with deep critical thinking abilities intertwined with critical metacognition and what I call meta-memetic thinking skills then they would be more prone to identify the biases, the superficialities and the made up affirmations within tips and claims regarding pseudo-psychology they come across with on line and in the real life and also about any other interpersonal relationship they engage.

Image Credit: Diego Fontanive.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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