Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Rough Introduction to Critical Thinking

A clip from the video Dara Ó Briain Talks Funny, with a partial transcript.

The clip embedded above is an excerpt from a video recording of Irish comic Dara Ó Briain (pronounced “dah-ra o-bree-an”) in performance at the Hammersmith Apollo Theatre in London in 2008. In this clip, he addresses himself to popular forms of ignorance and misunderstanding regarding matters of scientific knowledge (“a general kind of lack of knowledge about science,” as he says at 0:20). Ó Briain can be a bit rough on those who propagate defective forms of thinking (“Jesus, homeopaths get on my nerves!”), and his performance, being stand-up comedy rather than a lecture, does not include much presentation of evidence pertinent to the evaluation of claims: hence my description of this as a “rough introduction” to critical thinking. But his act shares with critical thinking the aims of exposing folly and revealing truth.

Of course, a performance like this is made to be seen and heard, not to be read in transcribed form. Nonetheless, I find much of it so pithy and so well said that I like to have the words before my eyes. So by all means, watch the video before you read what follows. But once you have watched it, if you find Ó Briain’s words as well chosen as I do, you may want to refer to the following transcript of the stretch of this performance running from about 1:40 to 4:20.
But there’s a kind of notion that “Every opinion is equally valid.” My arse! Bloke who’s a professor of dentistry for forty years does not have a debate with some idiot [eejet] who removes his teeth with string and a door, right? It’s nonsense! And this happens all the time with medical stuff on the television. You’ll have a doctor on and they’ll talk to the doctor and be all “Doctor this” and “Doctor that,” and “What happened there?” and “Doctor, isn’t it awful?”, right? And then the doctor will be talking about something with all the benefit of research and medical evidence, and they’ll turn away from the doctor in the name of “balance,” and turn to some—quack—witch doctor—homeopath—horseshit peddler on the other side of the studio!

And I’m sorry if you’re into homeopathy. It’s water! How often does it need to be said? It’s just water. You’re healing yourself; why don’t you give yourself the credit? Jesus, homeopaths get on my nerves, with the old “Well, science doesn’t know everything”! Well, science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop. But it’s aware of it, you know? Just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean that you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

“Oh, well, the great thing about homeopathy is that you can’t overdose on it.” Well, you can fucking drown! I’m sorry: it seems harsh, and I used to be much more generous about it, but right now I would take homeopaths and I would put them in a big sack with psychics, astrologers, and priests, and I’d close the top of the sack with string, and I’d hit them all with sticks. And I really wouldn’t worry who got the worst of the belt of the sticks, right? Anyone who in answer to the difficult questions in life, to “I don’t know what happens after I die,” or “Please, what happens after my loved ones die?” or “How can I stop myself dying?”—the big questions—gives them an easy bullshit answer, and you go, “Do you have any evidence for that?”, and they go, “There’s more to life than evidence”: get in the fucking sack!

I’m sorry, “Herbal medicine! Oh, herbal medicine’s been around for thousands of years!” Indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became “medicine,” and the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri, so knock yourselves out. “Chinese medicine, oh, Chinese medicine! But there are billions of Chinese, Chinese medicine must be working.” Here’s the skinny on Chinese medicine: A hundred years ago the life expectancy in China was 30. The life expectancy in China at the moment is 73. And it’s not feckin’ tiger penis that turned it around for the Chinese. Didn’t do much for the tiger either, if you don’t mind me pointing out.
There is one further joke at the expense of the Chinese before the next burst of laughter and applause from the audience, but I have omitted it, as I think it appears to disadvantage when transcribed.

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