Friday, August 31, 2007

Thank You for Thinking

Last Friday, I saw this movie “Thank you for smoking,” which is a satire that came out in 2006. In this film, the main protagonist is a spokesman of the tobacco industry. I found the movie interesting basically because the hero was unconventional and politically incorrect. Many of his approaches ran counter-intuitive, and were yet successful. I would agree with the makers that their movie goes beyond the issues of pro- and anti-smoking. The focus of the movie, I think, was more on the value of having a skeptical mindset. Skepticism, unfortunately however, is not too common, even among many scientists who are supposed to indulge in it. Probably, that is the reason why a lot of useless and trivial research does get published.

A lot of information and ideas are bombarded on us daily, irrespective of whether we are a common man or scientist. We often don’t question the validity of these ideas, especially when they run in consonance with our own conceptions, are popular, or presumably come from what we perceive as credible sources. The consequence is that the status quo is encouraged irrespective of whether or not it is acute, effective, important, optimal, and useful. Do I mean to say that we reject and refute every idea that comes across us? No, that would only lead to personal chaos because technically when you refute everything you also have to refute the very idea of refuting everything. Moreover, it needs to be remembered that questioning the validity of ideas is not the same as rejecting ideas. When you are questioning an idea, you are not accepting it at its face value; you are temporarily suspending your belief in it by asking questions that challenge the validity of it. If the questioning process leads to the identification of any contrarian evidence or development of alternative ideas then something valuable has been generated in the process. However, if nothing significant is found, then we can go back to the original idea and accept it on an ad hoc basis. I say “ad hoc” basis because no idea is absolute in this world.

All said, did I question anything in the movie Thank you for not smoking? Yes, many things but the one I think is most significant is about the nature of the protagonist’s job. Clearly, it is a difficult job if you have a sense of morality, but it is not necessarily as intellectually challenging as the movie makes it out to be. The hero in the movie often deflects the arguments of his righteous opponents by putting into question their motives. This form of questioning though might be needed sometimes, is nevertheless a rogue method. It is easy to question the credibility of anyone because no one is perfect, and it is definitely not the same as having the courage to take an idea head on. To be fair, the protagonist does address arguments directly sometimes, however, he is nothing beyond a critic on these occasions. It is much easier to be a critic, because the burden of proof lies with the person making a point and not with the critic. As a critic all you have to do is question the validity of claims and nothing beyond. The protagonist’s job would have been much more difficult if he tried to convince people to smoke through his speeches and arguments, however, all he does is rebut the arguments of his detractors thereby putting the ball back into their courts. That said the lesson of today’s blog is that it is not just enough to question the validity of ideas. Skepticism is only the first step of thinking productively. The next step is to come up with better alternative ideas – that is creativity and the most stimulating job in the world.

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