Where are all the shepherds?

In “The Myth of Icarus”, Icarus, full of the folly that comes with pride, flew too high and the sun melted his wings.

Dr Caroline Leaf is the modern day Christian version of Icarus, foolishly flying higher and higher, deluded by her self-importance and unaware of the weakness and fissuring of her presumed competence.

But unlike the myth of Icarus where only Icarus himself paid the ultimate price, Dr Leaf isn’t the only person flying too close to the sun, but she is encouraging the church to follow her lead.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Unfortunately, despite no training or experience whatsoever in psychiatry, psychology or even basic counselling, Dr Leaf has assumed the role of a mental health expert for the church.

Having the untrained Dr Leaf lecture Christian congregations on mental illness is an absolutely absurd proposition – it’s like having a plumber give a public lecture about coronary bypass surgery.  Yet the uncredentialed Dr Leaf continues to speak at church after church after church about mental health and illness, given a free license as if she were a psychiatrist with decades of experience.

And my question is “Why”?

Why do pastors and church leaders give Dr Leaf a free pass to speak from their platforms on a subject that she is objectively unqualified to speak on?  Where is the public process of due diligence? Where is public demonstration of accountability that undergirds the reverence, the sacred gravitas, of the church pulpit? Why do our church leaders stay silent when unqualified preachers poison their congregations with saccharine subterfuge?

Where are all the shepherds?   Why aren’t they shepherding?

Dr Leaf’s latest e-mail newsletter aptly demonstrates what the church needs protecting from – an entire e-mail encouraging people to withdraw from psychiatric medications.  Her bias is clear – psychiatric medications are harmful and you can withdraw from them if you want to.  If you do, you’ll feel better.

This might as well be unsolicited, unlicensed medical advice.  There’s no discussion about the nuances of psychotropic medication, or the proven benefits.  She then encourages people to look for more information by reading books or visiting websites that are known to be unhinged or, at best, clearly biased against medications for mental ill-health.

In the past, Dr Leaf has clearly shown her ignorance when it comes to psychiatric medications.  She has accused them of everything from being poisonous to being unspiritual.  Never once has she acknowledged the scores of research papers that confirm the judicious use of psychiatric medications saves lives and extends the lifespan of those who take them.

Now, she has advised people that they can stop their medications and promotes unscrupulous and biased sources of information to help.  This isn’t just ignorant, this is dangerous. [1]

Will it take the untimely death of one of their congregation before our church leaders say ‘enough is enough’?  It will be all too late then.

It’s time for our church leaders to stand up for the congregations they lead and denounce the teaching of Dr Caroline Leaf.  Her ignorance and her arrogance are becoming a dangerous mix.  Our pastors can’t wait until blood is on their hands before they’re forced into action – they need to act now, before it’s too late.

~ ~
If you are concerned about the medications you’re taking or you think you don’t need them any more, for heaven’s sake don’t just stop taking them or try and wean yourself.  Go see your doctor for advice specific to your medication and your situation.

Don’t believe me? https://psychcentral.com/lib/discontinuing-psychiatric-medications-what-you-need-to-know

DISCLAIMER: Just in case anyone was wondering about my motives, I declare that I have no connection with any pharmaceutical company. I do not accept gratuities of any form from any sales representative. I don’t eat their food, I don’t take their pens, and I don’t listen to their sales pitches.

References and bibliography

[1] Valuck RJ, Orton HD, Libby AM. Antidepressant discontinuation and risk of suicide attempt: a retrospective, nested case-control study. J Clin Psychiatry 2009 Aug;70(8):1069-77.

https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/05/17/anti-depressants-not-the-messiah/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/06/18/dr-caroline-leaf-howling-at-the-moon/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/06/12/anti-psychotics-damn-lies-and-statistics/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/01/13/caroline-leaf-carrie-fisher-killed-by-bipolar-meds/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/09/27/dr-caroline-leaf-not-a-mental-health-expert/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/03/19/dr-caroline-leaf-increasing-the-stigma-of-mental-illness-again/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/18/dr-caroline-leaf-and-her-can-of-worms/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/19/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-can-of-worms-update/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/26/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-myth-of-chemical-imbalances-myth/

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Dr Caroline Leaf – Mind creates matter

Another day, another factoid. Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, says that we create matter with our minds.

screen-shot-2017-02-04-at-8-53-34-am

I’d like her to demonstrate that sometime … Wait, what’s that you say, she can’t do it? Of course she can’t. We cannot create matter with our minds.  We can’t just think something and watch it appear.

Dr Leaf should know better. She is a PhD level scientist after all, and the law of conservation of matter is high school level science.

If Dr Leaf can’t get the most fundamental of facts straight, then she should not be on any pulpit as a scientist, because all she’s doing is embarrassing the church, destroying the church’s credibility with anyone with a shred of scientific knowledge.

The church deserves better than half-baked pseudoscience being passed off as the real deal.  Step up Dr Leaf, or step off.

I’ve got a brain, revisited.

Nearly three weeks ago, I published a post on critical thinking in the church. I briefly discussed what critical thinking was, and I posed a number of possible reasons why we didn’t see more critical thinking in the church.

Having thought some more about the issue of critical thinking in the church over the last three weeks, I wanted to devote one more blog post to it – to add some more to the discussion, and round it out a little.

But first, I want to offer an apology to the church. In the last three weeks, I’ve come across research where experts have looked at the issue of critical thinking across our society, and their conclusion is that critical thinking is hard, and is poorly done across the board. The church, therefore, isn’t necessarily worse than the rest of the community at large, so I may have been a little harsh on account of some unrealistic expectations.

Still, I would suggest that if the Christian church is to be salt and light, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and think it’s ok to be as undiscerning as everyone else. Instead, we should be looking to lead our community, in our love for God, our love for people, and our love of the truth.

In the essay, “Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science” [1], Tim van Gelder outlines a number of lessons from cognitive neuroscience on the nature of critical thinking, how we learn, and why we don’t learn critical thinking. These have important implications for critical thinking in the church.

  1. Critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to us

    “Humans are not naturally critical thinkers; indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub ‘dancing’ is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (“Man is a rational animal”) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either. Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.”

    Instead of thinking critically, humans tend to be “pattern-seeking, story telling”. Problems occur because we naturally tend to accept the first account that “seems right” and don’t challenge whether that account is actually true. The test of truth for most humans is not intellectual but intuitive.

  2. Practice makes perfect.
    Critical thinking is a higher order cognitive skill. If you don’t practice the skills, you won’t become good at them or eventually master them. So learning the theory of critical thinking won’t make someone better at critical thinking any more than watching a sport on TV will make you better at it. Though if you want to become really good at something, one needs to engage in deliberate practice of the skills of critical thinking on a regular basis, as well as broadly practicing critical thinking.
  3. Transfer.
    Transfer refers to the difficulty in transferring skills applied in one area and applying them broadly. This is an issue across all learning, not just critical thinking. The mind is a cluster of specialised independent capacities, and a skill learnt in one capacity isn’t easily transferred to the rest.
    Of course, if it were impossible to transfer skills across to our broader knowledge, there would be no point in teaching anything.   So it’s not impossible to broaden critical thinking skills, but this skill must also be learned. It’s unlikely to happen on its own.
  4. Practical theory.
    Australian is a nation of coffee drinkers. Even though we consume a lot of God’s wake-up juice, most coffee drinkers don’t know much about the coffee they consume. They have practical coffee knowledge (what they like), but little theoretical knowledge (why they like it). Improving in critical thinking mastery, just like increasing the depth of coffee enjoyment, involves learning a little more theory. Better theoretical knowledge improves your perception of what’s going on, which then improves insight enabling better self-monitoring and correction, as well as enabling better improvement from external coaching. Better understanding of critical thinking comes from better understanding some of the theory of critical thinking.
  5. Belief Preservation
    Sir Francis Bacon said,

    “The mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.”

    Or in other words, the human mind is prone to illusion, distortion and error, both because of innate hardwiring, and social learning. These cognitive beliefs and blind spots are many, and sometimes subtle. In this discussion, belief preservation is important. It is the tendency “to use evidence to preserve our opinions”. Humans seek out evidence which supports what we believe and avoid or ignore evidence which goes against it. We also rate evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports or conflicts with our beliefs, and we tend to stick with our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, so long as there is a sliver of evidence in support.
    Critical thinking requires us to work against this bias, and doing so feels very unnatural, so while it might be challenging, it’s nevertheless, very important.

  6. Map it out
    The core of critical thinking is argument (the connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition, not an angry dispute).  We tend to handle arguments by expressing them in either writing or speaking. But there concept of an argument map in which the statements that make up the premises and the conclusion of the argument are drawn diagrammatically. Critical thinking skills improve faster when taught with argument mapping.

So how do we apply these lessons to critical thinking and the church?

  1. Critical thinking is hard but not impossible.

Critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to most people. Hence, why I apologised earlier in this essay – I was wrong to expect that critical thinking should come naturally to everyone.

But that doesn’t mean that the church should shy away from it either. At the very least, all Christians should be aware of the most fundamental basics of critical thinking – that we naturally tend to believe what’s intuitive, not necessarily what’s right. And, it’s ok to ask questions. No topic should be taboo.

  1. Those who can, should.

We’re all members of Christ’s body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Some are more gifted in hospitality or leadership – the hands and feet. Some people are intercessors – the heart. So it’s not really a stretch to think that there are some members of the church whose gifts lie in the academic or the intellectual – the “brain”.

So those who want to think about God and their faith on a much deeper level should be encouraged to do so. If there aren’t any already, courses could be developed to teach the interested Christian how interpret Biblical Hebrew and Greek to increase the understanding of scripture. Courses in critical thinking can be added to every Bible college and seminary, and courses in critical thinking can be encouraged or taught by churches, along side courses in ministry and the supernatural.

At the end of my last post, I said that I would do an idiots guide to critical thinking so that we could all have the skills if we wanted them. Actually I don’t need to, since there are very good courses in critical thinking online already: http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/

  1. Be aware of our limitations

Lastly, pastors and leaders should be aware of their own limitations and their potential for cognitive biases.  Our pastors work hard, and do a very good job on the whole.  But they’re not all like Solomon.  Just because something seems right to them, doesn’t mean that it is. Sometimes there will be people who will legitimately question what they say, or a ministry or minister that they’ve endorsed.

Rather than taking this as an affront to their authority, they need to consider that the alternative view might be right. If they’re not in a position to weigh up the evidence for themselves, there’s no reason why they can’t ask for assistance from trusted elders who do have the knowledge.  If Moses can delegate, then so can they.

The same goes for Christian leaders all the way to the highest levels of church leadership. Our church leadership can’t plead ignorance when significant issues are raised. Burying your head in the sand just makes your arse a target.

Critical thinking is an important yet unrecognised major issue for the Christian church. If I have missed anything, or if you would like to further the conversation, I welcome your comments.

Happy thinking everyone.

References

[1]        van Gelder T. Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science. College Teaching 2005;53(1):41-46.

I’ve got a brain, and I’m not afraid to use it!

I’ve got a brain, and I’m not afraid to use it! – The issue of critical thinking in the Christian church.

Mythbusters … I have watched a lot of Mythbusters.

For the last decade and a half, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have been exposing various memes and myths to some TV-science scrutiny, to see if whether these culturally ingrained factoids have any element of truth. My sons love it, possibly because of their innate curiosity, though I’m sure the shows gratuitous use of guns and explosives helps.

Most of the time, the Mythbusters prove that the myths they test really are just myths like we expected.  Though occasionally, they come up with some really counter-intuitive results, like elephants really are afraid of mice, that bullets can’t penetrate water, and that a bull in a china shop doesn’t necessarily lead to lots of broken china.

What’s consistently good about Mythbusters is that it shows you can learn a lot by being open minded, and that failure is just as much of an opportunity to learn as success is (sometimes more so). It also demonstrates the value of critical thinking.

There are so many things in our lives that we accept just because other people accept them too. That’s partly because of the way we’re biologically wired, and then socially adapted. While this has its advantages, it’s also deleterious too. Sometimes we do things in ways that are actually wasteful, or accept second best because “that’s the way its always been”.

Because it consists of fallible humans, the church is not immune. If anything, the church is more prone to simply accept what we’re told rather than taking a different point of view and considering issues from alternative perspectives. For example, the push for same-sex marriage caught many conservatives and the church by surprise, partly because the church has been unwilling or unable to engage in public discussion on same-sex marriage without it degenerating into disgust and derision. This has left the arguments against same-sex marriage with holes big enough for spelunking, and has made opponents of same-sex marriage look like a laughing stock (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-0u9Ad886M).

What follows is a discussion on critical thinking within the Christian church. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Actually, I hope that someone will be able to definitively disprove some of my later observations. Right or wrong, I hope to start an open dialogue on the way the church engages with critical thinking, because it’s a discussion that’s long overdue.

So first, just what is critical thinking? “Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” (http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php)

Is critical thinking Biblical? I propose it is. There’s no verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt be critical thinkers.” However, Acts 17:11 talked about those in Berea who searched the Scriptures daily, to see if what they were hearing was true to God’s Word. John and Peter both warned of false teachers, and Jesus said they may come to us in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1). John said our duty is to “test the spirits.” Paul said: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Is critical thinking being too self-reliant or denying the role of faith? I don’t think so. We don’t expect God to miraculously make us float around from place to place … we walk. God gave us legs, and using them does not deny our faith or God’s sovereignty. In fact, we’d look pretty silly if we sat still and prayed for God to move us around. It’s no different with our brain. God gave us a brain with the capacity for high-level thinking. Using our brain for high-level thinking doesn’t deny either faith or God their rightful place. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13) and he will guide our thinking if we have the faith to believe.

Is critical thinking necessarily critical? “Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks.” (http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php)

So why don’t we engage in more critical thinking within the church? This is a simple question that requires a complex answer. I’m going to venture a few suggestions, but this list is far from comprehensive, and is more opinion than solid fact. If you disagree, or want to fill in some gaps, please leave a comment to add to the discussion.

1. People in general don’t have critical thinking skills

Critical thinking skills are sadly lacking, not just in the church, but across our society as a whole. Look no further than at the sheer volume of factoids and memes that go viral on social media. The average person accepts large numbers of baseless statements and passes them on to their friends in the mistaken belief that they hold some basis in truth.

There are probably lots of reasons for this, but I’d suggest that the main reason is that critical thinking is not taught in most schools, vocational training, or even at a lot of universities. Teaching critical thinking skills takes time away from teaching exam strategy, which is counter-productive for schools NAPLAN ranking. Since the world cares more about comparing themselves with others rather than actual intelligence, NAPLAN coaching is much more important than letting a child think for themselves.

Most work places actively discourage individual thinking too. Subservience to the system or to organizational rules makes for a much better workplace even if that means it’s full of mindless drones.

2. Christians don’t use critical thinking

The typical Sunday sermon, if it contains any scripture at all, is spoon-fed to the congregation without additional thinking required. It’s obviously difficult to have time for Q+A after a Sunday service, and for the vast majority of Christians, this is where their teaching for the week finishes.

There’s a small percentage of Christians that will go to small groups, but depending on the leadership of the small group, there may not be much opportunity to delve deeply into the text or subtext of the previous weeks sermon.

Then there’s a smaller number of Christians who have a habit of a daily devotional, though many of those will choose to be spoon-fed with a devotional text of some form.

Those who simply read the Bible think critically about the text and what it means will be a very small percentage of the Christian church.

3. Pastors don’t encourage critical thinking

When was the last time a you were at a church and the topic of the sermon was how to delve deeper into the Bible – how to understand the original Hebrew or Greek to enrich the meaning of the Biblical text? I’ve been in churches for more than 30 years, and I don’t recall a single sermon like that.

Perhaps it’s because pastors don’t think people would be able to understand. Or, perhaps it’s because they feel it would erode their position as experts? Perhaps they don’t understand themselves?

4. The church values the appearance of unity over critical thinking

In church-life, a high value is given to the concept of ‘unity’.   Discouraging critical thinking helps to maintain the appearance of ‘unity’. If someone did happen to have a thought of their own, they would tend to keep it to themselves since everyone seems happy when everyone’s in agreement.

When someone does speak out, it’s seen as ‘disunity’, even if their concern is legitimate. Continued non-conformity is treated as dissension. Sure, it’s couched in a thick layer of Christianese – that person’s taken offense / isolating themselves / is a troublemaker / out of God’s will / unteachable / unfaithful / has a critical spirit, etc

While that might very well be true, sadly, any non-conformity is treated the same, warranted or not. Either way, legitimate discussion is shut down, and homeostasis returns.

The solution is to use our brains. The church needs to openly accept and engage critical thinking rather than encourage diminutive homogeny and pretend they have unity.

Just because Jesus is our shepherd doesn’t mean that we should always behave like sheep, just mindlessly following the rest of the flock. God gave us a brain, we should not be afraid to use it.

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Post-script = In an upcoming blog, I’ll do an idiots guide to critical thinking. It’s all very well and good to say we should think critically, but that won’t happen if we don’t have the skills.