No matter what subject I raise in one of these daily posts, the ensuing discussion is likely to contain a lament about the absence of critical thinking. That really isn’t surprising–as an essay on “America’s Cognitive Crisis” put it:
What is the great lesson of 2020? A pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people and ravaged economies while people disagreed on basic facts. Conspiracy beliefs ran amok. Unscientific racism surged on social media. Medical quackery enjoyed a boom year. What was the common thread that ran through all of it? What should we have learned from such an extraordinarily eventful year?
The crucial ever-present factor in 2020 was critical thinking. Those who thought well were less likely to tumble into the rabbit holes of thinking QAnon is true, COVID-19 is a hoax, 5G towers help spread the virus, racism is scientific, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, demon sperm is a problem, tracking devices are in vaccines, there is mass election fraud, etc. The ability and willingness to lean toward evidence and logic rather than side with blind trust and emotion was the key metric behind the madness. We may view the current year, 2021, as the test to see if we were paying attention in 2020. So far, it doesn’t look good.
Granted, America has always had plenty of gullible folks–ready, willing and able to purchase the latest snake oil remedy or dunk the recently accused witch. But as the author of the essay notes, it’s no longer necessary to be a charismatic apocalyptic preacher or a well-funded, self-aggrandizing politician to pollute receptive minds. “Today anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account has the potential power to ignite wildfires of public lunacy.”
Unfortunately, it is only likely to get worse. The development and increasing use of deepfakes, which are nearly impossible to identify as false, poses a threat for which we clearly aren’t prepared.
Our present course may be unsustainable. The synergy of increasingly sophisticated deception aimed at unthinking masses promises more crippling confusion, disruption, and chaos, perhaps more than America can endure. Every minute worrying about nefarious microchips in vaccines is time not spent intelligently evaluating risk and assessing evidence. Every day sacrificed at the altar of a conspiracy belief or at the feet of a hollow demagogue is another day lost to possible social and political progress for all.
So–once again– I pose “the” question: what can we–what should we–do?
The author spends considerable time illustrating the extent of mass delusions and rampant disinformation, and concludes that much of it is attributable to the fact that too many American minds are incapable of handling close encounters of the irrational kind.
The key problem is that America is a nation of believers more than a nation of thinkers. Therefore, our primary target should not be the few who sell lies and fantasies but the many who so eagerly buy them.
Easier said than done, of course. The author says the only plausible “fix” is to make education for rational, critical thinking a norm of national curricula, and he includes a helpful explanation of the elements of that pedagogy. As he argues,
There is no quick fix available. But there is a preventive treatment. Most won’t like it because it’s slow and involves a lot of work. But it is a solution, perhaps the only one with a fair chance of success. Playing the long game of critical thinking education is the only way to deny the irrational-belief beast and the steady supply of victims it depends on….
The U.S. government cannot outlaw the inclination to believe nonsense. Regulations won’t purge the internet of every lie. Our brains are not going to suddenly evolve beyond their natural tendencies to lead us astray when it comes to perceiving and calculating reality. The answer lies with us. Teach our children thinking skills so that they can be their own editors and fact checkers. Children who grow up in this century must be their own guardians of truth. But they will fall short unless someone cares enough to teach them how.
I just hope we (1) heed the advice; and (2) last long enough to implement it.