Close Encounters Of The Irrational Kind

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.


  1. I’m not sure I agree with just focusing on reeducating the masses on critical thinking. Americans have been oppressed for a very long time with massive amounts of propaganda. This was deliberate and intentional. Anybody even remotely familiar with Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew would know his works on propaganda in the USA post WW2. He is known as the father of public relations.

    It was the intentional misuse of Freud’s work on the unconscious mind. This comment from your post, “…our primary target should not be the few who sell lies and fantasies” is completely wrong.

    Quite frankly, that is the entire problem and it starts with our government and those who own it.

    The opposite of propaganda is truth. The Founders of this country expected the truth seekers to be the journalists within the free press. They are much like criminal investigators or good lawyers. Even academicians were supposed to have these skills of inquiry to seek after and obtain the truth.

    The question beginning with “why” drives this motivation.

    You can spend decades teaching young people to be critical thinkers, or just start making the media do its job of asking the right questions and seeking the truth.

    Our entire culture and society are built upon propaganda. It’s a giant fabrication. What your post suggests is we teach the masses to learn skills to cut through the lies as opposed to just being honest and truthful. That doesn’t even make logical sense. Your solution is as irrational as the problem.

    If you look at the Julian Assange case and what he built at Wikileaks, it was exactly what our Founders wanted. Exactly. He exposed countless abuses and deceit and corruption by governments around the world. What was their response?

    They cornered him, abused his rights as a human, broke countless international laws to torture and spy on him, and silenced him. They even made an example of “whistleblowers” by persecuting them as well. Jailing them on charges of espionage. Their charge is telling the truth and making the owners look bad. Amazing, that is the job of the press with the help of government sources. It was given these amazing powers by our Founders for a reason.

    Imagine what 500 Julian Assange’s could do for this globe right now with the help of whistleblowers or government sources. That is the solution to our problems, but those in charge sure as hell won’t like it and neither will many citizens, but the conspiracies will melt away. We’ll also be able to make better decisions.

  2. “The U.S. government cannot outlaw the inclination to believe nonsense.”

    But the U.S. government DOES have ways to stop its elected officials from ignoring their Oath of Office to spread nonsense; they can be found in our Constitution. The Arizona “audit” of the 2020 presidential election votes by the Cyber Ninjas…that organization name alone is nonsense…and the hiring of them was a deliberate irrational act. And the weeks they are spending counting the votes, and being paid, continues with the Arizona Republican Election Officials now calling for a halt and being ignored. Can openly attempting to overturn results of a legally, repeatedly proven presidential election be considered an attempt to overturn the U.S. government, thereby being a treasonable act? Or is that an irrational question?

    Marjorie Taylor Greene’s claim that requiring people wear masks against Covid-19 is no different than the Holocaust plus her other “Close Encounters Of The Irrational Kind” against members of Congress are deliberate actions. She is a deliberately irrational person catering to the delusional Trump supporters for their votes and their donations. She and others such as McConnell, Cruz, Jordan, McCarthy, et al, are not delusional; they are catering to the Trumpist party supporters on the road to the 2022 elections. They are all ignoring their Oaths of Office to protect democracy, Rule and Law and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.

  3. Of course, the real problem arises when on tries to overcome or reverse the early education of magical thinking required by religion.

  4. The problem with the solution suggested by Sheila’s source is that the people spreading this kind of disinformation are the ones whose children will grow up believing it. How can that cycle be stopped if the source (the spreaders) believes it?

  5. Right on cue with Glenn Greenwald this morning:

    “Just imagine what would be happening right now if it were Trump, rather than Biden, who just handed Putin his underwater natural gas pipeline just days after Russian hackers allegedly caused serious gas shortages in the U.S. Jingoistic op-eds would fill the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post warning of Kremlin control of the U.S.; CNN and MSNBC would convene panel after panel of their former FBI and CIA operatives to accuse Trump of treason for subordinating U.S. interests to Russian interests; Rachel Maddow would be on the verge of righteous and indignant tears as she devoted her 20-minute monologue to decrying the tragedy that we were all living under Putin’s rule; and Nancy Pelosi would be holding a press conference to spread more innuendo about Putin’s blackmail control over Trump while demanding a DOJ investigation.”

  6. Teaching the masses on critical thinking?

    I think that ship has sailed a long time ago.

    Firstly, people don’t want to think! Secondly, they would prefer to be conclaved with someone to do their thinking for them. I used to watch a cartoon when I was a kid where the character always told his sidekick that he would do the ” thinin” around here!

    And as simplistic as it is, that’s the case! And the thinin continues to become more exasperatingly unhinged because there are no checks on it.

    Why not grab the anti-vaxxers, some of their well-known leadership, and make them set down publicly and state their case concerning the realistic veracity of their opinions and claimed knowledge. So you they can prove their case without sniping from the weeds , Or, they are proven charlatans for all to see, even for the most simplistic thinkers.

    But, that will never happen. Because, why would you want to hurt someone’s feelings like that even if they are trying to destroy trust in science and government? We can get into Julian Assange another time, but he was no different than others trying to create a narrative leading to a reality he created for himself! He was another charlatan who was in it for himself, he eventually bit off more than he could chew.

    There’s a lot to be said about telling the truth though, but, are there times when telling the truth should be put on the back burner? Are there times when the truth seems to be at odds with the reality? Well, that’s kind of the reality that’s been created here in this day and age. Truth is at odds with the reality that we live in today.

    What did Zachariah tell the Jews when they were liberated from Babylon especially concerning rebuilding Jerusalem? ” (Speak ye every man the truth with his neighbor; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates; and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against his neighbor; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith GOD)”

    But, the grief that was observed in Babylon could reflect back to the grief that was observed in Egypt! And, they were warned on how to treat foreign residents in their land. Interestingly, this came up the other day and Netanyahu’s speech. He talked about being the chosen people and that God was on his side and a whole bunch of other stuff that was really a joke, but people lapped it up like honey nectar.

    What the law of Moses stated in Exodus 22:21; “you must not mistreat a foreign resident or oppress him for you were foreign residents in the land of Egypt.” And, Leviticus 19:34; “the foreigner who resides with you should become to you like a native among you; and do you must love him as your self, for you were foreign residence in the land of Egypt………..”

    So, the lie of propaganda never leaves, the other, the one that speaks a different language, the one that has a different religion, the one that has different political leanings, the one that has a different level of melatonin in their skin, the one that has a different texture of hair, the list is endless, will always be demonized for power and authority.

    Political dogma is no different than religious dogma, it is used to subjugate minds! Of course where the mind goes so does the body. When a person can stand up in front of a nation, a person of some basic ill repute, AND, make the case to slaughter civilians and demolish homes and essential utilities including healthcare facilities, when this is diametrically opposed to the laws you claim to believe from a greater power, you’ve won that propaganda battle, and you are no longer what you claim to be!

    So, just like Netanyahu, the same things have been going on here for generations! When wrongs are perceived to be right, the propaganda has worked. And, there really is no way to fix it besides being an authoritarian. The genie has been out of the bottle way too long, and, as I recall about 20 years ago, this new generation was supposed to change everything, LOL! And, as it seems to me, they are even more screwed up than the previous ones. There is no critical thinking anymore, and the youngest generation is probably worse than the rest.

    People want to be saved, they want to hunker down in a conclave that will and envelop them in protection from all of those others out there, and, those purveyors these conclaves of safety will continue to propagate their lies and innuendos to increase the hold on the minds of the extremely weak which tend to be in the majority.

  7. I can almost guarantee the failure of any fix that is slow and hard. We’re Americans. We don’t do slow and hard. Quick, easy, and painless is our way of life, so somebody better find a pill that fixes this or it just won’t happen.

  8. Todd,

    Biden couldn’t walk in and tell Germany not to accept the Russian pipeline, Germany is a self-rule country. And after 4 years of Trump berating Angela Merkel and germany, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Biden to start throwing his weight around concerning Germany. Germany is an important cog in the wheel of NATO! There are other vectors in play besides the obvious.

  9. Good morning everyone.
    As a 40+ year veteran educator (grades one – six, Title I reading interventionist) I will put my hand on any book you give me and swear on my oldest daughter’s laptop, that my co-horts and I spent hours TRYING to teach our kiddos, these illusive critical thinking skills.
    We did it with a variety of materials and techniques.
    We used comedy.
    And we started them young.
    But as our friend Mr. Sorg stated so clearly above me,
    “People don’t want to think.”
    You can lead a horse to water…

  10. There was a time when I.F. Stone was blacklisted. Even The Nation wouldn’t employ him. His answer was I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which attracted 60K-70k subscribers.

    How does that differ from today, when Glenn Greenwald must quit The Intercept, and focus on a more dedicated Substack subscription audience?

  11. Can’t happen until we, as a society, stop making excuses for religion.

  12. To what information sources are Critical Thinkers allowed access? Charlie Rose and Oliver Stone both interviewed Putin.

    Oliver Stone’s four, one-hour, interviews of Putin took place in 2015-2016. YouTube has placed an Age Restriction on Part 3 of 4. Are Critical Thinkers not allowed to view Part 3?

    Part of being a Critical Thinker is getting around the censorship, or the suppression algorithm, and locating varied news sources. How many of the Critical Thinkers on this blog knew of the existence of Charlie Rose’s Putin interview, but not of Oliver Stone’s Putin interviews?

  13. Even at school now teachers try to make learning fun for students. Adults with choices also want to be entertained rather than educated so they pick a source that disagrees with them the least. It confirms that what they were thinking was true rather than convince them to rethink any situation. How great is that!

  14. You need some faith that system will work. I recently came across an article in The Guardian that shocked me.

    Jeffrey Epstein prison guards spared jail time in deal with US prosecutors.

    The two Bureau of Prisons workers tasked with guarding Jeffrey Epstein the night he killed himself in a New York jail have admitted they falsified records, but they will skirt any time behind bars under a deal with federal prosecutors, authorities said Friday.

    The prison workers, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, were accused of sleeping and browsing the internet instead of monitoring Epstein the night he killed himself in August 2019.

    They were charged with lying on prison records to make it seem as though they had made required checks on the financier before he was found in his cell.

    You lose faith in the system when you see people in power like the police and the 1% given special treatment for their crimes.

  15. Some years ago, after writing a letter to the editor on the compelling need to use critical thinking to address South Carolina’s most pressing issues, I received a hand-written note from an individual who disagreed. He stated, “You don’t know what you are talking about. We’re lucky we have smart people to do our thinking for us.” Based on subsequent events, I suspect he spoke for more people than I spoke to.

  16. I plead guilty to being one of those Professor Kennedy identified as constantly referring to a lack of critical thinking skills as one of the rationales for where we are today. However, I think that the purists among us who expect perfection (aka my way or the highway) in how others must view the passing scene should bear some of the guilt for the brain control of the masses by Fox, Trump and political opportunists (e.g., Ivy League alums such as Hawley and Cruz who pretend to ignorance in exchange for votes), based on my notion that, as in the physical sciences per Newton, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If so, then the more you beat on the critically unskilled, easily led and misinformed, the more set in their ways they become, thus negating your efforts to inform and perhaps change their views on specific issues.

    Thus the problem is not merely a lack of critical thinking and whether, when, and to what extent to include it within the curriculum; it is how to present the effects of such lack to a would be hostile recipient in view of the countervailing propaganda by Fox and the Trumps of this world fed him or her, and I here confess that formulating such a program is beyond my pay grade. However, while we are awaiting discovery of such an elixir to put the genie back in the bottle, I am for including a robust teaching of critical thinking skills in the curriculum in attacking this Goebbels-like problem on all fronts.

  17. Todd @ 8:20 am, I agree with you on your conclusions, concerning the Russian pipeline.

  18. Consider the tenacity of religious belief–which regularly involves outrageous, bizarre, and easily debunked stories and ideas, and relies on the willful ignorance of contrary evidence–and it’s clear the row will be difficult to hoe.

    The main fact keeping me from despair over humanity’s future is that the problem is largely generational. My kids, and today’s youth in general, are more open to reasonable ideas and an honest and shared path towards the future. It gives me hope.

    Still, it’s a very long path, I fear.

  19. Just a small contribution to this discussion. Going back to the 1970s, perhaps even further, right wing interests in the U.S. have had coordinated and focused campaigns to attack balanced and accurate high school social studies curriculums in states across the nation. As a former social studies teacher I encountered that. Which is to say, when people ask the question, “What are they teaching kids in schools these days about democratic government?” that is a legitimate question. For a democracy, we have done a terrible job in the past 50 years of defending the core elements of a free and functional society and democratic government in our public schools. Additionally, more and more public dollars are being shifted to private schools. We are tossing out the seeds of democratic and rational governance in far too many schools.

  20. Gordon Evans, I would argue with a couple of your points. 🙂

    First, Glenn Greenwald has seriously lost his way. The fact that he did good work in years past, when information was handed to him to disseminate, is great. The rational evaluation (see? I bring critical thinking into this post!) of his recent positions, choices and statements has slowly led me to the position that his early good work was an aberration. Or, that he has determined the current stances are just more lucrative somehow. I am incredibly disappointed in him.

    Second, critical thinking does not rely on the variety of sources that one explores or encounters. That can help certainly, but it’s a minor factor. The most important thing is being able to objectively evaluate information. It’s like writing a research paper or working on some other similar educational project. You need to evaluate information by investigating sources, considering bias, looking for inconsistencies and problems, etc. And most important, you need to begin the process by recognising your own biases, tendencies, and beliefs so as to account and counter them. And, maybe most important for the endeavour, you must be truly willing and able to change your mind about things if the evidence and arguments warrant.

    Unfortunately, most people don’t want to pursue this project. It’s hard, for starters. It’s especially difficult if you have based a lot of your understanding of your place in the world on some key beliefs that may not actually be true. People in this situation will need to willfully avoid critical thinking in order to maintain their equilibrium. So, it’s understandable, but still unutterably saddening.

  21. John H. 11:33 am
    Thanks for your spirited reply! Hope to hear more of your counterpoints in the future.

  22. Will recommend (apologies) again….”Teaching as a Subversive Activity” – Postman & Weingartner re teaching critical thinking…

  23. Their are several problems with this Enlightenment infused argument.Here are a few: This perspective puts the onus on teachers and doesn’t look at the other side of the equation and the demagogic and ideological noise in between. It is too binary. It downplays emotions and emotions, like fear and love of country, are easily manipulable by demagogues. It ignores the fact that for most of the masses ideology creates “reality” and the “reality” created can and often does have its own “logic”.

  24. Ronald – so education should have students questioning and discussion “ideology” and its impacts.

  25. We do, indeed, need to play the long game on this. Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon Haunted World, Science As a Candle in the Dark,” has a chapter, #2, I believe, devoted to what he calls “The bullshit detector,” about critical thinking.
    The GOP, and especially, Rand Paul, have long wished to do away with the federal Dep’t of Education, precisely because they do not want their fellow citizens to be able to engage in critical thinking. Fox News could not get a foothold in the Uk., because, in their own words, the folks there were “not gullible enough.”

  26. Let’s not kid ourselves. Very intelligent sociopaths will prey upon the fears or kindness of those they manipulate and yes, the gullible. They repeat their propaganda many times to brainwash people i.e. “The Big Lie”. They even use good critical thinking to inform them on how to brainwash those who are stuck in fear or naievete.

    I still think it’s our inability to manage fear of the “other” that disrupts our critical thinking. Sometimes religion feeds into this, but not always. Survival instincts kick in when people feel existentially threatened. Along come the sociopaths to manipulate them, and they use critical thinking to do it. They can even persuade those who normally are grounded in a good moral compass to do things like invade the Capital.

    People with delusions can sound VERY rational and credible at times. Cult leaders are perfect examples.

    So, how do we mentally arm citizens so that we can preserve our democracy against the propaganda of those who simply want power over others and not the greater good of the country? ( or for that matter a group of religous believers) How do we get people out of their lizard brains, their naievete into a healthy critical skepticism that allows them to identify destructive propaganda and the manipulation of a corrupt politician or sociopath? Good luck.

  27. Theresa reminds me of an incident a million years ago (early ’70s)
    The university I attended for undergraduate work had a Introduction to Social Psychology class taught at the freshman level. Past students were used as TAs, but only once (loss of enthusiasm after that) and with an 8-credit hour course on teaching methods.

    The point of the class was two fold: (1) to introduce students to various theories in the realm of social psychology and (2) to get students to see how several different theories could fit the facts as known at the time.

    When I was TA, I had moderate success in getting students to think about this second goal, but at the end, one student came up to me with a question.

    He said that he had been educated in Catholic schools and learned that there was one and only one correct answer to everything, so he wanted to know which theory was the correct one.

    If we have any hope, we have to grab them young. A sociology prof once told our class that the purpose of an undergraduate education is to learn “crap detection”. I think we need to start much earlier.

  28. @ Terry Munson,
    At first your post shocked me, but after the shock wore off a few seconds later I realized the person that wrote the note to you actually represents millions upon millions of lazy voters in this country who continue to vote against their own interests by voting republicans into office as they complain that the government keeps getting more corrupt.

  29. “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.”

    Our members in Congress and state legislatures, and on local boards need to hear this. It may not be all that needs to be done, but it is certainly a pivot point for long-term repair.

    Also, probably most people don’t remember in the late ’60s when the authorities removed rhetoric courses from the high school curriculum. These days, in after-school debate clubs, there is an emphasis on facts and data, and an occasional bright spot appears when someone brings the human concern to any topic.

    In our technological society, it will be wise to re-emphasize the human element.

  30. When I returned to start my second year of teaching in 1984 (in South Carolina), the “new” educational hot topic was “HOTS” – Higher Order Thinking Skills.” All teachers attended staff development sessions in August to prepare us to use the new strategy to engage students in critical thinking. By January of that school year, HOTS was gone!, done, over, completely taken off the menu!!! Apparently, a group of fundamentalist preachers went to the state legislature and convinced those politicians that HOTS was against all their fundamentalist principles. Such thinking, they claimed, was NOT OK with God.

    Do we really think these same fundamentalists and their descendants who are now grown people, will be OK with “critical thinking” being taught in schools NOW?? Maybe when pigs fly.

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