Tag Archives: critical thinking

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.


Res Ipsa Loquitor

There is a legal term, “res ipsa loquitor,” meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” Today’s example? The Texas Republican Party Platform. 

Texas Republicans call for abolishing the 16th Amendment, which authorized the Income Tax. It calls for repeal of the tax on capital gains, and the abolition of the state’s property tax. It opposes the imposition of ANY tax other than a (regressive) sales tax. And it demands a return to the gold standard. (There was no call for abolition of public services, and the document appears silent on how, exactly, those services are to be paid for.) The platform also supports privatization of Social Security.

By far the most telling provisions of the GOP platform, however, are those addressing education.

The party goes on record opposing “multicultural” education, and supporting the use of corporal punishment by school officials. It demands that “both sides” be taught when “controversial” theories like evolution and climate change are addressed.

Given these positions, it should come as no surprise that the platform also opposes the teaching of critical thinking skills–since those “undermine parental authority.” Such skills probably DO undermine the parental authority of the authors of this platform–which speaks for itself.

I don’t know what happened, exactly, to turn the Republican Party I used to belong to into whatever it is today–but I am pretty  sure it wasn’t critical thinking.


Critical Thinking

The IBJ reports that Indiana’s ISTEP test will be revised to include a new emphasis on critical thinking.

I hate to be snarky, but have they considered giving that portion of the test to our state legislators? Or perhaps to Romney advisor Ed Gillespie, who appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, and “explained” Governor Romney’s position on Planned Parenthood.

When asked if Romney really meant it when he said he’d get rid of Planned Parenthood, Gillepsie said of course, but “getting rid of Planned Parenthood” wasn’t really “getting rid of it.” Because “defunding” isn’t the same as “not having funding.”

Well, Ed, let me try to explain this to you.

When the vast majority of the money you need in order to provide services comes from government, and government stops giving you that money, the result is that you don’t have the funds necessary to survive. That’s called “getting rid of it.” And if Governor Romney is elected and follows through–if he does “get rid of it”–thousands of poor women will lose access to basic healthcare, the provision of which–crazy rightwing rhetoric to the contrary–is the vast majority of what Planned Parenthood does.

Darn! Where’s that “critical thinking” thing when you really need it?