It has only been four days since I said no political posts for a while, and although this touches tangentially on politics, it is not really a political post.
What’s on my mind today is something I think is at the root of most of the rancor and division in America. Too many Americans have lost the skill of critical thinking. Instead, they choose to “believe” things.
What started me on this line of thinking this morning was a comment on a political post I put on Facebook yesterday:
One of the comments was from a big MAGA fan, and read “It’s funny how veiws are influenced by what you believe to be real. To bad you don’t believe anything about Biden.”
Ironic self-own, to say the least. And I can ignore “to bad” instead of “too bad”. But it got me thinking – belief is definitely the problem here.
Let’s look at the components of my post. In the first paragraph, three of those elements (liar, ugly wife, killed Kennedy) are not things I believe happened. They are video-recorded statements. It is a fact that these things were said by Donald Trump about Ted Cruz et al during the 2015 primaries.
You could argue there is no direct evidence he sent the angry mob, but there is again plenty of video arguing the case and two month’s worth of stoking the flames. The participants themselves are stating over and over “Our president sent us”, and the mob really did happen.
The second paragraph also has two facts; we are rejoining the Paris Agreement, and there is a large relief bill on the table.
As for the last question, again there is video evidence of Ted Cruz on at least two TV shows last week calling President Biden “divisive”, and he has sent several Tweets making the same accusation.
So in short, I presented some verifiable facts, and asked the reader to draw their own conclusions. In other words, apply some critical thinking.
My MAGA commenter however, chooses to believe something totally different. I presume either he does not believe Trump said what he said, or that he “didn’t really mean it, just being a fighter.” Biden I assume is acting out of some deep connection to China based on absolutely no physical evidence he or anyone else can produce. Conclusion: I believe Biden bad, Trump good.
These thoughts about beliefs were bouncing around my head this morning when they collided with the memory of a comment one reader had on my last post about how she used to look things up in the library. Suddenly, some aspects of the US today began to make some sense.
As I wrote about in my second book, I had a particularly lousy childhood. Real Greek-tragedy stuff, just less sex with swans and bulls. Anyway, I took refuge from an early age in books. I was sounding out words from My Golden Books when I was four, and was well-versed in the adventures of Dick and Jane before I started first grade. By third grade I was pouring through the Jules Vernes catalog, and I did a book report on Tolstoy’s War and Peace in fifth grade.
We had a small, magical (to me) room in our house just to the left of the front door that the previous owner had converted into a library of sorts. It probably at one time had been a coat closet – it was only about 5 feet deep and 4 feet wide. But the space was used ingeniously; there was a small built-in wooden bench, and a table that could be pulled out on springs to use as a desk. There were enough shelves to hold dozens of books, our set of World Book Encyclopedias, several yearly updates called appropriately enough Year Books, and a set of Childcraft Books.
It was my happy place.
Remember encyclopedias? A set of twenty or more volumes, with what seemed like all the facts in the world arranged alphabetically. The articles were written by professional researchers, and the editors took great pride in providing accurate information. World Book, Colliers, and Encyclopedia Britannica all competed to be the best information source.
If you couldn’t find what you were looking for there, or wanted more information, there was the library. Every week I would walk or bike to that sacred place to return my most recent stack, and leave with ten more books (the limit at the time). Sometimes I would spend hours looking over reference books, or reading newspapers from around the world. Then there was the amazing discovery of microfilm!
It took time to gather information, time and money to print and bind it into a book – too much to waste on bad information. Sure, there were things like “Ancient Astronauts”, “UFO’s”, Carlos Casteñada, and I read them all along with history books, classic literature, biographies, and sci-fi.
But thanks to our good friend Melvil Dewey, I just had to glance at the paper tag on the binding to see what I was reading. The books were catalogued so that you knew what was Pure Science (500), what was Religion (200), what was Philosophy (100) and so on. Fiction and fantasy were in a different section of the library entirely.
Contrast that today with the ever-present Internet. On-line it is hard to separate what is researched and verifiable information, and what is at best hearsay and at worst outright fiction. Look at how many times people have fallen for satirical pieces in The Onion, thinking them true stories.
The advent of Talk Radio and stars like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Howard Stern, Don Imus, and more also helped to make the spread of wild speculation and rumor start to replace facts and documentation. Fox News accelerated the process to by the clever process of having their OPINION branch report a wild rumor so that their NEWS division could report that “people are saying”.
As a consequence, people are now starting to substitute beliefs for facts. The world is what I want to believe it to be, and any alleged evidence to the contrary is fake news. This of course, is a very dangerous situation.
Time for a couple of definitions:
You base your plans, actions, and beliefs on verifiable facts and/or information from proven credible sources. When new facts or information arises, you change your thinking accordingly. You are generally open to new evidence, even if it is contrary to your current beliefs. This is Critical Thinking. This is also known as rational thinking.
There is no evidence to support your beliefs, but there is also no solid evidence to contradict them. This is most apparent in religions. There is no proof that a Supreme Being exists, but there is also no definitive proof that one does not exist. This is Faith-based Thinking.
There is no evidence to support your beliefs, while there is an abundance of evidence that your beliefs are wrong. Flat Earthers are a good example. You continue to hold your beliefs to be true and refuse to accept contrary information, no matter how provable or reputable the source. This is Cult-based Thinking. I believe this because I have been told it is true, and I accept it without proof. This is also known as irrational thinking.
Faith-based thinking in itself is not necessarily irrational. There are plenty of examples of rational thought and logical analysis in religious texts. For example, God is thus, therefore these conclusions rationally follow. A strict rationalist would simply argue while the conclusions are based on logical steps the first premise (God) is not provable – but again, it can’t be disproved.
Cult-based thinking is completely irrational. Let’s say I believe the world to be flat, and therefor the following things are true. If I continue to do so when shown video of space ships circling the globe, visual evidence that the other planets and sun are spheres, corroboration from astronauts, pilots, and ship captains who have circled the globe that the world is in fact spherical, then I am being irrational. No matter how logical my conclusions may be, my first premise is wrong and therefore so are all of my conclusions.
Another term for irrational thinking is cognitive distortions. This can lead to things like polarized thinking: believing something is entirely good or bad. Sound familiar? Wasn’t that the topic of my last blog?
So what’s the problem with believing what I want?
People who consistently maintain irrational thoughts begin to feel anxiety and stress, and paranoia is also common since the whole world seems against them. As more and more evidence to the contrary is ignored consciously while recognized unconsciously, it can lead to psychosis and result in violence to themselves or others.
In a society, when critical thinking goes away and is replaced by irrational thought, we are beginning to see what can happen.
We have people who believe QAnon when they assert without evidence that that Trump was leading a war against Satan-worshiping pedophiles and cannibals, whose leadership includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and lizard people wearing human skins.
We have people who believe a man who told 30,000+ documented lies in the last four years when he says the election was stolen, despite the mountains of evidence and court rulings that prove it was not.
We have people who believe all sorts of things about the Biden family because of a laptop that no one seems able to actually produce or even demonstrate it ever existed.
We have a congresswoman who believes Jews with space lasers started the California wildfires, the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were staged, and is okay with the suggestion that some of her new colleagues should be executed.
Like my MAGA dude said, “It’s funny how views are influenced by what you believe to be real.”
Thinking critically, I can’t say I feel much like laughing.