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The Demise of Critical Thinking

Listening to NPR today I was treated to an interview with playwright and actress, Anna Deveare Smith, discussing her one-woman show, Notes from the Field. She presents herself in the personas of a host of people she interviewed while examining what is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a trajectory followed by many, particularly poor, young people. Most telling was her interview (she presents herself on stage in the person of the interviewee) with a teacher describing the out of control behavior of an 11-year old boy, who, while normally cooperative and personable, could erupt into violent anger within seconds. The child had been removed from the home of drug addicted parents as a toddler and was found to have been sexually and physically abused. He then was placed in foster care. Whether he will follow the pipeline to prison is unknown, but his circumstances raise the issue of how much one’s early environment shapes their personality in ways that are difficult to change in later life.

The story about the young boy got me thinking about how we conceptualize the behavior of people in our society who come from very different backgrounds. This boy had two strikes against him before he was kindergarten age. His behavior, no doubt a conditioned reaction to situations that ignited his memories of trauma, was largely determined, but there are also young people out there who were faced with similar tragic circumstances and behaved differently. What determines who behaves one way or another? There are scientific data, both case studies of individuals and statistical studies of large cohorts, that provide some suggestions of the answers—even brain scan studies of how the young brain is affected by adversity and trauma—which shed some light on the issue. But people like this young boy grown older are everywhere, even in the news, when they either defy the odds and achieve success or follow a more usual pattern and fail to live up to society’s behavioral standards. And those such as myself or you, the reader, or other ordinary citizens, voters, and pundits, are prone to make pronouncements about the cause of such behavior. One group blames society for failing to rescue and rehabilitate the child and the other blames the child, as he grows up, for making the wrong decisions. And of course the answer lies in some mixture of these two, as well as many other explanations. But thinking only along one track—it doesn't matter which one—and gathering information, not to answer the question but to buttress our beliefs, is the opposite of critical thinking, and it cannot lead to answers.

I only cite the story of the young boy as an example of the failure to think critically that plagues our society. The same pattern of thought and debate characterizes issues such as guns and violence, immigration, the relationship between capitalism and democracy or justice, racial bigotry—in other words, all the issues facing our society. Anyone who has delved into social science research, either as a researcher or a consumer of such research, knows how seldom answers to social questions are simple ones. Every social behavior is multidetermined, with different factors affecting behavior differently depending upon a myriad of circumstances. But the answers that we, as a society—or more often as factions within a society—come up with are not complex, not nuanced, but simplistic, straightforward, and contrary to at least half of the existing evidence on most issues. I’m not just talking about the answers given by those who denigrate “egghead” social scientists or the “elites” who read them. Both sides on nearly every issue do the same. People who have exquisite educations and think at lofty, abstract levels about issues within their professions, abandon all semblance of critical thinking when it comes to social issues that arouse emotions.

Take gun control as another issue. The data on the success of gun control legislation to curtail gun violence is anything but straightforward. Yes there is a general relationship between stricter gun laws and fewer gun deaths and yes, across nations, there is a relationship between less gun possession and fewer gun deaths, but there are also striking exceptions. An honest appraisal of different approaches to America’s high gun death problem would look at all the data, both broad statistical correlations and the exceptions, both data that show fewer gun deaths with less guns and data that show the value of gun possession in preventing crimes. A critical approach to the questions would try to understand the nuances of the data, not obscure or deny them. It would look at data both favorable to one’s positions and unfavorable. It would also examine the constitutional issues from the perspectives of esteemed scholarly jurists who have argued for both sides of gun restriction.

None of the above happens in our society, not even in our media, and increasingly, not even within our universities. Instead, we take intellectual merit as consisting of the ability to defeat one’s opponent in an argument, despite the fact that, increasingly, people don't make their arguments to their opponents, they are content to make them only to those who agree with them. What should be a call for more information and evidence about how such information was collected, instead becomes a call to demonize the character of those who disagree with us and prove that they have disqualified themselves, not on the basis of making faulty arguments, but because of some other behavior or opinion they have espoused.

Nine tenths of the arguments made by either private individuals or public personalities on any particular issue confronting our society follow the patterns I have described above. They are mostly devoid of fact—other than specific instances that support their position—and they rarely consider either the existence of data that contradicts their position or the mitigating conditions that limit the generalizability of their own data. Even more often, they ignore data and argue about the personalities of their opponents. This is no way to solve problems and it represents a dangerous failure to use our intelligence to address the issues that currently threaten our society.

Reader Comments (4)

A dozen years ago my partner was also a playwright and actress. We learnded that several issues were so strongly felt by folks that to mention them in a play would cause the audience to shut off and not be able to stay involved in the production,....We called them the GAG-me issues. At the time GAG stood for Guns-Abortion-Gay marriage. There was also a fourth--veganism. Audiences had no problem seeing a person murdered on stage, but never enact killing a chicken for dinner.
It's interesting to note that the issues must change as gay marriage has been substantially resolved. Maybe the way society as a whole approaches problems is first by denial, followed by anger/revulsion, eventually by thought and consideration.

.It is also interesting th look at the current denial issues that get very little discussion. For instance...
1.) 847,000 (1 every 36 seconds) Americans die every year of poverty related factors, more than all the US combat soldiers in all the wars we have fought.
2.) Possibly half of all jobs will vanish due to artificial intelligence and automation in the next few decades.
3.) Wealth is not only becoming incredibly concentrated and unequal but dynastic. Already just a few, a handful of people, own as much as half our population combined.
4.) Rate of climate change is apparently not decreasing.Our forests in the Southwest might effectively disappear as soon as 30 years out. The Northwest will not be many decades behind.
5.) Democracy is dead, replaced by oligarchy of the wealthy
6.) Human poulation is outstripping the bearing capacity of the planet. We are in a great extinction event.
7.) Environmental toxins are becoming widespresd with no consideration to effect.
8.) Let us never forget the threats of nuclear war and much. much more.
9.) Denial is the biggest river in the world.

My personal opinion is that there are so many wounded, unloved and unloving people out there that our problems might be better solved not by reason but by caring for one another.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating data points. It's really about determining and understanding connections between different concepts and ideas. In the case of the role of firearms on American lives and how gun control measures might impact that dynamic, the statistics generated are meaningful in terms of human lives, but really don't relate to the reasoning behind and necessity of the second amendment. That provision exists to allow the citizens to be part of an armed militia so as to protect itself from the potential of a government grown tyrannical. Some people argue we are already living in such a moment. Thus, the second amendment is working entirely as envisioned with millions of well-armed citizens ready to push back on potential or further government tyranny. The horrible misuse of firearms is an ongoing tragedy, but from a critical thinking vantage point, these loses, though heartbreaking, have little relation to the logic behind the creation and maintenance of the second amendment.

So the statistical argument that shows that guns make it easier for evil or mentally ill citizens to kill innocent citizens is really not critical thinking when applied to whether or not the second amendment is serving its purpose. The two concepts are not intimately related, even as gun-control reactionaries passionately argue otherwise.

The real argument is this: Are we as American citizens more accepting of the imposition of a tyrannical government without the most obvious means of fighting back (where more than three hundred million people become slaves and victims) or is it more acceptable to let our citizen militia maintain their powerful weapons against fascism and instead work toward stricter controls so that convicted criminals and the mentally ill are much less likely to acquire firearms illegally and harm innocent people?

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

I agree that critical thinking, and applying the known and functional processes of troubleshooting to finding solutions is THE path we should be taking.
The decisions that need to be made to START on that path are not being made.
Those decisions are not being made, because it is that process that is broken.

The politicians and media love to insist that regardless of how bad the results get, you are limited to the choices they make for you.

I say NO.

Instead of accepting the corrupt, ineffective system we use, continuing to incite division and discord, we COULD use science, the methods of science, to develop, and test better systems of governance.
I am NOT suggesting that scientists should run government.

I am suggesting that we apply our scientific method to the problem of governance, instead of just accepting that what a bunch of guys with elitist agendas decided to use over 200 years ago, is the best and only system we could possibly consider.
We can do better, we should do better, we simply have to make the effort to make the effort.


February 24, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter45 Mike Anderson

We in the US already have the best system of governance because it can be corrected by the people when they choose to do so. Our founders were brilliant in many ways but did not see perfectly into the future. Thus our constitution has been amended and the supreme court has settled other issues of contention using the constitution as the primary framework for decision-making. There is no scientific method available that will interpret the vagaries, instincts and thought processes of hundreds of millions of people.

Critical thinking in terms of lawmaking is related to philosophy and logic more than it is to science.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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