The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The War on Irrationality -- Part I

I ran across an unattributed quote on the Internet recently, “As the Euclideans would have it, irrationality is the square root of all evil.”

For those who are mathematically impaired, this clever saying implies that before true evil can arise, irrationality must be present. When irrationality grows, it becomes a catalyst for a geometric growth in evil.

This got me to thinking about our war against terrorism. Since 9/11, we have focused our efforts on eradicating terrorism. A reasonable, albeit difficult, goal. But at a much deeper and more frightening level, our real foe is the irrational mindset of some individuals, many groups, and a few nations through the Moslem world. Our real challenge is to battle irrationality, but winning the fight against it will make the war against terrorism look easy.

For many years we’ve watched hatred of the Western World and the United States fester in the Middle East. We’ve heard talking heads on virtually every television network and columnists in every newspaper and magazine explain the reasons: the disgrace of Arab nations that is attributed to our geopolitical actions; our indirect economic and cultural imperialism ; the rampant growth of radical Islam; our support of Israel; our modern culture, our secularism … the list is almost endless. I submit that all of these may be excuses for the hatred, but at its core, the real reason is irrationality.

In the United States, politically correct thought (itself, a benign form of irrationality) forces us to examine and reexamine the excuses for hatred and the evil it spawns, but gently guides us away from confronting the cause. Stated bluntly, it appears that a small, but ever-growing percentage of the population in countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe and Asia have embraced irrational thought. As a result, their perception of the internal problems they face along with their view of the outside world have become dangerously warped. The reasons for this are not difficult to isolate.
  1. Irrationality is spawned by the growth of fundamentalist religion and its allure to those that are looking for simple answers to exceedingly complex questions.
  2. Irrationality is encouraged by national leaders (both religious and secular), who use it to deflect internal criticism and popular self-examination.
  3. Irrationality is cultivated by state-controlled media that feed a continuous stream of outright canards that warp the truth beyond recognition.
  4. Irrationality accelerates when fundamentalist religion and state-sponsored misinformation enter the classroom, resulting in a brain-washed younger generation that is only too anxious to believe and far too reticent to question.
Those of us who rely on facts and logical thinking have trouble understanding all of this. How can “they” buy into this nonsense, we all ask ourselves. In an article in The Atlantic Online, Wendy Kaminer considers this issue when she states: “What makes fantastic declarations believable is, in part, the vehemence with which they're proffered … intensity of personal belief is evidence of truth.”

What we face is an “intensity of personal belief” that leads to dangerously irrational thinking. Once it has taken root, it is the most difficult of all foes to defeat. Truth won’t work, because irrational people hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Force won’t work, because irrational people have no fear of consequences. Reason won’t work because it is the anathema of irrationality. Scary, isn’t it?

I wish I was wise enough to offer a strategy that will defeat irrationality—the real cause of the hatred we face. I’m not. But I am absolutely certain of one thing: until we recognize that irrationality is the problem, the threat will not diminish. It will grow geometrically. And as a new-born student of Euclid, you now know what that means.