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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Critical Thinking

Bill Whittle is one of the Web’s best essayists. His greatest strength is a clear-eyed view of the world – a view that is cynical when it needs to be, but always fact-based and rational. He’s not a guy you’d like to debate if you’re on the wrong side of reason.

In a new essay (take the time to read it in its entirety), entitled Seeing the Unseen. Whittle addresses the growing web of misinformation and falsehood that is taken as articles of faith by a growing number of Americans. He begins:
We live in a sea of information, an Information Age: and yet, it has been almost half a millennia since mankind has been so unwilling or unable to use critical thinking to separate the intellectual wheat from so…much…chaff! Critical Thinking -- the ability to analyze data, determine it’s usefulness and fidelity, to learn how to asses reliability, question methodology, weigh expertise and all the rest – is in shockingly short supply these days. It’s not just a shame; it’s an epidemic, it is a fatal metastasizing disease in a democracy where information is used by the public to make the decisions that steer the ship of state. For the ability to think critically allows us to see the unseen; to find the truth behind the falsehood, as well as the falsehood behind the truth.

Today, it seems that legions of people – growing legions – are falling victims to ideas and beliefs that on the face of it are patently false…things that are so clearly and obviously nuts that you really have to wonder what deep, mighty engine of emotional need could possibly drive a brain so deep into a hole. Seriously now, there are millions and millions of people on this planet who will torture logic and reason to mind-bending extremes in order to believe monumentally ridiculous “theories” … theories drawn from an emotional need so warped and debased that you are catapulted beyond anger and disbelief directly into pathos and the desire to call 911 before these people hurt themselves.

On the far-Right, we have the following ideas and beliefs that have resonated with far too many people:

  • The demand that "creationist" science be taught in our schools

  • The crusade against embryonic stem cell research and stem cell cloning

  • The depiction of gay marriage as a "threat" to conventional marriage and the resultant attempts to constitutionally ban it

  • A "right to life" world view that would force a person to continue living even when his quality of life is nil (think Terri Schiavo)

  • The dangerous melding of religion and government

  • The claim that family values is strictly the province of the religious right

Each of these issues crept into the political arena during the first six years of the Bush administration. The Republican administration was (and continues to be) on the wrong side of each of these issues. It's position is anti-rational and harmful to the country and its people.

But the far-Left also has its ideas and beliefs that have resonated with far too many people in the mainstream of the Democratic party. And today, with the transition to Democratic leadership in the Congress, it will become even more important to rely on critical thinking when you hear the following sound bites:

  • Rumfeld is a ‘chickenhawk’

  • Bush is an idiot” or “Bush Lied

  • Blood for oil

  • We can coexist with radical Islam

  • We have to end US ‘imperialism’

  • “Give peace a chance” or “War is not the answer”

Whittle addresses each of these far-left sound bites in his essay, using the simple logic of critical thinking to deconstruct each. Here’s a sample that addresses the array of arguments that imply that “war is not the answer.”
Okay. I’m listening. What is the answer?

No, you don’t get to say I don’t know but I know it's not war! If you admit you don’t know what the answer is, then it logically follows that you are in no position to say what it is not.

With regard to Iraq, Saddam started a suicidal war with Iran, and then with the United States. He then proceeded to break every single element of his cease-fire agreement…shooting at allied airplanes trying to belatedly enforce no-fly zones to prevent him from massacring even more of his own people, continuing with a well-documented and undeniable effort to obtain nuclear weapons, and all the rest.

So what is the answer, Mr. Moral Superiority? Sanctions? We sanctioned him for 13 years. He bribed the UN and stole billions of dollars for new palaces and industrial shredders for the opposition. Should we just leave him alone? The New York Times reported a few days ago that Saddam was a year or two away from a nuclear weapon. Do you trust the man’s judgment after Iran and Kuwait? I don’t.

War is an ugly, messy, filthy business, and the greatest slander I have seen in these last three years is the idea that somehow the pro-war crowd thinks war is a great thing. War is an awful thing. And yet I am pro war in this case. How can that be?
This is probably the most useful thing I’ll write in this essay:

Doves think the choice is between fighting or not fighting. Hawks think the choice is between fighting now or fighting later.

If you understand this, you understand everything that follows. You don’t need to think the other side is insane, or evil. Both hawks and doves are convinced they are doing the right thing. But it seems to me there is a choice between peace at any price and a peace worth having.

Whittle proceeds to recount the long and very sad history of appeasement. Whether its Rome and the barbarians, Europe and the Viking hoards or Europe and the Nazi menace during WWII, appeasement does not work – ever. When you hear anyone in the new congressional leadership say anything that could lead to any attempt at appeasement, keep this simple historical reality in mind.

In an early post, I commented on reaction formation – a psychological disorder that leads one to believe in things that are provably incorrect because belief in reality is simply too stressful. I think that’s one of the reasons that so many people in the USA have abandoned “critical thinking.” Reality is often stressful, it’s sometimes unpleasant, and in today’s world, it can be downright frightening.

As Whittle correctly states, “the ability to think critically allows us to see the unseen; to find the truth behind the falsehood, as well as the falsehood behind the truth.” We should all keep this in mind as the political rhetoric on both sides ratchets up over the coming two years.