Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Critical Thinking in a Time of Political Truthiness

By Gary Berg-Cross
You can tell from just a few campaign snippets that a form of cultural mania approaches. Conservative politicians who oppose tax increases un-reflectively and inconsistently oppose keeping the payroll tax cut. Rick Perry & friends espouse some very scary thoughts in the name of religion with little discussion of the consequences. There’s talk of dismantling Social Security as FDR's safety net legacies are described as affronts to the Constitution. There’s nary a line of historical validity or facts in the frayed debates. And the assault of principled thinking and honest debate goes on. Truthiness boldly rides  forth, as reason, clear thinking and real problem solving is shoved back a few steps and the popular mind is numbed. There’s little real analyze of arguments and/or assumptions. On the rare occasion that challenge questions are asked, non-stick talking points are ejected without the structure of a reasonable argument.

 It’s yet another phenomena supporting Susan Jacoby’s theory explored in The Age of American Unreason that America has immatured into an anti-intellectual culture filled with junk thought.
The tone of discussion already takes me back to a moment in 2004 when George W. was running for re-election. I happened to walk by a college’s Humanities' office. Some professor has posted a description of a course on Critical Thinking. It was full of good sense and the search for truth, but seemed like something from an earlier age when liberal education was in vogue and before the ascendency of a vocational brand of higher education. Looking at the course description I could see an enlightened view of education that fosters some skill in reading, reflection, and interpretation. 

 These are needed and should be highly prized in any culture, but they seem to be drifting out of the reach for many people. This is part of the argument made by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their Academically Adrift (2011), which summarizes the findings of their analysis of the efforts and expectations of a large sample of American undergraduates. An example of findings is that 45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college and 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college.
As I walked on I imagined how a person teaching critical thinking might feel during an election campaign. There might be so much to talk about, but they might also feel like a salmon jumping barriers and swimming upstream. It’s what I felt in 2004 and I feel it again as we approach the full campaign of 2012. The distance between political posturing and a real examination of issues is disappointing. There’s an unreality to it, at least from the rational part of the mind.
One legacy of the Bush administration is a disdain for reality as we understand it from a critical standpoint. Exhibit 1 of this was reported by The New York Times correspondent Ron Suskind during Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. Suskind described a meeting with a senior Bush aide who put down journalist’s as members of a “reality-based community”. This he defined as one which is based on the belief that “solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.” Seems reasonable to me, but the aide argued at the time that this was old thinking and no longer practical. In this he echoed VP Cheney who preferred his theories of reality (remember not only weapons of mass destruction but also “deficits don’t matter) to any validated reality. His preference was for what seems to me a Napoleonic, action-oriented take on the new reality, which Bush’s aide explained this way:
“That’s not the way the world works anymore…when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too…all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
As I listen to some economic arguments this philosophy of artificial, reactively created “reality” seems to be riding forth again. At least this is the way the idea of cutting stimulus efforts in an attempt to reduce the deficit strikes me. This again reminds me how frustrating it must be to teach critical thinking when the culture abounds in uncritical thinking on so many levels. In a season with the media filled with talking points and sound bites (or bytes), I have that feeling again that we under-value skepticism, challenging questions and reality testing. Maybe it is the new normal. But we still have time to heed Ernest Hemingway's paraphrased advice that writers (all of us) need a built-in baloney detector.

What we should insist on is that any pols' explanations on subjects like the economy, unemployment, the role of stimulus to reduce unemployment, and the value of tax cutting be treated critically. These should be treated as theories or testable hypotheses. As a theory they make claims about what is true and real of the world. How do we know they are valid or even plausible? We test them critically to winnow the good from the bad, the real from the fake. For one thing theories must be consistent with observations. These include historical as well as contemporary observations, so what happened to the economy and employment under FDR should be part of the discussion. The rise of deficits under Reagan and George W. Bush are more recent observations. No observation can contradict a true theory. But many observations may be irrelevant to a theory that is true about some limited aspect of the world. And that is what we often get in political debates. People get away with it because social theories are complex and because critical analysis is hard. They require disciplined reasoning and command of the facts. They also require careful clarifications supported by credible & reliable judgments about sources of information and the quality of observations.It's all part of a good conversation about a topic.

(Picture above  from http://www.mindmapart.com/critical-thinking-mind-map-adam-sicinski/)

But these are all hard things to do in an anti-intellectual stew of mis-information.  What we need to understand and agree on is that they are worth the effort and needed in a Democracy.

 It’s an educational imperative as Jefferson noted -the time to start teaching the process of critical thinking is as early as possible so it becomes a habit and natural.

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