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Monday, August 31, 2009


Monday, August 31, 2009

Believing Untruths - The Dangerous Lack of Critical Thinking

Sharon Begley has written an important essay in Newsweek, “Lies of Mass Destruction,” that every educator should read. Begley explores the strange, but ubiquitous, tendency of people to believe untruths even when there is massive evidence to contradict them. Whether it’s the persistent belief among many that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or the current beliefs about “death panels” (among other misinformation) in the pending health care reform proposals, we humans consistently believe things that simply are not true.

At the risk of raising the ire of my readers who believe in many unsupported things (and I’m not naming any of these for fear of inciting that ire), I can only say that Begley has just touched the tip of the iceberg. We believe in countless unfounded, unproven, even preposterous ideas and religious dogmas (not to mention what might make for good scifi or fairy tales), and many of us don’t even flinch when we present these unfounded beliefs as truth and seek to proselytize.

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “Don’t let your mind be so open your brain falls out.” I worry that between the poles of open-mindedness and close-mindedness (often resulting in the same sorts of beliefs in untruths), there lies a vast arena that we are failing to cultivate: critical thinking.

Critical thinking was a hot button subject in the 90s, and every school was eager to ensure it was teaching this skill. Now it’s been relegated by many “back to basics” proponents as soft, liberal, untestable and far less important that passing those standardized tests.

But it is dangerous to neglect critical thinking. An inability to access information critically, especially in an Internet age of massive information and misinformation, leads to an inability to participate honestly and realistically in a democracy.

In the 20th century, a few dystopian novels, such as Brave New World and 1984, exposed the danger of mass thought. Ironically, there are plenty of people who believe silly things who consider themselves disciples of such books, whether on the left or the right. They may believe in unfounded conspiracies or false information, perceiving themselves as the true critical thinkers and the rest of us as duped.

The only solution I see to this pervasive tendency among people is to commit fully and wholeheartedly to cultivating critical thinking and inculcating healthy skepticism among youth. Yes, it means they may question their parents beliefs. Yes, it means they may question their teachers. Yes, it means they may question entrenched institutions and systems. It also means they may question peer pressure, advertisers’ unhealthy manipulations, and the health value of their cafeteria food (I just had to throw that in).

If we teach the next generation to be deep and hard-working thinkers, we will give them perhaps the most important skill people need to create healthy, productive, fair and just societies and systems.

~ Zoe Weil

Image courtesy of rossgram via Creative Commons.

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