Wanted: A Revolution in Critical Thinking

Wanted: A Revolution in Critical Thinking

by Susan Jacoby

We asked leading thinkers to describe New Revolutions We Need for a feminist and progressive future. Here’s one response.

Of all the revolutions we need, as a society, the most crucial—and the foundation of all other social change—is a renewal, on a vast scale, of respect for critical, tough-minded, evidence-based thinking. We have just been through a political era of unprecedented disdain for evidence and unprecedented reliance on blind faith—for everything from justification for the war in Iraq to belief in the efficacy of abstinence-only sex education.

©Carter HODGKIN; Oopsidaisy 2008; Watercolor & inkjet print on paper; www.carterhodgkin.com

Perhaps the most publicized example of the Bush administration’s disdain for critical thinking was reported by The New York Times correspondent Ron Suskind just before the 2004 election. A senior Bush aide told Suskind that journalists belong to the “reality-based community”—those who believe that “solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.” But, the aide emphasized, “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.

It can easily be argued that Barack Obama owes his election to a belated recognition on the part of the public that reality cannot be denied and manipulated indefinitely but will eventually emerge, with a full set of teeth and claws. The most obvious manifestation of the revenge of the reality-based world is the worldwide collapse of unsound financial institutions.

What Americans truly need, however, is a consistent, evidence-based approach to social problems that does not depend on being slapped in the face by a particularly unpalatable reality. The political leadership we choose is a consequence, not a cause, of how much we know—and don’t know—and how susceptible we are to the pervasive phenomenon that I call “junk thought.”

American society is now afflicted by junk thought on every level. The process has accelerated over several decades, in large measure because the public’s attention span has declined and become more fragmented as the culture of video has replaced the culture of print and as we have increasingly turned to the Internet, not as a tool for serious research to facilitate critical thinking, but as an easy source of isolated bits of information.

Affliction Without Discrimination

It cannot be emphasized enough that America’s susceptibility to junk thought is an equal-opportunity disease, affecting women and men; people of all economic classes, levels of education, races, and ethnic groups, and citizens of differing political persuasions. The defining characteristics of junk thought—a branch of the better-known phenomenon known as junk science—are anti-rationalism and contempt for countervailing facts. Junk thought emanates from both the left and the right and is often couched in scientific-sounding language designed to obscure its irrational core. The substitution of “intelligent design” for creationism by anti-evolutionists is a classic example.

Another conspicuous example is revival of support for the idea that there are such important inherent differences between women’s and men’s brains that the two sexes ought to be educated differently—perhaps even separately. This notion, which would have horrified the first wave of American feminists in the 19th century, has—I regret to say—been taken up by some feminists, as well as by a number of blinkered men.

©Carter HODGKIN; www.carterhodgkin.com

Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist who calls herself a feminist, hit it big on talk shows in 2006 with her book, The Female Brain, while Cristina Hoff Summers, a fellow with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, sees boys as the victims of girlie education advocated by feminists. Her entire case, a perfect junk thought counterpoint to Brizendine’s insistence on the vast differences between the female and male brain, is summed up in the title of her 2001 book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men.

Both of these positions are the pure embodiment of junk thought because they ignore the main piece of evidence produced by traditional intelligence testing and modern research—that any differences in aptitudes and brain functioning between large groups of people pale beside much greater differences among individuals.

Suckers for Junk Thought

Whatever the object of junk thought, it has vast implications for all kinds of social policies because it is based on ideology rather than evidence. Why, in a society that offers so much more scientifically based knowledge than was available in the past, are Americans still suckers for the kind of junk thought that undermines efforts to solve real social problems?

Ironically, the very technology that ought to open up the rational universe has actually contributed to the spread of junk thought because so many people confuse instant access to information with genuine knowledge. Type “Boy Brains, Girl Brains” into a Google search, and you will get dozens of links propounding junk thought for every link that uses serious, evidence-based science to examine the subject.

Our dependence on packaged infotainment—whether it comes out of a television set, a website or an iPod—impedes critical thinking and promotes junk thought at every level. Of course, the empire of infotainment knows no national boundaries, but America has always been ahead of the downward curve.

I do not know of any way to launch a revolution in critical thinking that does not begin one person and one family at a time—by silencing our electronic and digital distracters more often and devoting more energy to the serious reading that is the basis of systematic knowledge. More silence is crucial to this process because we literally cannot hear ourselves think in a culture of distraction.