Hypotheses and certainties

Hypothesis: Education should aim at producing critical thinkers, citizens who can choose intelligently between competing claims regarding our proper ends and means as individuals and communities.

Really critical thinkers are in relatively short supply in any country. In Thailand, some would argue, there’s an actual cultural bias against critical thought. Questioning the way things are can easily become confrontational, and thus bad form. Impolite.  Such a taboo might explain why even today a lot of teachers react badly to having students ask real questions, since this implicitly challenges their competence (“You’re telling me what I’ve presented isn’t clear?”) and their authority (“I am the source of truth, here; don’t mess with me”).

So along come some liberally democratic types, and they argue that what this country needs is a different approach to education. But to make it work, you need to retrain a whole generation of teachers, for a start. Then you’ve got to wait a couple of generations to see real results.

Now let’s say we get some hypothetical government with principled leaders, hypothetically operating within a real party system with real party platforms and contending long-term visions that persist longer than a week, perhaps even extend from government to government, and, still hypothetically, there’s a loyal opposition that sees its role as informed watchdog rather than saboteur. So this government says to its members and to the electorate at large: New policy—we’re going to spend a great deal of money to upgrade our schools and teachers and universities, and this will be good for the country because then we’ll have a bunch of critical thinkers running around the place. Oh, yeah. But one thing—we won’t see the benefits emerge till your children or maybe grandchildren are looking for jobs.

Everybody says, whoa! That’s a good idea. And then everyone makes sure this government doesn’t last till month’s end.

In fact, some would argue that you don’t want all these critical thinkers around anyway, since that merely leads to people asking awkward questions and hassling the policy-makers, and the next thing you know you’ve got a bad case of social and political instability.

Others, of course, would argue that it’s too late to worry about that, since quite a number of people, on various sides of a political spectrum that increasing resembles instead a series of crevasses, are already waxing pretty critical.

Where is all this leading? Good question. Certainly not towards any light at the end of a tunnel.

See, e.g., “How facts backfire,” a recent article by Joe Keohane from the Boston Globe, which begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: ““Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” (1789)

The writer goes on to refer to a number of studies that test this hypothesis, with results that do not bode well for democracy. Several years ago, he reports, American researchers tested these assumptions:

If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

And they came up with these perhaps counter-intuitive conclusions:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite… Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This disturbing news complements and perhaps confirms earlier studies:

The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions.

Referring to the modern American political experience, Keohane says,

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts.

This resonates nicely with discussions in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, a recent book by Robert Burton that attempts to find a biological basis for our propensity to know we’re right even when we recognize the facts that suggest we’re wrong. It sounds paradoxical, but the author draws on much evidence from psychology and neurophysiology to show that this appears to be a verifiable and virtually universal human characteristic. Keohane himself doesn’t mention this book, but his article and his sources basically confirm Burton’s findings regarding the individual, but more specifically within the sphere of political activity. (Burton finds the “sense of being certain” or “feeling of knowing” to be a candidate primary emotion.)

In any case, maybe our hypothetical Thai electorate of the near future is right to tell some government that, no, we’re not going to spend a whole lot of money on some boring policy that’ll have few visible results for two generations. No way. What’s the point? Educate the polity all you like, go ahead and have them run around thinking critically. The fact is (that’s fact we’re talking, here), pigs will quite possibly grow wings and fly before the red shirts and yellow shirts and whatnot lend a sympathetic ear to each other’s gripes and proposed remedies. And the leaders on one side will be described as blood-thirsty monsters and the leaders on the other side will remain terrorists on the run. Never mind what any “facts” of the matter might suggest. We know what’s what. End of story.

Or is it? One criticism of Burton’s book, e.g., might be that he doesn’t properly consider all the counter-instances where people, whatever their “natural” inclination, have changed important beliefs in the light of better evidence. And everything we’ve just heard from Keohane seems to deal with questions of fact. Tossing facts at people isn’t the same as applying good educational policies. Critical thinking, ideally, comprises an attitude and skills that help a person consider an array of facts, even mutually contradictory “facts,” and then make intelligent choices.

I know, I know. Once again, what’s my point? It’s this: Even after all these many decades of material affluence, universal schooling, as free a press as exists on the planet, a culture that not only appears have no taboo when it comes to critical confrontation but actually thrives on it, a large part of the American electorate still vote with their lower brain stems. So what hope for less-advantaged societies?Does it still come down to more effective educational practices, in whatever country? Or are we all doomed to being steered by too-often irrational and unexamined beliefs, little more than especially vocal apes in our political behavior, ready to be hornswoggled by any passing demagogue?

Probably. But long live democracy, eh? (Pardon the unseemly expression of proper Canadian fervor.) Whatever the political actuaries might have to say about its local life expectancy.

Maybe all we need is better education and time to let it steep in participatory politics. But the real problem might be that social and political conditions supportive of a good educational policy can follow only from having already established a good educational policy. Catch-22.


Franz Marsereel (July 31, 1889 – January 3, 1972), Belgian
L’Homme Politique (The Demagogue) 1923, used as an illustration for Vanity Fair in November 1924. (I’ve lifted the image from this art gallery website.)

The Sarah Pailin poster is from this website.

2 thoughts on “Hypotheses and certainties”

  1. Lotsa hypotheticals here. In reply to Jefferson, it doesn’t do any good to have people well-informed if they’re stupid. Facts are not the important thing in the minds of most people. Wishful thinking is the controlling factor. Wishful thinking, indeed, is behind most of US foreign policy, like trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan when the Afghans know we’re going to leave. But never mind. Preliminary indications suggest that the second coming is at hand, and when that happens we’ll all be sent to hell. With the possible exception of me and thee.

    • Hypotheticals have been known to preserve visa status. Just kidding. … I’m curious–why is Jesus going to save me? I know I’m a good guy, but I had the feeling that wisdom hadn’t made it out onto the street. To tell the truth, I find it even more curious that he would choose to keep you from the Pit.

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