Friday, September 07, 2007

The Fatuousness of Cynicism

Keywords: critical thinking, skeptical tracts

OK, I stole that title from an article in Anarchy magazine several years ago; but it fits many situations, including my response to someone expressing his lack of interest in attending my upcoming Brights munch to discuss how to popularize critical thinking. This is what I wrote in reply to his pessimism:

This isn't a question that can be answered with words on paper (or a screen), but only by the experience of what works and what doesn't. But you yourself said that it's largely a matter of serendipity. Exactly: it's a matter of which memes someone gets exposed to first. My tract isn't aimed primarily at those who are already "born again"; it's aimed at those who haven't thought about the question yet, especially young people. And I intentionally designed it to give critical thinking emotional appeal, including the idea that exchanging rational criticism is a form of human solidarity, rather than being equivalent to personal attack.

I think you're underestimating the role of an authoritarian culture in teaching bad cognitive habits. Many have aptly critiqued conventional education as a system that crushes children's native curiosity out of them. (My brother jokes that the first grade is followed by the "sickened grade.") And it's an overgeneralization to say professional educators aren't interested in critical thinking. Some teachers and schools do incorporate it into the curriculum. It's the exception rather than the rule; but where it's been tried, it often has impressive results. This supports the view that the problem is mainly social/cultural rather than biological.

I recall encountering, a couple years ago, the view of one researcher, based on observation of people like the Kalahari Bushmen, that a livelihood of game tracking creates strong incentives for, precisely, the habits of hypothetico-deductive thinking that are the basis of science. (Don't remember now if this was on NPR or in Science News magazine.) This is exactly the lifestyle that we've lived for most of our evolutionary history; by comparison, civilization and social stratification, which often turn independent thought into a liability, are too recent to have had any biological impact. This fits very well with the observation that violence and repression, both within the family and the larger polity, seem much more characteristic of civilized than pre-civilized societies. (This observation doesn't apply to violence against other tribes and species, which involves different issues and can be found in abundance in human societies at all stages of cultural evolution.) If mindless conformity were really so natural to most people, we wouldn't see such extensive resort to violence to maintain it.

As I said at the beginning, only practice will show what works and what doesn't; that, rather than presuming to know what human nature is on the basis of casual or uncontrolled observation, is exactly what distinguishes the scientific spirit.

By the way, to clear one thing up: phact.org isn't "my" site; PhACT is only one of many groups I belong to. Its president, Eric Krieg, happens to share my first name, but we're not the same person.

Eric Hamell

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