“If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence. If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?”
— Sam Harris
It seems there is no shortage of existential crises facing us here in the United States. Some of these are global in scope and require a global response much in the same way the discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons, gases which were used in aerosol cans, were destroying the Ozone layer required a global response. Climate change, ocean acidification, wanton destruction of forests and other habitats, pollution of the air, ground, and water for short term economic gains are just some of the issues that modern civilization has to deal with. Each one, if allowed to proceed unchecked, is more than capable of destroying most of humanity’s habitat, if not all of it. All of these issues, in spite of the gravity and pressing nature each one holds, have been stubbornly resistant in gaining the global consensus that will be needed to successfully solve the problems they each present.
When we look into the situation a bit further, it becomes even more depressing to those of us who want the human race to exist and flourish rather than become extinct in a handful of generations. When I talk about a consensus I do not mean solving disagreements among groups as to the most effective way to mitigate the effects or which technologies would be the best to embrace in the short and long term. No, the consensus I am talking about is way more basic than that: It is gaining a consensus that these issues even exist. But wait, there’s more! The inability of our society to agree on what is real and not real is not limited to facing existential crises. This intellectual paralysis has infected just about every aspect of our lives and, as with all paralysis, the effects couldn’t be more damaging.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Issac Asimov
Since Issac spoke those words the cult has become a full-blown religion with mega-churches and celebrity pastors. The ideas they preach to their millions of followers are a full-throated defense of anti-intellectualism and the moral duty of each congregant to advance this Zeitgeist into the culture at large. In a particularly bizarre example of this celebrity grifter Franklin Graham engaged in a bizarre attack on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the county’s leading epidemiologist. The issue for Graham? What is truth and who has the monopoly on it. Graham posted this to his Twitter feed during the brush-up:
So let’s stop and take a look at the claims being made. One one hand we have Dr. Fauci and the science of epidemiology. This science has eradicated diseases that have plagued the human race for thousands of years. On the other hand, we have Franklin Graham who offers us, “Pestilence is caused by sin.” Now, while others may justifiably go after the utter moral bankruptcy of Graham, the fact we really need to consider is that millions of people unquestioningly accept Graham’s claim and actively reject the evidence of Dr. Fauci and science. Why this is so and, most importantly, what can be done to change this and get the nation as a whole back on the road to sanity is where we should be directing all our efforts.
A brief look at why this is so will allow us to put everything in focus. We’ll be able to see that the primary battleground is not in the political, scientific, or religious arenas. These are all secondary skirmishes. The real fight is for the contents of our children’s education. This is not a recent battle; it has been going on for decades. Anti-intellectual interests have been trying to get their narrative into the school system with such ploys as Intelligent Design buttressed by a well-coordinated political campaign against Boards of Education exhorting them to “teach the controversy”. The defense against this effort has failed miserably and the result can be seen all around us from anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, homeopathic medicine, just to name a few. While there was a robust defense in the courts with rulings all in favor of the science, there was no response to the attack by the educational system to the ideas that were introduced while the controversies raged. If, at the time, the educational system would have responded by instituting a mandatory national curriculum of Critical Thinking skills we may never have had to endure things such as the anti-vaxxers and the subsequent reappearance of childhood diseases in epidemic proportions that were virtually non-existent, for example. Certainly, the correctly predicted re-appearance of said diseases should have resigned the anti-vaxxer narrative or fable, as I like to call it, to the intellectual septic tank where it belongs. Yet, they persisted as preventable disease after preventable disease made their reappearances. They know the science; they wield all sorts of technical jargon in their vacuous arguments. It is a lack of critical thinking that is the culprit. Those educated in critical thinking could see right through their nonsense arguments and could have dispensed with it and their attempts to hijack actual medicine long before any child needlessly contracted a preventable disease.
Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher. We are decades into this anti-intellectual mess and the halls of power in this country are filled with people who pride themselves on how little they know. Worse yet, conspiracy theories and the people who push them, are now gaining political power if the recent primary elections here in the United States are any indication. We need to equip our children with the tools to stop and reverse this and we need to start now. The most effective way of doing this is by making Critical Thinking Skills a required core curriculum nation-wide, K-12. A majority of the educators, the teachers, in this country would sign onto this effort wholeheartedly. Many are already advocating for it. If we graduate a generation of children equipped with the robust education available to them augmented by the ability to reason correctly the intractable problems we now face will disappear and we will be able to find the needed consensus to tackle any problems we face. Finding a cure for Polio and putting a man on the moon are the results that critical thinking has given us. It can give us so much more if we put the effort into teaching it to all our children starting now.