On Fixing Stupidity: Replace Dumb Ideas with Critical Thinking

Fresno Bee, September 5, 2021

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, warned this week of an “information pandemic.   He said, people who are “infected by viral misinformation” need to “inoculate themselves with the truth.” 

We are plagued by misinformation, disinformation, and outright stupidity.  Mis-information is mistaken information.  It is not necessarily malicious.  Dis-information is worse.  It is basically a lie.  Disinformation is a malicious attempt to make you believe something that is not true.  And stupidity?  Well, it’s a failure of intelligence.  But it is not only a mental malfunction.  Stupidity also involves actively embracing false and pernicious ideas.

The doctor was calling out people who are reluctant to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of false information.  Almost half of the population of Fresno County remains unvaccinated.  There is also the problem of people poisoning themselves with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer. 

This is dismaying but not surprising.  History is full of terrible ideas and epidemics of stupidity.  Not long ago, kids were eating Tide pods and teenagers were stuffing their mouths with ground cinnamon.  Even worse was smoking, a stupid habit that caused long-term health problems for millions of people. 

The good news is that people usually wise up.  The bad news is that advertisers and propagandists are always working to spread more stupidity.  Ideas are contagious.  They circulate and propagate.  Some catch on.  Some die out.  This is true for all ideas—good ones and bad ones. 

Stupidity has a tendency to attract our attention because it is ridiculous.  It can also cause us to lose faith in humanity.  It is not only the absurdity of dumb ideas that bothers us.  We are also alarmed by the strange sense of certainty that stupid people seem to have.

We may worry that our own beliefs may be just as stupid.  This can prompt a crisis of faith.  As Shakespeare said, the fool thinks himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Cynics worry that bad ideas are more easily spread than good ones.  But this is not true.  Bad ideas only spread when the intellectual immune system is weak.  And good ideas can be reinforced through conscious effort.

It is disheartening to know that stupidity is contagious.  But we know the cure.  Social distancing helps.  We should isolate dumb ideas and prevent them from proliferating.  The long-term solution is the vaccination we call education.  Education strengthens the intellectual immune system.

The campaign against smoking provides an example of a successful approach.  People were taught that smoking was unhealthy.  Smoking was prohibited in public places.  And taxes were levied on tobacco products.  It took decades, but smoking declined.  In the 1950’s, 45% of Americans smoked.  These days the number is around 15%.

As we fret about the recent plague of stupidity, let’s celebrate the fact that many good ideas have caught on.  And some very bad ideas have died out.  Slavery was abolished.  Women were liberated.  Old superstitions and stereotypes have faded away along with the idea that smoking is cool. 

Technology and culture play a role in all of this.  Human culture is a process of spreading ideas.  We gossip and talk, exchanging stories and information.  In the old days this occurred slowly through face-to-face interactions among friends and family. 

Electronic communication is faster and more volatile.  Memes and trends explode overnight.  Robots and artificial intelligence manipulate the cyber-ecosystem.  They target us with advertising, including misinformation and disinformation. 

The bad news is that misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly in cyberspace.  The good news is that the truth is also out there and is often easy to find.  But we need to be educated about where to look and how to distinguish the truth from a lie.  That’s called information literacy and critical thinking.

It’s not true, as a folksy proverb puts it, that “you can’t fix stupid.”  Nobody really believes that cynical proverb.  Educators and coaches certainly don’t.  And experience teaches us that stupidity can be fixed.  It takes practice and discipline to overcome intellectual laziness and ignorance.  But we can make progress.  This is a lifelong project.  People make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.  And we can build up an immunity to dumb ideas.

Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Sloppy Thinking and the Trump Impeachment

Fresno Bee, Feb. 7, 2021

Sloppy language is a sign of sloppy thinking. Our culture is brimming with slop. Prose piles up. Text scrolls by. Much of this is unedited and unenlightening. We are awash in words. But we are not any wiser.

Good writing and good thinking are undermined by procrastination and lack of focus. I see this in my students’ work. The later the submission, the more likely the typos. This is a distracted age. Hyperlinks open the floodgates of diversion. These flowing tangents impede concentration.

Students can be forgiven for their sloppiness. They are still learning how to think and write. But in the professional world, there is no excuse. We expect precision of language in scientists, doctors, lawyers and political leaders. This expectation of precision helps explain why the typos in Donald Trump’s response to the recent articles of impeachment have been widely mocked.

The former president is charged by the House of Representatives with inciting an insurrection. The gravity of this charge is profound. It requires a careful rebuttal. But on the first page of their response, Trump’s lawyers misspell the name of our country. The address line of the memo says “To: The Honorable, the Members of the Unites States Senate.” The same gaffe is repeated on page nine.

This typo is easy to understand. The “s” key is next to the “d” key. “Unites” is a word. So spell-checking software won’t flag it. Proofreaders often overlook titles and italicized words. We also know that Trump struggled to find attorneys willing to defend him. It is easy to imagine these last-minute lawyers frantically typing in the wee hours.

These kinds of mistakes happen when we are rushed or stressed. We’ve all been there. A deadline looms. You work hard to meet it. You hit send. Only later do you notice your linguistic blunders.

Often this is no big deal. The importance of spelling and grammar depends on the context. An occasional “covfefe” in a tweet only makes us human.

But there are moments when the text needs to be perfect. A typo in your resume can lose you the job. Grammatical ambiguity in contracts and laws cause legal battles.

Some documents have profound historical and legal import. Scholars quibble over commas and word choice in ancient religious texts. Disputes about the Constitution concentrate on textual subtleties. This linguistic quibbling is part of the current Trump impeachment.

The question about whether a former president can be impeached depends upon how you read the word “and” in the Constitution’s description of impeachment. The Constitution states, “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”

Does this mean, as Trump’s defenders argue, that impeachment is no longer valid once the office holder’s term is completed? Trump’s attorneys say that removal from office is “a condition precedent which must occur before, and jointly with” disqualification.

On the other hand, the brief against Trump claims that the placement of the word “and” suggests that impeachment can also extend to disqualification from future office. The House impeachment managers argue, “The Framers then provided two separate remedies, both focused on an offender’s ability to seek and exercise government power: removal from office and disqualification from future officeholding.”

In the impeachment trial, in addition to this technicality of constitutional interpretation, we will see lots of discussion of Trump’s language. Words like “incitement” and “insurrection” will be debated, along with the general sloppiness of Trump’s language and thought. A significant question will be whether Trump actually meant what he said when he incited the crowd to riot.

The takeaway for ordinary people is to be more careful in speech and thought. Clear thinking depends on clarity of expression. This is especially important in formal communication. Technicalities matter in professional life. Typos can destroy careers. Laziness can lead to liability. And loose language can start a riot.

Wisdom is not measured by the volume or velocity of our words. Good thinking takes time. Good writing requires revision. If you want to be understood and respected, you must slow down and choose your words wisely.

Critical Thinking in Time of Crisis

Fresno Bee, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus uncertainty leaves us wondering what we should believe and who we should trust. This is made more difficult by partisan division and a general distrust of authority. Many authorities think that this illness is serious. Some countries have implemented drastic measures. Businesses and campuses are preparing contingency plans. Events have been canceled.

But the president suggests that this is fake news. On Monday, he tweeted, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

But how do we know what the facts warrant? This question holds for a variety of issues: from climate change and the stock market to the threat of terrorism and dietary guidelines. Beyond these contemporary questions, there are deep questions about history, religion and the meaning of life. Did Jesus really walk on water? Did Shakespeare himself really write all of those plays and poems? Is there a soul that survives death?

In many cases, we lack direct access to the facts. Miracles happen far away and long ago. Historical facts rest on fragile threads of evidence. And death remains an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.

Layers of secrecy and confidentiality in government and business make it difficult for ordinary people to judge. Even when we have evidence, we lack the expertise to evaluate it. The facts about climate change and the coronavirus have been published by scientists. But you need substantial training to understand these facts and assess the risks.

Given this problem, it is often wise to say “I don’t know.” Philosophers have routinely called for intellectual humility. Socrates famously said that the only thing he was certain of was that he lacked certainty.

But intellectual humility doesn’t help in an emergency. Acknowledging your lack of certainty doesn’t help you decide whether to avoid crowds, cancel a trip or stockpile toilet paper.

Intellectual humility should not be a recipe for inaction. Nor is it the same as lazy indifference. To say you don’t know is not the same as saying you don’t care. Nor does it mean that you should give up on the quest for certainty.

Prudence tells us to work diligently to get the facts and learn how to interpret them. One obvious method involves checking multiple reliable sources. But, of course, we disagree about what counts as a reliable source, which is the present predicament.

The president tells us not to trust the news media. But is the president trustworthy? The Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. Trump calls that fake news. The polarization of information makes critical thinking more difficult.

This is not a new problem. There never was a time when people agreed about the facts or about who counts as an expert. The apostles believed Jesus was a resurrected messiah. Others thought this was fake news. And the Bible’s doubting Thomas demanded direct evidence.

In addition to gathering evidence and gaining expertise, we need to think about the burden of proof. The more the risk, the more the need for proof. If there is a risk of a deadly disease, you ought to take precautions, especially if those precautions are minimally invasive. If more hand washing prevents a pandemic, then let’s all wash our hands. But when it comes to cancellations and quarantines, the risk assessment becomes complicated. At some point, a leap of faith is required.

This is difficult and frustrating. But life is a series of decisions made without certainty. And at least we are free to make these decisions for ourselves. It’s a sign of our freedom that even the authorities disagree with each other. In ancient Athens, they killed people like Socrates who questioned authority.

Today, there are no undisputed authorities, in politics, religion, love, or life. There is no secret revelation that will cure a doubting Thomas. And there is no magic safety net to save us from bad decisions. We are on our own. It’s up to us to develop the knowledge to solve our problems — and the wisdom to think critically about what we believe and who we trust.

MLK and the Moral Need for Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, January 19, 2020

We have a moral obligation to educate and enlighten ourselves. Love and duty are blind without education. This is a theme we find in the life and writing of Martin Luther King Jr.

King was a Christian minister whose nonviolent work for racial justice was inspired by Jesus and Gandhi. But he was also a scholar. He studied sociology, philosophy and theology.

King’s model of thoughtful activism provides an antidote for a culture of quick tweets and silly memes. Our attention spans are short. We skate across the surface of things. King reminds us of the power of the slow and serious study of the humanities. Social change begins with change of heart and also with a change of mind.

So here’s a proposal for Martin Luther King Day: read something! King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start. King shows there how Socrates and Jesus inspired him to engage in civil disobedience.

If you want to know more about King’s philosophical influences, read his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he explains his philosophy and theology of love. King says there, “All life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”

This idea did not pop into King’s mind unformed. He discovered it through an intellectual pilgrimage through the history of philosophy. King’s ideas, and his activism, grew out of a broad understanding of the world’s traditions.

King routinely warns against intellectual and spiritual blindness. In his book, “Strength to Love,” King said it is “not badness but blindness” that causes evil in the world. It was ignorance that led people to crucify Christ and to execute Socrates. The root of racism, hate, and violence is “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

King concludes that we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.” And he argues — with a nod to the existentialist philosophers he studied — that moral blindness is a result of a tragic misuse of freedom.

Racists and haters often make a conscious choice to be dumb. Every human being has the capacity to think critically, inquire into truth, and gain enlightenment. But people choose not to exercise this capacity because they are focused on defending their own selfish interests and narrow points of view.

Liberation from ignorance is difficult. It causes anxiety. It is difficult to question authority and stand up for justice. The solution for the anxiety of emancipation is a courageous commitment to truth. We need the courage to think for ourselves and, as King puts it, to “courageously do battle for truth.”

King suggests that the Christian faith provides the ultimate solution. He rejects the idea that human reason and science alone can eliminate hatred and injustice. He says, “Man by his own power can never cast evil from the world.” He says that humanistic hope is based upon an illusion about the inherent goodness of things.

King was, after all, a Christian pastor. In the background of his thinking is the problem of sin and the need for a savior. King tells us that he found the strength to persevere against threats and violence with the help of God.

This pushes us toward further reflection. Are we good enough to save ourselves? Or do we need divine assistance?

In order to answer those questions, we need to embrace the difficulty of thinking and the complexity of faith. A lot of people would like to ignore these sorts of questions. They would prefer to ignore the question of why racism persists, whether violence can be justified, and whether the arc of the universe really does bend in the direction of justice.

But lazy indifference is not helpful. Faith without thought is flimsy. And wisdom is not possible without fear and trembling.

King said, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

So how do we honor Dr. King? We honor him by working for social justice. But we also honor him by avoiding half-baked solutions and easy answers. In short, we honor him by taking up the task of thinking.