The Uncritical Society

July 20, 2003

The View From Taft, Business World

What is critical thinking? Basically, it is thinking that is based on sound principles, valid logic and accurate facts. Thus, a listener should be more persuaded about the truth of an allegation or argument to the extent that a speaker uses appropriate principles, logic and facts. To think critically is not the same as simply criticizing. The former seeks enlightenment through reason while the latter seeks to find fault and to assign blame.

Critical thinking is definitely out of fashion in our country. When issues are presented to the public, more often than not, sound principles are replaced by drama and shock value, logic by character attacks and appeals to the emotion, and facts by intrigue and innuendo. And people are easily swayed by these maneuvers.

The Jose Pidal case is an interesting and all too common example of the tendency for people to neglect sound principles when approaching issues. The media coverage of the case has held the nation transfixed. This is understandable because of the serious accusations of corruption that have been made by a Senator against a member of the First Family. Sound principles that can be invoked are the people’s “right to know” and the protection of “public interest.”

Unfortunately, the situation goes downhill from there. What principle could justify the prolonged attention to insinuations of marital infidelity by the First Gentleman? How is this relevant to corruption? How is this related to the public interest? How is this a proper exercise of the people’s right to know? I have no good answers to these questions.

For the sake of argument, I can propose a principle to justify the situation. We can define “public interest” as simply, and literally, what the public would be “interested” in. And since people have the right to know about matters of public interest, then the spectacle should continue. But this line of reasoning is absurd. People are often interested in the most private matters. In fact, the more private the matter, the more interesting it can be. So defining the public interest based mainly on what appeals to people can bring down the discussion of public issues to the level of gossip. This distortion of the public interest principle makes us a nation of chismosos – motivated more by drama and shock value than by sound principles.

And what about logic and facts? A logical person carefully makes conclusions based on factual premises and valid reasoning. Conversely, he will dispute an argument by showing that it suffers from wrong reasoning or wrong facts. In the discussion of issues in daily life, though, the fastest way to rebut an opponent’s argument, at least in the public’s eye, is to attack the person’s character. And so, if politician X calls the attention of politician Y to an alleged wrongdoing, Y simply says to X: “What right have you to point that out when you’re dirty yourself?” This fallacious argument is called tu quoque (“you too”) by logicians and has powerful mass appeal since it puts the complaining person on the defensive. Unfortunately, character attacks and intrigue only serve to muddle the discussion of an issue. When the mudslinging and finger-pointing stops, no man is left standing and the issue, alas, isn’t any clearer.

How did we come to this? How did we become a nation of chismosos and intrigeros? Two major factors come to mind: education and mass media.

The value of logic and the respect for facts is best inculcated in schools. Thus, every teacher should teach the discipline of analytic reasoning relentlessly in each class. Sadly, this is not happening. Much of what students learn in school is learned by rote. Students remember lessons long enough for the tests but forget shortly after. Using the popular ladder of educational objectives used by teachers, most of the learning in schools is at the lowest three levels: remembering, understanding, and applying. The learning rarely extends to the higher levels that include analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Without the proper training for developing higher critical thought, a person’s ability to resist the persuasive messages of opinion manipulators is very weak. It is not surprising that many continue to fall prey to pyramid schemes, exaggerated infomercials and politicians who use character attacks against opponents.

Mass media is also responsible for the decline of critical thinking. Tele-novelas and soap operas are entertainment. They’re escapist fare and are often best appreciated with our critical faculties turned off. As such, they get their appeal from the fast storyline and the frequent, and often fantastic, twists in plot. This is fine as far as entertainment goes. The problem is that news and public affairs programming is now often presented in a format that entertains more than it informs. News is formatted in quick, bite-sized, multi-media pieces, with the occasional hard hitting speculative question for grabbing attention but with little contribution to a substantial understanding of the real events.

It wasn’t so long ago that I could watch a decent talk show discussing the issues of the day on prime time television. Those days are gone. Only the insomniacs can stay up late enough to follow critical discussion and analysis of current events. On AM radio, we have news broadcasters making a pitch for products in the same tone and in the same breath as the latest news item. What is Juan de la Cruz to do? The lines between escapist entertainment, commercials, speculations, and news on current events have blurred beyond recognition.

What is the way out for us? Reforming the educational system toward more training in critical thinking will take very long but will have to be done. In the meantime, our political and media leaders will have to model the way. Some senators display a balanced and incisive approach to questions and opinions even during the most controversial subject matters. Similarly, some media personalities practice journalistic ethics by drawing the line on sensationalistic, downright offensive and blatantly commercial material, even if these would be good for ratings. With more role models such as these, there just might be a chance to reverse the current trend.

Critical thinking is essential to true democracy. Without this ability, citizens become one big manipulable mob. A mob cannot be governed and a citizenry that thinks like a mob cannot build a true democracy.