critical thinking democracy Jon Stewart 652 x 365

What do you make of the fact that 60%of Americans, give or take, hate Obamacare, but love the Affordable Care Act (ACA)? The easy answer: the $400M propaganda campaign mounted by sworn enemies of the ACA has accomplished its goal. But then, what do you make of the fact that 60% of the people in the U.S. believe in angels? Or that God created Eve from Adam’s rib? Or that climate change is a colossal hoax cooked up in secret by thousands of scientists all around the world? Obviously, the roots of the problem go deeper than mere gullibility or lack of reliable information. The common denominator to all these appalling statistics is the lack of critical thinking.

Our brains are wired to be lazy

As psychologists have shown time and again, our brains are wired to be lazy. In decision-making, we almost instantaneously form an opinion based on memories, experiences, patterns and first impressions. This has an obvious survival value. Only when such decisions clash with our analytical faculties to the point where cognitive dissonance will not let us rest in peace do we have “second thoughts.” But even then, we are wired to opt for the easy way out.Our brain needs causality in order to be at peace with itself. And if we can, a facile explanation – why look for a more complex one? After all, the brain is the main energy consumer in the body,  so it makes biological sense that we should not burden it with difficult questions. It’s a simple matter of conservation of energy.

Think of the statement: “90% of old ladies drive slowly in the fast lane”. When you a stuck behind a car going 30 mph in the fast lane, the natural conclusion is “this must be an old lady driving.” That was an easy answer, and quite satisfying emotionally. Of course, you didn’t busy your overworked brain with the question “what is the percentage of old ladies out of the general driving population”? If you did you’d find that the probability of the slow car being driven by an old lady is exceedingly low. You’d think that after a couple of times of overtaking an agonizingly slow car and staring at the young woman or the elderly man driving them you’d never think again that the slow car ahead of you driven by, yes, that damn old lady. But you do (and that includes me as well); it’s called stereotyping, and it actually serves a useful role in decision making.

The downside of this lazy-thinking system is that when important social issues come up, easy answers are not necessarily the correct ones. Pointing out that the percentage of the population on food stamps just about doubled in the last five years lends itself to the lazy conclusion: we are becoming a nation of moochers. Some people actually use this tendency to lazy thinking to further certain ideological agendas. Just listen to Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. To ask some probing questions, like “what is the percentage of people who fell below the poverty line in the last five years”? requires the expenditure of additional brain energy.

Dumbing Down of Our Media Interviews

What prompted me to think about the subject is, believe it or not, watching tonight “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Jon had a segment spoofing CNN and other channels posing hard social questions and demanding from their guest a one-word answer: “good or bad?”. Poor Wolf Blitzer, who used to be a thoughtful journalist, cut off in mid-sentence a guest who started to explain an ambiguous situation: good or bad!!! was the impatient rejoinder.

Of course, a clip from Fox News showed that they already knew the answer to the question “Is it right or wrong to make student loans more affordable” the four guests replied almost in unison: “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”  If you get all your information from cable TV, there is no need to think; the issue is pre-digested, the answer is succinct and unequivocal.

Critical thinking is not only important in our daily decision making. It is the very basis of our democracy. Political forces have always exploited people’s lack of critical thinking. From assorted tyrants to the priestly classes of various religions, to the plutocrats of today – they all prey on the unthinking of the masses. Why do people vote against their own interests? study after study comes up with the same answer; people vote with their hearts, not their brains. This is another way of saying that people don’t think critically.

Can critical thinking be taught? The answer is not an easy “yes or no.” Scientists, presumably well schooled in statistical analysis, still think that the slow car ahead must be driven by an old lady. On the other hand, experiments with college students have shown that training them in asking critical questions makes them more proficient in ferreting out inconsistencies and lapses in logic.  It doesn’t have to be done in a classroom. Jon Stewart shreds Fox News almost nightly with figures, logic, old clips – and biting humor. For the sake of our democracy, we need more Jon Stewarts and less “is it good or bad” thinking in our world.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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