Americans, Critical Thinking, and Ignorance

In 2014 a blog post I wrote came out in the Huffington Post discussing the idea that America's cult of ignorance will inevitably make it difficult for the U.S. to compete with Asian societies that value intelligence and education. Over the past few days, I've found myself thinking again about that piece -- and about ignorance in Americans -- as several examples of said ignorance have floated across my Facebook page.

Let's review a few of these. Residents in Woodland, North Carolina rejected installation of a solar farm and during public hearings one individual asserted that the solar panels would "suck up all the energy from the sun" while a retired science teacher stated that, no one could tell her solar panels don't cause cancer.

In another incident, a meme circulated quoting Michele Bachmann as having compared Donald Trump's wall at the border of Mexico with the Great Wall of China and indicated she said, "you don't find any illegal Mexicans in China." And another purported that someone walked out on Bill Nye at a talk in Waco, TX when he noted that the moon reflects sunlight rather than generating its own (in contrast to a line in the Bible).

The only one of these that is entirely true is the solar panel incident in North Carolina. And even that has been taken out of context, because the town rejected the installation on the grounds that it was too close to a housing development and a highway -- they actually have other solar farms in the town. The Bachmann quotation is a meme created by a Facebook group that posts fictitious quote memes and attributes them to conservative politicians and others, for "entertainment" purposes. And as for the light of the moon, the incident did not happen recently, it happened in 2006 (as opposed to recently in 2015 as has been reported) and according to the Waco Tribune was generally well received, while a few members of the audience walked out in anger after Nye quoted biblical verse Genesis 1:16 about the Christian god creating two great lights in the sky. The article does not really indicate why they walked out, other than presuming that it was due to perceived irreverence.

These examples bring up the perils of ignorance in a democratic society. I'll admit that at first I fell for the Michele Bachmann story. My biases about the right wing in this country influenced me to be unsurprised by such comments from members of the GOP. There are plenty of true examples to make it easy to be lazy about fact checking when it comes to the GOP.

But I did check into it, because I tend to be skeptical about most things. Being skeptical is a fundamental skill and perspective that comes with critical thinking. And critical thinking has been under attack from some ideological corners in the U.S. for quite some time. Indeed, in 2012, the platform statement for the Texas GOP stated, "[w]e oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that...have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs..."

The Texas GOP backtracked after criticism, but this betrays one of the most profound problems our society faces -- an unwillingness on the part of many on all sides of the issues to accept and even embrace the idea that our beliefs shouldn't be fixed, but should be open to challenge. Or to put it another way, far too many in America are unwilling to entertain the idea that they might be wrong about their ideas and beliefs. Once our beliefs become fixed, we lose our ability to think, and that is a most dangerous situation in a free society.

Ignorance isn't a monopoly of any one political party, religion, or interest group. Rather, it's a product of an educational system that has failed for quite some time to produce people with critical thinking skills. It's also closely tied to religious ideologies associated with many Christian sects, in particular, that arrogantly reject that there can be any other truth aside from the beliefs they profess and attempt to spread. Religion of this type is an obstacle to creating open, reflective minds that can understand their surroundings intelligently and also analyze the comments of their leaders intelligently. An ideology that resists or rejects critical thinking in favor of blind adherence to fixed belief is anathema to maintaining a free society.

Thomas Jefferson, in his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge wrote this about education and government: "the most effectual means of preventing [tyranny] would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibited, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes." It is expedient, writes Jefferson, that people should receive a liberal education so that they can "guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance."

In other words, Jefferson is telling us that a free society can only work well when its population is sufficiently educated to be skeptical of the things they are told by leaders (religious, political, business, you name it) and, as a result, question and think about those ideas before accepting them. Ambitions for power, wealth, prestige will lead humans to say most anything; the ability of its population to think critically is a society's best defense against ambitious people gaining too much power, wealth, or prestige by twisting the truth, pandering to voters, or outright lying.

Education and critical thinking skills are the most powerful tools to ensure people live in a society where their rights are respected by their fellow citizens and by the government. Ignorance is the greatest enemy of such a society.