Ayn Rand, Barack Obama and Critical Thinking

President Barack Obama speaks at the annual Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Sund
President Barack Obama speaks at the annual Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Ayn Rand and Barack Obama have something in common.

Consider a rumor being spread on the Internet concerning a top Obama aide, alleged to have made comments about how the administration knows who the enemies are, and will be getting even with them for opposing Obama's reelection.

When I got it from a Facebook friend, I asked for sources, because I couldn't find a reputable source for the quote anywhere on the Internet.

It took me to a webpage of which I've never heard. It certainly contained the quote. In fact, it had an entire paragraph, which allegedly came from the speech. The problem was that the "source" listed was an anonymous "Wall Street insider," whatever that means, who didn't even hear this himself. He was told it by a second anonymous source. In other words, we had two unconfirmed sources and hearsay evidence tossed in for good measure.

By now, Obama should be used to this sort of nonsense. He's been accused of being a secret Muslim and the so-called "birthers" are still demanding his birth certificate -- even after it was released.

Certainly the same thing has happened to Ayn Rand with regularity, even now, decades after her death. Individuals write breathless exposes of Rand saying the most dreadful things. They usually rely on a misreading of something she said, removing the quote or "incident" from context, or simply inventing information. Frequently, an article does all of this. I suspect some commenters below will be more than happy to share examples, which they swear to be true.

The reason for such attacks is simple. People with strong political opinions intensely dislike other people holding contrary views. It is quite similar to Christian fundamentalism; created by an assurance that one's own opinions are the height of morality -- meaning that contrary opinions must be of the most immoral and evil nature. It is the belief that one's adversaries are not merely wrong, but wicked.

It is nearly a universal delusion to assume that if we are not intellectually superior to our opponents, then, at the very least, we are their superiors when it comes to moral intuition.

Because smears confirm beliefs already held by the true-believer -- regardless of their cause -- they tend to believe the claims. They want to believe the claims. While they vigorously denounce similar claims about their idols, and meticulously debunk such accusations, they put no such effort into accusations made about those they dislike. They often simply believe them, with no critical thinking involved. After all, it HAS to be true.

A large portion of arguments used against marriage equality fall into similar categories. They are distortions of facts, outright lies, or smears. Certainly, the Prop 8 campaign relied heavily on such tactics and the same people behind that campaign used them again recently in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Thankfully, they failed in all three states and marriage equality has been legalized.

Our brains simply dislike information that counters conclusions already made. People get quite defensive when that happens. Having to see either Obama or Rand, depending on one's own personal views, as less than a monster doesn't just challenge our beliefs about them as people, but about the opinions they promote. We look at reality selectively. We tend to remember what supports our positions and forget that which contradicts them.

In terms of civil political discourse, that we have these tendencies is a huge problem. It is quite easy for liberals to think conservatives behave this way, and for conservatives to think the same of liberals. Libertarians tend to suspect this of both liberals and conservatives, while neither left nor right care for libertarians. In reality, all are guilty. Lack of critical thinking, contrary to virtually everyone's opinion, is not a monopoly of any political ideology.

Belief that this reasoning deficiency belongs almost exclusively to one's opponents is itself proof of one's own lack of critical thinking.

Just because you advocate critical thinking doesn't mean you practice it. In fact, some of the least critical thinkers are people who harp about critical thinking. They often think "critical thinking" is an attitude and, as long as they preach it, they assume they are practicing it. But critical thinking is more a process than a belief.

This is one reason that numerous articles on critical thinking tend to use as examples, the holding of political opinions contrary to those of the author. For instance, liberal "critical thinkers" tend to assume that opposition to single-payer health care is a prime example of refusing to think critically, while conservative "critical thinkers" tend to assume the opposite. Some of the least critical thinkers around are advocates of critical thinking.

I am not convinced that we can personally wipe out this tendency in our own thinking, but do believe we can mitigate it. We should read widely, not merely those sources that confirm our own beliefs, nor should we spread a vicious story about someone whose ideas we dislike without thoroughly researching it. Could you actually prove it, if called to do so in a court of law? Don't confuse opinions, which one may hand out freely, with facts. Opinions are cheap; facts are valuable.

We should try to research and verify, whenever possible. My rule of thumb is to verify what intellectual opponents claim to be true, but to verify twice over those things told to me by ideological allies. It is easy to engage critically with ideas I oppose; it is much more difficult -- but far more necessary -- to do the same for the ideas I hold.