Let’s bring back critical thinking—because our country’s future depends on it

I sometimes feel like I am an actor in a Borat movie, but I was never given a script. A bizarre scene is unfolding around me, and if the other actors were to fall silent and gaze upon me, expecting my line, I’d be speechless. 

There seems to be a critical shortage of rational thought in our country. In our hands, we hold access to virtually all human knowledge—but it is peppered with disinformation. A worrisome percentage of the population electively ignores researchable facts in favor of conspiratorial mumbo jumbo. For this segment of America, opinion outweighs truth; facts are dangerous; and blind loyalty to a “tribe”—whether football team or political party—is valued above all. 

Arguments derived from sensational headlines or sound bites have replaced the news. These arguments can typically be broken down into three categories: 

• They’re in defense of a single interpretation of a cherry-picked passage from an ancient book, predominantly written by anonymous authors who lacked access to modern, scientific knowledge. 

• They’re in defense of one divided ruling, handed down by judges with lifetime job security. 

• They’re in defense of provably false beliefs. 

These arguments threaten the future of our nation. 

An excerpt of a speech given by 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln is often used by factions to scare us into thinking the other side is bad. If you’ve seen Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland, you’ve heard it: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” 

But other excerpts of Lincoln’s original speech are even more foretelling of our present day: “(There is) even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts … Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times.” 

This speech revolves around Lincoln’s concerns that, as older statesmen fade away, a new type of politician might be tempted to operate outside of the law and use mob mentality to secure power and glory. 

So, what exactly is required to convince people to lose trust in institutions and instead believe a singular leader to the point where they will actually storm a capitol building? The answer is simple: It’s the steady drip of carefully crafted misinformation, based on cherry-picked examples. 

This is illustrated succinctly in Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote, “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.” In other words, cherry-pick a truth; wrap it in a lie; find an emotional tie-in; repeat it enough—and people will believe. 

This destructive strategy can only be defeated by applying logical, rational, compassionate and critical thought to everything we hear. Unfortunately, people have to make this effort, and, to quote Agent K from Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” 

I’d like to insert, “… holding hypnotic screens that elicit evolutionary-based, Homer Simpson-like responses: ‘Ooh, pretty.’”  

I implore everyone to become critical thinkers. I’m not asking that you spend every waking hour researching every odd topic. But if a cause inspires you to act, become a critical thinker regarding that cause. Actively and independently seek truthful and logic-based foundations for your arguments when considering any issue, and thoughtfully consider opposing positions. 

As much as the official platform of the Republican Party of Texas might want you to believe otherwise, “critical thinking” is not a subversive act. The definition in the Cambridge Dictionary is, “the process of thinking carefully about a subject or idea, without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you.” 

Speaking of political parties, if you support either major party, try this critical-thinking exercise: Write down the actual words of a candidate you support or oppose, then ask yourself three questions. 

1. If a candidate in the other party said these things, would I still support/oppose them? 

2. If I heard a candidate say these things 10 years ago, would I feel the same? 

3. If a stranger plopped down next to me and started speaking these same words, would I engage in conversation—or begin scanning the area for men in white coats who appear to be searching for someone?  

Douglas Reynolds is a retired concert promoter and marketing consultant. He moved to Nevada in 1977 and lives in the Carson Valley.