Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Egregious Stupidity And Willful Ignorance

I readily admit to being intolerant of people at times. Not for me are the excuses that others may make for their shortcomings, such as the limitations of their upbringing, their education, or their natural abilities.

At the top of my list are those who either embrace or promote egregious stupidity and willful ignorance. And while no part of the political spectrum is exempt from such offenders, they do seem to be disproportionately represented by the right. Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and ardent supporters of the Harper regime readily come to mind.

Lazy thinking is no substitute for critical thinking, and while the latter, I am convinced, cannot happen without a a good education, whether formal or acquired through wide reading, there is no assurance that those who call themselves educated are in fact able to think critically. Bias, tunnel vision, and a myriad of other factors can militate against that capacity.

Given how much the Harper regime has invested in promoting and exploiting ignorance and stupidity (a look at some of its convoluted rhetoric around Bill C-51 offers ample illustration), now seems to be a propitious time to examine a few basic guidelines that can help promote better thinking.

My first source is an article from The Hamilton Spectator whose purpose was to help people think more rigorously about the science around vaccinations, but most are readily transferable to other topics as well:
Here are 10 questions to ask yourself when you read a piece about science and medicine:

1. Who's saying it and what's their reputation?

2. Where and how are the results being presented?

3. Who paid for the work and who pays the researcher?

4. Are you reading anecdotes or evidence?

5. Are there comments from an arm's length unbiased expert? How does that fit in to the picture?

6. What do the numbers really tell me?

7. How large was the study? (Generally, the bigger, the better.)

8. How was the study carried out? A test tube? Mouse? Dying patient? Healthy patient? (The closer the results are to the general population, the more important they are.)

9. How substantial are the benefits and how big are the risks?

10. Are opposing viewpoints included? If so, what's their reputation?
An even better and more comprehensive set of guidelines is taken from a university website:
1. Ask questions; be willing to wonder. (Re. research problems)

To think critically you must be willing to think creatively - to be
curious about the puzzles of human behavior, to wonder why
people act the way they do, and to question received wisdom and
examine new explanations of why things are as they are.

2. Define your terms. (Re. operational definitions)

Identify the problem in clear and concrete terms, rather than vague ones like "happiness," "potential," or "self-esteem."

3. Examine the evidence. (Re. data: empiricism, reliability, and

Consider the nature of the evidence supporting various
approaches to the problems under examination. Is there good
evidence one way or another? Is it reliable? Valid? Is the
"evidence" merely someone's personal assertion or speculation,
or is it based on replicated empirical data?

4. Analyze assumptions and biases - your own and those of others. (Re. empirical/objective observations: biases and

What prejudices, deeply held values, and other
biases do you bring to your evaluation of a problem? Are you
willing to consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs? Can
you identify the assumptions and biases that others bring to their

5. Avoid emotional reasoning. (Re. empirical observations)

The fact that you feel strongly about something doesn’t make you
right! Remember that everyone holds convictions about how the
world operates (or how it should operate), and your opponents
are probably as serious about their convictions as you are about
yours. Feelings are important, but they should not be substitutes
for careful appraisal of arguments and evidence.

6. Don't oversimplify. (Re. Generalizations)

Look beyond the obvious; reject simplistic thinking ("All the evil in the world is due to that group of loathsome people") and either-or thinking ("Either genes determine everything about personality and behavior or they count for virtually nothing"). Be wary of "argument by anecdote," taking a single case as evidence of a larger
phenomenon. For example, reading about one chilling case of a man who murders while on parole should not be the basis on
which you assess parole programs in general.

7. Consider other interpretations. (Re. alternative explanations,or hypotheses; mutual exclusiveness and exhaustiveness)

Before you draw a conclusion from the evidence, think creatively
about other possible explanations. When you learn that two
events are statistically correlated, for example, be sure to think
carefully about which one is the cause and which the result - or
whether a third factor might be causing both of them.

8. Tolerate uncertainty. (Re. Theories and data: testing and

This is probably the hardest step in becoming a critical
thinker, for it requires that we hold our beliefs "lightly" and be
willing to give them up when better evidence comes along. It
requires us to live with the realization that we may not have the
perfect answer to a problem at the moment, and may never have
it. Many people want "the" answers, and thy want science to
provide them: "Just tell me what to do!" they demand.
Pseudoscience promises answers, which is why it is so popular;
science gives us probabilities that suggest one answer is better
than another - for now - and warns us that one day we may have
to change our minds.


  1. Ignorance is curable but stupidity is forever, Lorne. The ten questions above can help the former, provided the will is there, but not the latter.

    And, yes, as someone who has trained graduate students, in Science too, a Ph.D. behind a name does not guarantee a critical thinker. Conversely, there are people without higher education who are still capable of critical thinking, and in some cases even excel in it.

    But higher education does increase the probability that a weak thinker can at least be trained to think more critically.

    Here is something you may find interesting:

    From the link above: "Conservative MPs have the lowest incidence of higher education with approximately 33 per cent of Conservatives in the Senate and House having no post-secondary education ".

    Also from above: "Liberals have the highest levels of education with the incidence of doctoral degrees at 17.5 per cent and law at 33.3 per cent".

    No surprise, therefore, that Closet Leader appears to pander to the lowest common denominator in his base. It appears the Cons base does not regard higher education as important or valuable. He is what they are, eh?

    1. Thanks for your input, Anon. Those statistics are indeed telling.

  2. The pursuit of knowledge Lorne is at the bottom of the scales if it is there at all when it comes to our cultural values. Sports is at the top. You'd think with the advent of the internet we'd have the most intelligent society ever, but our technology is used to get information not knowledge.Critical thinking takes work and your guidelines for promoting this are very apt, but mainly critical thinkers will find them useful. Sorry to sound so cynical, but most people study to get through university and after that they pretty well intellectually shut down. The acquisition and application of knowledge is what got us out of the cave and in fact is the key to our survival. Chomsky says that education is indoctrination. I think for the most part he right, which means it is even more important then to think for yourself and become a critical thinker.It also as you said requires extensive on-going reading. I've never understood people who remain ignorant throughout their lives. When I was younger I thought of them as the walking dead. Thinking to me is literally connected to being alive and knowing it. The greatest gift one person can give another is knowledge. I don't know about others but Progressive Bloggers, including your own is an intellectual refuge for me where I can literally learn and discuss with critical thinkers.Just down the street from me at Princess Margaret Hospital 2 great Canadian thinkers, doctors, discovered stem cellsthrough their research and analysis. Some say it's as great a discovery as DNA.There has been very little if any discussion about this achievement in the media right up to present day.Achievments of the mind are not considered important topics. We now have in place politically a Prime Minister whose beliefs as an evangelical christian requires a mental feat of not just shutting down his mind but of paralyzing it. My heroes have always been independent thinkers, no matter what the field. I believe people should be free to believe what they want and that includes Harper. The difference is don't give him power and certainly don't give him the Prime Minister's chair. This posting was a really good read. Sorry for such long comment.

    1. Thanks for your reflections, Pamela. I find myself in total agreement with the sentiments you express. We seem to live in an age that extols the superficial, but really important things are still going on away from the limelight, as your reference to the stem cell research illustrates.

      History moves in cycles, and we can only hope that the extremes dominating our time will give way to some equilibrium before it is too late for all of us.