Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Importance of Critical Thinking

A lot of us have been curious about the Tea Party which most of us first saw as a part of organized protests with inflammatory posters depicting President Obama as Hitler or as a socialist or fascist.

So the recent New York Times/CBS News poll and its accompanying NYT article
Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated provided some interesting insights on the group.

Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public… The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.

Their responses are like the general public’s in many ways. Most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools. A plurality do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.

Tea Party supporters’ fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.

But even more revealing was an Interactive Feature accompanying the article, Voices of the Tea Party which featured 20 videos submitted by Tea Party supporters on why they support the movement.

Listening to all of them, it's easy to get a general consensus of their feelings. They want a limited government with less spending and taxation along with a balanced budget. And they felt that any government actions to intercede into the economy with a stimulus or bailouts along with more regulation is tantamount to socialism.

While others may criticize these Tea Party supporters as being unintelligent or uneducated, I don’t agree with that. But I do see a general lack of critical thinking on their part.

Of course, it’s easy to say that I feel that way because their views are different from mine. But what strikes me most are their extremely simplistic solutions to complex problems without any underlying thinking to support their (for me) tenuous positions.

This is how Wikipedia begins its article on
Critical thinking.

Critical thinking involves determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true.

They also write
later in the article about important obstacles to critical thinking including:

[T]endency towards group think; the amount your belief system is formed by what those around you say instead of what you have personally witnessed.

I believe this video link neatly sums up the concept of critical thinking.

When Tea Partiers say they are in favor of lower taxes and spending along with a balanced budget, they never say specifically how this is to be accomplished. If they are in favor of maintaining Social Security, Medicare and military spending, what else can be cut that would balance the budget especially if tax increases are not an option? This and other questions like the ones below deserve an answer!

If tax cuts are a panacea as claimed, why did the tax cuts of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations result in historically large deficits? Where were the deficit hawks when George W. Bush (whom most of the Tea Party view favorably) turned a budget surplus into a huge deficit?

If health care reform is so bad, what would be their solution to providing affordable health insurance to the working poor whose employers can’t or won’t provide coverage?

If providing universal health care in other countries is so bad, where is the outcry in these countries to change their system to what we had in the US before the recent reform bill passed?

While they express their fear of big government controlling our lives, why are they so silent about big corporations controlling our lives? While speaking out against so-called government “death panels”, why were they so silent about health insurance companies enriching their profits by denying life saving treatment to some of their policyholders which is in effect a real death panel?

They say that government doesn’t listen to us. But why do they fail to mention that the biggest cause of this is the millions of dollars of corporate money put into elections and lobbying to make sure that as many of our legislators as possible are bought and paid for?

If indeed President Obama is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya, why didn’t his presidential opponent, John McCain use this against him in the election? If McCain believes neither of these are true, why is that not good enough to satisfy the rest of the Republicans including many in the Tea Party?

I feel that too many of those in the Tea Party are into group think, which as mentioned previously is a tendency to have a belief system based on those around them rather than on personal observations and experience. And while these people most likely get their information and opinions solely from Fox News, it is clear that Fox has also benefited in the ratings from being a driving force behind the Tea Party movement.

If liberals are viewed with such obvious contempt by these people, what is the chance that they would ever want to listen to an opposing viewpoint from any of them? From personal experience, when listening to those who oppose health care reform, I have often urged them to at least watch the first 30 minutes of Michael Moore’s movie Sicko to at least try to understand the other side of the health care debate. But if it's Michael Moore who is saying it, it must be wrong in the minds of these people and thus I have never gotten any of these people to agree to seeing any part of Sicko. The same attitude is reserved for other liberals such as Al Gore. Because it’s Al Gore warning us about global warming or climate change, it must be wrong. Case closed!

But it’s not necessarily about where we get our information. It’s about whether we question those who give us their information or viewpoints. Admittedly, I mostly watch MSNBC because their liberal viewpoints are usually compatible with my own. But I still insist in my own mind that MSNBC or anybody else has the obligation to provide some factual back up to support their opinions. For example, if an MSNBC host says that Rush Limbaugh made some racist remarks that day, I expect them to show the video clip so I can make up my own mind. And as for Michael Moore and Sicko, he provides
factual backup for this and other movies he has made.

The world is (and will continue to be) full of complex problems for our leaders to try and solve. Many issues simply cannot be broken down into simple black and white viewpoints. Relying on simplistic solutions may not do much to solve these problems, but it sure makes for heated conflict between the different sides which makes for good TV sound bites. And there are all too many politicians who exploit this lack of critical thinking to their own benefit getting by with little more than repeating ideological talking points instead of using substance and reasoning to make a point. But alas, listening to substance and reasoning means that we have to rely on more than just sound bites that the media is all too often content to feed us.

The Tea Party supporters say that we are going in the wrong direction. Whether we are or not will greatly depend on whom we elect as our future leaders. To elect the right leaders, it requires making the effort to actually acquire an understanding of the issues that we passionate believe in. It requires empathy to understand the plight of those who are less fortunate than us. And most importantly, it requires us to be open minded enough to seek the truth no matter where it leads us. So do we have what it takes?

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