Whatever happened to … critical thinking?


Beginning of January 2022 and the news are full of COVID-19, vaccinations, another wave again, another variant, what presidents say and should not say, outrage over exceptions made to rules, another outrage about exceptions that are not made, percentages of this and of that quoted but rarely comparable, … . The populist parties across the spectrum meet in the streets to protest against government measures. Not with any proposal of alternative and better ways of dealing with the pandemic but merely in the hope to gain electoral pull from this undertaking.

When the populist right presents itself as the only safeguard for human rights and personal liberties we have seen it all and we must be wary. Public health concerns are construed as authoritarian rule. Refusal to vaccinate is presented as exercising the right to choice and over one’s body. The spirit of Asterix and Obelix has conquered the world. “Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well not entirely! One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders”. We are the last resistance against the evil empire… and we draw moral virtue from our self-righteousness. Are we morally good? Is the government really the evil empire?

What we are experiencing are the effects of a decade or more of the erosion of authoritative sources of information. We do not any longer know who to turn to for a clear, rational and trustworthy picture of what is going on. Every bubble has its own experts and heroes, its own (partial) statistics, its own diction, using words that resemble each other but mean different things. Each bubble has its flock of followers and looking beyond the fence is becoming more and more difficult. Beliefs and convictions have always, to a certain extent, filtered the facts we are ready to perceive. But now we have added one more step and do not even care for facts any longer. Convictions are enough. If someone comes with facts that might contradict our convictions we make magical signs and incantations “vade retro satana” to fend off the evil of doubt.

How could this come about?

  • Too much of not-telling-the-truth and saying I-am-not-lying
  • Too many instances of “you-can-trust-me” and then betraying that trust
  • Too many tweaked statistics to prove X and the contrary of X
  • Too many honourable men .. and women being discovered as not being so honourable after all
  • Too many dreams evoked and then sold out
  • Too many grand visions used to attract people and then dropped
  • Too many promises made and then broken
  • ….

What must we do to turn things around?

  • Make up our own mind
  • Find the sources, check them, compare, interpret, …
  • Take responsibility for what we say and check the truth value of what we affirm
  • Separate facts from fiction, truth from convictions
  • Have valid factual and logical arguments ready to support our affirmations
  • Do the hard work of thinking for ourselves
  • Be modest and bold at the same time
  • Recreate authoritative sources of knowledge

We need to learn how to do this, urgently. That is the role of education and schooling. It is not only to empower people to reproduce the existing but it is also to empower people to critique the existing and develop alternatives.

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