How can one use critical thinking to navigate all the websites, “fake news,” and wool the politicians wish to pull over our eyes? I was asked to view an article on vaccine safety from a website called The Vaccine Reaction. I tend to come down on the “mostly safe, very effective” side of the vaccine safety/utility debate, but not reflexively so. I want to believe that the government doesn’t do things that endanger the citizens, and for one primary reason: I have a fear of corporations and plutocracy and those who love money dearly, and government is a potential bulwark against that overweening power. What did I find when I read the article? What does it have to do with critical thinking, wisdom, and self-reliance?
The first thing I did is see what the authors are trying to prove; that was clear: “vaccines caused Gulf War Syndrome.” I began to be aware of my biases at this point. I feel like vaccine skepticism can quickly morph into an elevation of non-experts into positions of expertise, a quasi-paranoid aversion to government, and vaccine noncompliance (endangering both the children in question and society as a whole [think: herd immunity]). It also kinda smells of “first-world problems” and the way things are going nowadays (example: “My child should be able to bring his iPad into church if he wants to” and “If I don’t think it’s good for little Chase, I’m not going to do it, regardless of what it means for society.”). As you know, people were once happy to get a polio vaccine, and now, even measles is rejected by many as “poison” and the like.
Note: I am painting with broad brush strokes; let me not fail to say that I believe that government is not benevolent and that corporate industries such as pharmaceutical, insurance, media, military-industrial, most aspects of the deep state, and banking are very, very questionable for our country – if not downright dangerous at times. Look at the way that lobbyists bribe politicians to enact bills favorable to them, for example.
So, to sum up: I raised an eyebrow and thought about the article, attempting to use critical thinking skills to find wisdom. “Is it possible that the government subjected soldiers to unnecessary harm in their rush to overthrow a useful tyrant in an effort to remake the Middle East?” Sure. “Did a vaccine cause Gulf War Syndrome?” I thought about that and thought: But wait, isn’t depleted uranium used in the ballista still considered a cause or a suspected cause? I searched on the article for the word uranium and guess what: no mention of it. Wow, I thought. Am I so out of the loop on this issue that I totally mistook depleted uranium shells as “a” or “the” cause, and totally missed vaccines as the cause?
Short answer: no. When I did a little research on Wikipedia and on this page, it seemed as though I was on to something. I checked it at the Canadian clearinghouse, Centre for Research on Globalization as well. When I searched the latter for the word “uranium,” 12 appearances of the word. So, the situation seems to be that a fairly well-researched article on the legitimate case for an anthrax-and-other vaccine/Gulf War Syndrome link is fine – as far as it goes. What it doesn’t do is lay out a clear case for the fact that yes, vaccines given by the government to unwitting soldiers probably did contribute to illness, but put it in proper context. This is an example of how to use critical thinking to your benefit. It would have been fairer to note the whole range of possible/probable causes rather than just “score another goal for the vaccine skeptic movement.” Much like in a court of law, where cheating or oversight by the District Attorney should equal an acquittal, in the arena of persuasive journalism, failing to properly put the issue in context is a glaring oversight (or decision).
This is relevant to wisdom because there is so much information out there that one absolutely has to be a careful consumer. One should literally approach the world from the perspective of “I want to believe what is true, but there are elements out there that have axes to grind and agendas to forward, so I must consider sources, critically analyze data, premises and conclusions, and bring a whole host of other skills to the table.” Critical thinking toward what we read or hear in the media is as important now as it ever was – perhaps especially with the changing media ethics we’ve seen since the 1950s (read my podcast with two experts on the ethics of the media here). Doubt is a paramount skill, and though we seem to have a full measure of cynicism and rampant individualism in this society, philosophical doubt is another matter. However, I shouldn’t jump up and down when I see the word uranium missing from an article about the causes of Gulf War Syndrome; for: “To be rational, we must know when to override our default thinking, and then we must do it. Knowing when to override involves intelligence and knowledge, but the will or motivation to do so is another thing altogether. That requires more than critical thinking or problem-solving ability. It requires us to ‘hold our current worldview in a kind of escrow’ while we consider an alternative view in an open-minded fashion”
In fact, the military is a prime example of how techne (technological know-how) can easily go awry if partitioned from ethical wisdom. The creation, sale, and use of weaponry is one of humankind’s direst problems. And, since America is the #1 exporter of small arms to the entire world, one might say that it is a peculiarly American problem. No surprise, perhaps, since America is quite a proponent of unbridled scientific know-how devoid of a relational, humanist/humanitarian concern. What is the point of building incredible armaments and never using them, I would wryly ask! I don’t want to see soldiers given harmful vaccines for a war our leaders claim we need to fight, and then hear someone like Rumsfeld note that the soldiers don’t have all they need to be safe despite the world’s largest (by far) military budget, and then see we are primarily responsible for making the world a more dangerous and unstable place, and then see terrorists wanting us dead in part due to our own actions, and then see the budget busted by a desire to buy the latest planes and bombs. It just strikes the peaceful and humane observer as absolutely absurd.
“The people have been hugely disenfranchised and diminished and disempowered, but it need not always be so; almost every gain the people have made since Day 1 in America has been due to ordinary people organizing, speaking out, and criticizing. Says this philosopher about the unique skill of critical thinking: “Questioning is what we must do if we wish to pursue wisdom. When our leaders rush to war (which involves the horrendous destruction of life and increases suffering on the planet); when people wish to exploit the environment for profit; when those with power and influence wish to convince us that ‘God is on our side’ and that they know the divine will with certainty, we must speak out.”
Here are some other quotations to bolster my two points:
Government, today, has grown too strong to be safe.
A conservative believes in a small but strong government. He knows that real threats are out there: threats from state actors and, increasingly, fundamentalist terrorists armed with far more destructive technological weapons than ever known before in human history. He knows that the ultimate responsibility for those lines at the airport lies with the enemy, not with his own government. But he’ll keep an eye on his own government as well. ~ Andrew Sullivan
Pursue a public interest cause relating to food or auto safety, fuel efficiency, genetic engineering, environmental protection, internet privacy, gun control, health care reform, teen smoking, water purity, the minimum wage, violence on television, recycling – you name the issue – if your proposal might cut into corporate profits there will be a corporate coalition putting millions of dollars behind a campaign to sink it.
War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.
We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
The interests of Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Coal, agribusiness, the financial sector, the insurance sector and, of course, the military-industrial complex, have infinitely more clout in government than the collective popular will and the voices calling for eco-sanity, universal health care and an end to war.
The military industry needs to produce fear to justify its existence. It is a vicious circle: the world becomes a slaughterhouse that becomes a madhouse that becomes a slaughterhouse . . . Iraq, bombarded, occupied, humiliated, becomes the preeminent school for crime of our day.
The people being able to question our government and hold it accountable is the principle the United States of America was founded on. So, if we want to ‘protect national security,’ we should be protecting that principle.
I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers … I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.
Our brains are belief machines. We are motivated to believe — especially those things that we want to believe. The default mode of human psychology is to arrive at beliefs for largely emotional reasons and then to employ our reason — more to justify those beliefs than to modify or arrive at them. ~ Steven Novella
The experience of the Nixon years demonstrates clearly how easily the bad tendency test which seemed so reasonable to Justices Vinson, Frankfurter, and Jackson in the Dennis case could be subverted through the magic phrase “national security” into a shield for heinous crimes and malfeasance of high public officials.
Laws and government regulations are necessary to preserve public health and safety and our environmental resources and to enforce fairness in the commerce of the strong with the weak. A strong government responsive to the citizens can do that; a weak one controlled by the few cannot.
Wow, how’s that for critical thinking!? Here are some other quotes relevant to critical thinking about science, the government, and society:
Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training. ~ Michael Shermer
At the beginning of the 20th century, worldwide life expectancy was less than 40 years of age. Today the world average stands at around 70. The single biggest reason for this miraculous leap in longevity has been our ability to cure diseases. Vaccines, antibiotics and advances in medical technology have changed the game. We are still in an arms race against many diseases, but we stand at a unique period in human history where it’s possible to imagine a day when we have conquered disease.
…willingness to fight against tyranny, and sacrifice safety and comforts for liberty and freedom, is the essence of the American character. These are the values that define strength, courage, and resolve in our country, and they always have.
The continual struggle to preserve the moral basis of the nation’s strength – through the arts, education, and thought – is the strongest bulwark of national security.
I never thought much of the courage of a lion-tamer. Inside the cage he is at least safe from people.
In our glorious land of plenty, less is always more when it comes to taxing any lobe of the brain with the intake of facts and numbers, critical thinking, or the comprehension of anything that isn’t…well, sports.
Progressives offer a vision that draws on the deep history and powerful stories of people working together to make this country strong, to protect ourselves and one another, to care about the health and safety of all Americans.
Gross National Product measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our wit nor our courage; neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everthing, in short, except that which makes life worth living, and it can tell us everything about our country except those things that make us proud to be part of it.
You are of course welcome to look up the phrase critical thinking in the Wisdom Archive: the 25,000-quote search engine.