Are people we disagree with simply "stupid" or is there more to it?
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Today we're going to delve into the minds of those who actively promote misinformation, political oppression, terror, conspiracies, and anything else that detracts from the public good. What drives them to do so? Are they right in their own minds, or do they know that what they do is wrong? More importantly, what should we know and understand about these people? I'm going to go out on a limb and start with a concept that may seem shockingly politically incorrect to some: I'm going to disagree with the popular perception that Sarah Palin is nuts.
Let me tell you something about Sarah Palin, but first with the understanding that I don't know any more about her than you do; I've never met her either; and I didn't vote for her. Stupid people don't tend to attract contributors, managers, supporters, and electorates. If she'd exhibited stupidity on the Wasilla city council, they probably wouldn't have elected her mayor. If she'd exhibited stupidity as mayor, they probably wouldn't have elected her for a second term. Her appointment to the Oil and Gas Committee by the governor was probably not because she'd behaved stupidly. Finally, stupidity probably does not characterize most successful bids to run for governor of one of the United States. Does she exhibit an almost robotic and uncritical point-by-point support of the Republican platform? Yes. Is she undereducated for her position? Possibly, her bachelor's degree is in journalism. It's arguable that she's demonstrated a clear disdain for, and illiteracy in, science. She gives every indication that her religious beliefs and her party guidance determine her priorities. But welcome to reality: That's the way a lot of people work, including a lot of people on the other side of the political aisle.
If you call yourself a critical thinker, ad hominem attacks should not be the extent of your criticisms of those in whom you find fault. Show me one thing Sarah Palin has said or done that's "stupid", and I'll show you something that's perfectly rational for someone with her religious and political convictions. It may be that you simply disagree with her convictions, and you probably have very good reasons for doing so. But if that's the case, don't just say "Sarah Palin is stupid". That's kindergarten talk, and it makes you look bad, not her. Understand why she takes the position she does, then reveal the faults in that position.
My point today has nothing to do with Sarah Palin, or with anyone else. It has to do with a lack of critical thinking among many people who consider themselves skeptics. A lot of prominent people are dismissive of science: Celebrities, politicians. Many of us tend to dismiss them right back as irrational or nuts. But this demonstrates exactly the same kind of shortcutted thinking that we're accusing them of.
For example, I heard some skeptics the other day talking about Bill Maher, saying "I didn't realize he was as crazy as he is." (Bill Maher is an outspoken critic of science based medicine. He's endorsed AIDS denialism, Big Pharma conspiracies, anti-vaccination, and natural medicine.) Now, granted Bill Maher is wrong about a lot of things, but he's not on the fringe. A lot of people believe that stuff. Clearly it's important that they be educated, because widespread beliefs like this would represent a serious national health crisis. If you dismiss those beliefs as craziness, you're saying there's nothing to them, they're meaningless. Instead, acknowledge that there are compelling cultural influences that have led Bill Maher and others to believe those things. Bill Maher is just one of many victims of these influences, and it's because he has the average person's ability to understand and interpret the information he's been exposed to, not because he's crazy.
In the same way, you could say Sarah Palin is simply responding to cultural and political influences. People need cheap energy, so she's a proponent of drilling the oil in her state. People want government to eliminate wasteful spending, so she bashes fruit fly research, the significance of which has never been made clear to her or to the public. The United States is a strongly Christian nation, and many people support teaching creationism in schools, and oppose stem cell research. Palin isn't being stupid by embracing these concepts, she's responding to the same influences everyone else is.
If you were to sit down and have a conversation with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in such a way that you could both speak your native language in order to be articulate and insightful, I bet you'd find that he's knowledgeable, well spoken, and intelligent. (Maybe I'm wrong, I haven't had such a conversation with him, but from what I've read of his background I'd say it's practically a certainty that he has his act together pretty well.) Unless you happen to be a Muslim fundamentalist, you're likely to disagree pretty strongly with many of his beliefs and priorities. But I bet he'd convince you that his convictions run pretty deep, and have solid historical and cultural roots that are not going to be washed away from an entire nation overnight. I bet you'd say "Wow, he actually has a point of view, and what he's saying makes sense within that context." This characterization is acutely different from the whimsical ramblings of a nut. If you dismiss Ahmadinejad as a crazy whackjob, not only are you factually wrong, but you do it at your peril, because you are grossly underestimating the depth and foundation of what you're protesting against.
I've watched two Muslim executions by stoning, in all their graphic detail — on video, I hope I never see it in person — because we live in a world where this actually happens, and I feel it's important to understand what I object to as fully as possible. It's easy to watch a stoning and conclude that only a crazy person could willingly be a part of such a medieval horror. What's just as frightening as the stoning itself is that the people doing it are someone's nextdoor neighbors. They take their kids to the park. They give birthday presents. They paint and write and play musical instruments. They are, in fact, quite human. And yet they're capable of something that's unthinkable to you or I. It's not because they're crazy. It's because they're smart people who are profoundly dedicated to their belief system, and who were raised in a frame of reference that lets them stone a person to death with the same regard as a Westerner might kill an enemy in battle. It's a necessity, it's a duty, and it's the right thing to do. If you dismiss these people as crazy or as zealots, you are factually wrong, you're missing the point, and you're failing to understand what it is you object to.
Look at Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and consequently the United States' greatest mass murderer of children. To best prepare ourselves to prevent this kind of thing happening again, we have to be sure that we accurately understand the motivations behind it. McVeigh is a guy who lived in a world of conspiracies. The people he surrounded himself with all believed the same thing: That the government was out to get them. When you live and breathe that 24 hours a day, when it's your entire sphere of influence, it's not delusional. It was a vicious circle. The more input he received, the more he sought out such information. Well understood perceptual phenomena like confirmation bias made it normal and healthy for McVeigh's brain to reject information that did not indicate the government was out to get him. Eventually he got to a point where the best move — in the context of what he believed was going on — was to strike back, as violently as possible. We are better prepared to deal with Timothy McVeighs if we don't allow ourselves the intellectually lazy shortcut of "Oh, he was just some nut."
The same goes for Sarah Palin, Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and Prince Charles, all people who actively promote bad science or misinformation, and who believe they're doing the right thing. That's an important point that's too often overlooked. With few exceptions, most honest promoters of bad information have good intentions. They're not crazy raving lunatics out to get us. If you want to have an informed, rational conversation with one of these folks, and you want them to be receptive to your statements, approach them as you would any public figure who works hard in the public good. At a fundamental level, they're on our same team: They want what's best for people.
Prince Charles is a nutcase who has no idea what he's talking about.
...makes you sound like a close-minded radical, making irrational ad hominem attacks.
Prince Charles is a good man who cares deeply for the public welfare. Unfortunately, a lot of the medical information he passes along is woefully out of date.
...has a chance that someone will actually listen to it. And expressing yourself in a way that's worthy of people listening is an important, but all too often overlooked, part of the promotion of critical thinking.