Denialism is not the same as skepticism. Deep emotional investment and attachment to values, ideology, and/or identity are the three major obstacles to real critical thinking and scientific skepticism.
There is an irony in the many who have fallen for pseudoscience and conspiracy theories asserting that they are “critical thinkers” and encouraging “doing your own research” when they use terribly flawed logic, bogus evidence for their claims, poor information sources, and ideological arguments to bolster their claims. It is more accurate to call such people deniers rather than skeptics.
There is a fairly common misunderstanding of what critical thinking is: it is not a list of “approved ideas and beliefs”, nor does it come naturally to human animals. In fact, critical thinking involves the cultivation of a skill set that goes against our intuitions and naïve assumptions. Critical thinking is a process of using reason, logic, and deep inquiry to wade through spurious claims, the metacognitive understanding of potential problems with perception, innumeracy, biases, lies, and bullshit.
The lack of critical thinking among Americans is not new, but the internet has magnified the issue and made it much more dangerous leading to a proliferation of conspiracy beliefs, racial polarization surging on social media and in society, and the spread of medical quackery. As Guy Harrison writes about the crucial lack of critical thinking throughout the Covid-19 pandemic (“How to Repair the American Mind: Solving America’s Cognitive Crisis” Skeptical Inquierer, May/June 2021) “Those who thought well were less likely to tumble into the rabbit holes of thinking QAnon is true, COVID-19 is a hoax, 5G towers help spread the virus, racism is scientific, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, demon sperm is a problem, tracking devices are in vaccines, there is mass election fraud etc…. Millions of Americans now seem hypnotized by dishonest news sources, medical quackery claims, social media manipulation, and preposterous conspiracy beliefs.” And as Harrison points out, every minute wasted on such bad thinking is another minute lost to possible social and political progress for all.
Though the founders of this country were motivated by the values of the Liberal Enlightenment, there has always been a streak of anti-intellectualism running through American culture, supported by the religious faith-oriented valuation of belief over thinking: for the most part, America is a nation of believers and not thinkers. If it weren’t for the fact that the majority of Americans are not taught critical thinking there would not be such a vast pool of unprepared minds vulnerable to bogus beliefs. It is important to understand that this is not a matter of intelligence. In fact, those most intelligent but unlearned in critical thinking skills are adept at rationalization, using their mental sharpness to bolster their nonsensical beliefs. It’s bad thinking, not no thinking that is the issue here.
Consider that according to a NPR/IPOS poll, only 47% of Americans say QAnon’s core claims are false and 37% say they are “unsure”. Think about that figure! With 37% unsure of the claims made by the QAnon cesspool, it means millions of Americans are on the fence about whether Tom Hanks and Beyoncé are working to traffic child sex-slaves around the world!
Those who have completely fallen into committing to absurd beliefs are most likely beyond correction. What is needed is a full-on commitment to teaching critical thinking to all students in age-appropriate ways from Kindergarten up. As it is now, even most college students do not receive any such training unless they take specific critical thinking courses, most often offered through philosophy departments. Good, critical thinking can prevent bad thinking, and reason and skepticism can be taught from a relatively young age. This is not some indoctrination of some body of knowledge or ideology but a training of skills for thinking itself.
What might such an education look like? There would be – again – age appropriate instruction in how to ask the right questions when presented with any claim; an exposure to common formal and informal logical fallacies and how they show up in everyday experiences; how to spot reliable (or relatively reliable) sources; the metacognitive understanding of the many ways the brain has evolved that can lead to bad thinking such as the propensity to see patterns even when they are not there; how perception itself is constructed; how and why memory is unreliable and unstable; and how unconscious and subconscious influences can affect our conscious processing.
No one can monopolize critical thinking, and if we started teaching our children from an early age, there would be no taint of “elitism” attached to the process of critical thinking. Simply put, critical thinking is a living “toolbox” of skills that should be made available to everyone. It is the commitment to doing the difficult work of remaining neuropsychologically humble while trying to figure out what to accept and what to disregard based upon reason more than emotion, and on analysis rather then gut feelings, intuition, trust, authority, celebrity, and tradition. It also means – and this is perhaps the most challenging – the willingness to reevaluate conclusions and beliefs or positions and changing one’s mind when new evidence becomes available. It is the conscious decision to choose to follow the evidence even when it goes counter to your cherished beliefs, values, and identities. As much research has shown, those who are most attached to values, ideologies, and identities are “knowledge resistant” and refuse to accept evidence that counters and refutes their beliefs. With scientific skepticism and critical thinking, we accept that the best we can have is provisional and not absolute metaphysical certainty. We move toward holding positions based upon what we know we know, remaining humble that there are things we know we don't know and things we don't even know we don't know. But positions are not mere "beliefs" in that we can change our positions with new, reliable, overwhelming evidence!
We cannot outlaw the promulgation of nonsense nor the propensity for believing it. We cannot make our brains work in such a way as to become more accurate when it comes to perceiving and calculating reality. The human brain has evolved for survival, not accuracy, but what worked for our survival in our prehistoric past now, ironically, poses an existential threat to our survival. We must teach our children the skills necessary to parse truth and reality from the delusions and frauds that they will undoubtedly face. To oppose the early teaching of critical thinking is to oppose reason and reality. As Thomas Paine wrote: “It is error only, and not truth, that shirks from inquiry.”