Pulling on a web string #6 | Critical thinking vs. partisan thinking

Lately, I’ve gotten very interested into issues of epistemology with regards to the status of scientific knowledge. I’m particularly fond of the French Association for Scientific Information (AFIS – only in French, unfortunately) website, which advocates for the defence of the scientific method and critical thinking. This is how I landed on the Center for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) website and the cover of the latest issue of its magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer, immediately attracted my attention. Indeed, it unmistakably features a manga-like image. Since, I’m doing a Ph.D research on anime, an industrial sector tightly linked to that of manga production, I felt very curious, wondering whether they were promoting or denouncing certain types of manga. I was almost right on the point. However, what I thought would be a mere statement about yet another use of manga for communicating science, is becoming a much longer post on misconceptions about scepticism and science.

Called Legend of the Ztarr: The Skeptic Epic, the article reports how its author, Sara E. Mayhew, a regular TED speaker and mangaka, has been using the novel form of storytelling to make her arguments for critical thinking more compelling. The issue she tries to address is how to break through the barrier of misinformation, once it has settled into someone’s mind and become part of their world-views: In fact, a misinformed individual will typically become more confident in his or her belief when presented with disconfirming information. So what do we, as proponents of critical thinking, do in the face of this disheartening reality? Her answer to this riddle relies on a well-known solution to make one’s idea more convincing: wrapping it in a pleasant story, so as to make it easy for the audience to connect with it. This is the usual pedagogical and didactic trick to make something that appears rough more fun and exciting. She is also rightfully pointing out that many of our opinions are acquired through less-than-rational processes. It is true that instinct often plays an important part in shaping our views, as well as socio-cultural influences from people we are more or less emotionally bound to. And it happens to all of us, including those who are supposed to be most aware of this issue.

Thus, she puts forwards a very common stereotype with regards to scepticism: that we can distinguish precisely reality from illusion, as long as we stick with the right kind of information, science. In her article, she seamlessly connects misinformation with belief and mysticism, implying that all those superstitions and this tendency to use it to fill the uncomfortable gaps in our knowledge, should be replaced by the information generated by science. Well, this isn’t what one calls critical thinking. This is just shifting one’s faith from one type of knowledges to another one. In doing so, she falls into the common trap that consists in putting religion and science in competition. However, science does not intend to replace religion or other forms of approaches to the world, only to provide a specific way to understand it, with quite well-defined limits to what it can do. It does contradict superstitions and many preconceived ideas, but it’s aim is not to impose itself on people.

In the third paragraph of her article, she states: An essential part of finding ideas that improve human wellbeing is the ability to know what ideas are wrong. This is the strength of critical inquiry. It forces us to see the flaws in our own cognition so that we may attain a more accurate view of reality. Without skepticism, we are at the mercy of the biases of our fallible minds. Two paragraphs later, she goes on to say that [T]the intellectual arguments in science and skepticism are often far superior to those made in belief-based schools of thought. These citations summarizes a very common stereotype about scepticism that conflates what I would call partisan thinking with a blind belief in science.

To many people critical thinking is reduced to rejecting any statements or arguments made by a person or an institution with which they disagree or one even consider an enemy, without any consideration for the content of the message. Since it comes from the “wrong” source it can only be wrong. Vice-versa, anything that comes from the “right” source can only be right. This is what I call the confusion between critical thinking and partisan thinking. This means that in any discussion, most people will start by attempting to determine if their interlocutor is on their side, that is shares the same or at least a sufficiently similar world-view with them, or not. In the second case, the person will be considered an opponent, if not an outright enemy, depending on the topic and its importance. If the two start disagreeing on a particular issue, both will then try not to counter the opposing argument, but to discredit the person making it, by claiming that she doesn’t know what she is speaking about, usually simply throwing authority arguments at her face, or worse, accusing her of racism, sexism, xenophobia, extremism, etc. If the discussion takes place on the Web, both will then start linking to sources they deem objective and right, mostly because the contents of these websites matches their opinion and reinforce their legitimacy. At no point will either of them really listen to or read properly what the other is communicating. They will only aim at each others’ ego. On the other hand, in the case when the two parties are on the same or a very similar line of thinking, one of the two might very easily plant any idea into the other’s mind, whether they’d be sound and reasonable or completely absurd and factually wrong, because that person won’t even think of questioning them, even less verifying them.

In brief, this kind of critical thinking, which I prefer to call partisan thinking, is the best recipe for getting manipulated willingly or unwittingly. And it is certainly not the mark of independent and free thinking, contrary to what some self-proclaimed sworn enemy of political correctness keep saying. Simply opposing a widely held view because it is widely held is no wiser than adopting it because it is widely held! Unfortunately, many pseudo-anti-conformist commentators, thinkers, media pundits and politicians try to pass partisan thinking for critical thinking, confusing criticism with bashing, simply by posing as a minority that rises against the tyranny of a majority. To make things even worse,  that dominating majority is frequently only a figment of their imagination!

In this case, then, Sara Mayhew is definitely confusing sceptical thinking with the rebuttal of whatever doesn’t carry the stamp of science and modern liberal principles (for which I’m also constantly advocating, make no mistake). Besides the fact that science isn’t about replacing all other forms of knowledge, as she implies, this kind of discourses is actually feeding the mill of those who are fighting against what they call “materialism” to give back “spirituality” its rightful place in our present societies. Proclaiming the superiority of science over all other approaches of the world is only contributing to make anti-secular movement more vociferous and giving them ammunitions to prove that scientists and all partisans of Enlightenment are just arrogant power-hungry careerists trying to impose their Western so-called rationalist imperialist world-view on everyone else. When it is actually those anti-secular movements that are trying to force us back in the good ol’time when the churches wielded a significant political power over people and could easily throw us into devastating wars. And they are certainly not doing so using fair means! So, we should be careful not to hand them the stick to beat us with.