Rene Descartes claimed reasoning is an ability that all people have, and this ability that we all have is exactly what we need in order to learn about the world. We don’t need a special upbringing, education or religion. Descartes is the originator of Cartesian doubt – methodological skepticism about the truth of one’s beliefs – that any knowledge received through our senses could be false. If information is perceived incorrectly then certainty cannot be achieved. Although Descartes mistrusted the information received through the senses, he did believe that certain knowledge could be acquired by other means, arguing that the strict application of reason to all problems is the only way to achieve certainty. If all problems are reduced to their least sense dependent and most abstract elements, then objective reason can be put to work to solve the problem. Critical thinking requires the methological application of reason.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) discovered the natural laws of motion, which provided the final piece to the puzzle, establishing the Copernican theory of the Earth revolving around the sun, introducing the spirit of individualism and the idea the study of human progress was at the centre of all things. During the following decades, his achievement was celebrated as the triumph of the modern mind over ancient and medieval ignorance. With the invention of mathematical physics by Newton many people suddenly realized that mathematics could explain the world. During this time a two-fold development in academia brought about a rapid democratization of scientific knowledge. The foundation of academies such as the Paris Academy and the Royal Society in London whose primary purpose was to do scientific research and report their conclusions to the public. The second major development was the rise in scientific journals. These new journals circulated to a wide audience that included many outside the scientific community. Scientific results were reported to an audience of non-specialists – some scientific tracts became best sellers.
Newtonian determinism explained the equilibrium of the free market system described by Adam Smith. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) developed and applied evolutionary theory to the study of society. In Spencer’s view progress was a direct consequence of adaptation. Can we doubt that individuals having an advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best opportunity to succeed? He believed that human society reflects the same evolutionary principles as biological organisms do in their development. Following a universal law, Spencer believed, social institutions such as economics can function without control. He replaced Darwin’s natural selection with survival of the fittest. His claim social laws are as deterministic as those governing nature supported his concept survival of the fittest, and allowed Spencer to believe that the rich and the powerful become so because they are better suited to the social and economic culture of the time.
Economic fundamentalists declared their victory over Keynesian economic theory as Thatcher’s and Reagan’s policies took their dogma mainstream. Hayek’s pupils continue defending this theology. This activity laid the groundwork for globalization. The communication strategy to advance the corporate agenda behind globalization was designed to reduce resistance to the process by making it seem both highly beneficial and unstoppable. There is also the psychology of the inevitable. The alleged inability of governments to halt the progress of globalization was widely perceived as being beyond human control, which further weakens resistance. Multinational corporations are responsible for the removal of traditional government accountability to a fixed population from much of politics. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The consequences of this activity in democratic countries affect the ability of elected leaders to make decisions in the interests of their people.
During the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. This was driven by the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. Rights replaced responsibilities. Self-criticism, self-denial, self-control, self-sacrifice were no longer in vogue. Self-expression, self-assertion, self-realization, and self-approval, which all blend into self-esteem, became important. Within the self-esteem movement embedded in the school system, young adults were encouraged to develop image rather than character. This lead to the attitude: “I have a right to my opinion, so my opinions are right.” The self-esteem movement created a significant population in the 21st century with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and the belief that the world owes them something. They feel justified in asserting themselves defending their perceived rights. This person rarely admits to ignorance and regards his intuition and knowledge superior to objective data.
There has been a strong anti-intellectualism among conservatives in the past twenty-five years. This includes nominating candidates ‘just like them’ which can mean someone who has no idea of what the world is like, just like them. This mindset supports anti-intellectualism with hostility and mistrust of intellect. Anti-intellects often see themselves as champions of the ordinary people and fighters for egalitarianism against elitism. Those who mistrust intellectuals will represent them as a danger to normality, suggesting that they are outsiders with little empathy for the common people. Experts and ‘science’ are the enemy – lumped together as ‘ivory tower intellectuals.’ In the world of the anti-intellectuals the common people are oppressed by the corrupt privileged elites. Anti-intellectuals pride themselves in not thinking, nor using reason. Anti-intellectuals do not value education as an intrinsic good, rather value it as a means. Education is viewed as necessary for getting a job or increasing one’s salary.
The anti-intellectual populist movement reaps significant advantages with the democratization of information. The Internet is flooded with all kinds of sites that have been created by self-appointed primary sources. But the downside is there is no possible way to parse out all the input. The Internet provides a powerful medium (opportunity) to share and communicate anti-intellectual ideas. Global corporations adopted disinformation programs perfected by the tobacco industry over the past fifty years. This includes the climate change denial tactics of the fossil fuel industry through the Internet. These tactics include introducing manufactured uncertainty by raising doubt about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, by setting up so-called independent front organizations to publically promote its desired message. Amazingly politicians and Internet commenters alike win arguments without any facts on their side. Barack Obama summed it up best, “You can ignore facts, but you cannot deny facts.”
For many of Trump’s supporters, the wealthiest cabinet ever is no problem as long as he gets rid of the smart people. This is part of the anti-intellectual backlash against technocrats, bookish intellectuals, and politically correct liberal elites who are indifferent to the struggles of the ‘forgotten men and women in middle America. This is fusion of anti-rationalization with the anti-intellectual. Far right populists within the Republican Party feed off Trump’s anti-intellectualism because they believe elite intellectuals are to blame for problems everywhere. Anti-rationalism is about the erosion of general knowledge and ignorance about the lack of knowledge – you don’t need to know things in the first place. Sound bites of presidential candidates reflect an aversion to complexity when communicating with the public. This can been seen in the types of answers politicians now provide to the public. The average length of a sound bite by a presidential candidate in 1968 was 42.3 seconds. Two decades later it was 9.8 seconds and continued to decline in subsequent elections.1 Today it has been supplanted by the 140-character Twitter burst.
In 17th century Europe the church was the dominant institution, and was the main place where ordinary people got their information and were handed down opinions on what was right or wrong. Any established church was an effective form of thought control. The corporation, the dominant institution of the 21st century, supports think tanks and foundations for such activities as studies to support neoliberal economics and data analysis on voting patterns. Trump perfected the ‘know nothing’ façade of the Republican party to directly appeal to white working-class communities that have a ‘long tradition of hostility towards knowledge.’2 The wealthiest cabinet ever assures that neoliberalism is alive and well in the corridors of the White House. Have no doubt neoliberalism serves the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in the redistribution of wealth upwards. The Age of Reason was a movement to introduce critical thinking to replace dogged adherence to established opinions and challenge the blind faith in institutions.
Effort is required today to ensure information is conclusive. Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. It is based on evidence and logical reasoning. Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to identify the relevance and importance of ideas. You must be able to understand the logical connection between ideas, and be able to reflect on the justification of one’s own belief and values. Critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. In such a state, culture is driven by fear and emotion, not rational thinking. Anti-intellect, anti-science, smart money vs misinformed voters, is hardly a fair fight. But the recent election win offers compelling evidence that the survival of the fittest remains an unshakable truth even in American life. There is no doubt anti-intellectualism can be a component of winning an election.
1 Blake, Brian (01 Jan 1998) In Their Own Words: Newspaper Sound bite Lengths in the 1956 and 1996 Presidential Elections http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1102&context=sigm
2 Raphael T.J. (2 Aug 2016) A policy expert explains how anti-intellectualism gave rise to Donald Trump. https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-08-02/policy-expert-explains-how-anti-intellectualism-gave-rise-donald-trump