[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/20/12]
From the outset, I’ve said on this blog that I believe that until we can reach a critical mass of skepticism in our society, we will not be able to get much done politically. Without a widespread grasp on critical thinking and skepticism, the best sounding ideas will tend to win out over the ideas that are simply best. Without a skeptical society, these two categories of ideas are only tenuously correlated. On any issue, whichever side can make their argument sound the best is going to win out, and usually the side that can afford the best marketing firms and the most ad time will be able to manipulate unskeptical people into thinking their side sounds the best. However, when people are equipped with the skills of critical thinking and skepticism, they can see manipulative and misleading arguments for what they are. Manipulitive ads will lose their punch. As I said in my previous post, I believe this is the ultimate solution to Dan Carlin’s Gordian Knot. However, what I still have not addressed is: How are we going to get this to happen?
I completely agree that if this is not an achievable goal, then it is not worth harping-on about, regardless of how beneficial it would be. For example, I do not advocate trying to directly amend the constitution to undo Citizen’s United or declare that corporations are not people. Even if I were sure that these measures would fix all our problems (I doubt it), these are not directly achievable.
I also understand that I’ve set myself up with a sort of Catch-22: the arguments I’ve made imply that there’s no use arguing for the idea of a skeptical society unless the society is already skeptical. If only the best sounding ideas catch on, and if skepticism is not the best sounding idea, what hope is there for it?
The answer is basically that I think skepticism does sound good if you package it right. The movement is already popular (although not as focused on education and politics as I would like), and with some shifts in focus I think it can become almost universal. The idea behind skepticism is that “school should teach you how to think, not what to think.” I think it sounds good, and I think this is something that many Americans already believe. If I’m right about that (some polling data would help confirm or falsify this), it gives us the perfect foothold to transform our schools into critical thinking factories.
One important thing is that this skeptical education movement avoid being associated with any particular ideology. The movement will need to assiduously focus on the fact that critical thinking and skepticism are designed to lead to good ideology, whatever that may be. Everyone implicitly believes that their own ideology is the “good” one, and so it seems untenable to take a stand against a program that will support it. Imagine someone making the argument: “We don’t want our kids to learn how to protect themselves from being manipulated by bad ideas! What if that protects them from OUR ideas?” That’s not a winning argument.
Of course, the “we don’t want our kids to think criticially” argument will probably be attempted, anyway. Some religious institutions certainly already see skepticism as a threat. Indeed, “faith” is basically a willingness to suspend our skepticism about a particular topic. Religious institutions will thus be highly motivated to combat the Skeptic Movement, and have millenia of experience in this fight to draw upon. So, let’s leave religion out of this. There’s no reason to go up against religion. Actually, let’s leave all ideologies out of it. The critical thinking curriculum need not be controversial; even scientific findings such as the Theory of Evolution do not belong in the critical thinking curriculum. If we emphasize that no specific facts will be covered, I don’t think religious institutions will get much traction in their anti-Skepticism campaign. Perhaps they will still argue that “critical thinking will lead to a belief in evolution,” but my guess is they will not go there.
You may still doubt our chances to succeed in this movement, but is it really that grandiose a mission? We are not trying to change the world all at once. We are trying to influence one aspect of education policy in a way most people are already pretty sympathetic to. We already have an enthusiastic Skeptic Movement going that will likely be willing to throw their support behind a mission like this if it is presented to them along with a respectable plan of action. I don’t know exactly what that plan of action will be, but it could include a media campaign, social networking, public demonstrations, maybe even skeptical charter schools. All of the above and more seems like a reasonable way to start. It’s not like the skeptical community lacks for ideas and creativity.
I don’t think this goal is inevitable or that it will be easy. We could put in all our effort and still lose the race against the advancing forces of political spinsters and big-moneyed interests. However, I also don’t think this goal is all that far-fetched. It’s right in that sweet spot of being truly worthy of putting some effort into helping bring about. The result is uncertain enough that it’s conceivable that my effort could make a difference, perhaps by convincing you and having you possibly convince some more people that this is worthwhile and achievable. It’s something that I think could monumentally beneficial to society for years to come.