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The Mother Of All Fallacies

An old script, it is.

An old script, it is.

How are Fox News and Michael Moore alike?

They both use the same script.

Michael Moore comes at issues from the left. Fox News comes from the right. Though they come from different points on the political spectrum, they tell the same story.

In rhetoric, it’s called the Good versus Evil narrative. It’s very simple. On one side we have good people. On the other side, we have evil people. There’s nothing in between. The evil people are cheating or robbing or killing or screwing the good people. The world would be a better place if we could only eliminate or neuter or negate or kill the evil people.

We’ve been using the Good versus Evil narrative since we began telling stories. Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics follow the script. So do many of the stories in the Bible. So do Republicans. So do Democrats. So do I, for that matter. It’s the mother of all fallacies.

The narrative inflames the passions and dulls the senses. It makes us angry. It makes us feel that outrage is righteous and proper. The narrative clouds our thinking. Indeed, it aims to stop us from thinking altogether. How can we think when evil is abroad? We need to act. We can think later.

I became sensitized to the Good versus Evil narrative when I lived in Latin America. I met more than a few people who are convinced that America is the embodiment of evil. They see it as a country filled with greedy, immoral thieves and murderers who are sucking the blood of the innocent and good people of Latin America. I had a difficult time squaring this with my own experiences. Perhaps the narrative is wrong.

Rhetoric teaches us to be suspicious when we hear Good versus Evil stories. The word is a messy, chaotic, and random place. Actions are nuanced and ambiguous. People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. A simple narrative can’t possibly capture all the nuances and uncertainties of the real world. Indeed, the Good versus Evil doesn’t even try. It aims to tell us what to think and ensure that we never, ever think for ourselves.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president, John Wayne attended his inaugural even though he had supported Carter’s opponent. Wayne gave a gracious speech. “Mr. President”, he said, “you know that I’m a member of the loyal opposition. But let’s remember that the accent is on ‘loyal’”. How I would love to hear anyone say that today. It’s the antithesis of Good versus Evil.

Voltaire wrote that, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” The Good versus Evil narrative is absurd. It doesn’t explain the world; it inflames the world. Ultimately, it can make injustices seem acceptable.

The next time you hear a Good versus Evil story, grab your thinking cap. You’re going to need it.

(By the way, Tyler Cowen has a terrific TED talk on this topic that helped crystallize my thinking. You can find it here.)

Critical Thinking Through the Ages

buddhaAs I’m teaching a course on critical thinking, I thought it would be useful to study the history of the concept. What have leading thinkers of the past conceived to be “critical thinking” and how have their perceptions changed over time?

One of the earliest — and most interesting –references that I’ve found is a sermon called the Kalama Sutta preached by the Buddha some five centuries before Christ. Often known as the “charter of free inquiry”, it lays out general tenets for discerning what is true.

Many religions hold that truth is revealed through scriptures or through institutions that are authorized to interpret scriptures. By contrast, Buddhism generally asserts that we have to ascertain truth for ourselves.  So, how do we do that?

That was essentially the question that the Kalama people asked the Buddha when he passed through their village of Kesaputta. The Buddha’s sermon emphasizes the need to question statements asserted to be true. Further, the Buddha goes on to list multiple sources of error and cautions us to carefully examine assertions from those sources.  According to Wikipedia, the Buddha identified the following sources of error:

  • Oral histories
  • Tradition
  • New sources
  • Scripture or other official documents
  • Supposition
  • Dogmatism
  • Common sense
  • Opinion
  • Experts
  • Authorities or one’s own teacher

Further, “Do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.” The requires examination, reflection, and questioning and only that which is “conducive to the good” should be accepted as truth.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu summarizes it, “any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.”

So how do the Buddhist commentaries compare to other philosophers? In the century after Buddha, Socrates is quoted as saying, “I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.” Almost 2,000 years later, Francis Bacon wrote, “Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture.” A few hundred years later, Descartes wrote, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” A hundred years after that, Voltaire wrote about the consequences of a failure of critical thinking, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”

As the Swedes would say, there seems to be a “bright red thread” that ties all of these together. Go slowly. Ask questions. Be patient. Doubt your sources. Consider your own experience. Judge the evidence thoughtfully. For well over 2,000 years our philosophers — both Eastern and Western — have been saying essentially the same thing. It seems that we know what to do. Now all we have to do is to do it.



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