I’m a fan of knowledge, learning, and education. We should learn not just facts but also how to think critically: how to evaluate evidence to find the correct, or best, answer. I said this to someone years ago and they replied that people already know how to think. I mostly disagree with this. Everyone can think logically (“I’m hungry, so I need to eat”; “If I speed, then I might get a ticket”) but not everyone thinks critically. You’d hope that “logical” and “critical” would be synonyms, but it isn’t so. There is semantic overlap: critical thinking requires logical thinking, but logical thinking isn’t always critical thinking. You can use logic to critique a point of view you don’t agree with, but critical thinking uses logic to critique all points of view. Even those who can think critically don’t always do it, because they might let their bias, prejudice, or emotions get in the way.

I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who quipped, “Most people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” This is true especially in institutions where dogma replaces rationalism and empiricism. I’m speaking, of course, about universities.

Learning at a tertiary level, you expect to be taught to think both critically through the issues particular to your subject, even if you’re doing an Arts degree. (I’m not being facetious. People might consider critical thinking as belonging solely to the realm of science: not so. Whenever we try to find out why the car won’t start or why our team lost, we’re thinking critically.) It’s sad when you realise that any given course at a university can employ people who are dogmatic in their beliefs and opinions, even though they might claim that we should follow the evidence and draw our own conclusions, no matter what others say.

History is full of people who did do that, and were ridiculed: Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Florence Nightingale, Ignaz Semmelweis, Christopher Columbus, the Wright brothers. (Then again, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, being ridiculed is no guarantee that you’re correct.) Even when they provided empirical evidence for their claims, even then some people refused to listen. Professional people, academic people. People who should practice what they preach about following the evidence. They tell you: follow the evidence even if it goes against the accepted theory. What they don’t tell you is: expect most people to laugh at you; even those people who told you to follow the evidence even if it goes against accepted theory.

This rejection of new theories, even when they better explain the facts, has several possible sources. All people have biasses, and all people are less likely to be objective when their biasses are threatened. Secondly, it depends on who champions each the theory: the argument from authority carries little weight when it comes to dealing with the evidence, although an expert in the field is more likely to be able to weigh the evidence accurately, as opposed to someone who is merely famous. Third, the longer a theory has been accepted, and believed by more people, the more difficult it is to overthrow.

So what’s this tirade leading up to? Those who regularly follow this blog will know that I like to make fun of bad films. Last night, my cinematic coterie enjoyed – well, you know what I mean – a new experience: riffing on a university lecture.

It was a lecture on music in society. Presumably the lecturer didn’t have much experience in lecturing: they were reading from the overheads as well as rambling, and academic cliches were trotted out, notably “dominant paradigm”. These were small issues compared to the lecturer’s condescending attitude toward people they referred to as “the elite”, and “snobs”, by which they meant people who thought classical, jazz, and/or folk music was “real” music, and rock’n’roll and pop music was proletarian.

No doubt some people do have this attitude. However, the lecturer also spoke of respecting one another, and how opinions can be dangerous. All true. And when you call other people names, aren’t you yourself being disrespectful? Aren’t you being elitist by claiming, in effect, that you are right and they are wrong? Hardly a popular attitude in a modern – sorry, postmodern – academic milieu where tolerance is all the fashion. But it certainly explains the similar attitudes of some people who come out of those institutions. Claiming to be tolerant, they are actually intolerant of any opinion that says they are wrong.

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