After years of thinking about how best to teach law students to engage with legal concepts, I have a hypothesis that I would like to subject to analytical scrutiny. That hypothesis is this: One reason our political and cultural discourse is in such an angry, fractured state is because people are not being taught to think properly. Absorbing, assimilating, and evaluating information is a skill that can (and must) be taught. I will provide examples of our broken reasoning skills using two galvanizing populist figures.
Let me first define my terms. By think properly, I mean evaluate claims using rigorous reasoning. We need to better teach students to scrutinize claims for factual veracity and for consistency with other claims. Ideas, of the factual and moral varieties, are built by comparing new views to already accepted views, using the tools of logical reasoning. Instead, many students enter even graduate school with serious thinking errors.
These thinking errors have a range of forms. First, many smart people fail to fully comprehend what they read. When people read quickly or inattentively, they assume new information fits into a schema they already understand rather than appreciating that what they may be reading is new and revelatory. It takes time, effort, and self-awareness to realize that what you are reading uses a different lens, approach, or logical structure than what you already know. The Internet isn’t helping. Studies show that reading on screens harms our ability to take in complex information and appreciate the beauty of hard prose. Indeed, fewer and fewer students show both the intellectual patience and the capacity to engage with harder, denser texts – perhaps opting instead for easier narratives that already conform to their sense of justice.
Further, even when people properly comprehend a claim they have read, they do not evaluate this claim critically. Our political discourse is riddled with intellectual inconsistency, group loyalty (of every variety), and confirmatory bias. We apply one set of principles to those to whom we share some sort of group loyalty, and we more readily accept new knowledge if it confirms our current beliefs.
Enter President Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York congressional candidate. By using these two figures, I do not intend to draw any sort of equivalence between them. However, both politicians make irresponsibly false factual claims yet draw fervent support, and both illustrate the significance of the “baseline problem.”
President Donald Trump believes that the media attacks him unfairly. He uses this belief to denounce the media, sowing distrust among his supporters for journalists who display integrity and adherence to journalistic ethics. President Trump may be right that he is unfairly scrutinized, as compared to President Obama. But he also tells far more lies, slings far more vitriol, and is generally less educated about issues than President Obama was.
What we have is a baseline problem. To know whether the media is fair in its reporting, we need to understand how the media would treat a Democratic candidate who displayed President Trump’s qualities. Without this baseline, it is hard to evaluate whether the media can be trusted, or whether it is unfairly partisan. To accept Trump’s argument requires establishing a baseline, and then comparing the media’s treatment of him to this baseline, not simply accepting scattered pieces of data that conveniently fit President Trump’s narrative.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also made claims that make little economic sense and are factually wrong. In response to her dramatic oversimplifications about the situation between Palestine and Israel, she claimed she was not a geopolitical expert. When The Washington Post fact checked her claims about unemployment and health care, she tweeted about how male Congressmen get away with ignorant gaffes. Again, we have a baseline problem, exacerbated by factual inaccuracies about the situation she was comparing to her own.
Because many of Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters already believe that female politicians are subjected to unfair, sexist skepticism, they can assume that any time she is scrutinized, it is an unfair deviation from the baseline. Instead, a number of outlets did mock the very example provided by Ocasio-Cortez, Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to debate climate change. Just like how Trump supporters no longer believe the media’s criticism of Trump, Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters can dismiss fair criticisms of her policies as sexist. Two populist politicians, whose views deserve much more analytical scrutiny, are getting a pass.
We can do better than we are doing. I have watched eager, and sometimes resistant, students learn to read more carefully. I have witnessed students learn to derive principles from cases and apply those principles to future cases. I have been bested by students, who have mastered the art of reasoning by analogy, a foundation of intellectual honesty. This sort of thinking needs development earlier, as very few students go to graduate school.
However, universities and even middle and high schools need to focus more on critical thinking, and its process, than achieving a particular result. Teaching students to read and think well will highlight the very real differences between complex principles and easy generalizations. Just compare the work of a scholar like Catharine MacKinnon (with whom I strongly disagree, but whose work is provocative, rigorous, and eloquent), who argues that feminists must use their own minds and experiences instead of deferring entirely to an objective reality that has already been constructed by the patriarchy, and the views of the “woke” movements, which seem to use generalizations against white men as currency to redistribute power without any sense of principle. Many understand the view that generalizations are morally wrong, corrosive to thinking properly, and perpetuate confirmatory bias, yet they do not apply this logic when advancing their own social causes.
Even some academic feminists, blinded by senses of justice and group interests/loyalty instead of reason and principle, have rallied in favor of a female academic accused of sexual misconduct towards a graduate student purely on the basis of her gender. Power supersedes reason, but this does not have to be our fate. There has to be a way to undo the forces of the patriarchy and white supremacy without resorting to the generalizations that created those systems in the first place — and without seeing them everywhere regardless of the specifics of a situation.
More complex reading and better critical thinking, perhaps released from group loyalties, could allow our political discourse to be truly tested and our principles to be fairer, more coherent, and more consistent. One of the greatest rationales animating First Amendment protections is that free speech provides us with the means to decide our political fates in an informed way. However, if we are not taught to rigorously analyze political claims, our discourse, and our decisions, will suffer.