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We keep losing common sense, ground

The axiom “the more we know, the more we know we don’t know” is the premise for my following comments. Also, less universally applicable but significantly personal, is the axiom that I have forgotten more than I know. Even though I wish this were not to be proven true, I am very glad that I am aware of these. Not necessarily a factor of age, it seems that Americans of all ages are alarmingly unaware of either of these postulates.

We no longer have common sense in common, and “common sense” is far less simple than it sounds. There is a disturbing trend in the United States of reverting to superstition and suspicion of the reliability and viability of science. Common sense assumes a shared base of critical thinking, reasoning, and rationality; something that the political divisiveness in our country is helping to destroy.

Metacognition — thinking about thinking — is necessary to make the best use of our brains, which can deceive us, fail us, and make us susceptible to scams and misinformation. We aren’t born with logic and critical thinking skills; they have to be learned and developed to overcome our basic emotional responses and the tricks our brains can play on us.

This subject takes me back to fourth grade. There I got my first awareness of what it means to think.

In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Every day, Mr. Wilson would ask us what that meant. Every day he would get our answers.

He never told us if we were correct or not. You can imagine how frustrating that was to a fourth-grader used to right and wrong answers. He taught us a big life lesson with that simple routine — how important it is to think rather than just memorize and accept. Every child learns how the apple fell on Newton’s head and that’s how he discovered gravity, but we learned it was more like he was lifted up by the knowledge of his predecessors.

Knowledge is cumulative. History doesn’t change, it happened. It’s our understanding of it that changes.

Reality doesn’t change, it’s our knowledge of it through science that changes. Climate change deniers, anti-vaxers, creationists, flat-earthers, are all blocking out centuries of learning to go back to the dark ages. Five hundred years ago, people had an excuse to believe the earth was flat. Now evidence is overwhelming and accessible, even to the minute degree of its “not quite roundedness.”

In addition to basing conclusions on longstanding scientifically proven data, critical thinking also depends on a grasp of the laws of probability. Occam’s Razor is a standard by which theories are compared; such that data being equal, the simplest is the most desirable. This rules out most of the currently held far-right conspiracy theories like “stop the steal” by virtue of their convoluted and circumstantial connections.

Trump’s continued support is a result of his appeal to the basic emotional instincts of human nature. He has been shown to have no interest in higher knowledge, no curiosity for acquiring it, a low level of comprehension, and an ego that locks him into his base instincts- an anchor which he is unwilling and unable to break. He is a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the more certain one is of their knowledge, the less they actually know. Trump is proud of the fact that he doesn’t need advice or information, he relies on his “gut instinct”.

The latest myth perpetrated by leading purveyors of misinformation aims directly at the “gut.” Trump adviser Larry Kudlow leads the current Biden smear campaign lying that the president is banning burgers and beer. Although a cut back on meat consumption has been proven to help slow global warming, this is not part of Biden’s agenda, and I doubt he has a problem with growing barley and hops.

Politicians of much higher levels of education and intelligence have seen how easy it is to dupe a population lacking in the ability to think critically, who just accept whatever sounds good to them (i.e., matches their preconceived notions) and political motives are separate from intellect. The emotional attachment of Trump’s followers leads them to rationalize away any cognitive dissonance they may have if they are confronted with the many reasons why the Biden win was authentic. The Jan. 6 overthrow did not materialize, so now they are being provided with a new straw to grasp, the Cyber Ninja “audit” in Arizona. For a fourth time, using two-thirds of the votes, with no transparency or bipartisan oversight, by a private company headed by a QAnon cultist with a secret formula and ballot altering blue pens – how can that not be reliable? But those under the “stop the steal” trance will hang on the result because it will most likely be what they want to hear.

Being able to think critically can be a matter of life and death. COVID-19 has killed over a half million Americans. We now have vaccines available to end this pandemic if enough get their shots. The vaccines are non-political and non-partisan; developed under Trump and manufactured and distributed under Biden. They were thoroughly studied by the world’s top scientists and approved by the CDC, FDA, and WHO. No one so far that has been fully vaccinated has died of COVID. The J&J shot has been temporarily pulled because they are that careful, and yet over one-quarter of American adults are reluctant or refuse to be vaccinated. The blood clot side effect which has occurred in one out of 1 million is receiving further study and if it is in fact related to the vaccine, it will be added as a warning. We think nothing of taking other drugs despite a long list of possible side effects. Why the skepticism here? Pure politicization.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson wants his viewers to confront people wearing masks and calls having children wear masks child abuse. He is literally telling his viewers not to protect themselves and others from serious illness or death by simply wearing a mask. Masks were worn during the 1918 pandemic and have been proven to slow the transmission of airborne viruses. Who should we listen to?

Multiple scientists with lists of accreditations or Tucker Carlson? Basic emotions make one want to believe there is no risk and everything is normal so the COVID concern must be a hoax, but the science points otherwise. Carlson is part of the modern media that has tapped into the human tendency toward confirmation bias – beginning with a desired outcome and cherry picking to arrive at “proof” to justify a preconceived opinion – the opposite of the scientific method. The media moves us through an ever-narrowing tunnel till all the data we are presented with confirm our beliefs.

To escape the bias tunnel and the Dunning-Kruger trap, curiosity, motivation to know more and critical thinking are vital, acceptance of new data and willingness to adjust conclusions accordingly and trust in science.

Science is not truth; it is the best way to find the truth. It does not lie, it learns. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that if the data is static, and someone changes their mind, they are flip-flopping, but if the data changes, they are learning. Dr. Fauci would agree with my axiom.

Susan Bigler is a Sheridan resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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