Geoff Johnson: Intellectual narcissism is a danger to public discourse
It’s hard to say which is the most destructive currently: the global spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus or the accompanying epidemic of irrational claims that spark the “debate” over vaccines, mask wear, role science and the imposition of social restrictions that are generally aimed at suppressing the spread of the deadly virus.
In fact, it may be time to reassess the role of public education as a much-needed remedy for the ‘I have a right to my opinion’ thought.
There is a common saying among experienced educators: don’t teach students what to think; teach them to think.
This idea goes back at least to Socrates and it is what we call today the Socratic method of teaching.
The Socratic Method is a teaching method that promotes critical thinking by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the theories and opinions expressed by those around them.
On the one hand, children are exposed daily to a constant barrage of emotional thoughts that tend to dominate the discussion on any topic of any consequence – vaccination, climate change, freedom, gender confusion, even the role of religion in politics.
On the other hand, critical thinking validates evidence-based truth rather than emotion. This kind of thinking disavows the “this is what I want it to be” currently popular mark of magical thinking.
Grades 11 and 12 aren’t too early for 16 and 17 year olds to start learning to look for evidence that might even contradict their own early conclusions.
The problem with the rationale for the “I have a right to my opinion” fallacy is that all too often it is used to provide refuge for beliefs that should have long been abandoned.
It becomes a shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I want” – and by extension, continuing to argue against a point of view is sort of disrespectful.
This kind of intellectual narcissism is an increasingly destructive feature of our public discourse.
For example, there is the strongly expressed belief that, as a COVID denier, “my opinion on viral transmission is just as valid as that of Dr Bonnie Henry” – this despite the fact that Dr Henry has an international reputation. legitimately acquired as a leading epidemiologist and I cannot spell the anti-inflammatory corticosteroid dexamethasone to save myself – even though I knew what it was.
The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote in his 1930 book The Revolt of the Masses: Imposing Your Opinions. It was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: the reason for unreason.
Maybe, but now more than ever teachers of all subjects owe it to them to teach them how to build and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become untenable.
If there is one statement that should be discouraged in any classroom, it is the mantra “I have a right to my opinion – I have a right to my opinion”. It is, too often, used by people who should know it better as a cliché that ends thinking.
As philosopher Patrick Stokes has pointed out, the phrase is often used to defend factually indefensible positions.
Another philosopher, David Godden, argued that being entitled to any point of view requires the acceptance of certain obligations, such as the obligation to provide reasons for having that point of view. Again, to pretend otherwise is just intellectual laziness.
Godden called them the principles of rational law and rational responsibility, and advocated the teaching of these principles, including the notion that the obligation to provide reasons always involves a willingness to be comfortable in risking one’s own opinions against what may be the strength of the best reason.
Perhaps a good place to start with “how to think” in the classroom would be a review of the most commonly used “logical fallacies”.
A logical fallacy is a statement which, although at first glance it seems logical, turns out to be just a logical sleight of hand. “Ad hominem” attacks, which attack the adversary rather than his argument, fall into this category, as do non sequitur “everyone says” arguments and appeal to common prejudices about immigrant groups, native beliefs – or someone doesn’t like me.
As Ayn Rand, writer and champion of clarity of thought and objectivity, said: “Reason is the only way to acquire knowledge. The whole history of science is a progression of exploded errors.
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.
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