A strong influence on the weak mind

The willful manipulation of an audience in propaganda and debate is a depressing fact of life to me.

  1. I am interested in full understanding of an issue; best gained by rational discourse, scientific inquiry, and criticism.
  2. I am also a fairly rabid supporter of freedom of expression.
  3. I am most strongly an advocate of critical thinking skills as a tool to identify and be skeptical of positions based on propaganda, bias, and fallacy.

Given the foregoing, the best way to really piss me off is to use the public’s weak grasp of #3 to hamstring the process of #1 by rallying around a steaming pile of #2.

I’d like to direct your attention to this podcast:

In the upcoming a pro-Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (starring comedy actor Ben Stein), several notable scientists speak in support of science and evolution, including evolutionary biologist (and outspoken atheist) Richard Dawkins, science blogger PZ Meyers, and Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer. As Swoopy finds out this week when she talks with Dawkins and Shermer, Expelled is not the film these scientists agreed to be a part of—nor were their experiences at advanced screenings what they expected….

I have not seen the film; my second-hand impression is formed after listening to the interviews above. The main drive of the film is to cast science in the classroom as a free speech issue, and argue that personal beliefs of teachers ought to be allowed into the curriculum at their own discretion. My first reaction to this idea is that someone who holds unfalsifiable beliefs that conflict with the knowledge of their field might not make a great teacher of that subject. But I suppose it’s plausible that a teacher can impart knowledge that they don’t hold to personally.

More generally, the idea that science class should be a place where a teacher instills their personal belief system to students is ludicrous on its face.

Teaching unscientific things in science class is similarly ridiculous. If enough people want it to happen, though, then the public school curriculum can be changed to mandate such things. Having tried this approach largely in vain, creationists are now going grassroots and saying damn the curriculum– just do what you want.

How can this feeble approach hope to succeed? The average person doesn’t have a very strong penchant for critical thought. Even those who do can very easily be influenced by propaganda and biased debate around a subject in which they are not deeply versed. Make a propaganda film that leads your audience along step by step, and they will follow.


2 responses to “A strong influence on the weak mind”

  1. A friend called me on the claim “The average person doesn’t have a very strong penchant for critical thought.” In addition to being a claim I didn’t support, it’s probably not accurate.

    What I really intended to indicate was the average person doesn’t have a very strong penchant to be broadly skeptical. I still won’t offer support for that, but I think it’s more accurate.

  2. Although it is not stated explicitly in this post, there is often an assumption on both sides of the “Evolution vs. ID” discussion that teaching and education are simple transmissive processes, and that when a teacher says something, students automatically believe it and understand it in exactly the way that the teacher understands, or intends. The “A Private Universe” and “Minds of Our Own” videos do a pretty good job of explaining what we know about teaching and learning, and how we know it. (Specifically the teaching and learning of science.)

    I also want to spend a moment to explain my problem with “people are sheep” statements like the previously mentioned line from your post (“The average person doesn’t have a very strong penchant for critical thought”). While I realize there is evidence to support the claim that humans are influenced by authority, there is also evidence to suggest that expertise and context have a great deal more to do with the application of “critical thinking skills” than simple herd mentality. The book “How People Learn”, a publication of the National Research Council, is available for free online and I would point to the sections on How Experts Differ from Novices (section 2) and Learning and Transfer (section 3).

    I will add only that people are able to, and frequently do, apply their skills differentially according to their beliefs and expertise. If someone wants to be connected to their social group, they may “believe” in intelligent design without giving it much thought, even if they use critical thinking skills daily in their profession. I agree that your revision to “broadly skeptical” is more accurate.

    “Expelled”, like many films with an agenda, are mostly preaching to the converted. They don’t need to make a very strong case. They just need to bolster the faith of their constituents, give them a few new arguments, and some jokes to tell about the folks on the other side. I, for one, am encouraged by the fact that ID proponents are concerned enough to start making films that further publicize the discussion.