The Twilight Of the Age Of Reason?

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The Twilight Of the Age Of Reason?

Reason has been a key tool in the human tool chest for untold millennia. For about 500 years, reason has been amplified by the rise of science.  What I think many people fail to understand is that science and reason are not about proving an absolute truth. They are about gathering a body of evidence that gets us closer to the truths upon which we can build.

As a society, we make decisions that impact our collective welfare. We don’t all agree with these decisions. Some say they impact our freedom: the freedom to drive as fast as we want on the highway, blow smoke in someone else’s face, beat our children, ignore stop signs, or dump waste in the river wherever it is most convenient.  But most of us agree that these decisions must be made, and should be made using reason and evidence, not just the shouts of the loudest amongst us.

Here is a simple allegory:

Your child is not feeling well so you take her to a doctor. The doctor says she has cancer and is going to die if you don’t start some treatment.  Of course, you get a second opinion, and the second doctor confirms both the diagnosis and the treatment. Still unsure, you keep going to what you believe are good doctors at reputable hospitals, and keep getting the same answer from 99 doctors. Then the 100th doctor loudly and confidently proclaims, “no, I don’t see the cancer”, or “no, there is no reason to treat her”.

What would you do?  I don’t know of a single person who would follow the advice of the last doctor, and if they did they should, in my humble opinion, be arrested for child endangerment.

This allegory is rooted in two things: the amount of evidence that leads to a conclusion, and the severity of the consequences if you are wrong.  You can map those axes into four quadrants.  Take climate change: like the cancer example, 99% of reputable experts around the world say climate change is caused by humans, and that the consequences if we don’t correct course are catastrophic. If you are tired of the climate change argument, consider something REALLY close to home at this moment.  Educators, who were generally unprepared for COVID-19, should not have been.  We KNOW that global pandemics are inevitable, and we all now realize that inaction to prepare has enormous consequences. This puts planning for disruptions of the NEXT pandemic NOW in the top-right quadrant. Anything else contradicts science and reason.

Unfortunately, this system breaks down when a loud or very influential person chooses to ignore the rules of reason, when they say, “I am right and you are wrong because I want it to be that way, and evidence does not matter”.

We are at a point where, because of  instantaneous and nearly ubiquitous communication, propaganda can attain the same stature as evidence-based reason.  This throws the four-quadrant matrix into a tizzy, and history proves that when propaganda replaces reason, we all suffer.  The horizontal axis becomes “What I Heard” or “What I Think”, and is not based on any real evidence.  Then some people believe they are in the upper right quadrant, feeling they “Must Act”, and those actions will be based on loud shouts, not objective evidence. Educators know that thoughtful evidence, not loud shouts, should drive what is right for a student, for a school, or for a community.

It is hard to see how a democracy works when a significant part of the collective has adopted a decision-making matrix that is not based in reason.  It is remarkable that the United States of America, founded by a generation steeped in the Age of Reason, may very well be the place where we face this most critical challenge of the 21st century.

It is up to educators to apolitically teach the next generation to understand the roots of reason and the dangers of throwing it away.  We have tools like the free Civic Online Reasoning curriculum from the Stanford History Education Group, the non-partisan Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media, and many more.  If we are serious about teaching independent and critical thinking, these tools and curricula should be deeply embedded in many courses across many grade levels.

And we better hurry. The rate of descent into a place where the divisions amongst us cannot be healed by reason has become incredibly steep. Imagine the current curve of division, incivility, and the inability to agree on even basic facts extending for 10-15 years, equal to a generation of K-12 students.  It is not a pretty picture.  Teachers often, and correctly, say that they are burdened with too much.  I hate to be the one adding to their load, but I don’t see any other large group or sector that has the power and ability to change the dangerous direction in which we are headed. Teaching the skills of media filtering and objective reasoning DEFINITELY belongs in the upper right quadrant!


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By | 2020-12-02T16:51:31+00:00 December 2nd, 2020|Uncategorized|2 Comments

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  1. Kojo January 4, 2021 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    As an educator, I appreciate the last paragraph about the role of education in helping our kids learn reasoning and independent thinking. That said, I also wonder about the democracy and reason are described here. At the moment, there are many echo chambers (which you point out), and our communal failure seems to me to be our inability to work together, no matter the various sources of what we’d each consider “truth. Thus, our coming together in a society, school etc should embrace togetherness as a part of “reason”. For example, if so many people in a space are convinced something is true, but a small minority do not, it is likely better to agree to move cautiously together with the majority, while agreeing that if evidence begins to point to a mistake having been made, we will similarly reverse course together. This cements the unity and trust of the group, especially if we follow through on that “promise” That way, reason is explored as a collective, rather than within individual pockets of people, which seems to be producing what we have now- polarization regardless of what course of action is being taken, and a lot of mistrust that is not being overcome.

    The loudest voice may actually have less impact when we do not marginalize it. Just a thought.

    • Grant Lichtman January 4, 2021 at 7:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much, Kojo, for those very cogent suggestions. How about a “yes, and” response? I agree that finding ways to move together is much needed when we often cannot find anything upon which to agree. That means finding those things we DO agree on as the basis for moving forward; a central tenet of principled negotiation: putting the problem on one side of the table and all of us on the other side.

      Having said that, I don’t think we always need to agree to move forward together. A central part of civil discourse is agreeing to disagree, but doing it in a fashion where “the other” is not evil; they are just different.

      These are the kinds of discussions and skills that our kids need so they don’t fall into the same traps. And our teachers need to learn these skills so they can help the next generation!

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