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Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Askers

Great Askers

Driving north toward Albany recently to visit a high school where they challenge students to think by solving real-world problems, I happened to turn on an XM radio station that played a very short clip from a Glen Beck radio broadcast the previous day. In this segment Mr. Beck said the following (slightly paraphrased from memory):

“What is the number of Muslims who are terrorists. 1%? I think the figure is closer to 10%.”

I heard nothing of what might have followed that claim.

The person who played it, of the opposite political persuasion, however, asked the right question, “How do you know? What evidence do you have to make this seemingly outrageous claim?”

Reminded me of Beck’s similar claim on TV that President Obama was “anti-white,” that he was “deep down a racist.”

We’ve heard this claim many times over, but I’ve never heard of anybody’s challenging him to support this judgment about the President. What was it based on?

Made me think that if he’s anti-white, he must be schizophrenic, in the common definition of that term as being of a split personality.

Then I asked, “Well, which portion of himself does he hate, since he’s both black and white? The lower/upper half?”

I never heard the logical follow-up question, “What leads you to that conclusion?”

So, driving back from this terrific high technology school in Rensselaer, NY where they foster 21st century skills such as inquiry, problem solving and critical thinking, I was wondering how Mr. Beck models for his radio/tv audiences arriving at logical conclusions using valid, representative evidence?

I’ve heard Mr. Beck so many times laying on his audience that they should fear the coming revolution, just recently, the approaching chaos that will result in a communist state or the dreaded one world government. Several nights later on TV he claimed that “They [I think he means progressives since they are mostly the big bad wolves here] they feed on fear and violence.”

One way to propel your own agenda is to characterize what others do to conceal your own use of the same tactics.

This from a spokesperson who sees the coming of a Reichstag-like fire incident that would lead to dictatorship, just as a similar event led to the Nazi take-over of the German government in 1933.

This from a person who plays tapes of students in London and Berkeley demanding free education and concludes that this is evidence that we’re headed for a socialist/communist state and a loss of freedom.

But the critical thinker asks, “How representative are students at Berkeley of the entire US? What other evidence do we have that the country is headed for a dictatorship or any stripe?” Yes, there are groups here and there that might give suggestion of that idea, but what say the three major branches of the federal government, to say nothing of their state and local counterparts? Where’s the preponderance of evidence?

Makes one think that evidence/data/facts/verifiable information is of little or no consequence. Say what you will. Nobody will challenge you and some may agree. (What Jonathan Schell recently, in The Nation, called "casting off factuality."

We must be so careful in listening to folks in the media.

Each side throws claims around that baffle the mind of an educated person:

“The Obama Stimulus Effect? Zero?” (WSJ, 12/9/10) Why did they say that? Because spending almost 800 billion dollars did not lead to significant “purchases” by the states that received the money. Are there other criteria for success?

You have economists on the other side from Harvard, for example, claiming on Charlie Rose “I can’t explain why the wealthy got tax breaks.”

One wonders who amongst the young people at that NY high school accepts these kinds of claims without the requisite and healthy skepticism that demands we ask probing questions like “How do you know? What leads you to that conclusion? How good/representative is your evidence?”

Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a most revealing book, The March of Folly (1984) about governments that pursue policies “contrary to their interests.” She cites British policy in our Revolutionary War and ours in Vietnam as examples of “folly,” that is, “perceived as counter-productive in its own time. . .[with a] feasible alternative course. . .available. . .” (p. 5) A better policy would, I imagine, be based on solid evidence to the contrary.

To avoid such future disasters Tuchman concluded that “What government needs is great askers.” (385)

What society needs to counter claims that seem outrageous, that represent only one ideological point of view, or that are merely presented without any supporting evidence are “great askers” at home, schools, in the media, and in all political parties, people who daily challenge us to examine issues in accordance with evidence, who ask us to do what very few people are willing to do, that is ask, “What’s the other side of the coin? What evidence contradicts my favored point of view?”

This is the nature of good citizenship, especially in these days of hyper-partisanship in Washington politics.

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