Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2005 / 3 Shevat, 5765

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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I beg to disagree | My assistant sorts the incoming mail into various categories, such as "critical mail," "fan mail," etc. But the so-called critical mail is seldom critical. It may be bombastic or vituperative or full of pop psychology, but it seldom presents a critical argument based on facts or logic.

Too many people today act as if no one can honestly disagree with them. If you have a difference of opinion with them, you are considered to be not merely in error but in sin. You are a racist, a homophobe or whatever the villain of the day happens to be.

Disagreements are inevitable whenever there are human beings but we seem to be in an era when the art of disagreeing is vanishing. That is a huge loss because out of disagreements have often come deeper understandings than either side had before confronting each other's arguments.

Even wacko ideas have led to progress, when dealt with critically, in terms of logic and evidence. Astrology led to astronomy. The medieval notion of turning lead into gold — alchemy — led to chemistry, from which have come everything from a wide range of industrial products and consumer goods to more productive agriculture and life-saving drugs.

Where an argument starts is far less important than where it finishes because the logic and evidence in between is crucial. Unfortunately, our educational system is not only failing to teach critical thinking, it is often itself a source of confused rhetoric and emotional venting in place of systematic reasoning.

It is hard to think of a stronger argument for teaching people to examine arguments critically than the tragic history of 20th century totalitarianism and its horrors in peace and war. Dictators often gained total power over a whole nation by their ability to arouse emotions and evade thought.

Watch old newsreels of Hitler and watch the adoring and enraptured look on the faces in his audience. Then read what he said and see if it makes any sense whatever. Yet he convinced others — and himself — that he had a great message and a great mission.

The same could be said of Lenin, of Mao, of Pol Pot, and of countless other despots, large and small, who brought devastation to the people they ruled. It is not even necessary to look solely at government leaders. Cult leader Jim Jones used the same ability to sway people's emotions and numb their brains to lead them ultimately to mass deaths in his Guiana compound.

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Instead of trying to propagandize children to hug trees and recycle garbage, our schools would be put to better use teaching them how to analyze and test what is said by people who advocate tree-hugging, recycling, and innumerable other causes across the political spectrum.

The point is not to teach them correct conclusions but to teach them to be able to use their own minds to analyze the issues that will come up in the years ahead, which may have nothing to do with recycling or any of the other issues of our time.

Rational disagreement can be not only useful but stimulating. Many years ago, when my friend and colleague Walter Williams and I worked on the same research project, he and I kept up a running debate on the reasons why blacks excelled in some sports and were virtually non-existent in others.

Walter was convinced that the reasons were physical while I thought the reasons were social and economic. Walter would show me articles on physiology from scholarly journals, using them as explanations of why blacks had so many top basketball players and few, if any, swimming champions.

We never settled that issue but it provided lively debates and we may both have learned something.

I even met my wife as a result of a disagreement. She read something of mine that she disagreed with and told a mutual friend. He in turn suggested that we get together for lunch and hash out our differences.

Although we have now been married more than 20 years, we have still not completely settled our differences over that issue. But when we met our attention turned to other things. There are a lot of reasons to be able to have rational discussions about things on which people disagree.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment please click here.


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