Many people have pointed out that the US election was disappointing because, after Trump’s four years in office, people must have realised that he is a vile and dangerous president. Yet, a very large proportion of Americans voted for him. Some commentators even speak of a cult-like movement supporting Trump.
Many people have also pointed out that some forms of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are irrational and even harmful. Yet, a sizable proportion of the population continue to use them. Some experts even speak of a cult-like movement supporting SCAM.
Why do so many people make irrational choices?
Are they all stupid?
I don’t think so!
The way I see it, a key here must be critical thinking. Critical thinking means making decisions and judgements based on (often confusing) evidence. According to the ‘National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking’ it is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.
Critical thinking is not something one is born with; but most people can learn this skill. In one study, researchers measured the relationship between student’s religion, gender, and propensity for fantasy thinking with the change in belief for paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects following a science and critical thinking course. Following the course, overall beliefs in paranormal and pseudo-scientific subcategories were lower by 6.8–28.9%.
Though easily confused with intelligence, critical thinking has little to do with it. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to rationalise. Critical thinkers are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to mislead them. Critical thinking is the skill of minimising cognitive biases.
If I am correct, those people who voted for Trump in the US (or similar politicians, such as Boris Johnson in the UK) and those consumers who spend their money on bogus SCAMs both are deficient in their ability to think critically. This does not mean that they are the same individuals. I merely suggest they have one characteristic in common.
It is crucial, I think, to realise that critical thinking can be improved with education. In the final analysis, disappointing results of any election in which (far too many) people voted for a dishonest, corrupt politician, and the disappointingly high usage of bogus SCAMs have, I believe, their roots in poor education. This means that, if we want to reduce the risk of the Trump disaster repeating itself, we need to invest effectively and generously in better educating our children (and adults). And if we want to minimise the risk of consumers wasting their money or damaging their health with bogus SCAMs, we need to make sure the public has a sufficient understanding of logic, reason, evidence and science.