The importance of clear thinking

Published 7:58 pm Saturday, September 24, 2016

By Kermit Hobbs Jr.

I don’t know if it’s still taught in schools, but I think one of my most important high school classes was civics. It was a study in citizenship, where we learned what it meant to live in a free, self-governing nation and how we as citizens should govern ourselves wisely.

The lessons in that book have never been as important as they are today.

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One of the first chapters was titled “The Importance of Clear Thinking,” and it discussed how to make intelligent decisions, particularly when it came time to vote.

There are three things we must do to think clearly.

The first is to distinguish the truth from information that is either blatantly untrue or is manipulated to deceive us. Such information is called “propaganda,” and the messages we get from the current presidential candidates are saturated with it. Here are three textbook examples.

“Appeals to emotion” are statements that seek to make us feel anger, fear or other emotion. Their purpose is to make us bypass our logical, rational judgment and, instead, skip straight to the conclusion that their statements are true, even if they aren’t.

Unfortunately, given the frustration so many Americans feel today, appeals to emotion can be very effective.

“Lies and deception” are abundant in this year’s election campaign. The unfortunate thing about lies is that when they are repeated often enough, they “stick,” even after they have been disproven.

“Name-calling” is simply a candidate’s effort to divert attention from his/her own shallowness and pin it onto his/her opponent. Children do it a lot.

Our best response to most propaganda is to question everything we hear and, if possible, dig deeper. Is there solid evidence to support the statements or the charges? Do they present conclusions that are the result of valid logic? There are several websites that evaluate the truth of candidates’ statements and can shed light on these questions.

The second thing we need to do is recognize and overcome our own susceptibility to propaganda. There are some natural tendencies that are hard-wired into all of us. Here are two of the main ones.

“Following the crowd” is a tendency most of us share. When we see people similar to ourselves who follow a common purpose, we often want to be part of a “winning team” and go along with them.

I’ve heard statements like, “100 million people can’t be wrong,” as if that proved something to be true. It doesn’t. Remember, there was a time when everybody thought the world was flat. Think it out for yourself, and if that leads you to a different conclusion, so be it.

Probably the worst enemy we have to clear thinking is called “confirmation bias.” It’s our tendency to believe things that support our preconceived beliefs. With all the sources of information available to us, we can find something that supports nearly any notion we have and “prove” that we’ve been right all along.

We tend to suspend our rational skepticism and tack it on to our growing list of evidence. As before, our best response is to question all that we hear, especially evidence that supports our positions, to confirm that it’s legitimate.

Third, we need to look beyond the daily propaganda and consider the candidates’ records of performance in the past. Two characteristics that are both important and scarce in the current election are competence and trustworthiness.

Is the candidate capable of leading our nation on the “correct” path? Can we trust him or her to fulfill his/her promises? Will he/she be able, or even attempt, to unify our severely divided population?

OK, I didn’t say this would be easy. But at least, clear thinking can help us navigate this campaign on our own terms, rather than stumbling through a maze of smoke-and-mirror propaganda.

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at