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Educating for Democracy: The Age of "Magical Thinking"

09/11/2012 12:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2012

At the Republican National Convention held last week, the thorny issue of Todd Akin's remark about the distinctions between "legitimate rape" and what I suppose he might call "consensual rape" was, for obvious reasons, were not foremost on the minds of the delegates. At the end of the convention, they had enough to worry about in trying to explain the wit and wisdom of Clint Eastwood.

But in an interview the following day on NPR, conducted by John Hockenberry, two of the delegates -- a mother and daughter from Oregon -- were asked their opinion of Akin's remark and expressed their support for his assertion that women who are "legitimately raped" can prevent conception by "shutting down" their reproductive capacity.

Although there was much public outrage by Republicans as well as Democrats, Akin refused his party's request that he remove himself from the senatorial race against Democrat Claire McCaskill who, until that point, had been far behind him in the polls. But Akin's faith in the Missouri electorate has not gone unrewarded. After an initial dive in the polls, he is now about even with McCaskill and may well end up winning the election. Perhaps enough Missourians subscribe to his definition of rape so that its lack of validity becomes irrelevant to the outcome of the election.

As it was, Hockenberry interviewed a medical specialist to comment on the women's statement about rape. The physician assured him that "there is no evidence" that a woman who is raped can prevent being pregnant any more than if she had had consensual sex. In fact, in one study, the rate of conception of rape victims was more than twice as high as of those who had consensual sex. Yet I fear that if the order of the interviews had been reversed, the women's "impressions" of what they believe are their "facts" would over ride any factual evidence presented to them to prove the contrary. With at least half the adult population in this country skeptical or completely dismissive about evidence of evolution, it is not surprising that in a presidential campaign passions seem to overwhelm reason. What is disturbing to me is the decline in reasoned discourse based on factually and empirically derived opinions over "impressions" and "personal beliefs." This is reflected in the increase in the number of Americans who have rejected the Theory of Evolution over the past decades.

It seems that, at this point in our culture, facts are of little importance in influencing opinions. As Neil Newhouse, pollster for the Romney campaign, recently said: "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

When I was getting my formal education in the 1950s and '60s, two of the central principles I learned was to have "respect for the truth" and to "provide evidence," "back up what you say," with facts and not just the opinions of others. I wonder how firmly this principle is in the minds of our citizenry today. Almost forty years ago during the Ford-Carter presidential debates, President Ford's mistaken assertion that "Poland is not under the influence of Russia" has been considered a significant factor in his losing the election.

Some of those who might have voted for a sitting president were sufficiently disturbed by his apparent ignorance of a political "fact" that they did not vote for Ford. Would any of the many misstatements made by both parties in the present climate of distortions, exaggerations and outright lies have such an effect on the candidacies of politicians today? A report from "FactCheck" indicates that mendacity seems to be a common form of "information" coming from both parties -- yet it has had little, if any, impact on the public.

Perhaps people have been "info-numbed," if I may coin a word. There are so many sources of information and misinformation through the Internet and social networking that it has become increasingly difficult to separate solid facts from misleading opinions. Yet it is vital that the American public educates itself into distinguishing truth from fiction on such issues as global warming, and possible solutions to our economic malaise if we are to deal realistically with the problems that confront us.

Our educational system needs to develop students for which "critical thinking" is not just a buzz word but a rigorous and well-structured form of educating young learners to become independent thinkers, innovators and developers of new ideas. This also means young learners must get "back to basics" in determining the validity of ideas through reasoning and empirical information; not baseless impressions.

What is needed today is a more open view of what an education means: that students learn best when they learn from each other, that the arts, creative thinking, and they learn less when emphasis is given to meaningless testing. What needs to be nurtured is a "knowledge culture" which can give these young learners the tools they need to recognize and deal with the realities of a future in which life styles will be based upon "sustainability" instead of "consumerism." It must be an education not just for our immediate benefit, but also for generations stretching into the next millennium and beyond. We must educate students not to rely on "Magical Thinking" in place of reasoning based on evidence, not fairy tales.

Unless we take seriously the importance of facts and use them as the basis of making informed opinions instead of dealing in "Magical Thinking," our nation will descend into a spiral of self-deception, denial and, scapegoating instead of actually putting our knowledge, skills and ingenuity into solving our problems.