On November 9th of 2007, in Baltimore, Maryland, Thomas Schwandt, professor and Educational Psychology Department Chair at the University of Illinois, delivered the plenary address at the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association before 1,600 of his colleagues. He modestly told us it was very well received. (Others told us he blew the doors off the place.) We here at grippinglyauthentic! came across a revised version of the speech as it was published in the American Journal of Evaluation in 2008, titled “Educating for Intelligent Belief in Evaluation.” It was also quite well received by us. In fact, we were amazed, and decided to do all we could to help what we feel is an important paper, and an important voice, reach beyond the insular circle of academia (have you ever heard of the American Journal of Evaluation?) and into the heads of anyone who feels, as we do, that the critical thinking skills of the public at large are diminishing faster than one can tweet about their favorite breakfast cereal.
Tom’s excellent speech directly addressed so many of our concerns and raised so many questions that we nearly bombarded him, and he was good enough to respond at length with his thoughts on the general themes we raised in our questions. And we happily share his thoughts with you. He was also good enough to share an early version of his speech, which you can read here. It deserves some time. You can also find out more about the published speech, and subscribe to the journal to read the speech here.
And now, grippinglyauthentic! yields the floor to Tom Schwandt:
“I am at best an amateur social theorist, but it does not take the wisdom of Minerva to recognize that social life and public well-being in general these days seems particularly plagued by a set of interrelated problems that, simply for the sake of convenience, I will call a decline in civility, an inability (or unwillingness) to engage in critical thinking, an abandonment of personal responsibility, and a failure of moral courage. These are by no means new problems but they seem to be particularly acute of late. We see them manifest in many ways.
Perhaps most notable of late is the decline in civil behavior. The ratcheting up of rhetoric in the health care debate, the substitution of fear mongering for facts and reason, Joe Wilson’s outburst, etc. are but the latest examples. Last week, my local paper featured two stories that, juxtaposed, make my point. One was a op ed column by Leonard Pitts, Jr. on the shouting, threats, and general chaos that has erupted in town hall meetings over health care—a story carried in the NY Times and elsewhere—as well as the fear mongering, notably Sarah Palin’s Facebook claim that Democrats are posing a downright evil health care system in which the fate of the elderly and disabled would be decided by government ‘death panels.’ The other was an AP news story reporting a study that appeared in JAMA indicating that offering end-of-life counseling to dying cancer patients improves their mood and quality of life. Put side-by-side the two stories tell the story—civil unruliness instead of reasoned debate; the abandonment of the hard work necessary for careful critical thought in favor of easily championed and shouted ideology. Of course, I am all for civil protest—democracy is messy. But civil protest is not equivalent to incivility. Civil protest has a real place in altering the way we think about what it is right to do—a powerful case in point is the loud and very visible protest of AIDS activists in the early 1990s. That kind of protesting, that challenged scientists to take patients’ perspectives seriously, changed the science of the treatment of AIDS.
“Spin on both political and scientific issues has reached an art form. It is clearly a bipartisan undertaking, and it is, paradoxically, both fostered and checked by the proliferation of weblogs.”
From “Educating for Intelligent Belief in Evaluation”
I see the kind of incivility I speak of above linked to an inability or unwillingness to engage in critical thinking, that is the capacity to make reasoned arguments based on logic and evidence. Shouting and screaming talking points that one has been provided is far easier than doing some hard thinking and reasoned analysis and engaging in discussion and debate. No real new news here either—the anti-intellectualism of the American public is an old story (but most recently updated by Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason). Chris Mooney’s recent entry on American’s scientific illiteracy, Unscientific America, is a current case in point of the inability of citizens in general and many professionals as well to evaluate evidence. For a view of how to get better at that sort of thing one need only turn to one of the many very accessible books by Joel Best or take a look at statlit.org.