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Maarten van Swaay / May 27, 2014

Thought and Slogans

In reaction to a recent column by George Will, “An Address We’ll Never Hear”:

As usual, Mr. Will writes lucidly, and what he writes appeals to me. No news there. The view he presents reminded me of Richard Feynman’s book “The Meaning Of It All.” In its first (of only three) chapters Mr. Feynman argues that anybody who either expects his audience to believe he ‘knows it all,’ or makes vague and dubious promises, thereby disqualifies himself from office. Mr. Feynman’s book is based on a set of three lectures he gave in 1963. Mr. Will’s view is quite current, but far from new.

Then what makes Mr. Will a bit nostalgic about the hope – which he recognizes as vain – that some future president will indeed give a speech such as Mr. Will suggests? One may expect that the current style of political aspirants is ‘market-tested’ in the sense that it appears to be successful in swaying the voting public. That is no compliment to that public: one would have to conclude that slogans and (unsupported) promises trump information.

Slogans offer no space for judgment or nuance; those whose actions rest on slogans can therefore be little more than unthinking automata. Promises are cheap, especially when they are tacitly understood – and tolerated – as empty. But (sound) judgment is precisely what we need from those who claim to have the competence – and integrity – to govern.

It was not always thus: the writings (which likely reflect speeches) of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and much later Lincoln and Churchill aimed at informing the public. Then what changed, why, and how?

There was a time when the expected emphasis in schools was summarized as “three R’s.” It may well be that the perceived, but of course not the actual importance of those three skills has been reduced. TV has discouraged reading, Twitter has discouraged writing, and calculators have discouraged study of ‘math’ – in scare quotes because mathematics covers much more than the simple arithmetic that calculators can do. But the three R’s served a more fundamental and more important purpose: they cultivated the skill of analysis and critical thought. Today those skills are usually referred to as ‘scientific,’ with often more than a whiff of condescension.

Science does not have a monopoly on critical analysis: that faculty is equally indispensable in the humanities, in economics, in politics, in all of life. Science is possibly much less forgiving toward sloppy thinking than other disciplines: it is defined as the study of the testable. Hence scientific observation – experiment – will almost always expose the flaws emerging from sloppy thinking: ‘reality will intrude.’

This intrusion of reality can help us stay on track; we ignore it at our peril. But reality is precisely what is missing from too much political ‘debate’ today. Without reality – and the habit of observation needed to recognize it – analysis becomes untestable, thought is drowned by dogma, and debate is drowned by dictate.

Professor Maarten van Swaay retired from Kansas State University in 1995. He can be reached at [email protected]

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