Conspiracy theories have long enjoyed a quirky place in American public life. We’ve questioned whether there was a second shooter when President Kennedy was assassinated, whether the moon landing actually happened, whether Elvis really died, and whether 9-11 was an inside job. Conspiracy theorists alleging UFO cover-ups have been with us for years. Alternatives to the official versions of events have proven to be resilient even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I offer that this is because the conspiracist mindset is inoculated against logic with a sturdy defense mechanism that deftly and almost automatically eschews problematic evidence.

Today, frighteningly, the conspiracy theorists’ bread-and-butter—this oft-tortuous and perhaps subconscious denial of contradictory evidence and easy embrace (and eager promulgation) of even the most questionable of supporting proofs—is threatening to own the American mind.

Don’t like what the news says? Allege a media conspiracy and dismiss everything they say as skewed and unreliable. Don’t like what the polls say? Allege a pollsters’ conspiracy and dismiss everything they say. Don’t like what the jobs report says? Allege a Bureau of Labor Statistics conspiracy. Don’t like what Politifact says? Allege a fact checker conspiracy. Don’t like what Snopes says? Allege a conspiracy. Don’t like what the fossil record says? You know what to do, and even Bill Nye the Science Guy can’t do anything about it.

I am hereby alleging a conspiracy conspiracy. I think people are conspiring to make up new conspiracies almost on a daily basis. We don’t believe in arriving at conclusions anymore; instead, we believe in pre-conclusions, and we search through a vast buffet of data and figures and studies and anecdotes (especially anecdotes, because you can find an anecdote to support any proposition) until we find the ones that bolster what needs bolstering.

Anti-empiricism is suddenly mainstream American thinking. Evidence is no longer to be studied or even casually examined if it contradicts a preferred conclusion; it is to be eschewed. It is to be shunned; it is to be dodged with rhetorical pirouettes worthy of Barry Sanders.

We are quickly forgetting how to deal honestly with reality, or else we are choosing to believe that pesky fair-mindedness is no longer necessary. Our politicians change stories and their positions on issues like they change planes; they flagrantly tell us the opposite of what the facts tell us. Perhaps our minds have been bombarded with no-holds-barred mendacious rhetoric for so long that our ear for truth has been corrupted, like a person who’s drunk Diet Coke for so long that regular Coke tastes funny now. Or perhaps we’ve become too lazy to double-check those who dole out pleasant theories with a gloss of carefully-selected supporting detail. Or maybe it’s that the rise of the internet has made painstaking one-sided arguments so easily accessible that we all walk around fooled about much of what we think we know.

The development of critical thinking skills is more important now than ever, in my estimation. Yet our education policies have pushed math and reading to the center—and courses in logic, ethics, and debate down a flight of stairs. American graduates may know some math and science, but they’ve got “I’m a sucker” stamped on their foreheads. National voices nonetheless insist that we create more scientists and mathematicians to fill the future’s jobs or else China and India will get them all and destroy our way of life. My view is that we stand in far greater need of ethical, logical, courageous leaders than engineers, so they can save us from a more dangerous alliance than any found in Asia: that of the American CEO and politician.

We need Socrates and Aristotle to show us the way forward; we need them to come and silence imposter public intellectuals who have taught us not to discover, but to merely accept.

There is overwhelming scientific agreement that the globe is heating up, and that this is caused primarily by man made pollutants in the atmosphere. Despite the consensus among people who have professionally studied the earth’s systems for their entire adult lifetimes, a full-court press from business interests who are more profitable if they pollute has convinced an alarmingly high percentage of Americans to dismiss the scientists’ findings. Phooey on the evidence, we say, as our crops bake. And this same pattern has played out over and over again in modern life. A number of people are choosing to believe, for example, that vaccines cause autism, over the protestations of medical professionals.

Anti-empiricism is very much at play in our school reform debates as well.

We are told that competition will make our schools better, never mind the fact that it didn’t in Chile. Or in Milwaukee. We are told that more charter schools are desperately needed, even though Stanford University’s groundbreaking study found charters twice as likely to under perform (37%) rather than outperform (17%) traditional schools. We are told that merit pay will improve the quality of teaching, even though scientific studies have consistently found otherwise. (Also here and here. For a more enjoyable piece of evidence, see this video of Dan Pink’s treatment of motivation. For a study suggesting that the “loss aversion” variant of merit pay does work, see here.) Despite the cries of dissenters, merit pay for teachers, charter school expansion, and voucher/tax credit schemes are all moving full steam ahead all over the country, ample contradictory evidence notwithstanding.

In the push to re-make our education system, we are seeing a fight over ideology raging across the land. Public school systems and the students and teachers who inhabit them are simply collateral damage. And so are factual precision and the honest consideration of data.

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