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The Death of Independent Thought   December 14th, 2008
Are people afraid to challenge their beliefs?       


More observations...

A very educational, interesting, and entertaining (in a perverse way) aspect of writing articles here on my website is seeing how others respond to them. From time to time I use Google to see what websites and message forums are referring to articles on this website. Usually when someone links to one of my articles, they're asking for others to offer feedback on my positions or they're using my articles as a reference to support an assertion they're making. That is, of course, flattering. But where it gets interesting is reading the responses to those that link to my articles.

Reading some of these responses has led me to fear that independent thought in this country is very possibly dying... or dead.

Some Examples

The article that I've written that is most commonly referenced is the Myth of the Clinton Surplus. That article refutes the commonly held belief that Clinton had a surplus and Bush turned it into a deficit. I later wrote a follow-up article that explained the government accounting that allowed Clinton to claim a surplus when he really had a deficit; and I wrote a second follow-up article that showed that Clinton wasn't the only president to benefit from this goofy government accounting--he just happened to be the only one to claim a surplus using these dubious accounting rules.

Each of these articles was researched and provides links and supporting references to back up the assertions and conclusions. The article that explained the government accounting under which Clinton claimed a surplus literally took weeks of analyzing federal receipts and outlays for fiscal year 2000 to decipher how the numbers added up.

Yet as I search out sites and message forums where my articles are being discussed, I find responses such as:
  • "Can you provide a link to statistics (A .gov site would be best) to support this? And no a conservative electrical engineer's blog does not count."

  • "The guy who made that "Clinton surplus" site is a douche and he doesn't understand the difference between a deficit and a surplus."

  • "You call yourself unbiased and then post propaganda from a KNOWN rightwing LIAR and you think anyone is STUPID enough to take you seriously."

  • "You'll forgive me if I dont take the analysis of "Common Sense American Conservatism" at face value. Especially when the person dispensing the "common sense" is an electrical engineer... I would assume that the totals had not been added together but not being involved with the process of generating these statistics I couldn't answer for sure."

  • "the .gov link that you gave is for debt not the deficit, are you really this stupid? and the craigsteiner.us website is obviously making stuff up"

  • "You can clearly see Clinton's surpluses by month. He had a deficit surplus at the end of his term. I'll gladly show you the math if you need it."
I'm not personally offended by any of these comments. In fact, it's somewhat entertaining to be able to write factual articles that provoke such a knee-jerk reaction that causes these people to embarrass themselves--even if they don't realize they are embarrassing themselves.

The first response rejects my article simply because I'm not a "gov" website (even though my articles cite data directly from the government), and apparently that person only trusts the government to report on whether or not the government is being fiscally responsible (a little trusting, is he not?). The second response calls me a "douche" and suggests I don't understand the difference between a deficit and a surplus--though it would have been clear to him that I do understand the difference if he had actually taken the time to read my article (I suspect he only read the first paragraph). The third response calls me a "rightwing liar" but offers no clue as to what he thinks I lied about. The fourth response refuses to consider my case simply because I dared include the header "common sense American conservatism"--but that same response goes on to admit he can't explain why the national debt went up if we had a surplus (he should've read my article instead of looking for excuses to ignore it). The fifth response offers no response other than that I'm apparently "making stuff up" (though offers no specifics as to what he thinks I made up). And the last response is a true gem: Anyone that talks of a "deficit surplus" has no place to condescendingly offer to "explain math" to us.

What all these responses have in common is that it's clear that none of them thoughtfully considered my articles. I think most of them probably didn't get more than a few paragraphs into it and at least a couple probably didn't make it past the first paragraph--heck, the one that complained about "common sense American conservatism" seems to have gotten no further than the tagline before he became more interested in investigating me rather than the facts of the article.

It seems to me that these types of people refuse to consider my articles--or probably any material that contradicts their beliefs--for one (or both) of the following reasons:
  1. Articles of faith. Some of these people, I suspect, simply believe in the myth of the Clinton surplus because they've heard it repeated for so long that they can't even consider the possibility it's not true. Rather than investigate it they find it easier to just ignore it. I suspect that the vast majority of these people have never taken the time to review the federal budget or review the government's receipts and outlays for 2000 and figure out how all the numbers add up. They have simply heard Clinton claim that he had a surplus and they've heard the claim repeated... but how many have actually taken the time to verify it? I'm guessing the number is pretty close to zero.

  2. Partisanship. The other thing that is clearly obvious is that there are those that simply will not read anything that is written by someone they don't agree with. One response refuses to consider the material because the top of my website reads "common sense American conservatism." Another called me a "known rightwing liar"--even though I'm not really all that well-known and I certainly haven't lied about anything in my articles. I've seen the article being discussed on a website for gays--and my analysis of the myth of the Clinton surplus was rejected by some because they disagreed with my position on gay marriage... as if my position on gay marriage had anything at all to do with the accuracy of my analysis of the Clinton "surplus."

The Death of Independent Thought

What the above two points have in common is they both give people an excuse to not consider comments, opinions, or even facts that contradict their political beliefs. I think many times these excuses cause the victims to not even read far enough to realize they're ignoring facts.

I'm not naive: I know not everyone will agree with me. I'm also not so arrogant as to believe that the world will be any worse off if people don't pay attention to my articles.

What does bother me, though, is the repeated examples I see of people refusing to do any independent research themselves. I'm not saying that liberals should blindly believe me and I'm not saying they shouldn't double-check everything I've written. But it seems that there are liberals that simply will not read anything unless it comes from the DailyKos, Clinton, or Obama. And it's not just liberals. Conservatives are often just as guilty of pointing to a source as an excuse not to even research an assertion that contradicts their position. Many a conservative would refuse to read an article at DailyKos for the simple reason that it is DailyKos.

This attitude--both in liberals as well as conservatives--is extremely dangerous. It's so easy for us to find reasons to ignore a competing viewpoint simply because of who professes the viewpoint or where the viewpoint is expressed rather than thoughtfully consider the facts that are presented.

I realized this, in part, when I was researching my article on the financial crisis. I found it pretty close to impossible to find any non-partisan analysis of the crisis--at least back in September when I was investigating it. My only recourse was to read all the commentary and opinion I could find--both conservative and liberal--and then investigate each of the claims made by both sides to find the truth. If I limited myself to conservative analysis my search for the truth would have been decidedly one-sided; same if I had limited myself to liberal analysis.

I think we all need to rediscover the art of research--I, for one, am enjoying it. We all need to challenge our own beliefs--and that is accomplished not by reading articles only by those that we agree with, but also making sure we challenge ourselves by reading material produced by those we most decidedly disagree with. And when we read articles we disagree with, it shouldn't just be so that we can say we read it--it should be active reading which entails reading the material and taking the time to research those claims that we disagree with. When we find two different articles that say different things, we must not just assume that the article we agree with is right--rather we need to research the discrepancy so that we can explain why we're right. Or, if we're wrong, we need to be able to admit that, too.

I believe we'd all be better off if we all did this. But, failing that, I hope at least other conservatives will. We need to know not only why we are right, but also need to be intimately familiar with the beliefs of liberals and know why they are wrong. That will only happen by reading and researching liberal material at least as much as we read conservative material.

We must challenge ourselves: We must read and research both sides of the issues! We'll either change our mind about our position on the issues or we'll significantly reinforce and revalidate the position we already hold. Either way we'll be more knowledgeable about the issues.

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