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Reviving the power of questioning

POSTED September 11, 2012 1:49 p.m.

With the 2012 Presidential Election just around the corner, the American public is caught in the midst of a torrent of propaganda. As the popular trend of politicians fashioning their own facts abounds, folks here and around the nation encounter the same issue: what are we supposed to take to heart?  

I think the newer generation is hit hardest by this difficult decision. They’re the most impressionable, having only recently been exposed to the world of politics and the real world for that matter, and are ready to be swept up on any current of popular opinion. I’ve experienced quite a few instances in which young individuals have taken strong stances on issues they’ve came across in the news, but then stumble when the time arrives to defend those positions.

Generally, the root of this problem can be traced back to a lack of foundation. While it is perfectly acceptable to feel strongly about a particular issue, it is equally essential to have a decent foundation for that opinion. And perhaps the best tool for forming such a basis for opinions is, as simple as may it sound, meaningful questioning.

The apparently widespread aversion to questioning nowadays astounds me. There seems to be something safe about accepting an idea, something trouble-free about just swallowing the information presented and continuing on through life. Our thought process generally runs, didn’t someone somewhere sometime think that idea through, investigate it, and discern its validity? Wouldn’t it be counterintuitive to repeat that process? But the grim truth is, the continuity of such complacent attitudes could easily spell out a recipe for mindlessness.

While researching this question of why we fail to question, I was fascinated when I came across a variety of sources detailing the infamous “bathtub hoax.”American journalist H. L. Mencken, who spoke openly about the gullibility of the American public back in the early 1900s, decided to experiment by publishing an essay called “A Neglected Anniversary,” which touched on the specifics about the invention of the bathtub and its establishment in homes. The catch? Nearly every so-called fact in the essay was entirely fabricated. Just as Mencken had expected, the American public wholeheartedly accepted the information in his essay and eventually pieces of it were even quoted in scholarly publications. Mencken finally released a statement revealing the prank over three decades later, labeling his experiment a “success” and shaming the public for failing to catch on sooner.

Some folks might argue that the public had every right to trust Mencken’s essay considering it was published in the widely-regarded New York Evening Mail, but nevertheless the danger of settling for acceptance is evident. The lesson still applies today: take a moment to pause, to examine each matter, to pry open the possibilities and implications. Your intellectual side will thank you.

For the record, I don’t think it’s fair to characterize Americans as entirely credulous. I know we still have some sense of assessing information for ourselves, but these times have simply buried that beneath larger sentiments of trust and docility.

 

 After all, we are a nation born out of dissent; our heroic Fathers prided on their power to contradict authority and the beliefs of the time. Indeed, especially from a historical perspective, skepticism and inquisitiveness stimulate society’s intellectualism and growth. I can only hope that remembrance of this will lead to that revival of questioning so necessary for our collective progress in the eras to come.

Daniel Flage, the author of “The Art of Questioning: An Introduction to Critical Thinking,” puts it well: “In the Information Age, we are bombarded with claims and counter-claims. There are the usual suspects who would have us accept their claims at face value: advertisers, politicians, pundits, and assorted purveyors of linguistic legerdemain.  The Internet provides information on virtually any issue, and, as we know, the overwhelming majority of it should be ignored.  And there are numerous people―all of us at one time or another―who unwittingly present hearsay evidence as if it were indubitable truth.  What is a person to do?”

No doubt, Americans today remain immersed in a sea of information, accurate and not. For those of us uneasy about this reality we face, I can only offer a small but powerful piece of advice for preserving our intellectual safety: take to the world with a critical eye; learn, discern, and decide for yourself. Uncanny as it may seem, that little skepticism, that little disbelief intermingled with a burning sense of inquiry, may be the only thing in these chaotic times that’ll keep us moving onward towards truth.

 

  — Henna Hundal is a high school student and resident of Turlock. She writes a monthly column on matters related to youth and our society.

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