The Republican Party of Texas put the following into its 2012 platform:
We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
Contacted by TPM on Thursday, Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Communications Director Chris Elam said the “critical thinking skills” language made it into the platform by mistake.
“[The chairman of the Education Subcommittee] indicated that it was an oversight of the committee, that the plank should not have included ‘critical thinking skills’ after ‘values clarification,’” Elam said. “And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills.”
Elam said the members of the subcommittee “regret” the oversight, but because the mistake was part of the platform approved by the convention, “it cannot be corrected until the next state convention in 2014.”
The teleological drive – the desire to not merely make, but rather to perceive inherent purpose in the world – influences a myriad of adult human behavior. Such behavior may range from conspiracy theories to abstract philosophical works, but even “scientists” may falter. […]
Both Darwin and Freud introduced highly disconcerting models of thought for a world hitherto predicated on the teleological. The theory of evolution and the unconscious seemed to queer many of the most ingrained human conceptions of purpose and control. However, the drive toward Why Must!? is not easily banished, and rather than die out, it burrowed into the very concepts that threatened it. Little wonder then that many of us today conceive of evolution as Nature’s architect and regard the unconscious (our Id) as an insidious competitor-agent. In such a teleological worldview, emotions such as sadness are no longer random behavioral traits. Rather, they become adaptive instinct, forged by Nature to guide humanity and distinguish intuitively between right and wrong.
All good so far, but what’s this about?
Although the following statement risks being unscientific, what all the aforementioned seems to imply is that human beings have a strong teleological instinct, a propensity for asking Why? and Why Must!? Our obsession with perceiving (and thus ascribing) purpose most likely arose as an adaptive trait in an inter-human, social context. With such complex brains, humans are capable of countless emotional affections and a perhaps infinite array of varied behavior. To perceive someone teleologically is to see and comprehend his intent, his consciousness in relation to one’s own. The comprehension of intent offers security from the innumerable and seemingly purposeless actions humans may exhibit. On an anthropological level, teleology would seem to benefit the formation of complex, social structures, wherein the determination of purpose serves to regulate and maintain varied levels of production and class. The agency-attribution error supports the notion that teleology is an instinct “made” for humans, the only beings with an agenda, that is, capable of being purposeful agents. Both scientists and laymen would do well to remember the influence this artificial instinct has on thought and language. After all, if language-cognition arose under a teleological context (that is, a human-social context), all semantics must contain, invoke, and conceal a Why Must!?
Sure, it’s possible that there’s an evolutionary function of the teleological impulse (I’ll call it an impulse since we don’t know that it’s actually an instinct) – but we should remember that evolution only selects for “good enough,” not necessarily “optimal.” The teleological impulse may be a side effect of our ability to determine cause and effect (which does seem to serve an evolutionary function) and serve no actual function. We’ve made it this far with it, so it hasn’t been selected out – just like many other harmful human behaviors.
Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.
Second, it’s based on flawed logic. It begs the question by assuming that a proponent of an action must prove that the nightmare scenario is impossible.
Third, it can be used to support any position or its opposite. If we build a nuclear power plant, it could melt down. If we don’t build it, we will run short of power and society will collapse into anarchy. If we allow flights near Iceland’s volcanic ash, planes will crash and people will die. If we don’t, organs won’t arrive in time for transplant operations and people will die. If we don’t invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein might use the nuclear weapons he might have. If we do, we might destabilize the Middle East, leading to widespread violence and death.
Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planet is bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.
Robin Hanson, quite the contrarian himself, offers contrarians some advice:
On average, contrarian views are less accurate than standard views. Honest contrarians should admit this, that neutral outsiders should assign most contrarian views a lower probability than standard views, though perhaps a high enough probability to warrant further investigation. […]
He goes on to list a few common but inadequate contrarian defenses and offers critiques of each:
1. They Laughed At Galileo Too
2. Standard Experts Are Biased
3. We’ve More Detail Than Critics
4. Few Who Study Us Disagree