Inquirer or Ideologue? Make the Right Choice

[The first version of this essay appeared as a Point of View essay, in the Raleigh News and Observer, 27 Sept, 2004.

  • An election year, such as 2004, alas, generates the very worst in American politicians. We're bombarded with mindless, often groundless rhetoric, designed to appeal to bigotry, fear, ignorance, emotions, impressions, and images—not a very inspiring model of rational democracy. In self-defense, many people simply tune out the computerized phone calls, the television attack ads, and the increased volume of political junk mail. We become less, not better-informed, voters.
  • But what if you do you care about your country's future (not to mention the rest of the world)? What if you would like to move beyond the partisan attacks and misinformation to a reasoned appraisal of the evidence? I suggest the following typology that may help direct you toward a more rational approach to the political messages overwhelming us all. You may find it useful in identifying the tactics of those trying to influence your voting behavior. In fact, the same approach can benefit any evaluative judgment that you have to make, from evaluating data in your sociology class to purchasing life insurance or stocks.
  • A fundamental issue in evaluating information is to identify whether it flows from a partisan ideologue or an inquiring intellectual. The following chart provides a snapshot of the two approaches.

    Partisan Ideologue

    Intellectual Inquirer

    deductive inductive
    pat answers probing questions
    mental rigidity mental flexibility
    appeal to authority open, honest inquiry
    static certainty adaptable ambivalence
    past as ashes past as prologue
    monocausal multi-causal
    dualistic, reductionist multiplistic, complexity
    knowledge is received knowledge is constructed
    selective evidence comprehensive evidence
    partisan, vested interest strives for objectivity
    emotional, “I feel” rational, critical thinking

  • Many people prefer to cling to ingrained prejudices rather than to expend the time and energy necessary to research and analyze issues. Many prefer a brief talk radio sound bite to the intellectual probing required to uncover real issues and real evidence. The reasons for this intellectual laziness are many. But one reason is that many people have not acquired the tools to evaluate information critically. Some mental sweat equity is necessary to move us from a knee-jerk ideological mindset toward a thoughtful engagement of all the evidence.
  • Operating as an ideologue rather than an inquirer has many advantages. An ideologue don't need facts, because a set-in-cement belief system provides ready-made answers. An ideologue operates deductively, contorting and ignoring evidence, selecting only what fits preconceived views. Any ideology, whether based on religion, cult, philosophy, or simple partisanship, encourages a narrow, uncritical view of the world. The ideologue, often hostile to intellectual inquiry, frequently appeals to “common sense,” which is very uncommon and rarely sensible.
  • Ideologues tend toward dualism, what Harvard educator William G. Perry correctly identified as the most primitive level of cognitive development. Everything is black-and-white; events have a single, clear cause. As John Wayne put it, “if everything isn't black and white, I say why the hell not.” The ideologue's wordview consists of unsophisticated, uncomplicated pat answers, mental rigidity, and static certainties. “Don't bother me with the facts; my mind's made up.”
  • In contrast, an inquirer revels in pursing questions, pondering often-contradictory data, and developing the mental flexibility to reconcile a mass of evidence into a coherent, fact-based pattern. Perry suggested that educators help students move from a naive, simplistic worldview toward what he called a “Commitment to Critical Evaluation.” This commitment includes the recognition that most events have multiple causes. The critical thinker digs up and evaluates all available evidence rather than cherry picking what fits one's ideology. The critical thinker inductively develops conclusions that flow from the evidence, even if they conflict with his/her assumptions and wishes. The critical thinker strives to uncover the fundamental facet of a problem rather than to stuff the evidence into a simple-minded, pre-conceived box.
  • Beyond helping one evaluate the sources and content of incoming information, being an intellectual inquirer has other advantages. In Striving for Excellence in College, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley argue that successful students exhibit “(1) the ability to think critically, to distinguish sense from relative nonsense and (2) the ability to think creatively, to generate new ideas and connections among ideas.” The latter quality, creative thinking, nicely complements critical thinking. It allows one to move beyond parroting grammar school clichés to constructing a more meaningful, reasoned, logical worldview. But one does not have to sit in a classroom to work on such cognitive skills. Each day's newspaper and television news offers ample material for anyone to practice critical inquiry. Practice! Work toward achieving Benjamin Bloom's highest levels of cognitive activity, the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of complex information.
  • Uncertainty and complexity frighten many people. However, instead serving as a roadblock or source of frustration, conflicting evidence, the gray areas of life, can stimulate creative thought and help us conceive new concepts and solutions, So, next time you listen to a television, radio, or newspaper pundit, ask yourself, “is this an ideological party line?” or “has this person actually analyzed all the evidence?” Regrettably, in most cases, you'll conclude the former. That means that it falls to you, the intellectual inquirer, to sift and evaluate the evidence necessary to being an informed, rational voter. If we fail in this task, we fail our country and its democratic principles.