The current labels – Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative and elitist/populist – that we assign to ourselves and others, especially in these confusing, turbulent political and economic times, describe what we think but not how we think.
The additional labels of “wishful thinker” or “critical thinker”, however, better reflect how we understand reality and why we make the decisions we do. Wishful thinkers do not understand reality and usually make poor choices.
Wishful thinkers believe that what is psychologically comforting will come true. Their decisions are based on hope rather than on what is supported by evidence and rationality. It is therefore a thinking disorder that leads to risky and dangerous behaviors.
Critical thinkers, on the other hand, have learned to think properly. They see the cold realities of the world, avoiding emotion in favor of a scientific-like method to gain knowledge (rather than belief) on which to base their decisions.
Sarah Palin’s nomination, the war in Iraq and the current economic crisis exemplify the scope and the seriousness of the problems that wishful thinking creates.
Sen. John McCain is a wishful thinker to have selected someone for high office he hardly knew and whose credentials for the position are meager at best. Palin is a wishful thinker to consider herself qualified for this position. (She did have the chance to truthfully say, “Thanks but no thanks.”)
The millions of McCain and Palin supporters are therefore wishful thinkers. (Whether she eventually becomes a fine vice-president or even president is irrelevant to this observation)
President Bush was a wishful thinker to have thought the Iraq war was justified (with intelligence reports stating that both WMDs and al-Qaeda were not in Iraq); to have thought the Iraqi people would have welcomed us as liberators; to be sure the “surge” will ultimately work; and that a lasting victory is attainable.
Critical thinkers concluded the war was unjustified; knew the Iraqi population would consider us an occupation force; and realized that ultimate victory will be unattainable since Islam and democracy are, by definition, incompatible.
As for the “surge”, it is working, many think, in the same manner as a domestic dispute is temporarily quieted while the police are in the living room and incentives are given to the combatants to temporarily “keep the peace.”
Co-habitants who hate each other usually resume fighting once the cops leave the scene and the incentives are no longer forthcoming. Iraq will be no different.
Millions of average-income Americans were wishfully thinking they could afford high-priced homes. Brokers and Wall Street executives were equally wishfully thinking that these transactions would not turn toxic and somehow not cause a calamity in their firms or in the global economy.
Critical thinkers understand that capitalism without governmental regulations, oversight and enforcement inevitably leads to excesses and corruption necessitating rescue or bailout by the taxpayers.
These examples illustrate that wishful thinking is rampant and dangerous. It is a consequence of inadequate and/or improper education.
The antidote to wishful thinking is critical thinking (correct thinking). Children are not born with the ability to think critically beyond survival-level thinking. Critical thinking is a learned and teachable skill.
Therefore schools must be encouraged to promote critical thinking in all area of the curriculum. Public figures who make decisions (especially for us) based on wishful thinking should be criticized if not removed from their positions.
While wishful thinking has been romanticized as a harmless and acceptable approach to decision making, our reality has confirmed otherwise.
Dr. Gilbert D. Shapiro is a Tucson podiatrist and foot surgeon.