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and how to solve it

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government,
except all the others that have been tried.” - Winston Churchill

Let’s get straight to the point: democracy is the best form of government humans have ever had. And it doesn't work. Because, in order to work, democracy requires an educated and informed demos, as well as adequately qualified and competent election candidates. If one of these requirements is missing, then we have a problem. And if both are missing well, then we get Trump, Brexit, Vučić, et cetera.

We see the same things over and over again, in countless examples throughout history. Bad and inadequate people make their way to power and destroy lives, destroy countries, while ordinary and generally good people vote for such harmful candidates, indirectly destroying not only their own lives, but the lives of countless others as well.

Yet, democracy is just another drop in the bucket of human problems: global warming, environmental damage, violence, extreme poverty, pandemics, extensive refugee streams, homophobia, xenophobia, chauvinism, creationism and other anti-science movements, fraudulent alternative medicine, et cetera. And all these problems, regardless of how different they may be, have one single common root cause: flawed human reasoning.

In order to prove this, let us look at something called a philosophical argument. As written in Wikipedia: "In philosophy and logic, an argument is a series of statements typically used to persuade someone of something or to present reasons for accepting a conclusion. The general form of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion."

Simply put, a philosophical argument consists of two or more premises which lead to a conclusion. In other words, an argument is a process of reaching conclusions or making decisions, based on available information. Sounds a lot like plain reasoning, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s quickly go over the two problems with this process. The first one is rather obvious, we make a mistake and draw a conclusion that is not supported by our premises. If we draw a parallel to mathematics, it would be like solving 2+2 to be 7. The second problem is a bit more tricky, we draw a conclusion that really is supported by our premises, but one premise was false and thus our conclusion, although logically valid, is also false. Again, drawing a parallel to mathematics, this would be like solving an equation X+2, for X=2, and getting 4 only to find out that X was actually 5.

This all sounds relatively simple, but this is where the fun starts. The conclusions we make become premises for new philosophical arguments, creating a chain that grows bigger and bigger with time. If we make a mistake in one argument and draw a false conclusion, we are at risk of using that conclusion as a premise in another philosophical argument later on, causing us to inevitably draw yet another false conclusion. This then repeats each time we use any of those false conclusions as new premises, snowballing down a steep slope of bad conclusions.

And bad conclusions equal bad decisions, which is how all human problems start. Because every single decision and action, since the dawn of our species, was a product of a philosophical argument. Every single decision. Every single action. Ever.

Throwing a rock at a Pride Parade is a product of a conclusion that supports such an action. Denying global warming is a product of a conclusion that supports such a position. Demanding abortion to be made illegal is a product of a conclusion that supports such a request. Et cetera, ad infinitum.

Whether those conclusions did not follow from their premises, or whether the premises themselves were false, is actually irrelevant. In the end, the root cause of any human problem is always bad conclusions. Therefore, in order to solve any human problem at all, we must solve the problem of faulty reasoning.

So, how do we solve the problem of faulty reasoning? The answer is simple: education.

Critical Thinking class

Homo sapiens sapiens non sapiens est.

We humans are simply not good at logical thinking. And this is unfortunately very natural and thus understandable. As Sam Harris explained, we have not evolved to be perfect at math or logic. We have evolved to recognize emotion in another monkey's face, and to throw an object in a parabola some distance away and hit a moving target. And as Michael Shermer observed, we are all descendants of people who survived due to faulty reasoning. Millennia ago, if one hears a sound in the bush, one can either conclude that it is a threat and run away, or stay to examine it. Making a mistake in the first case means assured survival. A mistake in the second case leads to potential death. Not many scientifically inclined and curious individuals survived, yet all those that made bad conclusions based on insufficient evidence survived to reproduce further.

Today, however, we have an exactly opposite situation. No more threats from bushes, but actual undeniable threats from mistakes in reasoning, especially when those mistakes are made by a large enough percentage of the population. Perfect examples of such cases are Brexit and Trump.

In every civilized country, education is mostly focused on both language and math, as it should be. These two subjects arguably being the most important ones. However, even though these two subjects are very important, they are not the only ones. Logic, which literally is “math with words”, is at best brushed upon at some point during education, or is missing entirely from the curriculum. And thus, while everyone and anyone involved with education will so often repeat the phrase “we must teach children how to think, not what to think”, the one thing that no one actually does, is teach children how to think.

That phrase has become quite a cliché, but I actually do believe that it is possible to teach humans how to think. We just have to approach that problem backwardly. Don’t teach people how to think, but rather teach them how not to think. In other words, teach people how to recognize mistakes in their reasoning. Teach them about all the known mistakes, how and why they occur, what causes them and how they can be recognized and most importantly prevented.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

- Winston Churchill

Let's provisionally call this class Critical Thinking. This subject should be emphasized in schools equally as much as language and math currently are. This should make mathematics, language and critical thinking to be the three pillars of education, the three most important things we can ever teach to our children.

In addition, this same class must also be available for adults who did not have it as part of their education, and it must be completely free. This can be accomplished with night classes or with online lectures, both written and video.

The Critical Thinking class should focus on these 5 concepts:

  1. Amygdala hijack (wikipedia)
  2. Cognitive dissonance (wikipedia)
  3. Cognitive inertia (wikipedia)
  4. Logical fallacies (wikipedia)
  5. Cognitive biases (wikipedia)

The first three concepts are singular. They could be covered in one or two lessons, each. The last two concepts are actually groups. According to some sources there are more than 300 known logical fallacies and more than 150 known cognitive biases. That is more than enough material to be covered in both primary and secondary school. One possible way of organizing this curriculum would be to teach logical fallacies in primary, and cognitive biases in secondary school, while the first three concepts would be repeated in both, but this is outside the scope of this text.

Of course, the introduction of this new subject in schools cannot solve problems overnight. In fact, it may not solve some of the problems at all. For those, further steps would be required. That is actually the case with democracy. As we all know, the fact that we have mathematics in schools, does not mean that we are all human calculators. On the contrary. The same must be expected in the case of this new subject called Critical Thinking. We can not expect that all humans will suddenly become expert logicians.

We can certainly expect this new class to significantly reduce problems and increase the overall percentage of good conclusion in humans. But, bad conclusions will still remain, which means that the possibility of having bad candidates and bad voters will still remain. And this is precisely why democracy fails.

Given that the problem of bad candidates, once the Critical Thinking class is implemented and ran for several years, is much more likely to still occur, let us tackle that one first. And here too, the solution is again simple: testing.

Competence tests
for political office

No matter how much we improve the critical thinking skills of our demos, we still have the problem of incompetent candidates running for office. Currently, literally anyone can run for a political office. All they need is to be convincing. Whether this is done through lying, charisma or actual facts is completely irrelevant. The only test for political office is popularity. But being popular does not mean being politically competent.

Therefore, our goal must be to prevent incompetent candidates from running for office. To accomplish this, we must introduce obligatory critical thinking and political competency tests for all politicians. The critical thinking test would examine their ability to think and reason properly, while the political competency test would verify their knowledge of political principles and how the country actually works, its laws, tax system, economy, et cetera. These tests, and only the results of those who passed, would be a matter of public record and openly accessible to anyone.

Failing either test would prevent one from running for any public office. If one is unable to think critically and logically, one should certainly not be allowed to make decisions that affect other people's lives. Equally so, if one is not familiar with how the country works, one must not be allowed to meddle in it.

However, both tests can be retaken indefinitely, without limits. People must be allowed th eopportunity to improve for as long as they desire to do so.

With the Critical Thinking class and these political competency tests both in place for several years, we would be on our way to having a political system that is almost entirely foolproof. Almost being the key word here, because there would still be a chance, albeit a small one, that an evil candidate would successfully pass the tests and fool enough gullible voters to obtain power.

This is where we come to the most controversial proposal: tests for voters.

Public Critical Thinking tests

Isn’t it common sense to have a population with common sense?

As we already mentioned before, the fact that children are taught something in school does not mean that they will all master it or even learn it at all, unfortunately. Therefore, it is entirely conceivable that a certain percentage of the population will still not be abe to think critically and will thus make a significant number of bad decisions. Ultimately, these people could vote for those rare candidates who managed to pass the political tests but are still going to do harm once in power.

There is no easy solution here. But there are a few possibilities, ranging from somewhat subtle to pretty radical.

The general idea is the introduction a critical thinking test for voters. The differences in various approaches are in how we impose that test to the public and how we handle those who fail it. One thing to emphasize is that in all of the different approaches there is one common rule, and that is that the voters must be allowed to retake this critical thinking test indefinitely, without limits.

Now, as long as humans believe that their thinking skills are either perfect or good enough, they not only will never make the effort to improve, but they will actually actively fight against it. Therefore, seeing their results of the critical thinking test is the only way that they could ever realize that their thinking skills are not perfect and that they really do need to improve them.

Most subtle approach would be to make the critical thinking test completely voluntary, and merely suggest to voters that they should take it, ultimately leaving the choice to them. The test results would be given to them with a recommendation whether to vote or not, depending on their score.

An in-between approach would be to make the critical thinking test obligatory, but still to not prevent those who fail from voting. They would also receive a recommendation with their results, whether to vote or not, depending on their score.

Finally, the most radical approach would be make the critical thinking test obligatory and to disallow voting to those who failed it. They can still retake the test as many times as they wish, and once they pass, they would then be allowed to vote. Naturally, this option is the most controversial one.

At this stage, I am inclined to see the middle approach as the best one, which would then have to be closely monitored and most importantly properly scientifically studied, in order to determine its success and decide if another option is maybe better.

Whatever the approach, those who fail the test, as well as those who passed but are not satisfied with their results, must be given all necessary tools and opportunities required for improving their critical thinking skills. From affordable books and night classes, to completely free on-line material and lessons in both written and video form. The one thing that is not open for debate here is the fact that we must do everything in our power to help people improve their thinking skills.

What kind of a man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government?
Apart from, say, the average voter?

- Terry Pratchet

Now, allow me to elaborate on this last controversial proposal properly.

Voting is considered one of the basic human rights in a democracy. Limiting that right in any way is almost always considered a form of fascism. Yet, this cannot be further from the truth. Our initial gut reaction to such a proposal is taught, not reasoned, and is thus, ironically, just another logical fallacy.

Driving is also a basic human right in civilized countries. So is the freedom to practice medicine, or be a teacher, et cetera. Yet, no one can sit in a car and just drive it, or walk into a hospital and just operate on people. No one can walk into a school and just teach. We are all required to prove that we are capable of performing a task that affects others before we are allowed to perform it.

Let me say that again: We are all required to prove that we are capable of performing a task that affects others.

Think about that fact for a second.

If we do some such task without first proving our competency for it and without having a document that confirms that competency, we are punished, both as a lesson to ourselves but also as a deterrent to others. Every aspect of social interaction where someone's actions affect others requires a proof of competence. Yet voting does not. Why?

If someone is obviously going to do harm to others, isn’t it our obligation to prevent that? Isn’t that the very definition of a civilized society?

If voting was something that affected only the person voting, then my argument would be a clear non-starter. But this is not the case. People voting for incompetent leaders do not only harm themselves, they also harm countless others. And to prevent that, to prevent voters from being lied to and from being fooled into giving some incompetent leader the power to destroy lives, we need to both prevent such incompetent leaders from even attempting to gain power, we need to empower voters to recognize when they are being lied to, but we also must prevent incompetent voters from harming the entire population.

I claim that the above proposals solve all of those problems.

And I am strongly convinced that, if we manage to realize at the least the Critical Thinking class within our lifetime, we would very soon see an improvement that none of us could ever imagine.

Why Socrates Hated Democracy