Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Power of Critical Thinking

One reason I'm so skeptical when people claim that the Internet has somehow sapped our precious critical fluids, and that people are now more credulous than they used to be is that I'm old enough to remember the days before the Internet.  One famous case is that of the petition allegedly filed with the Federal Communication Commission by the atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair to ban all religious broadcasting from the airwaves, so all faithful Christians should write the FCC right now!!!  As Snopes.com explains if you want the details, this hoax goes back to at least 1975, long before the Internet became accessible to ordinary mortals.  Though the hoax was debunked many times, the FCC received more than 30 million pieces of mail decrying the nonexistent attempt to ban religious broadcasting.  That's thirty million, and all without e-mail or Facebook.  It may well be that the Internet has made it easier for such rumors to spread, but word-of-mouth, photocopying machines, and radio evangelists did quite well without microprocessors and fiber optics, thank you very much.  In the absence of evidence that people are more gullible than they used to be -- which I haven't seen, and I don't know how you'd try to prove the claim -- I think it's fair to presume that people have always been willing to believe absurd things.  The history of religion alone gives plenty of evidence in favor of my opinion, and I'm inclined to cite the frequent and unsubstantiated claim that people are more gullible or more stupid than they used to be as more evidence in itself.

I've just begun reading Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms (Aqueduct Press, 2009), which attempts to trace women's participation in the world of science fiction not only through the women who wrote it, but through the women who participated in fandom.  I came across a reference to the book while I was rereading Joanna Russ's The Female Man last month, and so far I'm enjoying it.  Among much else, Merrick recounts the genesis of probably the first women's fanzine, Femizine, in England in the summer of 1954.  Also pre-Internet, you'll notice.  There were three editors, but the editorial manifesto in the first issue "was signed by the main editor, Joan W. Carr 'on behalf of all femme fans' (and co-editors Frances Evans and Ethel Lindsay)" (90).
Reading this zine for evidence of the interests and passions of female fans of the 1950s is, however, complicated by the fact that Joan W. Carr was not, in fact a woman, but a hoax, a fictional persona created by male fan Sandy Sanderson.  While Frances Evans was aware of Carr's real identity, co-editor Lindsay initially was not, and the hoax was not revealed to UK fandom and the readers of Femizine until May 1956 [91].
Femizine turned out to be very popular, drawing up to 100 fan letters for each issue.  (The letters pages of sf magazines and fanzines back then were the forerunners of the computer bulletin board and Usenet decades later, both in terms of their style and of their demographic.)  The editors exploded the hoax themselves in the summer 1956 issue, and to their relief, "fannish reaction to the hoax was not the catastrophe Evans and Lindsay feared ... That the response of women fans was not as bad as the editors feared may have been due to the fact that many had secretly not found "Joan" as enticing as the men [did]."  One female fan commented that "Not everyone liked Joan wholeheartedly.  My own reaction was that she was another of those masculine sergeant-type women -- horribly competent and out to prove they are as good as any man by acting like a man!" (92-3).  Femizine stopped publication for a while, then restarted in September 1958 and ran for two more years.

This is a relatively benign and minor deception, but it shows that the written word, whether printed or mimeographed, can provide the same kind of anonymity that the Internet does now.  And people tend to believe what they read, and what they hear.  (Most of the time, anyway: the biblical scholar James Barr pointed out that though fundamentalist Christians deplore the materialist, secularist skepticism that doubts the literal reality of the biblical miracles, they are harshly and scornfully skeptical of miracle stories outside the Bible, whether in Catholic lives of the saints, "heretical" Christian writings, or "pagan" mythology.  Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have nothing on them.)  In a way that's neither surprising nor foolish: we are social animals, and trust is the glue that lets us communicate with each other.  But it is also surprising and foolish.  One of the primary uses of language is to lie, and children figure out how to do it themselves before they learn to distrust their parents on Santa Claus or other official lies.  We couldn't survive if we decided to disbelieve automatically everything anyone says to us; but we'll get into trouble if we believe everything automatically.  We have to learn to use judgment, which means learning to use reason and evidence but doesn't stop there.  It takes experience and intuition, which must be cultivated throughout one's life.  But the right kind of skeptical, critical judgment will be discouraged forcefully by some or most of the people around us, starting with our parents, so it's hardly surprising that most people never really learn it.