BYU professor's damage control on Mormon irrational reasoning methods.

Our age of ideology

Written by Dr. Troy Smith

Professor of Political Science – BYU Hawaii

Thursday, 16 October 2008

“Keeping an open mind ... is necessary, because things may be connected in ways not explained by an ideology.”

What distinguishes Mormons?”  I asked two non-Mormon friends after they had completed two years of teaching at BYU in Provo. Their answer offended me at first; “Mormons reason backwards,” they both said. They meant that many Mormons they met would select a conclusion first and then find reasons to justify that conclusion. They acknowledged this tendency isn’t specific to Mormons, but claimed we are quite apt at it.

Humans, unfortunately, are prone to a number of bad tendencies that make careful and clear thinking preciously rare. We remember evidence that confirms our biases and forget evidence that contradicts our biases. We apply withering critical analysis to things we dislike and glibly accept with little thought the things we like. Indeed, “we choke on gnats and swallow camels.”

We work feverishly to solve problems that would resolve themselves if left alone, and neglect problems that need our attention (like that term paper you are supposed to be writing). Sometimes our efforts create the very conditions that prevent us from achieving our goal (like staying up late studying and then being too tired the next day to concentrate on the test).

We even develop logic to avoid the real problem and evade facing our bad thinking. Some construct a false but comfortable version of reality to evade difficult problems or impending failure. Others deny the complexity of an issue by defining the problem in small and manageable terms that do not reflect the real issue. These evasive techniques lead to failure.

Our age is characterized by another gross distortion of reason – ideology. Ideology provides a simplistic explanation of reality and offers a simplistic solution. When we believe and trust an ideology, however, we deny our own perceptive, rational and spiritual abilities to see and understand. We place hope and pride in our ideology and neglect the lessons of history and requirements of practical reason.

George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Václav Havel all warned of the growing tendency of leaders, intellectuals, and others to “think solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.” Hence, once someone picks a side, “he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.” This leads to “self-deception,” “the most flagrant dishonesty,” and the inability to think rationally about certain topics. Barbara Tuchman, an eminent historian, called this wooden-headedness.

The problem with ideology is, as modern science amply demonstrates, no system or ideology can comprehend all the details, complexities, and problems of reality, nor provide solutions to every problem we will experience. Is it any wonder Joseph Smith and David O. McKay shared a distrust for creeds, even of the Mormon persuasion?

Ideologies impair clear thinking and do not work for solving complex problems.  Complex problems require clearly identifying what to preserve as well as what to change. Ideologies ignore implicit contradictions within goals – when this happens good results may appear in the short-term, but bad results prevail in the long-run. Ideologies look at a few key indicator variables which often fail to measure the true thing. Keeping an open mind and looking at all available variables and data is necessary, because things may be connected in ways not explained by an ideology. Rather than relying on ideological thinking to define what matters and what we should do, we need to develop honest, pragmatic, practical, and balanced reasoning skills.

The moral of this column is that neither academics nor Mormons, who both have just claims for a privileged means of knowing and understanding truth, are immune from the human tendency to think poorly or seek simplistic solutions to complex problems. Reason and revelation are valuable methods of knowing, but also vital is an awareness of our own thinking and belief patterns so we may recognize when we might be amiss.