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Monday, November 28, 2022

Groupthink and scepticism

By: Keith Miles

It seems to me that there is in our super fast media world too much groupthink and insufficient scepticism.

Anyone who has read the novel 1984 ( published 1949) by George Orwell will recognise this term. He described the psychological phenomenon as crimethink or doublethink. In this dystopian novel he sees a state of great suffering and injustice and one without reason. All information is controlled by the dictatorship. Orwell was an old fashioned democratic socialist who saw it as a philosophy that brought better lives for everyone but his experience particularly in the Spanish Civil War and his knowledge of the Soviet Union led him to write this novel. Of course it was banned in many communist countries. Also pertinent is his earlier book, the satire Animal Farm (published 1945).

Groupthink happens when a group or a group consensus blocks the natural desire to use common sense to look at and consider alternatives, or even to block an opinion that is not popular. In totalitarian states the pressure by the autocratic leader or party is aiming to get by coercion some sort of group cohesion. The biggest problem with this is that it eventually drives out good debate and out of which comes good decisions.  We can readily see why communist states used this process because they feared any challenge to their philosophy by it meeting the real world. It is interesting to contrast this to the consumer market where the customer can adopt something in a groupthink way because of fashion but if the product is  seen to be impractical or unreliable scepticism steps in and the product fails in the market place of consumer opinion.

Of course as seen in the market place example groupthink does occur as well in many places. In politics it may give the most devastating results, but it can appear in science or art or literature or religion. The role of scepticism (the word comes from the Greek for ‘inquiry’) has had volumes written about it in philosophical literature from ancient Indian writers through Greeks to the likes of Augustine to Kant and Hobbes and Spinoza and Hume. However from the simple and practical human perspective it is a normal and useful tool to judge the truth of anything.

Science of course when it wants to verify a theory require evidence and that a proof must be capable of independent replication.

Both scepticism and scientific method needs to be applied to much of the opinions and beliefs that float around the internet, and which are pushed out on and onwards as if they are one hundred percent true. We have seen whole academic systems upturned by half-baked beliefs or inconsistent and inaccurate statements. The whole phenomenon of ‘woke’ is part of this scene. Anyone who challenges this groupthink is attacked and silenced often by the so-called de-platforming.

The whole of human progress has been advanced by debate, dissent, and the need of evidence. Of course the evidence has to be relevant. It is now amazing to think that Marks and Engels crafted a whole philosophy on evidence that was not relevant for their theory of history.

Groupthink is also very dangerous if it seeks to prevent or minimise free speech. This is why laws that limit freedom of speech and writing are not just negative for democracy but for human progress.

We now know that the internet has had great benefit for society in terms of communication and supply of information. We all saw this especially during the worst part of the pandemic. However for every credit there is a debit, for every positive there is a negative; immutable laws of business and physics.

The big debit when one considers groupthink is that while information moves around quicker and more extensively it means that bad or wrong or unverified information is pushed around extensively without any sort of verification of its validity. Also there is the phenomenon that the group promoting an idea or agenda often tries to stop criticism or any calls for evidence. Readers will know of the various cases relating to gender, diversity, anti-patriotism, pandemic information and so on.

It is vital for democracy that free speech persists and no group should have the power to shut it down. This means a free and diverse press, a free and diverse digital media. Ideas and proposals must be open to challenge and discussion. Any groupthink situation must be open to challenge by scepticism.

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