I recently experienced first-hand the terrible state of people’s reasoning. It should come as no surprise that emotions almost always beat rational reasoning in discussions and debate, even though this is a sad state of affairs. Especially in politics, calls to emotions attract votes or at least an emotional response that can be somewhat predicted and therefore exploited. It is easy to see how this could contribute a core explanation to political correctness, which is a structural public morality that “teaches” people how to emotionally respond to certain opinions. As it does away with sound reasoning and therefore shuts out logical thinking for the benefit of an immediate emotional response, it levels the playing field for political actors while expanding the political realm of arbitrary opinion.

We can think of emotions and reasoning as opposite end points on a continuum of means to produce an understanding of some phenomenon. The emotional endpoint is direct, immediate, and uncritical. Where it is a response to experiential data it is as instantaneous as our senses permit: we see blue and have an emotional reaction; we see (what we think is) an injustice and immediately react; and so on. Where it is a response to something otherwise communicated to us (non-experiential), we react to the implications intended by the person providing the data. Obviously, the latter (non-experiential) comes with the sometimes significant risk that the message communicated is distorted, biased or otherwise tailored for a specific response (in other words, we’re gullied into certain emotional reaction).

The other endpoint requires reflection and the effort of considering different possible explanations as well as courses of action. It leads to a conscious and intentional decision after considering the relevant facts and thinking through the implications of the alternative opportunities for action.

It is probably safe to say that most of our thinking is somewhere in-between the two extremes. In fact, hardly any situations allow for pure emotional or rational responses. There is almost always an emotional dimension to how we see and understand data and how we reason about issues. Likewise, emotional responses are often triggered based on knowledge acquired previously from others (that we trust?) or discovered by personal introspection or reflection.

It should be (but unfortunately isn’t) unprovocative to state that the more we can separate emotional from rational thinking and make a conscious choice of which we rely on, the better will our decisions be. It is equally true that the further we move along the continuum toward rationality (away from comparatively arbitrary emotionalism), the better our decisions will be. Especially where planning is needed, which is the case for any temporal decision-making or action, rational thinking should be superior to emotional reactions.

Yet this is not what we see in the general population. Rather, structured reasoning is subject to (emotionally based?) scorn and dismissed. This is quite interesting, and might tell us something about our age and where we might be heading. (As I argued a decade ago, post-industrialist society can be seen as a philosophical endarkenment.)

Nevertheless, I personally experienced the emotionality of “common people’s” thinking after I published an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on the socialist health care system in Sweden. Many a Swede has outright dismissed my claims in this article. The reason my claims are dismissed outright, usually without argument, is because these individuals have had personal experience of the health care system – and with a different result than that described in the article. Well, this is an emotional response that turns reliability of thinking upside down.

First of all, these experiences are (emotionally laden) anecdotes. Such anecdotal “evidence” of the contrary should be put against the claims in my article using official statistics. Official statistics are basically a large quantity of anecdotes that tell a (limited-scope) story in the macro, and when they are at least a little reliable they should beat any personal experience, arbitrary or not. Yet these critics probably don’t even notice that I in fact refer to the official statistics from the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen); even so, they react emotionally to the data and therefore discount the latter.

This is, of course, a devastating approach, since with emotions “anything goes” and what is accepted can sometimes be completely arbitrary. It is also devastating since there is no structure or basis for emotional reactions, and they are therefore severely subject to influence: they can be steered and manipulated by others (and, as in this case, they are – Swedes are taught that their health care is the “best” and that the Western world’s longest wait times is only a minor and hopefully temporary  problem).

Some have also dismissed the article’s argument due to it being based on “theory.” In common parlance, theory is a guess as good as any other. It is “just theory,” is a statement that it is almost completely arbitrary – that we don’t know. But this is not how theory is used in a scientific setting: theory is the best possible guess we have been able to come up with, which has been tested and scrutinized, and which has proven its worth through all kinds of tests and critiques. A theory is never “just” a theory.

So what exactly is going on here? The proper ranking of the reliability of thinking should be theory at the top, data thereafter, and anecdotal (single data point) “evidence” at the bottom. This is akin to the continuum above, where theory is the effect or outcome of the rational pursuit of (objective) truth and anecdotal experience is emotional. Yet the reaction to the WSJ article has been purely emotional, and anecdotes have served as sufficient “reason” to dismiss both data and theory.

This is, in one word, strange thinking. It is unstructured, irrational and even unreasonable. In fact, it cannot even be properly argued against, since the anecdote itself consists but of the emotionally based perception of what was at that one time. And this perception is, on the face of it, colored by the emotional reaction to (in this case) my article’s argument. This is the poor and sad condition of the art of thinking in our age. To put it differently, people’s thinking is in a terrible state.