How to Think about Politics – opening: You don’t have to be a genius

I am not a political genius.  I will be right up front with that one.  However, one very often feels like one has to be a savant or constantly read the newspapers and old history books in order to gain any kind of understanding of the constantly shifting political landscape which pervades our every waking moment.  While neither of those things is true in principle, I do believe that a bit of scholarship can go a long way.  Do you know what the most vulnerable position in which to be caught is during a political argument?  Your opponent presents a “fact” to support their case that you’ve never heard of,  and your inability to refute them cripples your ability to defend your position.  It’s frustrating, and it makes you feel like an idiot who is being talked down to by a dismissive, patronizing room full of silverback gorillas who can’t believe you actually think you are ready to join the inner circle.  


This moment is exactly where the process of understanding politics begins, because if you teach yourself how to deal with this situation, you essentially know how to deal with ANY political commentary, from your next door neighbor all the way up to the president.  All you have to do is realize one thing:

Just because someone older/perceived as smarter/more well-read/more well-known than you is presenting an idea or fact with patronizing authority…

does not mean they are right.  Understand this, and you have seriously, seriously empowered yourself.  Now don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that you know more stuff than they do, and you very likely don’t if they’re much older than you or have read a ton.  (Savant doesn’t help much.  Reading a lot…that has its merits)  What it does mean, is that their ideas are as equally worthy of scrutiny as anyone else’s.  Even those of your thirteen-year-old brother.  NOBODY’s ideas are impenetrable or unreviewable, and if they’re making claims that are untestable, (like, “god told me ‘X’ is true”), then you should treat those ideas with no more intrinsic value than a ferrari with no doors.  Pretty to look at, but wholly useless for getting places.  

Here’s an example.  Read the first paragraph and think about how likely this person is to know what he’s talking about:

Dr. Steven E. Jones has a PhD from Vanderbilt in physics.  He conducted his PhD research at Stanford Linear Accelerator, and did his post-doctoral work at Cornell University and Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility.  He has worked under sponsorship from the US Dept of Energy on deuterium, and has collaborated with major international physics organizations all over the world.  He’s kind of a big deal, and you’d think based on that level of success in an intellectually rigorous scientific discipline which subjects its participants to harsh peer review could be somewhat relied on for logical and well-informed opinions on a wide range of topics.  Especially compared to your pathetic resume.  

So if he told you something about politics, you’d probably take it on near faith that he knows what he’s talking about, right?  After all, Stanford, Cornell, Vanderbilt, the US Government, and most of the international community seem to rely on his opinion for some very important things.  That’s a pretty powerful endorsement. Now for the sake of entertainment, we’re going to run a little test.  I’m going to put down a list of facts about this man, and I want you to see how they effect your opinion of his credibility.

1.  He did his undergrad work at Brigham Young University

2.  He is a big propononant of Book of Mormon Archeology

3.  He has done radiocarbon testing to try to prove that horses existed in the Americas before Columbus because the Book of Mormon says so

4.  He believes that the Mayan culture is actually the Lamanites from the Book of Mormon

5.  He is willing to interpret Mayan culture wholly unscientifically because he believes the Book of Mormon must be true and Jesus visited Jews who travelled to the Americas on a raft 500 years before the coming of Christ.

6.  Oh, and he also is the leading proponant of the 911 government conspiracy theory.

Now what do you think?  You probably think he’s f-king insane, and you wouldn’t take his advice on gravity, much less politics.  Clearly a whack-job, right?

NO!!!  I mean, probably, but not necessarily.  What I’ve listed for you right there are not six reason’s he’s an idiot.  I’ve given you six pieces of independently reviewable information that you can go check for yourself to make a determination about his mental faculties.  Until you actually look this stuff up,  you aren’t in a position to determine anything.  He may very well be a cutting-edge archeological genius, and his data is so irrefutably accurate that it will change your whole worldview.  Maybe we should all be Mormon.  Maybe 911 is a government conspiracy.  I know what I think, but me telling you that and you taking my opinion to heart still won’t bring you any closer to an understanding because you’re still taking my word for it.  And even if all that stuff proves to be indicative of abject idiocy, he may still be a fabulous physicist.  Why not?  Brittany Spears is an expert in the entertainment industry despite not knowing the first thing about day-to-day existance.  Mike Tyson is generally regarded as a boxing genius with a profound historical understanding of the sport.  He also does cocaine.   Bottom line, when a teacher you know and respect for his English teaching skills starts telling you about Rand Paul and how the US needs to go back to the gold standard…do a little research before you start spouting it all over message boards.  

Besides, you know what’s better than knowing someone’s wrong?  Knowing exactly WHY they are wrong.  That just gets embarassing. 

I suppose I can break my philosophy down into three major areas, which will be extrapolated upon in further posts.  Each of these is supported by a quotation

1.  Be willing to treat ideas objectively and unemotionally, regardless of the source.  Hitler could be right about a lot fo things, and even if Jesus came back from the dead it still doesn’t prove his opinions.

” He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once.” – Albert Einstein  

2.  Read the opinions of your opponents carefully and fairly.  It’s the only way to develop a solid argument you can sleep on.

“You give me the awful impression, I hate to have to say it, of someone who hasn’t read any of the arguments against your position.  Ever.”  – Christopher Hitchens, debating Sean Hannity on creationism.

3.  Accept that there are things you don’t know yet, and pursue and understanding of those things faithfully.  Furthermore, have a good bulls-t radar.  If something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. 

“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”  – Socrates

Look, intelligence is not some hard-wired truth about ourselves. Most of us are perfectly cababable of understanding most of what goes on in this world provided we put in a little critical effort.  The problem is that most people don’t recognize the following:

 Intelligence is a process of thinking which can be learned, not a birthright. 

So what is the process and how does it specifically apply to politics?  That’s what we’re here to talk about.  Following posts will address these things in detail.


Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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