Authoritarian leaders and wannabe leaders hate critical thinking.

That is not because thinking critically – which is core to a liberal arts education – turns people into political liberals. One can be a conservative who thinks critically or a liberal who cannot.

Authoritarians hate critical thinking because it enables others to evaluate their demagogic lies with eyes wide open. As the writer Jeffrey Scheuer aptly put it, critical thinking relies on the ability to “distinguish facts from opinions” and “judge the authority of arguments and sources.” Hardly authoritarians’ cup of tea.

Questioning authority is a hallmark of democracy and the kryptonite of autocracy.

Scheuer called critical thinking “the intellectual engine of a functional democracy,” leading me to wonder whether universities in authoritarian-ruled countries teach critical thinking. One stunning example was recently given to me by a colleague, Davood Gozli, who taught critical thinking at the University of Macau in China from 2016 to 2021.

An Iranian psychologist now living in Canada, Gozli told his students that to understand and think critically about an argument they must “consider reactions to [including disagreements with] it.” Accordingly, he assigned essays in which each student selected and defended an argument presented in their psychology course-work and described how someone might disagree with that argument. Adopting East Asian logic, Gozli gave examples of critical thinking in Confucianism and Taoism.


Gozli said that American psychologist Richard Nisbett’s book, “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why,” which students had read in other courses, raised their resistance to his critical-thinking assignments. Nisbett wrote that Westerners reject logical contradiction categorically, whereas the dialectic reasoning of East Asians permits forms of contradiction.

Armed with Nisbett’s book, the students wouldn’t consider how someone might disagree with the arguments they chose to defend. They insisted they “don’t practice disagreeing, debating, adopting contrary positions,” because Eastern cultures value “harmony, being agreeable.” In accepting teachers’ or authorities’ assertions, they said they could not “critique something we hear in class.”

Never mind the hypocrisy Gozli’s students revealed in defying his authority, in arguing they couldn’t do his critical-thinking assignments. Then again, as Nisbett said, East Asian logic permits contradiction.

By declining to learn to think critically, Gozli’s students, in effect, gave themselves a learning disability. It wasn’t that they couldn’t learn to think critically. Rather, they chose not to.

In my view, MAGA Republicans have given themselves a learning disability in discerning truth by bowing to their authoritarian-wannabe leader, Donald Trump, whose “Big Lie,” among other falsehoods, they readily swallow.

Nobody needs a liberal arts education to think critically. We do need a desire to ascertain truth, and then follow these steps.


First, get clear about what the claim asserts. For example, Trump’s claim that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” Then ask yourself questions like: What does poisoning our blood entail? Whose blood is being poisoned? Which immigrants are poisoning our blood? How could we tell if our blood was poisoned?

In short, what evidence is needed to test the truth of the claim that “our blood is being poisoned”? Of course, Trump didn’t offer any evidence. He takes his claims’ truth to be self-evident, knowing his followers won’t question his authority.

In blindly accepting Trump’s countless falsehoods, MAGA Republicans rely on a form of “reliabilism,” which entails depending on self-selected processes to “track the truth.” The “process” MAGAs rely on is whatever Trump pronounces to be true. And it’s just that lack of care that Trump and his cronies rely on for power. This sets up a vicious, democracy-eroding, autocracy-advancing cycle.

The culture of MAGA Republicans is antithetical to critical thinking. Unfortunately, in profoundly threatening our democracy, their problem is our problem too.

Rather than argue with MAGAs, I politely ask them why they take Trump’s contested claims to be true. If I ask enough questions (like a preschooler who repeatedly asks “why”) some occasionally start to think critically. In this election year, that’s nothing to dismiss.

Comments are no longer available on this story