I often write about the value of scepticism and critical thinking. To me it seems obvious that both are in short supply and that more of both would vastly improve our world. Considering how many of our problems are self-inflicted via irrational beliefs and baseless conclusions, it should be clear that this is true. Unfortunately, it is not clear at all. Billions of people routinely squander their time, safety, health, and trillions of dollars on medical quackery and paranormal claims that any child who has been encouraged to think for themselves and taught to ask key questions can easily identify as nonsense. I am sometimes asked why I am so convinced that scepticism and critical thinking matter. The recent killing of Osama bin Laden offers a glaring example of why I care.
I understand why Osama bin Laden is widely despised as the Hitler of our time. I was at Disney World with my family when the Towers fell. We were hustled out of the park due to fears al Qaeda might also target Mickey Mouse that morning. Not an easy thing to explain to young children. I visited Ground Zero in New York City shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I have interviewed WTC survivors, firefighters, Bin Laden expert Peter Bergen, and even a female pilot who flew missions over Afghanistan (the Taliban’s worst nightmare: A liberated woman at 30,000 feet). Bin Laden’s reign of terror—coupled with the reaction, overreaction, and opportunistic excesses of his enemies—has cost approximately one million lives. It also cost money, lots of it. One estimate puts the Bin Laden impact price tag at $1.3 trillion dollars. I’m not sure we would have, but we could have done wonderful things with that much money. We could have given every child in Africa a mosquito net, built permanent bases on the Moon and Mars, and maybe even had enough left over to educate every child on Earth. Still, even with so much sorrow and destruction packed into Bin Laden’s resume, I feel less hate that frustration.
I do not believe that Osama bin Laden was born evil. I think it is more likely that he stumbled down, or was pulled down, a path that led to his tragic devotion to death and darkness. I also think that he could have left that path early in life if only he had been taught or self-discovered the gifts of scepticism and critical thinking. Just imagine, for example, if the religious fundamentalists who so impressed him had instead been challenged by a sceptical and thoughtful young Osama. What if when they told him the Earth was 6,000 years old, that magic was real, and a book is more important than a human life, he asked questions? What if he requested an explanation for why the world’s scientists have determined that the age of the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, a far cry from 6,000 years? What if asked for something more than anecdotal tales of magic and miracles? What if he demanded extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, as any good sceptic does? If Bin Laden had even a minimal amount of awareness about the power of sceptical thinking and how it is necessary to cut through nonsense with ease, his life might have played out far differently. It is unlikely that he would have trusted and accepted guidance from obviously irrational people if he had been sophisticated enough in his thinking to see that they were not thinking straight. If you had a teacher who told you that the Earth was flat, then asked you to conduct a suicide bombing mission, would you be inclined to trust his judgment?
Bin Laden was born into a very wealthy family. He had far more options than most of us, at least he did until he decided to devote himself to violence. First he fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. He then declared war on the United States and everyone else that didn’t see the world his way. Before he was pulled too far down the rabbit hole as child or teen, however, he could have gone in a radically different direction. I’m not suggesting that a clear-headed and sceptical Bin Laden necessarily would have devoted his life to finding the cure for cancer or planting trees. But at the very least, he might have spent his life cruising the streets of the French Riviera in a Ferrari and dating models. That certainly would have been better for him and for the rest of us. But no, he passively embraced the irrational beliefs swirling around him because he didn’t know enough to fend them off with scepticism. He then intertwined those beliefs with passion, politics and power to set the stage for a bloodstained career. Few men have wasted their lives in such a colossal manner.
As sad and pointless as the life of Osama bin Laden was, there is an even greater tragedy we are failing to confront. Children around the world—including more than a few in the Cayman Islands—are growing up without ever hearing about the importance of analysing unusual claims, asking questions, and demanding evidence. Instead they are urged to blindly accept whatever authority figures tell them, no matter how bizarre and unsupported by evidence. While these children are unlikely to become global terrorists, there can be little doubt that their lives will be negatively impacted somewhere along the way because they are unprepared to face the delusions, lies and cons that inevitably confront us all.