The need for thoughtfulness

dublin talks

We have a great need for thoughtfulness.

Not the type of thoughtfulness that makes you remember your mother’s birthday.

A more general form of thoughtfulness, a kind of thoughtfulness which we need to introduce into our public life, both in this country and internationally

The kind of thoughtfulness which has the potential to prevent public policy disasters, to prevent wars, and which I believe will be ultimately necessary if our species is to survive the triad of potential existential catastrophes which will challenge us in the 21st century: Food, water, & energy.

What is thoughtfulness?

I think it is the inclination and the ability to approach a problem as unencumbered by prejudice as it is possible to be – I am not naïve enough to think that any of us can completely discard the prejudices which we accumulate over a lifetime.

Thoughtfulness is required to look at the essential components of a problem and analyse how we can deal with them in coming up with a solution.

Why did I pick this topic to discuss?

Well I think that the evidence for a lack of thoughtfulness is all around us.

In the United States, the largest economy in the world, and arguable the most educationally advanced country in the world 46% of Americans believe firmly that the world is less than 6000 years old, and that evolution did not occur (source:

In our own country, and in other countries about Europe, otherwise rational, logical parents have flown I the face of overwhelming medical advice and refused to have their children vaccinated for potentially life threatening diseases.

Was this thoughtfulness?

How thoughtful has been the widespread assumption that there has been an epidemic of congenital malformations in the Ukraine, and Belarus, following Chernobyl?

When in fact no such excess in congenital malformations has occurred, and the incident is exactly the same as it is in Dublin or Cork.

Our history has given us perhaps the greatest example of thoughtlessness with Hitler.

How else can one explain how a large, sophisticated, educationally advanced country fall sway to the simplistic, unthoughtful, notion that all the evils which had been visited upon their country were in fact the fault of one small ethnic group?

The Iraq War:

Would a thoughtful president of a thoughtful nation been able to lead an entire nation to war in 2003 in retribution of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 even though the country that they invaded has nothing to do with the attack?

As Kerry said at the time, it was as if America decided, full of self-righteousness after Pearl Harbour, to invade Mexico.

Compare and contrast this to JFK and the extraordinary level of thoughtfulness he brought to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when hot-heads on all sides we advising him to go to war with a bunch of pre-emptive strikes et cetera.

He kept his cool, and prevented a worldwide catastrophe.

Thoughtlessness leads, I believe, to hidebound Ideological positions. It makes people assume certain things because they wish conserve the thoughtless ideological prejudice they have on other issues.

Right wing people thoughtlessly believe that poverty is always due to sloth, fecklessness, and a lack of personal responsibility on the part of the poor.

Left wing people believe it never is.

Clearly both are wrong.

It also lease to strange bundling of intellectual values. If you go into any town hall in America you can predict, if you know a person’s position on gun control, with a high degree of certainty, whether they believe that president Obama’s birth cert was a forgery.

The same thing affects our politics in this country. We have the ultimately unthoughtful political system in Ireland, in fact we have made it an art form.

How is this?

In Ireland we have a situation where people, in general, if they elect to align themselves with one of the two big parties, they do it for cultural reasons, sometimes for familial reasons, sometimes randomly. They then find themselves in organisations which highly disincentivise thoughtfulness.

The one thing that has struck me since I’ve been inside Leinster House is all the times I have seen people gritting their teeth and voting for things or against things that they do or do not believe in because they must follow the mandate of the party whip.

I will remind you again of President Obama: At the time of the Iraq war, as a Democratic member of the Senate, he opposed the war.

Would he have been able to do it if the political system was such as the political system that occurs in Ireland?

What do we need to do?

I believe that we need to encourage thoughtfulness and critical faculties.

We need to encourage people to develop the skill set which enables them to totally suspend those prejudices which have come to them by virtue of tribe, by virtue of religion, by way of national identity et cetera.

Part of this process is understanding that science is not just something that scientists do, any more than arithmetic is something mathematicians do.

All people need to understand science. We need to learn how to use science, and how to apply the scientific method to non-classical scientific problems, and we need to learn this everyday of our educational lives, so that we might be able to apply these skills over our entire lives.

(this discussion originated during a “Dublin Talks” event hosted by the Royal Irish Academy:

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