In a conversation, the owner of a small restaurant in San Diego tells me that thousands of IS fighters are breaking into the city from Tijuana. A bulky waitress on counter and a guest couple on a side table also make gestures of agreement with him. But, I have no idea what the heck this guy is talking about. I mean I am in grad school, studying peace and conflict studies. And, I am also taking a graduate level course on politics of the Middle East with focus on IS or ISIS and other global militant movements. So, I wonder why nowhere have I read the news that has just been broken; have not heard from a professor either. Where on earth has he found this bizarre story? I do all I can to drive home the point that it is not true. And, that it cannot be. But, who is willing to listen. So, I give up and retire to my apartment. I do not find it surprising because this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous deep-seated and disastrous conspiracy theories out there. Three dangerous things happen when you are not one of those people who invest in critical reading and thinking. And these are just the ones that come to my mind now. Oversimplification People love to grossly oversimplify things. ‘All Muslims are terrorists’. ‘African-Americans are duffer and lazy’. ‘Women are emotionally weak and incapable of strong leadership’. They surely are weak if you have not had a chance to listen to Malala Yousafzai’s speeches. You may be right about African-Americans’ incompetence if you have not ever considered reading about Dr Martin Luther and Malcolm X. And, you may also be right about painting all Muslims with the same brush given your little knowledge of how Muslims themselves have suffered, and the most, from terrorist violence, and how some of them are valiantly fighting to counter extremism in their midst. People make such sweeping generalisations because they have no idea about the things they talk about. Many don’t care or don’t bother themselves with the trouble of finding out authenticity and appreciating things in their entirety. Hence, they lack credible insight and heavily rely on dangerously overloaded inherited opinions from family and friends on streets or colleagues at work. Others have very little time and resources to spare for finding out the truth. So, when people don’t try to find out things for themselves that is where propaganda politics and yellow journalism come to fill the void with their worst sensationalism and crude exaggerations. And this is also the reason why religious hate and racial profiling make safe and permanent sanctuaries in people’s minds. And, most people formulate their opinion on that kind of information endlessly played to them in their TV lounges or delivered in religious sermons at worship places. Certitude The restaurant owner’s not budging an inch from his presumptuousness, and feeling 100% certain about its ‘authenticity’ is what, in other words, called certitude. Certitude and people inexperienced in critical reading and thinking are good friends. They are almost inseparable. The most dangerous thing about certitude is that you believe you know everything when you actually do very little or nothing about something. So, you say absurd things about other people and the world and don’t hesitate an ounce about them; sometimes you rankle other people and cause anxiety and despondency in them. Most importantly, you fail to realise the damage you do to the larger corpus of human knowledge. People with the highest level of certitude have very little to doubt about or say things like ‘I may be wrong’; ‘I do not know’ or ‘I would like to know’. And that is because, to them, ‘doubt’ conveys a negative connotation of incompetence as opposed to humility and intellectual honesty that the most learned in the epistemic world cherish. This is particularly true about Asian societies where people’s thinking is largely influenced by religion and culture based on the unshakable beliefs of primeval ancestors. That is why questioning the core beliefs in such conservative societies is out of options. There, the more dogmatic you are in your beliefs, the higher regards you have among people. But, many forget that intellectual honesty is the most valuable skill in the realm of knowledge, and that humility in learning is no less than nobility. Intolerance The moment you claim to be absolutely right and infallible, you become intolerant and exclusive of other people’s opinions. That kind of exclusivity and intolerance develop from lack of critical reading and thinking. Also, reading depends really on what or who you read, and how you do it. Reading Syed Qutub is different from, say, Majid Nawaz. If you read Syed Qutub with an uncritical eye, you will become a Muslim extremist in views. But, if you read Majid Nawaz, you will discover the most modern and secular face of Islam and Muslims. I am not suggesting whose views to subscribe to and whose not to. But, what I am trying to suggest is to read with a critical mind and find out your opinion for yourself, and to not wait for others to make your opinion. You should, instead, read great books; consult reliable sources and experts on the subject; and learn to use reasoning. Most importantly, your mental growth and the credibility of your views are strongly related to the approach you take to reading. Conservative or parochial approach does not do much to grow you intellectually. For example, if you read Naway-e-Waqt (Urdu Daily) in Pakistan and accept as truth what it says, you will become an intolerant and close minded Pakistani nationalist with the tendency of outsourcing your country’s own created problems to the ‘enemies’. In my opinion, holistic or free and critical thinking are the best approaches to reading and finding the right answers. That means looking at things in perspective; appreciating their nuances; challenging yourself on readings; asking the right questions, and looking for their best answers. This approach saves you from the ills of false and dangerous narratives, certitude, and intolerance. It also helps to put things in perspective and makes life a whole lot easier and harmonious. This blog originally appeared in PakTea House.