Going beneath the surface: Thinking about Critical Thinking

Politicians, policy makers, political advisors, “experts,” scholars, pundits, and columnists often misunderstand or misinterpret events or other phenomena they speak or write about. Sometimes this is evident at the time.  Other times it is only evident in retrospect. In this outline, I reflect on some of the reasons and suggest some precautions that may be helpful in avoiding such errors in judgment or interpretation.

Six Sources of Errors in Judgment or Interpretation

I. Lack of perspective: The “arc of history is long” and the short term view is often shortsighted. Not everything you know/learn/hear in the present warrants drawing conclusions. In the end, as Hegel said, the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Failure to recognize this leads to various mistakes:

a)      History is not linear (or “planar,” pace Friedman). Recall the frequent predictions in the nineties that Japan would soon overtake the US as the most powerful nation in the world, economically. What is happening/changing now may not continue to happen/change in the same way in the future. History takes jumps and change is not necessary continuous. The future is not necessarily predictable from the past (even though after the fact, the sources of events can often be found in the past). Events can create a new reality. Time flows in one direction. You can’t step into the same river twice: Everything changes; nothing abides. (A classic case: In May 1968, France appeared headed for revolution. In late June, DeGaulle overwhelmingly won the vote – a vote for a return to normality).

b)      The whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts. The parts interact and there are emergent properties. Even if you are right about the meaning/trajectory/future of each piece, you can still be wrong about the whole. Case: The polls showed support for each element of the Obama health plan, yet not for the whole thing, which many people found threatening because it was too much change at once.

c)       Though the “arc of history is long,” it does not necessarily “bend towards justice.”  No goal and no “meaning” can be discerned in history. At the same time, history is not irrelevant (“History is bunk”).  The world did not begin last year. (“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”, but “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”).

d)      The law of uneven development: Not all events, countries, etc. move at the same pace. Events that were once in synch, get out of synch, and events whose impacts once reinforced each other come to conflict with each other.

II. Misplaced rationalism
: Privileging the rational/logical over the emotional (i.e., forgetting that “the heart has its reasons that reason does not know”); forgetting that humans don’t always behave as they “ought to” behave (e.g., not economic man but heuristical man); placing what “ought” to be true or what you wish would be true over human felt needs and experience (e.g., Vietnam and Iraq war planners forgetting nationalism). Knowledge and “intelligence” are not the same as wisdom, and not tempered by understanding and compassion (and outrage and a sense of humor and irony), they are useless.

III. Decontextualizing:  Assuming that everything has a purpose, a logic, an explanation in its own right.

a)      Context matters. Meaning is given by context as well as by events/facts in themselves.

b)      History, like evolution, builds on what’s already there, even if it is there only by accident.

c)       The past persists into the present (“hysteresis,” “pathway dependent states”). The present is defined by and contains and is constrained by the past, by how you got there, as well as by the apparent current state. The end contains the means and the means are incorporated into the end.

d)      Accidents happen and accidents matter: Assassinations, natural disasters, corruption, and leaders’ bad moods can affect history.

IV. Dichotomizing: Not everything is bad and deserving of negativity and criticism (even if that is the “job” of the pundit).  Even matters that warrant criticism may have a positive element or a positive moment. Openness to the truths in ideas you disagree with is a virtue. Finding what you can agree with is as important as finding what there is to disagree with. Look on the bright side, as well as the dark side. Even “bad” people do good things, and even “good” people do bad things.  But, at the same time, there are not necessarily “two sides to every story,” with the truth lying “in between.” This is a frequent error on talk show hosts – one center left Democrat, one far right Republican, and the moderator concludes that the truth is in between. Sometimes one is right. Sometimes the truth is outside the range presented by the debaters.

V. Conflating: Combining dissimilar (or at least, distinctive) parts, as if they are uniform

a)      Conflating words: Words may have several meanings.  The fact that the same word is used to describe several phenomena does not mean the several phenomena are identical… or even related (Compare: “Freedom – when there is nothing between you and the horizon;” “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose;” “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.”  Compare: an “aggressive” drunk,  an “aggressive” executive, an “aggressive” chess player).

b)      Conflating the individual and the social/historical environment. Most terrorists may not be from impoverished backgrounds, but if the entire Muslim world were peaceful and prosperous, there would not be a problem of Islamic terrorism. 

c)       Conflating the whole and the part: e.g., “the Chinese think…” All Chinese? Some Chinese? The Chinese government or elite? Class, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, political power, regional identity, etc. all affect what people think, and not everyone in a larger category thinks the same way.

d)      Mistaking metaphor or similarity for identity. Yes, “race” is like “class” is like “gender” is like “sexual orientation,” and the parallels are instructive, but there are significant differences, too.

VI. Misinterpreting “facts”

a)      Failing to check the veridicality of the facts:  Obvious, but often true. Especially a problem in making snap judgments.  

b)      Failing to think about what the facts “mean.” “Facts” (e.g., events) are like symptoms of a disease. They are the result of a variety of underlying processes, external events, and accidents.  As a consequence, not all facts are equal (in importance).

c)       Failing to ask “which facts”?  The facts that seem central at one moment may seem less central as time goes on. Failing to disaggregate information. Recall the poll information showing public disapproval of the Obama health plan: The poll data combined people who opposed it because it was too “liberal” with those who opposed it because it did not go far enough. And public disapproval of the whole package masked approval of most of the parts taken one at a time. (i.e.,. the disapproval may have been for doing it all at once, not for doing each piece).

d)      Misunderstanding the relation among facts. Correlation does not imply causation. An error  often found in interpreting sociological and psychological and physiological reports.


Seven Questions it is Useful  to Ask:

  1. Why now?   (Temporality). If presumed causes of an event (or whatever) have been continually present, then they (or they alone) do not explain why it happened now.  The importance of an event, etc. may also depend on when it happened.
  2. What does it lead to? (Temporal consequences):  Meaning is given by the outcome (or anticipated outcome) as well as by the present state. Of course, the outcome is not always evident at the time. Minerva’s owl flies only at dusk.  Leif Erikson may have gotten to America first, but it was Columbus’s voyage that mattered.
  3. Who benefits? (Beneficiary consequences): Follow the money (and the power and the status). What motives might there be for a stated position? Conflicts of interest need not be consciously acted on to have an effect. Assurances that a person is not affected by such a conflict are worthless. This is true even with respect to “empirical” studies.
  4. How can a well meaning/intelligent person feel this way/support this position? (Empathy): What experiences/ assumptions could lead to a person doing this?
  5. What might lead to what seems to be true now no longer being true? (Contradiction and negation):  What is “true”/”right” can simultaneously  be “false”/”wrong.” Change generates contradiction, opposition to what is (and opposition to change itself). Quantitative changes can add up to turn into qualitative changes. Change occurs unevenly (over time and over space). Irreversibility. Heraclitis: panta rhei (Everything flows). 
  6. What does it matter? (Significance): What is at stake here?  Who or what is being argued against? What is the issue? Who benefits?
  7. Does the evidence really support the conclusions?   Are the facts really facts? Are the facts that don’t fit theory/ideology ignored? Are the facts “cherry picked”?  Who gathered/is presenting the facts? Are what get called “facts” really “conclusions”? Assuming the facts are real, do the conclusions follow from the facts? How strong is the evidence? Are there alternate explanations of the evidence? Are there misplaced assumptions about causality:  e.g., “after the fact, therefore because of the fact” or assuming causality from correlation.
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