Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can't Be Made in the Blink of an Eyeby Michael R. LeGault
This isn't the time to Blink.
It's time to
-- before it's too late.
Outraged by the downward spiral of American intellect and culture, Michael R. LeGault offers the flip side of Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling phenomenon, Blink, which theorized that our best decision-making is done on impulse, without factual knowledge or/i>/i>… See more details below
This isn't the time to Blink.
It's time to
-- before it's too late.
Outraged by the downward spiral of American intellect and culture, Michael R. LeGault offers the flip side of Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling phenomenon, Blink, which theorized that our best decision-making is done on impulse, without factual knowledge or critical analysis. If bestselling books are advising us to not think, LeGault argues, it comes as no surprise that sharp, incisive reasoning has become a lost art in the daily life of Americans. Somewhere along the line, the Age of Reason morphed into the Age of Emotion; this systemic erosion is costing time, money, jobs, and lives in the twenty-first century, leading to less fulfillment and growing dysfunction. LeGault provides a bold, controversial, and objective analysis of the causes and solutions for:
the erosion of growth and market share at many established American companies, big and small, which appear to have less chance of achieving the dynamic expansion of the past
permissive parenting and low standards that have caused an academic crisis among our children -- body weights rise while grades plummet
America's growing political polarization, which is a result of our reluctance to think outside our comfort zone
faulty planning and failure to act on information at all levels that has led to preventable disasters, such as the Hurricane Katrina meltdown
a culture of image and instant gratification, fed by reality shows and computer games, that has rendered curiosity of the mind and spirit all but obsolete
stress, aversion to taking risks, and therapy that are replacing the traditional American "can do" mind-set.
Far from perpetuating the stereotype of the complacent American, LeGault's no-holds-barred analysis asks more of us than any other societal overview: America can fulfill its greatest potential starting today, and we need smart teachers, smart health care workers, smart sales representatives, smart students, smart mechanics, and smart leaders to make it happen. Now is the time to THINK! -- because a mind truly is a terrible thing to waste.
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Don't Blink, Think
The company, a medium-sized automotive supplier based in Ohio, was already spinning in the upper regions of a vortex heading directly down the tube. What the company did sounded simple enough. It took glass windshields, put a strip of rubber around the perimeter, and shipped them to major automotive manufacturers. An operator placed the glass into a machine, and the machine injected melted rubber around the edge, then quickly cooled it to make it stick. The problem was this: The glass was breaking. The scrap rate mounted 10 percent, 20 percent. Little bar graphs posted in the cafeteria illustrated the amount of money the company was losing each week. Employees blinked uncomprehendingly when the figure reached a million dollars. Was anyone doing anything?
The company was doing all it could, or at least it felt it was. It hired a young, dynamic, university-educated plant manager. Intuition their guide, the plant manager and his team of floor supervisors and engineers attacked the problem. They pulled the dies large steel molds into which the glass was placed from every machine and scanned them with lasers to confirm dimensions to a thousandth of an inch. They ran quality control checks on all shipments of glass they received from other companies. They installed new process control software on the machines to continuously monitor the internal condition of each machine. Day and night, one or more engineers paced the factory, poring over printouts, making adjustments to the machines. Some days, on a few machines, there appeared to be progress, then just as quickly, things spun out of control and it seemed every other windshield was being devoured by mad machines determined to put the company out of business. Hunches about the cause of the problem were getting the company nowhere.
The head office called an emergency meeting. They were giving the plant one last chance to fix itself. They slid the plant manager the business card of a guru. His fee was $1 million. It seemed cheap.
The guru asked for the scrap rates of each machine operator. The company had the scrap rates for each machine, but not for the operators, who were rotated on machines on a daily, or even hourly, basis. The guru spent one month gathering the data. He spent an equal amount of time plotting and analyzing the numbers. Engineers at the plant still intuitively believed the problem was somehow related to the equipment, but the guru, examining the plots and data, noticed something odd the women operators had much higher scrap rates than the men. But there was an anomaly: Two male operators also had high scrap rates. He asked to meet the two men. They were both slightly built and on the short side. A million-dollar light went on inside the guru's head.
The windshields weighed twenty to forty pounds, depending on the model. The operators had to lean over and into the machines to place the windshields into the molds. The workstations were set up in a one-size-fits-all mode. The guru watched one woman strain to place the heavy windshield in the mold so that it would line up properly with the guiding pins. The machine closed and the windshield shattered. The woman loaded the next part and the guru told her to wait. He ran his hand along the top edge of the windshield. The part seemed to be loaded properly between the guiding pins; however, he noticed one edge rode out a little farther on the pin than the other. He gave the edge a push. He told the woman to run the machine. The large steel jaws clamped together, then opened to reveal a gleaming windshield looking for all the world like a Van Gogh.
The company modified workstation ergonomics, redesigned the die guiding pins, and trained staff workers. Scrap rates fell below 5 percent. The guru was feted and paid. A sigh of relief was heard around the plant. Only the plant manager was somewhat chagrined. He was embarrassed he had to rely on the critical thinking skills of someone else to fix his plant.
He could, if he wished, console himself. Sharp, incisive, clever thinking is steadily becoming a lost art, more and more the domain of specialists and gurus. The trend is troubling and raises the question, Is America losing its ability to think? If, for argument's sake, we define thinking as the use of knowledge and reasoning to solve problems and plan and produce favorable outcomes, the answer is, apparently, yes.
Consider the sober assessment of John Bardi, a lecturer at Penn State who has been teaching university students a variety of philosophy and cultural study courses for over twenty-five years. In a 2001 essay about the decline of critical thinking, Bardi states, "The intellectual qualities I see displayed in my classes . . . are getting worse every year, with the current crop [of students] being the worst." Critical thinking is a cognitive skill that permits a person to logically investigate a situation, problem, question, or phenomenon in order to make a judgment or a decision. Bardi argues that the collapse of critical thinking skills in this country may be "systemic and historical, even inevitable," although he allows that many of his colleagues have a simpler explanation that the problem is not history or culture, but today's students, who, for whatever reason, "lack the critical thinking skills necessary for higher learning."
Certainly our universities, especially the upper tier, still attract many diligent, gifted students who can knock off a set of differential equations as if they were a connect-the-dot drawing. If Bardi's and his colleagues' harsh assessment annoys some, think of it as applied "on average." Of course, this still means that the critical thinking skills of even the top college students have, on average, declined. If this is the case, it is not surprising, as independent testing on our schoolchildren has confirmed deteriorating performance in reading, math, and science for many years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducts a triennial evaluation of the math, reading, science, and problem-solving skills of fifteen-year-olds living in the primary industrialized countries. In PISA's 2003 assessment, American students ranked twenty-eighth out of forty countries in problem-solving ability. The performance was on par with that of students from Serbia, Uruguay, and Mexico, and well below that of fifteen-year-olds from Japan, France, Germany, and Canada. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress has measured some improvement in the reading and math scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students since 2000. Overall, however, the unvarnished results show that more than two-thirds of our nation's fourth and eighth graders are not performing at their grade levels in either math or reading.
If a decline in thinking skills were limited to unmotivated or hungover university students hell bent on frittering away their parents' money, we could probably muster a shrug, perhaps in the naive belief that the stringent standards of academia will inevitably weed out the deadwood. Poor thinking and nascent idiocy, according to this optimistic view, will be nipped in the bud, contained safely on campus, before they reach the real world. It is obvious, however, that this cannot be the case. Many of these students have become adept at muddling through their curriculums, finding a smorgasbord of courses they can pass, and picking up their degrees. One by one these graduates are transporting their limited knowledge and deficient thinking skills into the fields of their chosen professions, as the next generation of teachers, nurses, sales representatives, and company managers. Thus we have teachers, health care workers, and managers with historically inferior critical-thinking skills teaching, caring for patients, and managing businesses.
At least one high-level automotive executive, General Motors' Robert Lutz, has lamented the inferior problem-solving skills of U.S.-trained engineers. Other refined mental skills crucial to workplace performance also appear to be deteriorating. A 2004 report released by the National Commission on Writing, a panel of educators assembled by the College Board, brought to light the growing disgruntlement of businesses with employee writing skills. The report, Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . or a Ticket Out, included a survey of chief executives from the nation's top corporations. The results were not pretty about a third of the companies said only one-third or fewer of their employees knew how to write clearly and concisely.
Predictably, as if filling a growing market niche, a new-age, feel-good pop psychology/philosophy has sprung up to bolster the view that understanding gleaned from logic and critical analysis is not all that it's cracked up to be. This outlook, which sounds especially appealing after a couple of beers in a loud bar, suggests that the rational model is often unnecessary, and may even be obsolete. Malcolm Gladwell has recently set the high-water mark for this philosophy with his book Blink The Power of Thinking without Thinking. In Blink, Mr. Gladwell argues that our minds possess a subconscious power to take in large amounts of information and sensory data and correctly size up a situation, solve a problem, and so on, without the heavy, imposing hand of formal thought.
As a demonstration of the omnipotence of instantaneous, Blinklike snap judgments, defined as an understanding arrived at "in the first two seconds," Mr. Gladwell relates a story about a forged Greek statue purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1984. The sculpture was a nude male youth, claimed by the art-dealer-seller to be one of the stylized statues known as a kouros produced in ancient Greece. Officials at the Getty were apparently suspicious of the origins of the statue from the start, as it radiated "a light colored glow" not typical of ancient statues. Nonetheless, after extensive scientific tests showed that the marble from which the statue was carved came from an old quarry in Greece, and also verified that the statue was covered with a fine layer of calcite a substance believed to be formed over thousands of years by natural processes the Getty purchased the kouros for many millions of dollars.
Then, as Mr. Gladwell describes it, things began to unravel. One by one, a host of art experts were led to the statue, with each expert, to a person, instantaneously experiencing the same feeling that there was something "not right." The Getty became so concerned it had the statue packed up and shipped to Greece to be examined by the country's leading authorities on ancient Greek sculpture. One of the experts, the director of the Benaki Museum in Athens, felt a wave of "intuitive repulsion" the moment he laid his eyes on the statue. With alarms going off, the Getty launched a full-scale investigation, uncovering a trail of fabrication and trickery, and ending with the unhappy discovery that the statue had been made in a forger's workshop in Rome in the 1980s.
Boiled down, the Statue That Didn't Look Right is a cautionary tale about the limits and failure of applauded scientific methods and rational analysis, and the far-reaching power and success of homely, undervalued gut feelings and intuition. (Blink unpackaged being, by any other name, intuition.) But how meaningful is the story in proving the author's thesis that quick snap judgments often yield results equal to or better than those produced by thoughtful critical analysis?
First, the scientific testing did not fail. The dolomite marble of the statue was covered in a thin layer of calcite. The ingenious forger had apparently used potato mold to induce calcite formation in a couple of months. Other initial evidence had corroborated the apparent authenticity of the kouros, including records of ownership that turned out to be phony.
Second, if you read the story carefully, it is clear there is something else going on in the experts' minds other than just out-of-the-blue hunches and intuition. Laying eyes on the kouros, the first word that popped into the mind of Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, was "fresh," that is, too new-looking to be several thousand years old. The director of Athens' Acropolis Museum, George Despinis, said he "could tell that that thing has never been in the ground." The Benaki Museum director's "intuitive repulsion" was apparently informed by his observation of a contradiction between the statue's style and the fact that the marble had come from a specific quarry on the Greek island of Thasos.
In other words, lying behind these "snap judgments" are educated impressions formed by years of study, thought, and analysis. And these educated hunches were confirmed by further analysis, which established, for instance, that the Greek statue was "a puzzling pastiche of several different styles from several different places and time periods."
One of the appeals of Blink is that we all have intuition and rely on it to help us make decisions and get through the day. There is a sort of mythology that has sprung up about the power of first impressions. But mythology is not scientific. In a section on "speed dating," a tightly organized event in which a group of men and women have a few minutes to talk to each other and decide if they want to go out together, Mr. Gladwell taps into the power of the belief that first impressions are the best validation of people's characters and personalities, especially as they relate to male-female relationships. But how cut-and-dried is this truism? If first impressions are so important in modern society in establishing close relationships, why is the divorce rate so high? Indeed, we have no inclination to track or know how often our first impressions and snap judgments fail us. Upon hearing that a serial killer lived in their community, people are often surprised. "He seemed a nice, regular guy," is a statement one commonly hears on the news. For thousands of years, humans' first impression of the earth was that it was flat. When, looking through his newly improved telescope at the sun, Galileo saw dark spots, the Church brought heresy charges. The first impression of the sun was that God had made it uniformly bright.
In essence, Mr. Gladwell is making a case for one-half of a classic false dichotomy. A false dichotomy, sometimes also called "the fallacy of the excluded middle," is an either-or proposition presented in such a way as to make us think only one, not both of the choices, can be true. The ruse is often used in politics, as in, "Will you reelect Congresswoman Smith, or face the prospect of more jobs going overseas?" In this case the false dichotomy is intuition versus stepwise analysis and critical reasoning. Mr. Gladwell not only separates and distills intuition as a mental power unto itself; he promotes it as a potential source of unbounded, utilitarian good: "What would happen if we took our instincts seriously? I think that would change . . . the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained . . . and if we combine all of those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world."
He allows that our biases can lead automatic judgments astray, but provides no definitive insight on how to improve our snap-judgment ability other than "practice." In fact, critical scientific reasoning almost always involves a component of intuition, and intuition is almost always informed by experience and hard knowledge won by reasoning things out. When Einstein was working on his theory of special relativity, he had a "hunch" that energy and matter were different versions of the same thing. Not until he worked out the equations using his astounding powers of critical reasoning, arriving at the famous E = mc2, was his hunch worth a damn.
The technique by which we make good decisions and produce good work is a nuanced and interwoven mental process involving bits of emotion, observation, intuition, and critical reasoning. The emotion and intuition are the easy, "automatic" parts, the observation and critical reasoning skills the more difficult, acquired parts. The essential background to all this is a solid base of knowledge. The broader the base, the more likely one is to have thought through and mastered different concepts, models, and ways of interpreting the world. The broader the base, the more likely all the parts will fit together. Yet, just as intuition is possessed by each of us, so is the ability to think and reason critically. One of the fundamental principles of the Age of Enlightenment, a period of discovery in which evidence for the great power of human reasoning came to full light, was that all people have the ability to shake off dogma and superstition and think for themselves. Much of modern twentieth-century philosophy also largely rests on the assumption of man's basic freedom and his ability to create his own destiny through reason, free will, and personal responsibility.
This is the point where Think! and Blink diverge: the assumption that in contemporary life the public is somehow wary of making snap judgments; that our tendency by nature or cultural custom is to methodically research and analyze data before reaching any conclusion. If Mr. Gladwell were limiting the scope of his book to select research labs and corporate management teams, his assertion might have weight. In wider society, however, a society bombarded by a glut of information, spin, marketing messages, and demands on one's time, snap judgments have become the norm. We are living and, in some cases, dying by snap judgments. Many people resort to paying someone else to think for them. We have become a society dependent on the views of experts psychologists, landscape designers, financial advisors, even parent coaches. The realm in which we are permitted to entertain, play, and puzzle over life's everyday mysteries has narrowed. In the absence of a habit of mind conditioned by careful, unbiased observation and applied critical thinking, snap emotion-based judgments have come to predominate. Snap judgments may account for "A nation divided," the tag line that got so much play in the media during the Bush-Kerry election. We've become a "gut-level" society, relying more and more on instinct to make our way through life. We're very comfortable with what we already believe and know. Change, even of our opinions or thinking processes, has become the great anxiety for most people.
As naturopathic medicine taps into a deep mystical yearning to be healed by nature, Blink exploits popular new-age beliefs about the power of the subconscious, intuition, even the paranormal. Blink devotes a significant number of pages to the so-called theory of mind reading. While allowing that mind reading can "sometimes" go wrong, the book enthusiastically celebrates the apparent success of the practice, despite hosts of scientific tests showing that claims of clairvoyance rarely beat the odds of random chance guessing.
Although it is completely unverified by any rigorous scientific test, Mr. Gladwell's premise has an air of legitimacy thanks to the groundwork laid by several generations of academic "postmodernists" and activists who zealously attempt to deconstruct each and every certainty of nature or society into an underlying set of bogus cultural assumptions. The same method is used to cast doubt on the very method of critical reasoning. These groups argue that rational, reductionist thought is sexist and repressive because it is based on assumptions already compatible with a power structure's values and outlook. As a result, the status of scientific ideas derived from skepticism and rational thought has waned, while the standing of whole hosts of faith-based views and trends has correspondingly risen. Blink not only assures us that making snap judgments is good practice, it implies a compatibility with the new-age paradigm of mental acuity based on instinct, emotion, and intuition.
I am certainly not out to bury intuition, "ah-ha" moments, or emotion. As I've noted, these elements of the human psyche are all indispensable to critical and creative thinking. But as far as delivering results, that is, favorable outcomes, critical thinking and its main elements, observation, logical reasoning, and skepticism have a demonstrably better track record. This fact is also why Think! differs structurally from Blink. It is not the aim of this book to be a compendium of case studies proving the superiority of critical thinking over intuition. In this respect, I, along with many others, need simply note there is nothing to prove. The case is closed. As documented in books such as Michael Lewis's Moneyball, statistics and analysis almost always beat instinct and guessing. That's why managers study tendencies of batters and pitchers and "play the percentages," that's why blackjack players good at card-counting methods do better than players who wing it, that's why companies employ systematic analytical tools such as design of experiment and Six Sigma to solve problems and improve efficiencies. Yet, if the case is closed about the overall superiority of critical thinking to improve decision-making, the mystery remains why subjectivity, emotion, and instinct have come to predominate in the lives of people and the wider society. This, then, is a book analyzing the causes of the decline of logic and reasoning in American life, and also a book proposing solutions for stopping and reversing this slide. While the analysis is made with America in mind, it is not strictly limited in scope to American society, as many other industrialized countries appear to be suffering from a similar malaise in thinking, for similar reasons. There are political connotations to some of these conclusions and recommendations, but this is not the book's main point. The book's aim is not macroscopic, it's microscopic not changing institutions, but changing thinking and habits that have often led to institutionalized dysfunction. If some writers focus on the value of the "bricks" of society and culture, my attention is directed to the importance of the "molecules" the way we think and how it shapes our lives, destiny, and society. And surely, as it inevitably plays out in millions of decisions made each day, there is a direct connection between the way we think and the society we get.
In reality, the only thing being created by the swelling desire for the easy and thought-free is a critical mass of bad outcomes:
Blunders in planning and emergency preparedness that led to the catastrophe in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
Big and small American companies that seem to have "plateaued," with declining prospects for dynamic growth in a changing world economy
Worsening science, math, reading, and problem-solving skills across all levels of American education
Growing numbers of teachers who cannot even clearly explain a class assignment, let alone effectively teach difficult subjects such as math and English
The strident, automatic alienation of Americans along ideological lines on any given issue or problem
The alarming decline in health of millions of Americans whose bodies are merely following the decline of critical capacities of their minds
These are all, to be sure, complex situations. When the facts are all tallied, however, the root cause for each of these problems must ultimately be traced to hazy, nonrigorous, institutionalized, faulty thinking: faulty thinking in government planning and execution, defectively conceived corporate strategy, an indifferent attitude to the value of knowledge and its power to fulfill our daily existence.
The continuing deterioration in thinking ability of students emerging from the nation's education system also naturally raises the question of how to account for it. As many studies have shown, much of a person's ability to learn is fostered through parental nurturing and instilled values that create the desire and work habits leading to good thinking skills. If the vast majority of the so-called Y or millennial generation has strictly a utilitarian interest (or lack of interest) in intellectual pursuits, and an impatient, even hostile attitude toward the formal work involved in mastering thinking methodologies logic, research, analysis, deductive reasoning it seems reasonable to assume that the psychology behind these habits has been "picked up" from their surroundings. Surroundings can be taken to mean the milieu of moral, ethical, and practical values found in contemporary society. Young people mainly encounter and absorb those values through social interactions with family, friends, and mentors.
The chapters that follow will track down and record the increasingly debilitating effects of the marginalization of thought and intellect in our society. This quest will be informed by a no-holds-barred look at some of the historical and cultural trends contributing to this mental malaise. In spirit, and perhaps at times in tone, the assessment may appear harsh, overly grim, and unfair. So be it. Americans possess a strain of stamina, perhaps arising from this country's particular style of democracy, that allows them to absorb, digest, and exploit the most scathing of criticism criticism that would demoralize and wound other societies, many of which have far more serious and intractable problems than the United States. The history of our drama, cinema, and literature is one of unceasing, self-lacerating examination and criticism. From Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, America and its writers and artists have been compelled to look deeply into our souls and tell us they do not like what they see. The news has been stinging, but somehow bracing, regenerative. In America the dark truth, stirred up and examined, is always a fresh air that lets us forgive ourselves and strive even harder.
Having mentioned Bloom, I need to acknowledge the importance some of his ideas have had in inspiring and framing the arguments in this book. When Bloom's acerbic critique of American higher education, The Closing of the American Mind, was published in 1987, it struck a nerve because it released a pent-up pressure arising from years of declining student performance and institutionalized political correctness. Some of the ideas in his book remain central to the core argument presented here. Bloom, a professor of political philosophy, was irritated by the moral relativism of the day's students and their galling indifference to the heroic elements of life. The relevance of Bloom's critique to this book is clear: If there is no such thing as good or bad, there is no meaning, no will to achieve, and no need for knowledge and inspired thought. The point will be taken up in more detail in several chapters, most prominently in Chapter 11, Hearing the Harmony of Reason: Embracing Objectivity, Thinking Critically. Whereas Bloom traces this apathy toward noble pursuits, knowledge, and the life of the mind to a perversion of moral values, mostly as a result of the introduction of foreign ideas into American society, I assign culpability to numerous social, cultural, and historical trends. These are, in their most immediate guises, trash culture, marketing, reliance on therapy, aversion to risk, the self-esteem industry, lack of standards in the workplace and classroom, and lax, hands-off parenting. Taken together, these habits and fashions have institutionalized mediocrity and glorified mental indolence, leading to the documented decline in critical-thinking skills.
Perhaps the main difference between my analysis and Bloom's is in the way we identify primary and secondary causes. I would argue, though, that Bloom's philosophical take on the decline of the American mind-set, while brilliantly lyrical and thought-provoking, is too far removed from everyday experience to do the average American much good. Bloom, no doubt, preferred it that way. He felt no strong identity with mainstream, bourgeois America. However, I disagree with Bloom's dark take on the professional and working-class segments of America. I have run into engineers studying French at night with their wives and known intellectually inspired shop supervisors, cab drivers, and security guards. My view of America and Americans is more in line with those of Emerson, Whitman, and Ginsberg an America with an infinite, if sometimes flawed, impatient, distracted yearning for experience and knowing. Yet it seems obvious, if we are to remove the obstacles preventing Americans (and people everywhere) from achieving what they want in life, that the best way is to first identify and attempt to mitigate the effect of direct, immediate causes.
I challenge the view that the decline in critical-thinking skills and the cheapening of intellectual life in American society is in some way the result of free will, and thus historically inevitable. Rather I believe it is the result of a flawed, passive way of perceiving the world, reinforced by the consensus of ever-present and powerful social forces. Further, with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, I believe we are possibly seeing evidence, for the first time in our history, of a new national mind-set more appreciative of reflection and ideas. The new attitude, born in part through disgust over mass marketing and trash culture, may in turn help foster a new idiom, one in which books, science, and the arts are as much a part of everyday conversation as sex, jokes, homespun anecdotes, and braggadocio.
But why are critical-thinking skills still important in the day of the computer, the Internet, television, and the DVD? For it is this book's most basic premise that clear, rational thinking and its fundamental nourishment, knowledge, both broad and specialized, are crucially important. Superior thinking is important not only to our jobs, community, and national interest, but to our identity as humans, our happiness and fulfillment in our professional and personal lives. Thinking is literally power, sexy and inspiring.
One way of illustrating this is to consider the work of the man many consider history's best thinker, Albert Einstein. Einstein, who was great at sound bites, once mused: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." In our age of conflict, spin, counterspin, and information overload, the view that the world and its puzzles will yield to creative insight and the light of reason may seem a quaint, overly optimistic outlook. Yet Einstein, who as a young man was no obvious genius in grooming, had proof it would.
Using no more than a pencil, some paper, and his brain, Einstein unlocked the deepest secrets of the universe (see Chapter 8, Great Thinkers). Today, of course, Einstein is recognized as one of history's most brilliant and creative scientific thinkers. Yet perhaps his grandest achievement was, ultimately, his demonstration of the wondrous might of the human brain and its astounding cognitive capabilities. His discoveries are so elemental, so beyond the perception of everyday, commonsense experience, that one is reminded of the line from Hamlet: "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!"
On the scale expressed by immortal poetry, E = mc2 pales in comparison to the power of the human mind. The splitting of an atom of uranium will release a huge amount of random, destructive energy. But only the mind can observe, reflect, analyze, and deduce truths about reality, then put those conclusions into useful (or, sadly, harmful) action through the arts and various forms of civic, private, and personal enterprise. Aristotle, among other philosophers, considered the mind the only thing that separated man from the beasts, all other parts and functions of our bodies being the same.
We don't need to think as well as Einstein did, but in order to achieve a useful, fulfilling life, in order to realize our personal and professional ambitions and goals, we need to think as well as we can. Yet, despite its practical uses and seemingly limitless potential, human brainpower is largely untapped, neglected, even ridiculed. Everyday experience confirms that the life of the mind is not doing well. It is, in fact, ill. With the rise of reality shows, content on television has reached an all-time abysmal low. (The television sitcom, with its dialogue and conflict resolution, at least has roots in a type of comedy invented by the Greeks.) Why do niggling problems in our companies or towns never seem to be solved? Why are the lives of so many people seemingly out of control, overwhelmed by tribulations involving money, relationships, and drugs? When was the last time a person mentioned a book he or she was reading? A local newspaper in my parents' town recently polled passersby during a cold snap, asking, "How do you fight cabin fever?" Three people said by shopping, one by snowmobiling, one by rabbit hunting, and another said by drinking and watching sports on television.
No doubt there are mental nuances involved in each of these activities; however, for me, as a die-hard football fan, these reflections usually consist of observations along the lines of "kill him" or "what the hell kind of call was that on third down?"
Full disclosure: I am not always thinking well, and sometimes not thinking at all. Like many, I suppose, I often find myself pulled toward a pleasant, soothing unreflective state of unfiltered daydreaming, a state I call "is-ness." In its most refined form, is-ness is a simple running mental account of our sense perceptions (the air is chilly, the stars are bright), although this register is usually overlaid by personal commentary (I need to call Dave, fix the faucet, or [my present favorite] make more money). Such reflections, while useful or fun, if overindulged, actually work as a block to higher appreciation and understanding of life. As the philosopher George Santayana once observed, in imagination, not perception, lies the essence of experience. Is-ness is pure perception uninformed by memory, knowledge, or critical evaluation. You might remember the street-savvy query, "What it is?" The right answer, it would appear, is that is is nothing special, a sort of universal condition of being.
Which brings me to an important point: The decline in the quality of critical-thinking skills, and waning appreciation for knowledge and the power of the intellect in general, is not strictly an American phenomenon. I lament Michael Moore's disparaging, fatuous remark, "Americans are possibly the dumbest people on the planet." It is a natural, healthy reaction to get angry when someone calls you stupid. The most appropriate reaction to Moore's opinion, however, is neither rage nor contempt, but pity. For Moore, who uttered these words in front of a fawning French audience, was essentially acknowledging his own low self-esteem, as well as his ignorance of history.
Americans are not stupid. No economic, cultural, political, and military superpower, be it Greece, Rome, or Victorian Great Britain, has ever been built by a citizenry of half-wits and morons. The citizens of the British Empire, or say Spain under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in some ways have more in common with twenty-first-century Americans than the people of present-day Great Britain and Spain have today. Superpowers are arrogant, pushy, vigorous, physical cultures, preoccupied with commerce, trade, and the protection of their empire from invading armies (or, in the present world, terrorists). Superpowers have always been fascinated with themselves; the ancient Romans seem to have invented celebrity culture and its absorption with success and power. This basic axiom reads: The cultural and political influence of an imperial power on other nations always exceeds the influence of other nations on it. The smug insularity this often creates is partly a consequence of power, not ignorance. Bordered by oceans on its east and west, the United States is also largely geographically isolated from the influence of foreign cultures, languages, and societies.
Moore falls for the temptation, quite common throughout history, of assuming the superiority of cultures or great civilizations that came before current ones. Europe, with its magnificent museums and opera houses, its generations of renowned writers, artists, and composers, is the caretaker of what many scholars consider the pinnacle of human reason and intelligence, the classical order. The classical order, with its emphasis on humanistic issues and speculative reasoning, was actually revived from the Greeks in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy by writers and philosophers such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Pico della Mirandola. With the Greeks as their guides and inspiration, the Italians and, later, other Europeans, produced one of history's most prolific periods of virtuoso artistic creativity and scientific inquiry, the Renaissance.
Does it follow that modern individual Europeans are better critical thinkers than Americans? European students test higher in math, science, and problem solving than American students, but many educators argue the results are skewed by greater ethnic, social, and economic diversity in the United States. So it is largely a rhetorical question, but given recent political disagreements that emphasize the differences between Europe and the United States, one that nonetheless fascinates. My answer? Non, mes amis. With the exception of linguistic ability, which is more a consequence of geography and historical conditions, I do not think Europeans, on average, are either more intelligent or better critical thinkers than Americans. Europeans, on average, possess perhaps more abstract, "book-based" knowledge, but Americans know more about the practical and the real. Having traveled frequently to Europe, I can verify that Europeans are equally enthralled by celebrity gossip and scandals, if not more so than Americans. In Europe, even in the midst of an abundance of culture, there exists the same great pull toward a life of easy mindlessness, soccer games, and countless hours spent drinking and daydreaming in cafés substituting for football and shopping. While the average European may be slightly more aware of us than most Americans are of them, this awareness often takes the form of stereotyped notions about American culture and society received through the media and movies. (The inspiration for Danish film director/writer Lars von Trier's Dogville, a portrayal of a neanderthal-like America, was apparently his own research-void, mythologized view, as von Trier admitted in an interview to having never set foot in the United States.) Moreover, the average European's critical thinking is often undermined by the same gaps in knowledge, prejudice, and flawed logic that often afflict the critical thinking of Americans. (A British acquaintance once lectured me on a bus for forty-five minutes about the environmental sins of the United States, apparently oblivious that this country's environmental regulations, as embodied in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and numerous other pieces of legislation, are the most stringent of any industrialized nation.) There is also an adverse political influence on the quality of critical thinking in Europe. Indeed European critical thinking and analysis appears to have stagnated, hemmed in by a few sacrosanct postmodern, left-of-center principles that seem to dictate all modes of logic and all possible outcomes. Looking for solutions to festering problems such as rising unemployment and how to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the welfare state with a declining population, Europeans are in effect barred from a truly rational, free-thinking inquiry by the entrenched political special interests of their societies.
America, on the other hand, is becoming more and more dependent on a class of elite thinkers produced at our nation's top universities. Many of these graduates are filtered off into high-paying professions such as law, medicine, and investment banking. In a global economy based more on knowledge than muscle and practical know-how, America needs all hands on deck, so to speak. We need smart teachers, smart nurses, smart sales representatives.
If I can make one broad generalization, the European decline in critical thinking appears to be mainly a product of political forces, whereas the quality of intellectual debate and critical analysis in America has wilted under the onslaught of a number of social, historical, and cultural trends. The pervasiveness of these trends, and the apparent inevitability of falling reasoning and thinking skills, has given birth to an entire service industry designed to both soothe and profit from the ignorance of the unwashed masses. Parents routinely agree to psychological or pharmaceutical intervention on their children at the first sign of difficulty in the classroom. Whether you're a TV producer, marketer, or product designer, the home run is a no-brainer, something so obvious its meaning slaps one across the face before the message can be absorbed into that perilously unpredictable mental processing unit, the human mind. Marketers invite us to celebrate our state of cluelessness. "Life is Random" is the slogan used by Apple to promote its iPod Shuffle. A commercial now widely seen on television plays on both our sense of having less time and our aversion to doing messy details. The commercial shows various people in the office who make a difficult situation go away by pressing an "easy" button. If only real life were so easy!
Faulty thinking is a result of two distinct but interwoven factors the inability to think critically and a lack of will to think clearly. Often, the ability may be present, but the will or power to do so may be lacking or formally restricted. For example, critical and creative thinking at the level of a large organization, say a corporation, university, or government department, is most often the result of a collective will or consensus. There may be good analytical and critical thinkers in the organization, but their opinions can often be stifled. Thus, we must also be aware of the role played by institutionalized censorship of truth, ideas, and ingenuity in the social patterns we may take to be direct evidence of declining thinking skills.
This theme will be examined in more detail throughout the book. In passing, however, I propose that modern America has evolved into a complex bureaucracy increasingly preoccupied with mastering rules and staying out of trouble, rather than one engaged by knowledge, progress, truth-seeking, and clear, innovative, analytical thinking. It is a society anxious about perceptions, directed by a sort of neurotic interplay of competing ideologies, political spin, commercial and marketing interests, and litigation concerns.
A type of neurosis, or perhaps more succinctly a paralysis, involving competing governmental, legal, and bureaucratic interests, seems to have played a role in the breakdown in decision-making before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. First, there was a failure to upgrade the city's levee system even though a study conducted by Louisiana State University researchers several years before had concluded that the levees would not be able to contain a tidal surge generated by a storm the size of Katrina. And Katrina was not a surprise: Officials and experts had long acknowledged it was not a matter of if, but only when, such a storm would arrive. Second, when the water did breach the levees and flood the city, it touched off a communications blackout among city officials and emergency crews. A $7 million grant to improve emergency communication had apparently disappeared, according to a Time magazine report. "We didn't expect the water," Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco was quoted in the report. Evacuation plans were plagued by similar lapses in anticipating and being prepared for the worst. Most astoundingly, one of the biggest causes of the catastrophe appears to have been official timidity and an aversion to taking legal risks or stepping on someone's political toes. The Time report harshly concludes, "At every level of government, there was uncertainty about who was in charge at crucial moments. Leaders were afraid to actually lead, reluctant to cost businesses money, break jurisdictional rules or spawn lawsuits." The only response one can muster to this is the one-word, universal euphemism for disgust, "unbelievable."
We have become a society in which the first instinct is not to think clearly, it is the protection of one's backside.
Today, paralyzed by various cultural, political, and social trends from any meaningful use of critical thinking in the search for truth, we have largely turned to emotion-based "analysis" of any given situation or issue. For ours indeed has become the Age of Emotion. It is an age typified by strident, pointless, bombastic screaming "debates" seen on television journalism and talk shows, and increasingly between politicians, family, friends, and neighbors. Or, by contrast, it is an era of simmering spite and tight control, clamming up and staying "on message." Needless to say, these inarticulate, politically charged screes and scrums have more to with the glands than the brain. They are the antithesis of rational inquiry, which is barred by the rules of this sport, as it might lead to a second thought, a concession of point, an admission of error, a boring nuance of agreement or (worse case) a gloating reproach. The defining idea and strategy in the Age of Emotion is to stake out a position, to arrive at a belief, even if it has to be pulled out of the air, and then to filter in only the type of information that would tend to confirm the position.
Emotion and subjectivity, not critical thinking, have become the overwhelmingly popular method of evaluating our world and making decisions. It is quite possible that books such as Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ have played a part in the mistaken perception that emotion is identifiable with intelligence. Goleman is not necessarily to blame; many of his points are valid emotion is very much an essential part of intelligence. Researchers in artificial intelligence, for example, have found that emotions, especially feelings associated with memories, play an important part in intelligence. It is this component of intelligence that AI researchers have found difficult to mimic in their quest to build machines with intelligence comparable to a human brain.
The ascendancy of emotion over critical thinking and reason may be either partly a result of, or partly a cause of, increasing political polarization of the nation. Entrenched outlooks and positions are emotionally high maintenance. Arguably music, especially rock and roll, has played a large role in creating the perception that raw, artistic passion and emotion are superior to reasoning and formal learning. Three generations of post-World War II Americans have grown up enthralled by that emotion (today's poetry) and by artists and music that seem to capture the essence of their dreams and disappointments. Emotion is associated with bohemianism and creativity. Yet, this view is something of a conditioned myth. Few fans would be inclined to think of Mick Jagger, Bono, or Bruce Springsteen as well-read and thoughtful, but that's exactly what they are. High intelligence and critical thinking are not incompatible with their creativity; they are the essence of it.
Rock and roll culture has helped to glorify a number of macho, monosyllabic myths about education and intelligence in general. As Pink Floyd sings:
We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control.
("Another Brick in the Wall," 1979)
Multiply the above anthem by a thousand variations and you begin to get the picture. Thinking and learning are for boot-licking conformists destined for lives as cubicle mice.
Or another twist on the theme, provided courtesy of a famous action-movie actor:
No one I know reads books.
So who's the conformist?
Or one more common take found in the tough-guy world of many adolescents, including grown-up ones: To read, reflect, and think is to be an egghead, a genius. Here we also detect that hint of social ostracizing that awaits the unsuspecting egghead: "You're intelligent. That's pretty uppity and pretentious of you, buster."
Yet the consummate egghead, Al Einstein, was neither pretentious nor obedient nor conventionally bright in his youth. In her memoir, Einstein's sister, Maja, writes that by the time he had reached high school Einstein "had formed a suspicion against every kind of authority."
But ultimately we need to think critically and seek knowledge, whether it's considered cool or uncool, because it fulfills a deep practical and even spiritual human need. If we can only evaluate the world through the lens of our mercurial emotions, if we grope our way through the day using snap judgments and our instincts as guides, if we let ourselves gravitate toward and settle into is-ness, we really are much worse off than the beasts dumb and aware of it. As Bertrand Russell wrote in an essay on mathematics, it is only through knowledge and critical reasoning that we are able to possess "the true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man." I think Bruce Springsteen would agree.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael LeGault
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