Monday, December 31, 2012

Thinking About Thinking is Harder Than You Think

Steve Siebold, Sex Politics Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America
Linda Elder and Richard Paul, 30 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living Through Critical Thinking: A Guide for Improving Every Aspect of Your Life, Revised and Expanded

Motivational speaker Steve Siebold has made the media rounds since the Sandy Hook shooting, and before that really, advocating a robust raft of reforms. He has publicly scolded President Obama and Congress for letting partisanship trump meaningful thought. But who hasn’t? His latest book demands citizens engage in deeper, realistic thought, which he evaluates by its conclusions: if you’re thinking, you’ll agree with that paragon of critical thought, Steve Siebold.

Siebold unpacks public morals and public policy, which he lumps under the titular umbrellas of Sex, Politics, and Religion. He further subdivides this into fifty-four subtopics—in a book under 300 pages! How can he possibly examine so many topics, when few merit more than three pages of widely spaced, large-font type? You know the answer. This book stinks of straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, and doctrinaire thought feeding foregone conclusions.

This produces a haphazard goulash of Ayn Randian libertarian diatribes. Repeatedly, he intrudes the caveat “Critical thinking tells us...”, which inevitably precedes an unexamined conclusion. Like his TV persona, Siebold reflexively excludes other viewpoints, dismisses debate in one or two sentences, and only considers arguments which support the position he already had. But he considers himself the distillation of hard thought and realistic (read “cynical”) positions.

In his intro, Siebold promises: “This may rank among the most controversial books ever written.” But his unimaginative, doctrinaire opinions are old hat, even boring. This book epitomizes a man with great pride in his accomplishments, and impatience for divergent reasoning. Despite repeated calls for “critical thinking,” his frankly coercive tone rewards intellectual passivity and groupthink.

Briefly, Siebold exemplifies the three-part structure favored by schoolyard bullies and scolding fathers: “I’m right. You’re wrong. Shut up.” In a time of dangerous political controversy and remarkably banal violence, we need public figures to widen, not narrow, the debate. We must challenge ourselves to new solutions, not anchor ourselves to old ones. Thankfully, such a book exists.

Linda Elder and Richard Paul have dedicated their careers to advocating Critical Thought, which they see not as a series of conclusions, but as a process. We engage in critical thought when we test our assumptions and beliefs; practice intellectual virtues such as humility, honesty, and fairness; and practice discretion in how we receive news and opinions from media, bosses, and politicians. And they admit, this is much harder than it seems.

Fortunately, in their latest book, Elder and Paul have broken the process down into thirty nuggets, designed so you can digest each in one day. Drawing on the same techniques teachers have historically used to parse difficult books, like the Bible or classic Russian literature, their process guides readers through an intellectual labyrinthe by taking it one step at a time. This encourages readers to unpack their own conclusions, not swallow ready-made opinions.

Human thought, like human muscle action, must be learned through gradual coaching. Just as we may believe some lifting technique makes perfect sense, only to discover too late that it causes severe back pain, a thought may seem reasonable in light of reflexive beliefs and old prejudices. We must learn carefully, over a span of time, which thoughts will result in desirable outcomes, and which we’ll pay dearly for down the line.

Far from expounding their own opinions, Elder and Paul cite many sources. Some expound how critical thinking works: Plato and Aristotle, Émile Durkheim, Eric Hoffer. Others exemplify critical thinking in action: Aquinas, Thomas Paine, HL Mencken, Margaret Mead. The authors’ sources give us key insights into the thought processes we should pursue, and just as important, they give us models to emulate so we know how critical thought may appear.

In their intro, which runs nearly fifty pages, Elder and Paul distill the points of their many prior books into a short rundown on how your mind works—and how it sometimes fails to work. This introduction contrasts very specific technical language with simple diagrams that make concepts comprehensible. One can imagine this as their PowerPoint presentation at corporate gatherings. It’s somewhat intimidating, though; feel free to skip it until you’ve read the rest of the book.

These two books are mirror images. One would exclude new ideas, stifle avenues of thought, and submit all insights to groupthink. The other encourages innovation, opens doors that only seem closed, and neither dominates nor submits. One seems useful in the near term, but will hasten painful consequences. The other requires more effort, but will proffer real solutions, or at least more meaningful debate.

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