Productive Questions as Critical Thinking                


1.  Is the pursuit of “likes” on social media anything more than a reflection of human loneliness?

2.  Are there thoughtful justifications for the pursuit of “likes”?

3.  Why do these questions matter?

Listening to my students and paying moderate attention to popular culture has sensitized me to the widespread desire to compete for “likes” on social media. That enterprise puzzles me because observation suggests that one can earn more “likes” by posting a mildly humorous picture of a stray cat or by changing a profile picture than I ever could garner by a calm, reasoned and balanced post about nuclear proliferation among non-state entities.

Why would one place any value on an accolade that could mean almost anything, often from people whose criteria for applauding you are largely hidden? Imagine a community of people whose judgment I have limited respect for.  Would I wallow in their liking what I said or did? Or would I simply think to myself that anyone astute enough to be attached to my social media posts has thereby demonstrated acuity of judgment?

Contrast how we would all feel about the respect we are given by people we know to be mentally adroit, compassionate, and wise. Now there are some “likes” I want in droves.

Are so many of us simply lonely?  Does all mail become good mail? Does every “like” elevate our sense of belonging to a tribe, at least some vague tribe?

Or do we have such an elevated self-assessment that any collection of “likes” is earned affirmation. We might think “well, it’s about time that the world noticed my excellence, or as someone we all know puts it “my stable genius.”

But I am reminded that for some people the accumulation of “likes” is a commercial activity.  If I am packing a reputation that earned tens of thousands of “likes”, then my “brand” has worth in a market culture. Associating my name with a product or service may herald spikes in sales of the product fortunate enough to be linked to me. At least I understand that rationale. I can imagine that my next book proposal would experience a major boost, if I could claim massive likes on my social media sites. Maybe the collection of “likes” is something like the purchase of a lottery ticket—a long shot, but if I get lucky, the payoff is huge.

Who cares?  I think we all should care. “Likes” and “You are mean.” are invitations to a conversation. We need to know more about the basis for those ratings so that we can decide to continue or alter our behavior. Should we not humbly accept some “likes” and ignore comments about our meanness if we have any sense that the critique misconstrues behavior that is kind in the long run and uncomfortable in the short run?

 Acquiring “likes” and avoiding any and all assessments that we are being mean is incredibly time consuming. In addition, it is somewhat pathetic in that we accept assessments by others while knowing precious little about how much or how little knowledge or thought resides underneath the evaluations.

As a professor, I witness hour of calculation by students dedicated to never displeasing others. Their independence from groupthink is complicated. Speak with them individually, and they are quite opinionated about important questions.  But in a group inside or outside of class, they want to please whatever group is present. They seem to live in fear that they would be rejected by someone in their vicinity. I doubt that I need to point out how frightening this behavior is.

1.  Is loneliness so extensive or significant a factor in some people’s lives that avenues for publicly collecting these votes of approval should be encouraged?

2.  Is there so much discomfort in life that collecting “likes” is a needed palliative?

3.  Are humans seemingly so hard-wired to dichotomize that we do not know how to teach one another that the opposite of “mean” is not necessarily a “like-generating” set of behaviors?

AuthorM Neil Browne


 1.  What standards do we require before we say "Well that proves it."?

2. Why do we believe so many things for which there is slim proof?

3. Why do people seem so willing to try to persuade others regardless of how puny there proof might be?

2 things stimulated these questions.  First, the justifiably eminent psychologist, Jerome Bruner, argues that one of the defining proclivities of humans is the acquisition of beliefs. Here he is not speaking about religious beliefs in particular. Beliefs come in many hues.

The 2nd stimulus is the song "Mormons Just Believe" from the play, The Book of Mormon.  The structure of the song is a series of outlandish contentions, each followed by "But Mormons Just Believe." Why highlight Mormons?  As I listened, I did not find their beliefs to be extraordinary, in the sense that they were different in credibiity from the sub-beliefs underlying so many beliefs, religious and non-religious that we cling to.

Humans hold religious beliefs despite the fact that few humans have bothered to use even the search strategies they would compel themselves to use were they buying a home. Imagine how embarrassed we would be were our friends to realize that when we last hunted for a place to live, we looked at only one home. Yet, among all of the believers in religion I have encountered, few have any in-depth knowledge of more than 1 religion despite the fact that there have been dozens of religions seeking new believers throughout human history. So many of us rush to believe.  At minimum, should all of us not be required to read the provocative Varieties of Religious Experience by William James before we make a commitment to a particular religion. At least then we might have some claim to using due diligence before locking in to a particular set of religious views.

However, it would be a mistake to see religion, belonging off all by itself in a realm where humans excercise an unusual proclivity for belief with the most minimal standards for proof of the belief. It might be embarrassing, as it surely is for me, to reflect about the origins of the political beliefs we have chersihed at various times in our lives. Loyalty to capitalism as a system of institutions, assumptions, and motivations is rarely the fruit of a careful analysis of the extent to which the system produces some form of generalized social capabilities.

Socialism is imbibed without caution repeatedly by those of us who wrap ourselves in an embarrassing romantic fallacy, choosing our belief in socialism's efficacy based on assumptions about human nature that we would be hard pressed to prove using even the standards we would expect from a toothpaste that claimed it could take our teeth to hitherto unseen levels of whiteness in 30 seconds of brushing. We so want humans to be the people we wish they were. We dodge the proof problem by allusions to how wonderful people would be if only policy were what we propose.

What does it matter whether I am correct?

Let me propose a rule, or, if you prefer, a guideline: If you share my skepticism about what humans generally require before saying "I believe.", we should not try to persuade others of our belief to the extent that proof is flimsy. In brief, persuade away when your proof is thick and broad. However, when, as is more typical, it is thin and/or narrow, please be curious and ask questions.  Show respect for differences between proof and hope by selective listening.

1. Are the barriers between hunches and dependable beliefs murky?

2. Must humans rely on weak proof in selected areas of our experience to be able to function?

3. Can humans permit themselves to think about the extent of the proof they have before they try to spread their beliefs?

AuthorM Neil Browne

                                                                   Critical Thinking as Productive Questions


1.  What standards do we require before we say "Well that proves it."?

2. Why do we believe so many things for which there is slim proof?

3. Why do people seem so willing to try to persuade others regardless of how puny there proof might be?

2 things stimulated these questions.  First, the justifiably eminent psychologist, Jerome Bruner, argues that one of the defining proclivities of humans is the acquisition of beliefs. Here he is not speaking about religious beliefs in particular. Beliefs come in many hues.

The 2nd stimulus is the song "Mormons Just Believe" from the play, The Book of Mormon.  The structure of the song is a series of outlandish contentions, each followed by "But Mormons Just Believe." Why highlight Mormons?  As I listened, I did not find their beliefs to be extraordinary, in the sense that they were different in credibiity from the sub-beliefs underlying so many beliefs, religious and non-religious that we cling to.

Humans hold religious beliefs despite the fact that few humans have bothered to use even the search strategies they would compel themselves to use were they buying a home. Imagine how embarrassed we would be were our friends to realize that when we last hunted for a place to live, we looked at only one home. Yet, among all of the believers in religion I have encountered, few have any in-depth knowledge of more than 1 religion despite the fact that there have been dozens of religions seeking new believers throughout human history. So many of us rush to believe.  At minimum, should all of us not be required to read the provocative Varieties of Religious Experience by William James before we make a commitment to a particular religion. At least then we might have some claim to using due diligence before locking in to a particular set of religious views.

AuthorM Neil Browne

                                         Productive Questions as Critical Thinking


1. Does moderation in one's beliefs and behavior signify uncommon reflection?

2. Why are young people so frequently immoderate?

3. Are there trigger moments or situations that should suggest lack of moderation?


Robert Samuelson in a recent  Washington Post column argued that Republicans and Progressives were responsible for a devasting mismanagement of government, our public sphere. The mismanagement both were accused of was a failure to recognize the costs of their unfailing loyalty to certain flawed principles.  He acknowledged that Republicans have a visceral reluctance to increase taxes at a time when fiscal responsibility demands that we spend more money on multiple problems best addressed through collective action. 

But the thrust of his argument is a critique of progressives for their treatment of medicare and social security as sacred cows that must not be placed on a diet even when their current eating habits are non-sustainable. His point is that the rigidity of this opposition to cuts in these programs overlooks the power of even small cuts in protecting the long-run viability of the programs that progressives push and protect.

This post is stimulated by the comfort I felt with his argument and my recognition that the ease with which I agreed with Samuelson was created more by my fealty to moderation as a value than it was to the specifics of his argument.

Why were the Greeks and I so attracted to moderation as a principle? I think we recognize that other values when pursued in extreme forms often become nightmares.  Extreme courage becomes foolhardiness; Extreme reasonableness becomes decidophobia because there are other more reasons and data to consider.

A 2nd reason why moderation is so appealing is that we all regualrly witness that those who prefer a point of view almost never sell it fair-mindedly.  In other words, we are asked to consume X, practice Y, and believe Z because of their abundant advantages. We hear this one-sidedness and move to the middle in self-defense.  We know that no choice is free of deficits. So we run to the protective cover of lists of advantages AND disadvantages from which it is very difficult to emerge wholesale dedicated to or against something. 

I think it safe to claim that to be young is to be more likely to shun moderation as a primary value.  We do not expect revolutions to be led, new dance crazes to emerge, or extravagent clothing styles to be championed by older people. Why not?  Maybe as we age we become bruised and reluctant to embrace extreme positions.  A few leaders in whom we place great trust only to see only minor progress can easily make us reluctant to charge forward in support of the next idealistic leader.

Alternatively, aging may enhance the number of beliefs and habits reinforced by confirmation bias. We grow comfortable with our conclusions out of reflective fatigue if for no better reason. Young people are relatively new to construction of beliefs. When they commit to one, they are more likely to do so vigorously, unmitigated by the complexity of alternative beliefs.

Should each of us hesitate at times to think the way Samuelson does in the article to which I linked you?  Sure, blame for complex phenomena has a broad reach.  But isn't it a little too cognitively neat to run to the middle when assessing responsibility for governmenatal mismanagement.  Another way to ask the same thing would be to wonder whether the coefficients in front of each potential cause are equal just because such thought makes analysis crisp.

1. Does not some behavior cry out for immoderate response? When your leader focuses on whether someone celebrates a national symbol as he does rather than on getting power and medical aid to desperate millions of fellow and sister citizens, should we not scream our outrage?

2. Does it not make sense to consider moderation in the face of behavior as a first response, but to be willing to throw ourselves into support or revulsion at times?


AuthorM Neil Browne

1. What is the link between the American Dream and Equal Opportunity?

2. Is the American Dream kind?

3. What is the role of fairness in the American and the Nordic form of "the dream?"

The American Dream has always been more aspirational than reality, but increasingly Americans are feeling that the dream has lost any semblance of reality. There will always be thousands of people for whom the dream is reality, but for the last 3 decades typical Americans experienced constant spending power or worse. The psychological impact of this social immobility has been exaccerbated by the vastly disproportionate share of new income and wealth pouring into the hands of the upper 1%. An interactive chart in the New York Times 3 days ago visually captures the probable death of the American Dream for large components of Americans.

I want to note that the Dream has always had a major materialistic dimension.  In other words, the Dream has focused on consumption possibilities and not increasing levels of justice, fraternity, kindness, or sharing. The ethical nature of the Dream has instead focused on liberty, competition, and prudence. The Dream was heralded as vibrant when households had abundant spending power, and they had justifiable hope that subsequent generations would flourish to a greater extent than their predecessors. This consumption ethic melded comfortably with an interpretation of freedom that was largely about restricting governments from interfering with private choices and ignored the role of government and community generosity in creating opportunities for the vulnerable/marginalized members of American society.

The American Dream has often used the language of equal opportunity to buttress its spirit of fairness. The value of equal opportunity is, from the data I have seen, one of the 3 central values that appeal to a large majority of voters across party affiliation. Conceptually, the idea of EQUAL opportunity plays a logical role in legitimizing whatever flood or trickle if money that flows into the family coffers. If the opportunity is equaly dispersed, well it certainly seems as if by the standards of one kind of fairness that property laws and tax systems should not interfere with the shares of income that households acquire in private, market activities. 

But surely, no one believes that opportunity can ever be equal. More equal--certainly. But equal?  Seriously? There is merit in speaking about how to make the ineviatble inequalities of opportunity less severe, but using "equal opportunity" as a rhetorical device to legitimize any and all degrees of inequality is the worst form of mean-spirited rationalization.  The lottery of birth guarantees that inequalities will to some degree govern human interactions.

If what I have said above at least borders on truth, allusions to the glory of the American Dream serve to provide legitimizing cover for the economically successful.  All it takes is a few thousand seemingly rags-to-riches stories to provide "data" demonstrating how wonderful the imagery surrounding the Amrican Dream is. Nothing I am saying here should be interpreted as anything other than appreciation for hard work, creativity, and efficiency, but when the story making use of these virtues is so tainted, the virtues are serving as frosting layered over a rotting cake.

While there is legitimate debate about the best way to measure social mobility and the rankings of social immobility among countries, I think it is safe to say that the best approximations of the ideas implicit in the American Dream  might well be in Northern Europe and Canada.

Ana Partanen's The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life suggests that the American Dream is best exemplified by social policies and the resulting opportunities flourishing in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. She argues that the utter unfairness of the lottery of birth is broadly acknowledged in Nordic countries. And once a culture acknowledges the sharp limiting barrier that this lottery creates for personal responsibility and autonomy, then it is quite logical to provide generous, equalizing public subsidies for universal education, health, transportation, and employment opportunity.  In other words, her claim is that Nordic policies are in intent quite contrary to their image in popular culture in the West that sees these policies as soft-headed enablement of personal responsibility. In short, any use of the idea of the American Dream to support  sharply unequal income and wealth distributions makes little sense until taxpayers are willing to support massive efforts to disrupt the results of the birth lottery.

1. If we acknowledged the impact of the lottery of birth, would we not necessarily support such a major transformation in Americn culture  that America would be unrecognizable?

2. As the recent uproar about diversity at Google and in high tech firms in general causes me to wonder:
 Are Americans cognitively able to accept that some humans are so privileged by the lottery of birth and all that follows from the results of that lottery that they can indeed on average outperform other Americans who were not assisted by social interventions that would have enabled a fair competition among individuals at work and play?

3. Is there any evidence that Americans have a reservoir of compassion in the context of an increasingly diverse population, such that it is realistic to think that they could ever embrace the idea that the state must expand equalizing efforts to provide human necessities so that the higher ideals in the American Dream could be realized in our country?




                                                                    Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

AuthorM Neil Browne

                     Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

1. Why is there such a fascination with abstractions?

2. Should we teach "critical thinking"? Who knows?

3. What are the forms, the context, and the consequences?

Late in 2016  a young scholar with an old argument explained why schools should not teach "general critical thinking":

When I was asked what I thought about the argument, I was flummoxed. "I don't know. " I had so many questions for the creator of the argument. I could, of course,  answer off the top of my head. My immediate reaction was that I found the claims in the essay ferociously clumsy. The author seemed quite determined to sell a claim prematurely before any of the hard work associated with careful reasoning had been shared with us.

But I wonder whether with more care, the argument might soar at least a few feet. I hope to have offered that respect for the argument in the final question at the end of this post.

We can start by recognizing that both the author of this essay and so many college catalogs and professors insist on speaking about "critical thinking" as if it is a something, a particular kind of something that is universally self-defining such that we can cast it about in arguments with ample anticipation that to say the words is to project a precise meaning that falls smoothly and unadorned into the mind of the reader or listener. And what exactly is that universal meaning? Well, mine naturally.

An apparent digression that I hope will make the point that abstractions in general are dangerous friends:

          I am at a jazz concert.  The orchesta performs a Gospel/folk song often performed by Louis Armstrong--Down by the Riverside."                       

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna study, study, war no more

I ain't gonna study war no more
Ain't gonna study war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more

I ain't gonna study war no more
Ain't gonna study war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more

The crowd sang along boistrously, seemingly unified in its hopes that something called "war" could be abandoned and something called "peace" could replace "war."  The music was infectious, but surely with a smidgeon of thought, one must acknowledge that some wars must be fought if morality is to have teeth. And similarly, some variants of peace are repulsive in that they represent moral blindness to human outrages.

Might not we need to have the same hesitations before wrapping our arms around OR rejecting "general" or "specific" forms of critical thinking?

Abstractions promise to draw us toward the light; however, precisely because they lurk in the shadows of murky ambiguity, they threaten as much to mislead as to assist understanding and interpretation. Their shadowy essence allows those who deploy them to imprint any meaning they choose onto their identity. So I can bemoan war because I think of all the seemingly wasted lives caught up in war; I can glow on behalf of peace because I yearn for some fantasy-land where lambs sleep with lions.

Now, to return to critical thinking--- General courses in which critical thinking is supposedly taught can range in essence from (1) thinly-disguised brainwashing in which "myths" are replaced by "truths" to (2 ) series of evaluative skills reflecting generally accepted intellectual standards.  For example, any diatribe against "general critical thinking courses" would need to explain to us why its author conflates these alternatives. I am trying to imagine someone who would deny the dire need for an appreciation for underlying assumptions, clarity in expression, awareness of logical fallacies, sensitivity to rival causes. or awareness of statistical chicanery. Seriously, someone would oppose a general critical thinking course comprised of skills like those? Only by directing bombs at the unexamined abstraction called "general courses in critical thinking" could such an argument be logically sustained.

As teachers we should not teach any abstraction without thinking through the specific form, context, and consequences providing the context for our efforts.

1.  Does it follow that the proper answer to the question "should we seek X?" is always "Who knows?  Tell me more."

2. Would it make sense to direct our intentions towards highly specific ends with highly specific intended consequences, and only then to seek an abstraction that would both describe the essence of what we seek, and at the same time, provide the rhetorical oomph to  attract supporters?

3. Would not a fertile exploration of underlying assumptions require grounding in the domain being analyzed?  In other words, would not someone who learned to spot assumptions in a general critical thinking course be at a major disadvantage in unpacking such assumptions when the question or problem being examined is a specialized area of knowledge?

AuthorM Neil Browne

                                             Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

1. President Obama and President Trump agree that we need to unite as a nation, but should we?

2. Who benefits from unification?

3. Are there conflicts of interests and values that are both real and necessary?

I am watching the Academy Awards as I type, and the Academy just assured us that "Cinema through images brings us together." 

I certainly recognize the appeal of such a comment. But what are they talking about? Are they doing anything more than wishful thinking? Are they assuming that humanity has common interests?  How extensive are any common interests that do exist? 

When Trump and Obama agree, surely the rest of us can find common ground. But to agree to say the same words is far from agreeing about meaning. When the "unifiers" counsel us to come together, why are they so silent about the basis for the unity? 

Suppose, in contrast to the assumed world of those who urge us to unify,  the world consists of numerous conflicts, interminable struggles associated with our existecne in a world that stubbornly refuses to possess enugh resources to please the ever-burgeoning desires we fervently want this same world to yield. My property is not your property; my icome is not your income; consumers and producers have divergent desires; workers and employers cannot suddently consult one another and make their divergent interests waft away; the aged and the young each have precise needs the fulfillment of which makes demands on the same pile of resources; nations wish for the water and resources of other countries; current generations bless or harm future generations by their policy choices.

Do these differences stop existing in any fashion through an act of will to speak together? To those who believe the answer is "yes", please stop hiding your wisdom so effectively. 

But until you do explain to us how unification results where legitimate interests conflict, please give some thought to the negative effect of your repeated claims that we should all just love one another. Your advice suggests that active protest against injustice should stop. Those protests are unnecessary since all we need to do is "come togehter." Such magical thinking is an insult to both careful thinking and to the cries of marginalized groups. It substitutes quiescence and glibness for active resistance to the abundant human outrages we witness.

1. Is it possible that lions and lambs can lie together and negotiate toward shared ends?

2. Is there some avenue by which the few shared interests we have could be publicized and sold to warring factions to at least minimize the enmity associated with conflictinh interests?

3. Does anyone know of any avenue by which we can all stop saying words that sound good on the way out, but that cannot withstand even the most elementary analysis at the point where we think about wonder how to implement their sweet sound?


AuthorM Neil Browne

                                                                  Productive Questions as Critical Thinking


1.Is there some level of frustration about the status quo that could push any of us to choose an option we would never normally embrace?

2. Would such behavior be irrational?

3. What is the source of hope that would sustain resistance to such seemingly rash behavior?

First, let me clarify what I mean by "a Trump".

I see him as incredible--- a highly risky leader whose trademark is thin understanding and flat out lying in pursuit of what he calls "winning." He represents in so many ways the antithesis of a good neighbor. He is self-absorbed in the extreme.

In other words, given my perceptions I would never vote for someone like him.  Even when I agree with a conclusion of his, I have little evidence to suggest that he would not say the opposite the next day nor that he understands the arguments he makes at any level above the visceral.

However, using the principle of charity, I have tried to find some scenario that would cause someone like me to embrace a person of his ilk as a leader.

The situation would need to seem almost hopeless to me. In other words, I would not see on the horizon any solution to what for me is an exceedingly important problem. Power relationships inside an institution I love would appear to be not only ossified, but the counterforces are poorly orgnized and bereft of practical solutions.

I think I understand and feel the sentiments of the Trump voter. I see little positive about the future of the American university.

I will need to generalize based on typical schools for there are tiny exceptions to what I am about to say. But the following are the basis for my dyspeptic view of where the university is headed:

A.  In the absence of public support for high education, universities are now governed by a business mentality that places value on low cost delivery systems and on outputs pleasing to whatever revenue sources, be they alumni, corporations, or student consumers, seem promising. In the process the quality of the "output" is a secondary consideration, if that. The public relations fibs at a modern university sound like and are justified with the same rationalizations used by any firm trying to sell its products.

B.  Universities are a confused aggregate of inconsistent objectives. Some departments and faculty are pure vocational trainers; other faculty maintain liberal education objectives aimed at fulfiling the dreams of Jeffersonian democracy.

C. Then other interest groups are pushing the university to participate in the corruptible process of big-time athletics. (See Page Smith's admirable Killing the Spirit.) A school without an athletic program that has aspirations of a winning season is an anacronism. These athletic programs channel revenues and student passions into a domain quite distinct from academic objectives, different thought they might be. While the common terminology of pariticpants designates them scholar-athletes, practice on campus shouts that they are ATHLETE/scholars. Imagine the nightly news reporting, for example, that a professor produced letters to the football coach saying that a students on the football team would be unable to compete next Saturday because a class had an important test on that day. Unimaginable!

D. Very few modern American students have developed in a culture where learning is respected. Entertainment, however, is highly valued.  When students speak of how much they enjoyed college, it would be rare feedback indeed to hear them speak rhapsodically of provocations, questions, and insights that will guide their learning long after they can barely remember a single professor's name. Their memories tend to reflect the same experiences that would emerge from a well-financed singles apartment complex. Fueling this attitude are the abundant entertainment possibilities on a modern campus that did not exist on the campuses of yesterday.

E. Universities have been devastated by the transferance of market language and thinking into curricular decisions. Departments andn faculty are expected to fund themselves or to "develop new revenue potentials." My university has seriously considered majors in marina management and equestrian management for no reasons other than there are(1) lots of marinas and(2) an employer of equestrian managers in our vicinity. When such proposals fail, if they do, the reasoning is "bottom-line issues", not the clash with historical rationales for university curricula.  

ENOUGH. I think you appreciate that I could continue. 

And I see no reform in the offing.  I could engage in the refuge of dreamers, wishful thinking. But I prefer not to do so.

If a university leader with Trumpian characteristics promised to "drain the swamp" of universities, I am ready to sign on. Extreme frustration has taken me to a place that ordinarily I would abhor.  I have no hope to provide a shield against the implications of my frustration.  I yearn for "bigly change."  Rational? What a complex question!!!! I have reasons for my attitude.  Are they compelling?  To me they are, but my vantage point is very narrow perforce. But I am having trouble imagining a projection of the future university that is more dismal than the one I see emerging from the current arranements. Just on ethical grounds, I am trying to picture how the modern university enhances the kind of literacy needed by thoughtful spouses, neighbors, citizens, professionals, consumers, patients, and friends.

1. Many place hope in the scenario that things must get very bad before large change will be considered. Should we bet on that possibility?

2. Is it possible that I am just aging and tired, or perhaps engaging in that tiresome backward glance at teh past that never was?

3. Is the idea of institutions of higher learning with a clear set of objectives a mirage? Do institutions thrive when they have conflicting internal objectives?










AuthorM Neil Browne

                                                          CRITICAL THINKING AS PRODUCTIVE QUESTIONS

1. 1. When communities change power relationships, property rights, and norms, why are they so willing to ignore those who are pillaged by the changes?

2. Should not the beneficiaries of a social change interrupt their celebrations to recognize the obvious: change has costs?

3. Are those harmed by change just a standard marginalized group, i.e., an obvious bearer of burdens?


Technology, cultural norms, levels of affluence, and human aspirations change persistently. The changes ebb and flow, but we can count on their lack of long-run stability.


A. Global Markets replace local and national markets:  The virtue of so-called "free-trade" is taught to hundreds of thousands of economics students. But in the eagerness to applaud benefits to an aggregate (GNP), where is the discussion of the distributional impact of the benefits AND the resulting employment insecurity so real to many?  "Average benefits" are real enough, but we can reasonably object to such benefits when they create a world that is more brutish and unhelathy. 

B. Knowledge about the negative ramifications of consuming specific products or using certain inputs in industrial processes changes over time: While it makes a lot of sense to me that we should reduce the production of coal and tobacco, I do not think vague promises of retraining programs is an apposite response to the unfair imposition of misery onto 4th generation tobacco farmers or coal miners.  How would a thoughtful society justify allocating benefits and costs of change in such a meat-handed fashion?

C. Different historical eras offer different employment prospects:  If the threats of Artifical Intelligence, even to jobs in the professions, are accurate, discussions of a guaranteed income are going to bloom. In other words, those who cannot discover employment that would provide a living wage will probably be offered a monetary sop to prevent their being the type of permananet underclass that fuels the forms of destructive rebellion represented by the imagery of the visual at the beginning of this post.


I wonder whether the failure to compensate the groups that absorb the impacts of change is caused by ethical blindness? Are people's needs habitually ignored when they are economically weak and relatively passive?  In other words, is the answer obvious in that powerless groups can expect for dominant classes to overlook them when considering the wisdom of particular changes?


1.  Are there generous counter-examples undercutting the assertions I am making in this post?

2.  Is caring perforce parsimonious?  In other words, is sharing, when it occurs, almost surely a puny response to the need?  If so, what does that say about humans?

3.  When beneficiaries of changes are absorbed in their delight with modernity, is it at all reasonable to expect them to look back over their shoulders at the human wreckage that the changes have propelled?



AuthorM Neil Browne

                                              PRODUCTIVE QUESTIONS AS CRITICAL THINKING

 1. Is Evidence Really All That Important to Human Flourishing?

 2. How Can We Celebrate Evidence When We All Know There Is Abundant Horrible Evidence?

3. Is There A Practical Fix For The Common Failure To Use Evidence As A Basis for Decision-making? 

I think it important to begin with the recognition that even those of us who tout evidence as an essential component of skilled  thinking are not as likely in practice ourselves to adequately search for nor rely on evidence as we are to sing the praise of evidence. Honesty would require each of us to confess numerous decisions when we should have given evidence much more thorough respect than we did when we went on a certain vacation, took a specific medicine, or forged a particular friendship. We think far too rapidly than we should when making important decisions.

But, we must know that we ignore systematic evidence at a heavy cost. For example, millions of dollars are wasted on medical practices for which there is little to any evidence that the doctor is using effective techniques. Many of us feel annoying pain at some location in our back. Do you think that the many people who feel that pain should follow their doctor's advice to have spinal fusion to eradicate the pain? Does it help your answer to know that hundreds of surgeons recommend the procedure?  In light of the popularity of the procedure and its certification of effectiveness by highly trained caring professionals, what do you think?  Think Again! 

Much more than money is lost in these situations. The time we have in such short supply is frittered away by our needing to rehabilitate or treat the side effects of such practices.

Consider all of the time the medical commuunity spends and the research dollars allocated to identifying the medical effects of acupuncture. Renowned hospitals have acupuncture specialists on their staffs. So there must be substantial evidence for the positive effects of acupuncture, right?   Think again.  These authoritues have all studied the placebo effect, haven't they? 

Why do we not give evidence the respect it deserves?

1. Time.  We are bsuy doing things we either like to do or feel we must do. Identifying evidence is very toime consuming, especially when very few people have any sense of where one would find substantive evidence.

2. Lack of knowledge of the multiple forms evidence can take and the strengths and weaknesses of each. To say we need to heed evidence is obvious. But the multiple guises evidence takes are appreciated by only those few who have been specifically trained in those evidential forms.

3. Lack of knowledge about how to sort or evaluate evidence once it is found.  Even highly educated people confuse effect size and statistical significance on a regular basis.

4. Lack of understanding of the relative credibility of alternative sources of evidence. If one is not a persistent reader and curious about the attributes of particular perveyors of eviidence, a consumer of evidence gets understandbaly frustrated or manipilated rather easily.

5. Possession of the awareness that even the most eminent experts in many fields change their monds about the power of evidence over time.

If what I have said above is correct, it is unlikely that evidence will ever be amajor source for human inference.  I do not expect an educational revolution, the demise of the myriad entertainment options that eat people's time, or any other large-scale change that would eradicate the 5 causes of lack of respect for evidence that I enumerated.

But, we can become missionaries for the kind of knowledge that would elevate respect for evidence. We can also stop acting as if all evidence is equally flawed and therefore can be ignored at will. We can also try to cleanse our own model as careful consumers of evidence.

My biggest hope would be that evidence would be treated more as a public good, something that can be generated and shared in a fair form.  As long as evidence flows from self-interested, rather than community-focused sources, we can be certain that it will be largely unreliable and its dissemination creates confusion and misinformation more than enlightenment.  I say "evidence should be more a public good than currently" with full recognition of th danger  in trusting an evidence-purveyor just because it comes from an allegedly community-minded source. But there are multiple other evaluative tools that could be used to complement such "knowledge." 

1. Is greater respect for evidence a hopeless quest? In other words, is it too late to remove the pernicious effect of evidence produced and dissemonated by partisan selfish groups?

2. Is there really no evidence untainted by selfish motivations?

3. Is the skilled consumption of evidence always going to be the province of a very few citizens? 






AuthorM Neil Browne