Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

Just a Theory.gif

1. What role does the urge to dichotomize play in embracing and  dismissing theories?

2. What behavior would reduce that dichotomizing proclivity when thinking about "theory"?

3. What are the deleterious effects of the abuse of the idea of "theory"?

When teaching economics, a person has a frequent vantage point from which to see how that concept is internalized and used by a wide assortment of people.  Economists use the word "theory" almost as frequently as they clumsily use the word "chooser" to articulate their methodological individualism.

In this post I am intentionally not focusing on the use of the term by scientists.  Why not? They have been hugely unsuccessful (as the cartoon above demonstrates) in transporting their understanding of "theory" to the general public. I will refer to their use of the term because the way they use the term plays an unintentional collaborating role in shaping the general attitude toward theories of all kinds.

Students are immediately skeptical about what will follow after they have heard that they are about to learn a theory. Why? In a curious way, they, like scientists (with the notable exception of some biologists) think of the world in an Aristotelian 2-value logic such that matters are real or unreal--true or false.  An alternative way to conceptualize this dualistic perspective is "Platonism", or the belief in unchanging, dependable, and universal truths. Derivations from these truths are simply wrong.

So if I have correctly placed people's frequent reluctance to respect theories into a framework of persistent dichotomizing, how did the habit of distrusting theories develop? The connotation of the word shouts "Consider believing this."  Soon enough after one becomes familiar with the intricacies of a theory, the cognitive habit of belief that humans have in abundance kicks in. The theory makes sense.  Its conclusions have jumped from "not true"  to "true." Were we more naturally doubting entities, the conclusions from the theory would stay in the "not true" category from which it originated.

I have a few ideas about how to revitalize the role of theory, as a stopping off place on the road to a better understanding of the world.  I am curious what you think about them.

  • Emphasize in our thinking and teaching the rarity of statements about our world that are universally true.
  • Encourage the humility that should accompany assertions given the rarity of universals.
  • Discourage the idea that there are a huge array of statements that we can say are for sure false.  In other words, fight the dichotomization by reducing the wishful thinking that our world can be reduced to the absolutely known and the absolutely unknown.
  • Teach respect for alternative forms of evidence, including their strengths and weaknesses as an avenue toward seeing our world in probabilistic terms. In other words, our goal should often be to seek knowledge that may be a little more true than what we believed before.  This idea seems puny to many because it is giving up on the humanistic optimism that the world can be understood in its entirety by simply standing on the shoulders of giants as we get smarter and smarter. My response would be to praise the achievements that have stemmed from that attitude, especially in engineering and medicine. But my response would continue by pointing out the immense significance and number of human questions about which there has been virtually no movement toward universal answers.

Let's return to the cartoon at the top.  If we were trained to think in probabilistic terms, we might see a theory as a potential advance--something worth considering and exploring.  I may not know who Newton is, but even if gravity is a theory that designation means that some thoughtful people have examined it and found it worthy of widespread consideration.  It is neither true nor false. It has a probability of being true. Even the most feeble curiosity would lead to tests; we would shout "don't jump."

As long as our minds see theories as true or false, many of us will see them as false, while others will live their lives according to the theories. Both approaches seem dangerous, but i am here most concerned with the automatic rejection of "theory" or rather the omnipresent phrasing "just theory." If theory is a potential probabilistic lurch toward greater understanding, we penalize our imagination and achievements by seeing all theory as the same pile of half-baked junk science.

I fear that what I am saying here is pretty hopeless though because there is persuasive impact in some quarters from calling ones views a theory. The abuse of that term as a marketing advice for statements that are more properly called good guesses has been a major contributing factor in the large-scale dismissal of theories. All of us are aware of theory after theory in realm after realm that crashed as dramatically as it emerged.  Watching, as our hopes have been dashed over and over by faux truths marching under the cover of "theory", we think "oh not another one."

For me the largest hope for a revitalized understanding of theory resides in the fight against the human brain's dichotomizing habits and the philosophical Platonism that undergirds the habit.

1. Is there a genetic basis for dichotomizing?  if so can it be tweaked?

2. How can the general understanding of "theory" be modified?

3. Would not what I have called "Platonism" weaken the promise of pluralism?

AuthorM Neil Browne