Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

Do people who exaggerate know better, but strategically do so because doing so accelerates persuasion?

What does it say about our proclivities that exaggeration is so commonly effective?

Were we to recognize the persistent, broad range of human expression and meaning, would we not discount almost any and all dichotomies?

Many times when we do not understand our world, we use magical words to serve as a surrogate for an explanation. So when a person slays family members, we say "he was crazy", as if we have done something more than just creating a name for our ignorance. Or when a student resists weeks of our best efforts to teach him something, our frustration is often voiced by saying "he is just dumb" or "he can't learn."

This human habit relieves us from having to struggle with nuance or complexity, realms stretching beyond our rapid mental reach.   Dichotomization works in a similar pattern. Look at the Janus face in the image above. We know that one side is sad, and the other is smiling. But is the smiling face simply that of a person who like a skilled television evangelist or trained flight attendant places what we call a smile on her face with no particular joy in mind. A smile is their work mask.  

Or imagine the complexity of answering the question "Do you love me?" DO we really expect a "yes" to that question to say one and only one thing? It might mean that because you are a human, "I wish you good health and basic human rights", or "You are among the 43 people with whom I feel a special relationship", or "I definitely include you among the 3 people who I am considering for the status of significant pother", or "At this moment in my life, remembering my limited experience with a broad range of human beings, I would like to spend most of my lifetime with you."  Those are just a few of the meanings that "I love you" could reasonably mean.  But when asked the question, the questioner seems to wish a dichotomization. He or she wants a "yes" or "no" that reflects totality, as in "indisputably, forever more, and unconditionally." Even were someone to provide such a dichotomization, anyone who believes that such a claim contains long-run truth value either needs to be more observant about human interactions or read more novels.

But I want to ask about a different, yet related form of dichotimization. When was the last time you read a piece of advocacy in which the advocate explores the weakness in his argument? I regularly encounter reasonable arguments on behalf of a particular course of action or a specified belief. But the speaker or author, who surely must know better, insists on taking a rhetorical stance indicating the complete strength of what is being suggested. Risks associated with following the advice, questionable assumptions, alternative value frames that might disconfirm the wisdom of what is being advocated, recognition of the potential incompleteness of the reasoning used to prop up the conclusion, or factors that would disrupt the smooth flow of the reasoning in the narrative are ignored, never considered, or given an embarrassingly shallow treatment that highlights the failure to treat the recipient of the communication with respect and fairness.

While it is probably irrational, this observation has caused me to be especially irritated when those with whom I agree  seem to insist on exaggerating the depth and credibility of what we jointly believe. What explains the habit of exaggerated advocacy? Do recipients of the communication demand that a prescription for how we should behave or believe must be purely wonderful? 

To its small credit, academic writing often contains a couple of final paragraphs indicating that additional research is needed to advance understanding of the research reported in the essay in question. But that ceremonial inclusion falls far short of the qualifications in the original essay that I suggested above.

My own research contains a stench similar to what I am bemoaning here, and as I try to figure out why, I dwell on the almost certain failure to achieve publication were I to present a research article to a publication outlet with the various caveats I am urging.  But why? Are we hard-wired to require dichotomization from one another? Must we pay the penalties associated with living in a complex fog, while assuring ourselves that we see distinct images, with sharply drawn boundaries?

Is the phenomenon I am describing a historical constant, or do cultures and eras differ in the respect they assign exaggerations delivered as if the writer or speaker is bearing news from the gods?




AuthorM Neil Browne