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

                                                             PURPOSEFUL QUESTIONS AS CRITICAL THINKING

1.  When listeners and readers say they seek neutral journalists and judges, what do they mean?

2. What assumptions are being made about human capabilities when neutrality is expected?

3. What assumption is made about our world when someone seeks the advice of "neutral" observers?


Journalists are often lampooned for their lack of neutrality. Similarly, judges are often judged by a standard motivated by similar expectations.  Somehow many of us expect journalists and judges in the interest of fairness to form their opinions (and here I am almost drawing a blank. What do calls for neutrality want?) in a manner captured well by the confirmation hearings of Justice Roberts when he said that the role of a judge is that of the umpire, calling balls and strikes presumably by a constant set of standards.

What would it mean for you or me to be neutral about judgments enhancing the well-being and flourishing of particular  groups of humans, often at the expense of other humans. In other words, when a judge must decide whether a particular definition of "life" is going to be the one used in the rules and regulations in a particular country, she or he necessarily will make a judgment that assists the rights and beliefs of some citizens and is an affront to other citizens. Or take the situation of a journalist observing the body-camera video of a shooting. If certain elements and possibilities are mentioned in the report (while others are forgotten or unexplored), the journalist will assuredly move emotions and perspectives in a direction that is or is not relatively friendly to the interpretation probably offered by the Chief of Police in that jurisdiction. 

The neutrality or what some would call "objectivity" of the journalist or judge strikes me as chimerical. The standard is murky and evades our grasp whenever we attempt to grip it. I first thought about this question in law school because I was bemused when even the most left-wing professors would deride the behavior of Justice William O. Douglas. Justice Douglas would often say to his law clerks when composing an opinion, "Here is what I will conclude. Now construct the reasoning and find precedents to support this opinion." I could not quite figure out the intense hostility to Douglas' behavior until I started inferring from their comments about the Justices they respected. And to make matters all the more confusing, the judges they praised were often less ideologically matched to the professors' views than were the opinions of Justice Douglas. 

I now realize that what Douglas was doing was so clearly managed reasoning where the conclusion appears first with reason being the mere window dressing to hide the complete basis for the conclusion. But some Justices were law school heroes because they piled reason on top of reason, followed by a "therefore we conclude. . .." The image they were projecting was that their decisions flowed from reasons to conclusions, i.e., in the more textbook-approved format for sound  judgments.

The idea that proper reasons lead to a particular conclusion, namely mine, puts a heavier load on reasons than they can faithfully bear. Those with whom we disagree are not necessarily unreasonable, and those who agree with our view of the world are certainly not necessarily careful thinkers.  By all means the prudent use of reasons is a hallmark of optimal human cognition. However, reflective judgments are a confluence of reasons, evidence, curiosity, listening to multiple viewpoints, kindness and a large array of cautious value priorities.

A neutral person would look at children saturated with napalm and say what? That same person would see police assassinated and say what? Mr. or Ms. Neutral would notice the racial disparity of those in American prisons and say what? I know we all think the answer to those questions is clear because we have already decided what the conclusion in these situations should be. But a neutral observer is someone who apparently does not have a background of ready-made conclusions.  The neutral is the person from nowhere with no background, no predilections, no biases, no specific dreams about what the world should be like. In other words, the neutral person is an unfeeling automaton. 

I think the closest we can get and therefore the most we can expect from observers is what Robert Heilbroner and Gunnar Myrdal called "soft objectivity." A person with soft objectivity recognizes her or his biases, tells people what those biases are, and promises to have open ears and eyes when encountering the perspectives of those who see the world differently. Even that degree of fairness is difficult for us to achieve, but it is probably as much as we dare expect from one another.

If any of us had what Hillary Putnam called "god's eye" then we could properly be the ultimate arbiter of what the world is and is not like. Then the "neutral" observer would be the person whose reports precisely mimic reality as perceived by Mr. or Ms. God's Eye. In other words, our world is not revealed to us in a form such that reasonable people see it one way and fools see it differently. Hence, neutrality is but another argumentative method by which I sanitize and legitimize the conclusions I prefer and then rebuke contrary conclusions with a charge of lack of neutrality.

1. Does our polity depend on the deceit of pretending that partisanship is the habit of a poor thinker?



Yes, it certainly does, but only if one believes that Justice Roberts or any of us is capable of "just calling the balls and the strikes."


AuthorM Neil Browne

                                                                 CRITICAL THINKING AS PURPOSEFUL QUESTIONS

1. Is truth an idea more about our incessant demand for certitude than about the nature of our world?

2. Is lying so extensive and so multi-faceted that dishonesty is inescapably just another attribute of our humanity, say something like the desire to belong?

3. Are there positive dimensions to lying?

I see little purpose in exploring this question until we acknowledge the definitional obscurity of lying and truth.

We get very angry when people lie to us, and we cast ourselves as seekers of something called "truth." We say truth will make us free. We discipline children for lying.

Yet, Mary Poovey's magisterial A History of the Modern Fact should reduce any belief that thee most basic unit of truth, the fact, has evolved in meaning and use amidst a clash of opinions concerning what does and does not qualify for that award.  

A truth would be what?

1. The received wisdom of the current scientific community? For example, by this criterion, the question of whether human decisions have caused potentially cataclysmic climate change is one that can justifiably be placed into a dichotomous ordering system of truth and falsity.

2. The best probability estimates that experts can generate about the nature of our world, using existing understandings of ourselves and our world. This definition of truth would invite belief in many more truths than would be yielded from using the first definition. Lying would be a much more complicated concept as well, than when using the first alternative definition of truth. Probability estimates are embedded in many complicated assumptions that stimulate debate about just how truthful their alleged implications may be.

3. And here I am jumping over many intermediary versions of truth to get to this third one. Our judgments and the decisions that flow from them often rely on a form of truth that is perspectival. For instance, Richard Rorty famously defined truth as "those perceptions we compliment because they have proved useful to us." Others in this tradition of perspectival truth argue that truth is a social construction. We see only in a context of prior belief; those prior beliefs provide the foundation for what we now see as the truth.

The Rashomon Effect is an illustration of this third form of truth at work. In both movie and play forms we experience Rashomon through the eyes of a victim of a crime, the eyes of her fiance, the eyes of a woodsman who saw the alleged rape, and the eyes of the accused, one after the other. The 4 versions are quite different.  The audience is left to wonder "but what really happened?"  Ah, yes, but in whose eyes?

Another powerful illustration of this concept of truth is provided in Sarah Polley's exploratory documentary Stories We Tell. She asks 5 family members to answer questions she has about her family. As you can probably tell from her title, the results are quite revealing in terms of the complexity of truth.

Now to lying. Seth Godin's All Marketers are Liars presents an argument that could be altered only slightly to say that we are all liars and on a regular basis.  Why? Because we have an understandable inclination to sell an attractive version of who we are, what we look like, and what we are selling or pitching. We press our clothes; we brush our hair; we tend to color our narratives with elements that emphasize our merits.  Even self-deprecation can be cleverly used to attract others to us.  Do we feel the self-deprecation such that we are not coloring/lying? Who knows whether in this instance we are shading the truth or being transparently honest/truthful.

Businesses in the United States are presumed to lie all the time. The legal construct of a "business lie" is perfectly legal because the courts hold that what the businessperson said is so outrageous a lie that we all would recognize the falsity of the claim.  When 29 pizza places in NYC say they sell the "world's best pizza", judges see no business or moral problem associated with claims that go far beyond what we typically would tolerate when we ask our children, "which of you are the cookie"?

We lie because lying produces, or at least promises to produce, results we desire. Why then is lying a horrible act? On one important level, lying destroys trust. Once damaged, trust is usually most difficult to repair.  In that most of our relationships lean heavily on the shared bond of trust, transparency tends to trump lying in our thinking. 

But lying could be conceived of as but one more tool used to achieve what may well be good ends. Aristotle: All tools can be misused, even my beloved reason. That lying is horribly destructive at times is therefore not a damning characterization of lying. 

When lying is seen as a disgusting violation of truth, we owe it to ourselves to think about what version of truth we are hereby defending.  Can that version of truth sustain the weight of moral judgment implied by a face awash in anger because a lie has been unearthed? 

Nothing I have said here in any manner suggests the desirability of lying as a virtue ranking right up there with perseverance. Rather, the argument here is that we should more reflectively consider the reflexive intense hostility we feel when we discover a lie.


1. Is it meaningful to distinguish analytically and morally between lying about our natural world and lying in a social context? In other words, is there a moral difference of significance between lying about the extent of the melting of glaciers and lying to your grandparents about how vigorous they look?

2. In that lying is instrumental toward some end, under what conditions would lying be not only tolerable, but morally mandated?

3. Should lies be encouraged when they fulfill positive purposes? The August Scientific American contains an article documenting the absence of evidence that acupuncture has positive health benefits, at all. Yet the Mayo Clinics and Massachusetts General continue to invest resources into acupuncture as curative. An important reason may be the documented placebo effects of  acupuncture therapy.


AuthorM Neil Browne

                                           Productive Questions As Critical Thinking

1. What Alternatives Are We Rejecting When We Lecture?

2. What Makes Us Think Lectures Are Effective?

3. What Assumptions Do Supporters of Lecturing Make?

First, a confession-- although I have a reputation as a non-lecturer, I am decidedly a lecturer. By "lecturer", I mean someone who delivers several uninterrupted paragraphs to a group of learners.   In fact,  my reputation in that regard can be Exhibit A for the problem.  So frequently do college teachers lecture that anyone who at any time does something else will be labelled an inquiry-oriented teacher. To most observers, doing anything ever in a classroom other than lecturing is strange, worthy of note and special designation.

My interest in this set of questions is based on several things..

A. I have never heard a systematic explanation for a practice that is replicated decade after decade.  The result is that generations of learners quite understandably think teaching and lecturing are synonyms in their minds. Many of us have bought the tapes of The Great Courses sold by The Learning Company. They promise that the courses will be delivered by the very best teachers, and what do these teachers do on the tapes-----non-stop lecturing.

B. While some lecturers are more knowledgeable, entertaining, and rhetorically skilled than others, even the best lecturer is engaging in a practice that makes little sense to me.

C. I listened in amazement a few days ago as a lecturer explained to an audience of several hundred the history of western France,  The lecture was fast, full of words and facts that I am positive few in the audience had ever heard. Details were stuffed on top of one another. I kept wanting to shout---Do you really think anyone will have an accurate and thoughtful understanding of what you are saying?

4. I have never heard a coach, music or dance instructor, or craft-person teach by relying on lectures.  They most certainly do and should demonstrate or explain something. But the next step is practice under the guidance of the relatively skilled person. The practice will perforce  need replication because listening is quite different from knowing or performing what was heard.  

But what else could a teacher do?  The last paragraph suggested a basic alternative model.  The number of alternatives is actually huge.  But no alternative can occur until the person with the microphone stops talking. Next, the teacher has to cede the dominant role.  Many of us often say learning is a partnership,and it is. But that partnership must be one where it is the learner's voice and needs that should dominate. The learner needs to ask and be encouraged to ask questions. Words from the mouth of a lecturer do not move precisely into the mind  of the listener.

Why do lecturers think they are being effective mentors? My first answer would be that those who lecture were themselves the recipients of dozens of lectures. Habit, said Mark Twain, is a cruel tyrant.  So perhaps the logic works like the following:  I know a lot; I learned via lecture seemingly; apparently, lectures work well. 

I think a 2nd answer is that lecturing is consistent with cost saving, and schools have enthusiastically embraced a business logic that celebrates cost-cutting. If one voice can effectively transmit understanding to hundreds of listeners all at once, school administrators have demonstrated their market acumen. 

Finally, as with all power inequities, the relatively powerful often do things that please them "because I can." This answer was what Bill Clinton famously said when asked why he had a relationship with an intern. Lecturers choose the method of teaching.  They like to talk; it is flattering to have dozens of eyes more or less plastered on your face.  Where else in the life of lecturers do people show them so much ostensible respect?

Lecturers of all stripes make some fascinating assumptions that as far as I know have little basis in fact.

A. When I speak to someone, those words are understood and recalled from within the same worldview that I the speaker have.

B. The human brain can profitably absorb and understand the applicability and quality of an hour's worth of declarative sentences that are foreign to the previous experience of the learner.

C. Learning can be effective when the learner does not move or speak for perhaps an hour.

1. Could there be some areas of learning where the nature of the skill or knowledge justifies lectures?

2. Would a lecture consisting of questions and pauses for reflection avoid the criticisms I made?

3. Would asking students to study material and deliver brief lectures that capture the essence of the assignment weaken the criticisms of lecturing that I made?


AuthorM Neil Browne

                                         Critical Thinking as Productive Questions


1. Are our brains so flimsy that persuasion requires us to completely support the ideas we like and wholesale oppose the ideas we dislike?

2. Do we feel disloyal to our preferences when we dare to highlight weaknesses in what we prefer?

3. Am I confused when I hear Donald Trump say insightful things that others are not saying and Bernie Sanders saying things that are highly exaggerated?

The value of moderation has always fascinated and repelled me. When we love marshmallows, we understand at some level that 1 marshmallow is not enough, but gorging ourselves on an entire bag is too much.

But ideas are not analogous to marshmallows in an important sense. Ideas are enmeshed in social struggle. People are involved, and as Trump's success shouts so clearly: LOTS OF PEOPLE LIKE STRENGTH.

If I put forward my preferred ideas with calm, persuasive moderation, that style will be effective with the few who eschew vigorous language or any embellishments that might stimulate emotional commitment.  BUT that approach to persuasion is for the quiet intellectual and almost no one else.

And I want my ideas to win, or at least so I think at this time. So what happens all so often, and what stimulates this post, is recognizing that we seem to think that we must embrace or savage Freud, capitalism, an increased minimum wage, women's reproductive rights rights, and free speech. 

But every time I risk admiring a particular meme that Donald Trump repeats or listen in amazement to Bernie Sanders effort to minimize any unemployment effect from a $15/hour minimum wage, I risk being misunderstood. Ideas at war seem to require zealous warriors. To admit that opponents possess occasional insight or that our team has severe inadequacies is to sound to most ears as if one has not made up his or her mind about which side to be on. "Are you with us or against us?"

Should not socialists be the loud and bitter enemies of wasteful government spending, whatever a person might mean by that term.  Should not a socialist aggressively condemn governmental behavior that wastes our tax money or what Justice Holmes called "the price of civilization."? (Please do not overlook Jeffrey Sacks, The Price of Civilization for its insightful denunciation of our current political system as CORPORATOCRACY.?

Does it not make sense for a lover of capitalism to condemn the asymmetric information, monopolization of industry, and private predation in modern industry? That those behaviors persist is an enduring insult to the moral case for a capitalism where transparency and consumer sovereignty prevail, in other words a capitalism long since forgotten.

Why does what I am advocating make sense? The answer is Hegelian, don't you think?  When people see wasteful government, what is the effect on their willingness to listen to the corner socialist?  When people see social devastation caused by the profit motive, how are they supposed to react to sermons about the need for free markets?  

1. Is the battle for ideas better conceived as a Gladiator's contest in which no quarter can be given for to reveal weakness is to run the heavy risk of certain loss.

2. Are cognitive heuristics operating that generally prevent our ability or willingness to see good in the dark and clouds in the light?

3. Does the battle surrounding ideas take place with the same (bizarre) assumption made in American jury procedures, viz., the best ideas are victorious when one combatant tells a distorted version of facts woven together in a managed narrative, while a foe presents a distorted set of facts and story designed to vanquish the perspective of her or his opponent?


AuthorM Neil Browne

Critical Thinking as Productive Questions


1.   Why are generalizations both essential and risky?

2.   How would we think critically about a generalization?

3.   How would we distinguish a stereotype from a generalization?

Imagine living your life unassisted by a single generalization. As you swing your legs out of bed, will you rest your feet on the carpet? You probably should not for who knows what that mass of fabric has in store for you? Will it sustain your weight or entangle your toes in a death grip as dangerous as quicksand? You would be paralyzed with anxiety, would you not? Even were you to take a deep breath and plant your feet firmly on the carpet, each succeeding decision would be comprised of unknown units of peril and promise.

But even the best of generalizations are not necessarily reliable. While I have little hesitancy to urge you to step onto the floor next to your bed tomorrow morning, as surely as black swans exist, I may have just endangered your life. Carpet can hide the brown recluse spider, a housemate to rival your most treacherous nightmare. A little caution in following where generalizations invite you to tread is always sensible.

As creators and consumers of generalizations, we always want to focus on the quality of the source for the generalization, but equally important is the strength of the generalization. Generalizations are more or less strong and reliable. A common mistake people make when hearing a generalization is to assume that generalizations have an implied “all” in front of them. Were that assumption true, then a single counter-example ruins the generalization.

Instead, generalizations have an implied “most” in front of them and should be created, deployed and evaluated with that designation in mind. Just as generalizations require systematic, reliable data or experiences to exist, rejecting a generalization requires the same kind of evidence.  When listeners or readers reject a generalization by citing a couple of counter-examples, they are unfortunately and usually erroneously assuming that the generalization was preceded with “all.”

So where do stereotypes fit into the analysis of generalizations? I think the first thing to note is that when someone points out a stereotype, the implication is that the generalization being called a “stereotype” in this instance is wrong or harmful. If I am correct in this observation, then a stereotype is an erroneous generalization functioning as an inaccurate denigration of some group. Hence, a stereotype is an abusive, mistaken generalization referenced when someone says with irritation, “Oh, that’s a stereotype.”

 1.   To what extent is it a valid response to a generalization to say “ah, that is just a generalization.”?

2.   Why are many humans so resistant to the very act of being labelled by a stereotype even when the generalization implied by the stereotype is accurate?

3.   Why is the quality of the evidence for any generalization crucial to whether it is a welcome shortcut to a decision or a misleading impediment to wisdom?

AuthorM Neil Browne

                                                                       CRITICAL THINKING AS PRODUCTIVE QUESTIONS


3. 1. Why just twosomes?

2. Is the reason entirely sexual?

3. Whatever happened to the case for collaboration?

I certainly do not intend to say that intimacy cannot be found in anything but pairs.  In the 60's and 70's Robert Rimmer was a 1-man band whose novels championed group intimacy, both sexual and non-sexual. Nor do I wish to imply that people cannot be quite content by themselves.  But surely I do not have to present evidence that humans desire to and do form  pairs as their preferred intimate connection.

I wonder why.  Certainly, larger intimate groups are possible, and it does not push the imagination too far to see benefits in "moving beyond" pairs. But few of us have any drive to move in that direction.  Why not?

Is it but one more reflection of our insecurity?  It is quite vulnerable enough for us to open ourselves to one person.  The risk associated with extending that vulnerability beyond one other person is foreboding in the extreme. Is it likely that bunches of people would want to establish intimate bonds with me?  Why risk finding out?  I have one other person.  Enough is enough.  Why push my luck? 

Many often express the possibility of a systemic outbreak of jealousy were there more than 2 people involved in an intimate relationship? If so, why? Is insecurity at work here as well? Or is there some biological pressure for jealousy to emerge in situations where more than 2 people try to form an intimate unit? 

Is there something about sexuality that just gets too messy when more than 1 other person is involved? Would males simply take advantage of larger-sized intimate units to withhold emotional sustenance from any others in the group? Or would women do so?  Do we have a highly limited emotional reservoir that  runs dry after we link with one other person? 

Am I searching for a reason that does not exist? Although saying so begs the question, do we bond on pairs because traditionally, that organization is the one we know has been used before? Or does it take more energy and hard work to go beyond 2 people? Many of us as we age wonder how we had the energy to link to one person, given the complexities in forming an intimate connection with another person.

As a logical matter, we say that 2 heads are better than 1 for many purposes. Business theorists tout the innovative energy found in collaborative teamwork. Schools seem to periodically push the desirability of "group work."  We do have a general sense that for many purposes we should pull together, and the "we" is a group larger than 2. But the same reasoning apparently does not apply to interpersonal intimacy.

I am puzzled. do you have any hunches?

1. What are we seeking from intimacy in the first place?

2. Do we want a limited amount of whatever we are seeking?

3. Do the same answers exist for dyadic non-sexual intimacy and sexual intimacy?  

AuthorM Neil Browne