So what’s with the numbers? Am I giving you a number sequence to solve, as in what is the next logical number in the sequence? No, but you are welcome to use them in that way. Perhaps 13, as in a sequence that begins at 9, then adds 2 and repeats the sum twice; then adds 2 and repeats the sum three times; then adds 2 and repeats the sum four times, and so on. (9 – 11 – 11 – 13 – 13 – 13 – 15 – 15 – 15 – 15…). Or, a numerologist—one who finds mystical connections between numbers and events—might see 9-11 as the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, then 11-13 as the day of the recent Paris attacks (I hadn’t realized it was Friday the 13th until I began making notes for this post), and then conclude that the next attack should be, say 13-15, and another on 15-17, with 13 reverting to month 1 and 15 to month 3. But what would be the evidence for that conclusion? None, to my knowledge. And that is what I want to talk about briefly today—evidence, and critical thinking.
At a meeting in Maarsen (near Utrecht), The Netherlands, soon after the WTC attacks in 2001, Jane and I were asked by our audience of peers why we thought western culture was so hated by some. One answer was that many of our cultural practices were drastically opposite of the beliefs of some—long flowing female hair versus fabric coverings, lots of skin showing versus covered skin, booze everywhere and in abundance versus none at all, violent sexy films versus tamer fare, females with social and vocational carte blanche versus females confined to second-class roles, amplified heavy metal and hard drugs versus somber reeds and hookah pipes… Uneducated, provincial people bent on preserving their local way of life fixated on these glaring differences and used them as rallying points in favor of wiping such practices away in a holy war with promises of virgins in paradise.
But there is something more. Biologist E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge formed a conclusion that has stuck with me: It is not religious, political, and social differences that cause conflict but rather the activities of persons who do not respect the force of evidence. Knowledge is gained by imposition or by investigation—imposed values, opinions, mores, and beliefs versus conclusions formed after considering evidence. The process of collecting evidence is used for the purpose of describing the world as accurately as possible—the process of critical thinking—so that we have the best possible information in order to solve difficult problems, make sound decisions, and lay effective plans. Evidence-based medicine is formalized critical thinking. Socratic dialog is critical thinking. Anything that we ask or do in order to get the most accurate information is critical thinking—it is not taking what we hear or see at first encounter. It is not swallowing what authoritarian others in our lives ask us to consume hook, line, and sinker.
I was once asked by a potential customer in a western North Carolina bank district to do a workshop on time management for his bank managers. As a seasoned organization development professional, I knew that clients rarely asked for what they wanted, but rather asked for what they thought they wanted. Being cautious, I asked a simple question: “What is the evidence that your managers need time management training?” The answer could lead in two directions—either in helping me design an appropriate time management workshop for them, or in helping them get a more accurate handle on what the need was. The client told me that the evidence was that his managers were complaining that they did not have time to implement the new call program that the bank had initiated. This was at a time back in the 80s when banking culture was changing from one in which bankers sat at their desks and took orders to one in which they made calls and sought out orders. Many managers—especially the more sedentary ones—resisted. To the point—they didn’t need time management: They needed change management!
You can find much advocacy in the media for teaching critical thinking as necessary both for survival and success in life. I just did a Google search on “We need to teach more critical thinking” and got 36,300,000 hits. Mary Belenky (et al, 1997) in her recently re-released book Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind observed that many traditional girls—and too many boys–are raised to accept knowledge from their authority figures, and as the result fail to find their own voice—dare we call it the Voice of Malala? Belenky and crew conclude that the best way to help young people find their voices—their show-me evidentiary voices—is through teaching critical thinking in grade schools, high schools, colleges, corporate training classes, religious institutions—why stop there—how about in talk show programs, soap operas, news programs, and presidential debates? My friend Susan Close in British Columbia has developed a curriculum for teaching critical thinking with young children called Smart Reading—let’s all follow her lead in our individual domains.
Bertrand Russell once quipped that “Most people would sooner die than think, in fact they do.” Many vest-wearers on jihad die for lack of thinking, and many more innocents as the result of terrorists’ distaste for evidence. These generally poor, uneducated youth are told 1) that the only sure way to paradise is through martyrdom for the cause, 2) that they will be rewarded with 72 virgins each upon arrival in paradise, 3) that the recruiters will take care of their families after the martyrdom, and 4) that the recruiters will take good care of the recruits during training for martyrdom (the pay is far better and more reliable than the pay for regular service, for instance). Those successfully recruited apparently believe all four come-ons. The only clearly demonstrable one is whether they are taking good care of those already recruited—they have money in hand, food, clothing, and shelter. The other three are less easy to produce evidence for. What if all the trainees asked for evidence that their martyrdom would be followed with 72 virgins in paradise? That their families would definitely be taken care of? That there is no other sure way to paradise? Show me.