A mind like compost?

May 29, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

On Top (Gary Snyder, Axe Handles, 1983, p. 11)

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over turn it over
wait and water down
From the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through, sift down,
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

As our world views begin to shift, there will be a lot of discussion about critical thinking. Shifting world views expose flaws in people’s thinking, from the ways we protect our ideas, to inaccurate assumptions, and to the inferences that result. This is in part because fundamental assumptions of our society are beginning to show cracks. There are many descriptions of critical thinking, but most of them do not go far enough in describing the synthesis necessary in describing our global problems. Ecological, macroscopic, and systems-based critical thinking is necessary to ask the proper questions about our global problems.

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Bloom McCandless Information Hierarchy

While our education focuses on facts and not frameworks, critical thinking is driven by the questions that we ask rather than the facts. Facts are only usable if they are attached to a framework that makes sense. Facts may close the mind, while questions open the mind. We can ask questions that focus on purpose, information, interpretation, assumption, implication, point of view, relevance, accuracy, precision, consistency, and logic.

Our education also focus on knowledge and its application, without challenging students to do the creative work of synthesis. Our current society also dodges the issue of affective learning and moral dimensions of learning, focusing instead on cognitive skills.

One good list of general critical thinking skills was published recently at the design matrix:

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Waters Foundation

  • Gather complete information – more than one source
Understand and define terms (make others define terms, too)
  • Question the methods by which results were derived
  • Question the conclusion: do the facts support it? Is there evidence of bias? Remember correlation does not equal causation
  • Uncover assumptions and biases
  • Question the source of information
  • Don’t expect all the answers
  • Examine the big picture
  • Look for multiple cause and effect
  • Watch for thought stopping sensationalism
  • Understand your own biases and values (Chiras, 2002)

In this era of media misinformation, examining the source of information is particularly pertinent. In one recent example at a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Fukushima and the Ocean Colloquium, the panel expert on impacts of radioactivity on human health was the medical director from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, whose primary mission for over 50 years has been “advancing nuclear weapons science and technology.” How much of what this person has to say should I believe? What are his assumptions and biases? How has he derived his information?

Protective defense mechanisms

Often, it is what our capitalist society avoids versus what it focuses on is the most important question that we can ask. Why are we focusing on the issue that we do, rather than some other issue? We use many defense mechanisms as a means of protecting the status quo and lessening anxiety at both the individual psychological level and the sociocultural level as a group, and our defense mechanisms are the means of creating blind spots. My own preferred mechanism of defense is intellectualization.

The most commonly used defense mechanism is denial. In denial, an upsetting reality is ignored or not consciously acknowledged. Denial is useful in protecting against the threat of change. Other commonly used mechanisms are projection and displacement about cultural and political issues such as war and other injustices. Quinn, Jensen and others describe such cultural defense mechanisms that society uses by creating feedback loops, behaviors, and taboos that protect the society from the threat of change. In order to think critically about global problems, we need to be aware of the presence of these defense mechanisms that protect the status quo of the growth economy. What are your preferred defense mechanisms, and how do you use them?

Bloom’s taxonomy and the need for synthesis

Bloom’s taxonomy is a theoretical framework or hierarchy of learning that the educational community uses to describe how thoughts, feelings, and psychomotor skills are accumulated into wisdom. Synthesis (and/or creativity) and evaluation are considered the highest order cognitive skills, which are dependent on the lower order skills of accumulation of knowledge, understanding, application, and analysis. Below is one interesting application of Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy to the digital domain.

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Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy

Kemp and Boynton describe synthesis research as a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning whereby:

“. . . a new integrative explanatory model is developed to provide an effective explanation for how diverse observations work together. . . . Synthesis also has an alternative philosophic meaning . . . where an integrative model or paradigm (the “thesis”) in a particular field of study is challenged with an alternative, often opposing model of how nature works (the “antithesis”). . . For this essay, we define synthesis as the inferential process whereby new models are developed from analysis of multiple data sets to explain observed patterns across a range of time and space scales” (Kemp & Boynton, 2012, p. 3).

Kemp and Boynton suggest what is required to think outside the box in the same article, excerpted below. Data comes from all over–it’s the big picture framework that you assemble it on that’s important. You get that wrong, and you can create a chimera out of data.

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Kemp and Boynton, 2012, Estuaries and Coasts

Errors in systems thinking

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Abel-Two Source Model based on Renewable and Nonrenewable Inputs

Sometimes we view only parts of the system. Odum always emphasized in systems diagrams that all systems must include inputs and outputs. In a figure that represents a system, there are inputs of energy and materials, and there are always outputs, especially waste heat from all systems transactions. Often big picture views omit one or more of these fundamental systems characteristics that are based on thermodynamic laws. Energy must flow in, and an equal amount of waste, heat, and energy in the form of products flows out.

Dave at Decline of the Empire highlights a video from Dr. Hans Rosling (below) this week that illustrates this problem. Dr. Rosling is notable because he almost gets it. He sees the big trends and looks at the long-term scale of time, and visualizes data beautifully. But he misses the energetic basis, so he can describe the What of society but not the How or the Why. The Guardian touts this as an example of big picture thinking, but as usual, the thinking involved is simply not grand enough, resulting in the wrong conclusions. Dr. Rosling makes a leap of logic at 2:45 in that video. In an unconscious reenactment of a shell game, Dr. Rosling focuses on the carbon emission peas, while ignoring the energy that goes into making the peas. He sees the outputs, while ignoring the inputs, by focusing narrowly on the carbon coming from the tail pipe and ignoring the gas tank. Watch the video below, watching the Legos and listening to his explanation carefully at 2 minutes and 45 seconds. What is the logic that moves the shells and peas (or Legos, in this case)?

Dr. Rosling suggests that we can cut the emissions of the wealthy, and then move the poor people to the wealthy class through a leap of faith, or magic, or something. First of all, the idea that we can reduce emissions of the wealthy is arguable on many fronts. But that is not the main piece of faulty logic. The most interesting piece of magic here is that we can focus on emissions, and ignore the energy basis that creates the emissions. Yet the fossil fuel emissions are caused by way of the transformed, high-tech society that wealthy countries have built by using the majority of the world’s fossil fuels. The idea that we can focus on carbon and ignore energy basis is what is missing from the analysis. Our single-minded focus on the tailpipe and while completely ignoring the gas gauge is the most obtuse and deadly blind spot in the history of man. Just where is the energy for a high-tech society for 10 billion people going to come from?

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The how and the why are missing in general from analyses today, because the answers are too scary and the thinking is too reductionist. Our defense mechanisms and habits of microscopic thinking kick in when we think about problems. Next time you see a figure or diagram that represents a system, does it include the inputs and the outputs accurately? Does your systems thinking include the impact of energy flows and the environmental basis of the system?

Errors in ecological thinking

A recent article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times provides an example of ecological thinking about health, in contrast to the science of western medicine, where we attempt to kill off as many germs as we can, and create monocultures. Pollan describes the history of our vilification of one bacterium, H. pylori. Historically, because we discovered a correlation of this germ with peptic ulcers, we began aggressively exterminating it wherever we found it in stomachs, in a mistaken belief that correlation is causation. Instead, with an ecological view we are now finding that H. pylori plays a role in mediation of appetite suppression, and in suppression of the inflammatory response, perhaps lessening the predisposition to allergy and asthma. In ecological thinking, we need to be looking for multiple cause and effect, and complex interrelationships that are not necessarily simple or direct. We need a much more ecological approach to medicine and other sciences that views nature in an integrative fashion as a friend and not as a foe. Does your science view pieces and parts in a reductionist fashion, or do you consider the interrelated connections of the whole system?

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from 1982 edition of the Futurist?

Errors in macroscopic thinking

“If the bewildering complexity of human knowledge developed in the twentieth century is to be retained and well used, unifying concepts are needed to consolidate the understanding of systems of many kinds and to simplify the teaching of general principles” (Odum, 1994, p. ix).

Scientists need holistic views to counteract the tendency to focus narrowly. We need generalists in addition to our specialists. And we need people who can look at our problems at a larger scale; Einstein said that we cannot solve problems from the same consciousness that created the problems. We must learn to see the world anew, from a larger scale to see a complete picture of the processes involved. Our tendency is to become anxious about problems, and to immediately fasten on potential solutions. This process creates an immediate narrowing of vision, through reductionism. The first step in learning to think macroscopically is to take a step back and look at the larger scale first, to understand the drivers of the smaller scale. The biggest driver is always energy.

Energy can unify and simplify the understanding of complex systems. Energy systems diagrams represent the passage of energy through systems at various scales. Energy is a part of all storages, and flows of energy are a part of all processes. Complex energy relationships exist at all scales, so energy diagrams aggregate key structures, processes and flows within the time and space boundaries of a model. These diagrams can simplify the representation of key parts and relationships of complex systems in energy terms. Energy diagrams provide lenses for the macroscope through which we view the “3 Es”, energy, the environment, and economies.

What level of thinking are you using when you approach a problem, and is your perspective based on a functional framework that is big enough for the information? Is it inclusive enough, including the environment at the larger scale one scale up from your system of interest? If you are interested in economic function, that means that you have to understand the environmental basis of society first. If you find yourself mired in complexities of a problem, consider chunking up by examining whether your problem is actually part of a larger problem.

Below is an interview of Morris Berman and Chris Hedges on Extraenvironmentalist.com (Episode #60.1), demonstrating an energetic perspective, broad world view, and some valid take home points.

Examining assumptions

One of the most important steps in critical thinking is examining one’s assumptions. One good way to learn how to look at assumptions is to watch television ads and question the messages–what are they trying to sell, and how are they doing it, and is it effective?

We can use the same process to examine our most cherished beliefs. Here are some assumptions that surround our current societal worldview. As we hit multiple limits, we have no choice but to begin to look at some of these perspectives that frame our world views. Ways of knowing and being that have worked for 200 years are beginning to fail as the system begins to descend. Which of these assumptions do you hold and why?

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  • Growth is good
  • Energy is no object, but money is
  • Money is an accurate representation of the value of resources and goods in society
  • Renewables can replace fossil fuels because all energy is of equal quality
  • Man exists separate from nature, and the economy can exist without the environment
  • The stock market = societal health
  • Markets are free, and they work, such that our free markets need to be left alone
  • Advancements in technology are always something to strive for
  • Technology is a replacement for fossil fuels
  • Our empire can expand infinitely
  • An all-of-the-above energy policy is best
  • Our global systemic problem is carbon emissions
  • Maintaining the trajectory we’re on is better than any alternative

In this era, developing a critical, skeptical mind is essential to understanding what is happening with the global changes that are occurring. Thinking about how you think can help give a framework for understanding the changes that are occurring.

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Mary Odum

Author Mary Odum is an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy.

Tags: critical thinking, holistic approaches