Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; methodical thinking is a discipline, in every sense of the word.
Methodical thinking takes discipline.
All disciplines rely on some techniques, practices, procedures, and rules-of-thumb, but some have definitive methods, ranging from the reasonably rigorous to the absolutely rigorous.
The sciences, for example, rely on the scientific method.
Methodical thinking differs between broad categories of disciplines. For example, the sciences use the scientific method, while history and various kinds of cultural studies ( art history, philology, etymology, demographics, sociology) use the historical method.
Further, many human sciences, including economics, political science, military science, psychology, and business studies, use comparative historical studies known as case studies.
Further, even where the same method is used, the objects it is applied to may drastically alter how it works. For example, natural sciences and human sciences both use the scientific method, but in many of the natural sciences they are predictive, while that is never the case in the human sciences, where results are probabilistic at best.
The reason: natural science applies to inert objects which uniformly obey those rules we call laws of nature, while human science applies to conscious beings whose responses to the social laws they live under are individualistic and hence not determined uniformly in the same way for each individual, regardless of whether they are determined in some ultimate way or not (the free will v. determinism controversy).
While the phenomenon of disciplinary thinking is complex, it can all be contrasted wiht anecdotal thinking.
All disciplinary thinking requires specialized training, which, though it can be undertaken on individual initiative — how else did it originate? — is best signaled by certification from reputable colleges and universities, certification being a proxy for testing someone’s competence by an expert’s direct examination. (It takes one to know one!)
To sum up: 1) disciplinary thinking is required for subjects where progress requires sustained study, 2) in many fields, that thinking depends on a discipline-defining method, as in the case of the sciences.
In science, adherence to the discipline-defining scientific method separates the expert from the amateur, the hack, and the quack.
Methodical Thinking: Pitfalls
What, then are the pitfalls of such powerful disciplines?
No human institution is infallible, and the institutions of expertise are no exception.
1) The allure of money, fame or hubris can lead certified practitioners to relax their standards, and even to falsify results. Peer review and boards of certification exist to deal with these lapses when they occur.
2) Overconfidence and arrogance in some of its practitioners, decline and senility in others can lead to stubborn persistence in error. For example, the hesitancy of doctors to tell patients that there’s nothing they can do for, say, much of chronic back pain, can lead them to oversubscribe pain-killers (the opioid crisis) or to perform unnecessary procedures and operations. Also, for years medical professionals told patients that PTSD and several immune system disorders were “all in their head”; psychologists treated atypical gender behavior as a curable disease rather than as either biologically-conditioned or a natural condition of longstanding, though minority, existence (a recessive behavioral trait, if you will).
3) Disciplinary thinking can decay into a knee-jerk conventional wisdom of the discipline, a kind of thinking inside the box, which, from time to time, needs shaking up by a paradigm shift.
To sum up, experts are not invariably right. Nevertheless, it typically takes experts to recognize when this is truly the case. It takes one to know one, and also to detect a fraud.
How Should Methodical Thinking Address Anecdotal Thinking?
To teach is to correct gently, without gloating or triumphalism.
Triumphalism comes naturally; it’s how the savage dances in triumph over the slain.
Move past it, if you can. If you can’t, keep your thoughts to yourself; they’ll help no one.
If Joe Six-Pack — or anyone you think is arguing a weak case or offering weak support — supports his position with what is clearly anecdotal thinking, or something equally deficient, be careful and be gentle.
Show him an alternative viewpoint, open a door; don’t slam it in his face.
Build the alternative on expertise, if you can, but only if you can explain it simply, straightforwardly and with as little jargon as possible.
It’s harder than it sounds.
Excessive complexity, lengthy digressions, and too much jargon, from the other guy’s perspective, look like attempts to hoodwink and bully him with your better educational credentials. What’s that going to accomplish?
If you get lost in your explanation in any of these ways, you’ll look to him (and sometimes to yourself as well) like a phony; and he’ll think you’re trying to lay off on him a load of self-serving bullshit because you think you’re better than he is. You’ll confirm all his pre-existing views about the bossy global elite, with their fancy degrees, who look down on people like him, who do the hard work that made this nation great.
Where do you think the red cap got its logo from? Make America Great Again. The implied aside: free us from all these stuck-up coastal social climbers who are busy shipping our jobs to China, while they make out like bandits with all their digital bullshit and politically correct mumbo jumbo!
Don’t validate Joe’s stereotype! That’s leading with your chin!
So, doing this right means curbing the kind of anecdotal thinking (and other kinds of groupthink) rampant on the progressive Left.
It’s 97% white, 87% Danish, a small, cold, Nordic, homogeneous nation, not really a model for large, multi-ethnic melting-pots, like the U.S., Germany, France or the U.K.
Finland, too, everyone’s favorite model for education.
Models are most useful when they have comparable conditions.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them, but they’re hardly a wholesale model for what would be economically or politically possible for us.
And taking political correctness beyond the pragmatic to the messianic is not about to help Joe find his way to common ground.
It’s also a form of peer pressure and groupthink, prominent on elite college campuses (where elites cluster to congratulate one another on the qualities that got them there).
There is, of course, a right way to do this, but among elites, as among all others, it’s never hard to find where the Easy Way Out is: there’s always a crowd there.
As a sociological phenomenon, overdone political correctness has more to do with fitting into one’s peer group than with promoting effective political change within the broader society.
There are two approaches to promoting political change under polarized conditions not yet become irreparable:
with mutual respect, in search of a common ground
by objectifying the opposition and manipulating, threatening, and coercing them.
Teaching, conversion, and citizenship use the former, while partisanship and, ultimately, civil discord and even civil war, use the latter.
Publius (“Mr. Public”, in Latin), is the pen name under which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published those letters in support of our Constitution, later collected together as The Federalist Papers.
Publius had thought his work was done but, in this time of turmoil, finds he must rise from the grave to set his straying progeny back on the right path.
The reason is simple. We voters do not license our representatives to act as moral agents. We license them to represent us. They are not our moral guardians. They are not our better angels. They are the continuously fine-tuned reflection of what we really want, not what we say we want.
Thus, they have ever been the mirrors of the interests and prejudices of the voting electorate.
Our representatives do our dirty work for us, while we claim plausible deniability. They are like goons we hire “under the table”, without being directly responsible for their misdeeds. “We didn’t know” we can say, after the truth comes out. “We weren’t paying attention”. (When are we?)
America is now led by a serial libeller, a con man, a teller of lies and half-truths who edges away from his own words as soon as they leave his mouth. He misrepresents facts and events, while his supporters forgive him, because he alone acknowledges their pain, their grievances, however, magnified, self-pitying, or self-made. If he is for us, his words must be true, even those that are manifestly false.
He has succeeded, with his supporters, in what every demagogue and propaganda machine aims to do, to define truth as what he says to be true and what his supporters want to believe to be true.
Intemperate leftists, aid his cause, shrilly touting their own overstretched promises, shaming microaggressions, and demanding changes most voters aren’t ready for yet.
The growth of Independents, which sounds beneficial from a distance, drains the pragmatists and centrists from both parties, leaving the parties and party primaries to be captured by, first, the wings, and then, the wing nuts.
Work toward the center. It’s the only platform upon which to build a reunited nation.
If you are thinking of not registering for either party, hold your nose and register for one. Flip a coin. If you leave the primaries to the wing nuts, you won’t have a choice worth making.
Look into Centrist lobbying groups. By themselves, they’ll not be enough to turn the tide, but every bit helps. Some options:
The problem with carrot and stick incentives is that they create cravings for carrots and encourage stick evading ruses rather than the values meant to be incentivized.
The positive and negative reinforcements usurp the role of the end goals they’re meant to lead the subject on to. The professed Christian becomes a whited sepulchre, a facade of purity overlaying an inner darkness that seeks only the appearance of goodness for its extrinsic rewards, not genuine goodness.
The educational equivalent of the whited sepulchre is the GPA-whore.
It’s a perpetual fake-it-til-you-make-it tactic, but lacking the intention ever to make it, so focused it is on milking the rewards of the incentive system.
And the incentive system invariably reflects the organizational needs of the bureaucracy that enforces it. When Soviet Russia needed to meet its quotas, products meeting those quotas were produced, even if no one with a choice would buy them. If Wells Fargo needed to increase the number of its accounts, pressured employees created accounts not voluntarily opened by their customers. If a test percentage outcome needs to be met, teaching will reduce ever more to teaching to the test, and to the test alone.
There is a famous maxim: “What gets measured, improves”. It’s corollary is: “What is not or can not be measured gets left by the wayside”.
Any teaching that goes beyond this occurs under the radar.
After having put in a long day at one’s job or one’s studies, most of us want to spend what time we have left with our family, our friends, our pastimes, doing the things that make life new and exciting (some of the time) and warm and comfortable (the rest of the time).
So no one’s going to kill themselves examining claims of knowledge that might force us to curb our pleasures (e.g., smoking and vaping are bad for you), our livelihoods (e.g., hydrocarbon fuel use contributes to global warming), or our sense of who we are, and what group we belong to.
And the group many of us see ourselves as belonging to is no longer Americans, but the Blue Man Group or the Red Man Group.
Blue Man Group: the strong should care for the weak, anything called green is good; and at its fringes: democratic socialism works, the police are unreliable, America is a global aggressor.
Red Man Group: democratic socialism doesn’t work; and at its fringes: we’re the ones who belong here, we made this country, our family values over everyone else’s, the police serve and protect (us), American is special and can do no wrong.
In polarized political atmospheres, mindsets double-down, and the spectrum of viewpoints is compressed into two opposed ideological mindsets.
In ideological mindsets, partial truths and half-truths become articles of faith, oversimplification becomes reality, and those who disagree are demonized.
Balance and pragmatism are whittled away between extremes hell-bent on forcing everyone else to choose sides.
There are comfortable beliefs matching those two mindsets (or any other). For what is a sense of identity but a claim about what kind of person one should be — and, by inference, is.
People mostly seek out comfortable beliefs, and only secondarily true ones, with a crucial exception. People do seek out true beliefs where the consequences of falsity recoil upon them painfully, quickly, and undeniably.
The biggest difference in this regard between age and youth, is that the older you are, the more likely you are to value lasting long-term consequences above fleeting short-term ones. This explains the gulf between generational mindsets about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
We all like to think that whatever group we accept (and that accepts us) is the right group, whether we chose it or were born into it.
And everyone believes in that part of science, i.e., technology, which increases their powers. Yes, you’ll find red zone climate-change deniers and blue zone anti-business activists, but none of them are throwing away their smartphones. If you can use it, it’s gotta be true; that part of science everyone loves! Too bad science isn’t a buffet, where you pick and choose only the dishes you like!
But science is an all-or-nothing proposition. Accept the unpleasant truths along with the pleasant ones or you’re not entitled to any of it.
Like that will stop you! Too many people treat science the way a controlling boyfriend/girlfriend treats their partner — like a project, accepting their positive features, while reserving a limitless right to edit or redact their undesired features!
So, what makes for a comfortable belief?
Comfortable beliefs are those that tell you to go right on doing what you are already doing (in other words, keep doing what pleases, enriches, or otherwise benefits you, because it’s not just to your advantage, it’s true, by Golly!) You’ve hit the trifecta: it pleases you, it pleases the group you want to fit in with, and it’s true! You’ve found the ultimate triple-strength sugar rush: dopamine, peer pressure appeasement, and the Absolute!
But, as Nietzsche says, “truth has no survival-value”.
You can always find the Easy Way Out — it’s where the crowd is.
Blue Man Groups and Red Man Groups have different Easy Ways Out, but red and blue are equal in their devotion to their own Easy Way Out.
Me? I’m taking refuge behind this George Orwell quote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
It’s the high school way of doing things. Standardization, box-checking, rubrics.
Teach to the test. And, how could it not also be: learn to the test?
Night-before cramming, word banks coded into acronyms, memorizing a stock phrase for each term to be used on the test once and once only.
HSIALOALN: High School Is A Lot Of Acronym-Loving Nitwits.
Read the text (if at all) only after the teacher has shown in class what they will emphasize on the test.
Study the test by answering the textbook’s numbered questions at the end of each unit. Scan the text until you find the keyword. Copy down the relevant sentence, mildly rearranged, perhaps even remembered for later use on the test.
That’s the way the game is played — in high school. That ends abruptly with college.
Teachers: Did we really think we would be teaching to the test and the team on the other side of the scrimmage line wouldn’t notice?
“It was a dirty game” both sides say. “Who started it?” “The other team!” both sides say.
Teachers: think of that flurry of activity when the new standardized guidelines are released.
“What do our masters up the food chain really mean?” What do they really want?” We have training sessions, workshops, and round-tables in how to grade by the rubric. Prudent teachers often sign up to become AP or IB graders for a little bit of money and a whole lot of insight into what “they” really want.
If you can’t beat’em join’em. It’s a strategy that’s worked for as long as we’ve thought strategically.
Every such system maintains itself by an incentive system of sticks and carrots. “Do things our way or feel our pain directly through your personal interests, as they are fed those tasty carrots or struck with those stinging sticks!
Thus the exalted pedagogical art of divining what the higher ups really want, lurking behind the bright and shiny words of their mission statements. “Look to the rubrics, young men and women!” “Look to the insider insights into what they really want!” During the Cold War, this sort of thing used to be called Kremlinology, divining the will of the always threatening powers that be.
Teachers: did you really think this covert reshaping of our pedagogic goals would go unnoticed?
Did you really think it would have no effect on the character and quality of the education we provide?
I offer no easy answers because there are none.
How does one keep one’s head above these inky waters?
Ask a low-level bureaucrat in an imperial system of governance. Ask a foot-soldier in the vanguard of an invading horde.
…or, try working “under the radar”.
Next: So, What’s a Poor Teacher To Do? Teaching Under the Radar.
In Answer to the Question “So, What’s a Poor Teacher To Do?” posed in the post “Mirror Image: Teaching to the Test & Learning to the Test” (with temporary link in the blog header above (background black), I say “teach under the radar”.
Try to do some good “under the radar”. Spare an innocent, when you can. Be flexible when it’s warranted. We all have our own little tricks. Call it enrichment; call it stubbornly individualistic ways of sneaking captivating content into the standardized units of knowledge hurried along on the great conveyor-belts of pacing guides, all driven by what I call the throughput model: view the student as an empty vessel to be stuffed at a predetermined pace with units of approved knowledge.
I think that’s the wrong model, for a variety of reasons. Just one: it’s the model used by the McDonald’s corporation — provide a thoroughly mediocre, yet predictable, minimally nutritious and maximally health-code compliant product, recognizable anywhere in the world as tolerable, predictable, and safe, while neither a gourmet treat nor the most healthful and nutritious option.
I follow the watershed model: view the student as the possessor of untapped resources. My job is to prospect for and ignite those powers, to challenge the student to look within themselves to their own resources, to recognize which among them need to be developed because they are strengths (often untapped) and which need to be developed because their insufficiency creates vulnerabilities.
Following this model, one doesn’t worry too much about the factoids (the things measured, by and large, in those standardized tests). You watch for the watershed moments, you provide opportunities, occasions, and challenges to trigger them Then, when they occur on their own schedule, not yours, you throw everything you have into fueling that flame.
Incidentally, this is the same technique for observing those surviving remnants of nature which covertly surround us all. Trees tolerate our presence because we tolerate theirs. But animate nature must be covert because we, human beings, are the great destroyers. Four-legged creatures hide from our sight, many of the surviving species being nocturnal. Legless creatures hide from us; the Bible tells us what to do to them. We’ve eliminated the daytime two-legged creatures in our near environs, except for those who fly.
Many more of our winged cohabitants surround us than we realize. Only a few species dare to be easily seen. The rest take cover in the foliage. Learn to recognize the calls of the common ones. Then you’ll hear the other calls when they’re present, on their schedule, not yours. To learn to see the nature all around us, we must learn to hear their voices, on their schedule, not ours.
It’s the same with our students — and all the more so, the more they are, in their deepest souls, thirsting to learn!
Be less concerned with herding students into the “right” answers, and more concerned with igniting their desire to seek mastery of the procedures that set them on the trail of the truth. In its most comprehensive sense, that means critical thinking, the procedures for understanding and monitoring the ways in which credible claims are made in the various disciplines.
And while each discipline has its own internal rules to follow to produce its kind of credible knowledge, there must also be a higher-level form of critical thinking which adjudicates between the separate disciplines and their different kinds of claims (see Mommy, Where Do Agents Come From? for a theory of knowledge tour). But that is usually only motivated by having achieved a bit of mastery in more than one discipline, raising the question of the powers and limits of each, and of which exerts the stronger draw, or of how to balance the different demands when drawn by more than one.
Be open to questions.
Never be afraid to say “I don’t know”. Every discipline ascends from one level of mastery to another; every discipline descends into levels of technical detail that no one but the specialist need know. Never pretend to know what one does not know, for either reason.
Never place an absolute chasm between your knowledge and theirs; if teaching is a real art, it courses over a continuous pathway from the novice to the expert. Our job as teachers is to illumine that pathway, not to disguise it.
Next: So, What’s a Poor Student To Do? Learning Without Limits, or The Limits To Your Dreams.
By nearsightednessI mean your ability to plan achievable steps today to start you on your path.
If you lack farsightedness, you’ve put a ceiling on your dreams. You’re aiming for the ordinary. You are part of the mass, even if part of an elite, high-income part of the mass. History will shape you rather than you it. Every culture breeds its elites to live, spawn, and die, without leaving a trace, except that of representative, interchangeable units of the host culture. In economics, they call these actors price-takers, as distinct from price-makers; the mass market determines their prices and their choices.
If you lack nearsightedness, you are a dreamer rather than a doer. You will float through life, dreaming away the time and resources with which you could have built that future you dreamed of. You live in the land of the lotus eaters. Time will pass you by, and as your aging dreams fade, the pleasing daydreams upon which your ego feeds must become ever more enchanting and ever farther from your daily reality, until you have lost all touch with reality, a legend in your own mind, but in no one else’s.
You must be an Odysseus, passing between the Scylla of enslavement to the institutions and conventions within which the resources for success must be mined and the Charybdis of righteous isolation, alienation, and ultimate insignificance.
You must work within the institutions which are the gatekeepers to success in any field without becoming the empty canvases upon which those institutions, and their functionaries, paint their institutional needs. You must use them for your ends rather than being used by them for theirs.
Now, it is right that you should be somewhat wary, hearing this from a 64-year old high school teacher. Let’s just say I’m a late bloomer. With your whole careers ahead of you, learn from my mistakes, and take a faster, surer path to your future. If you have a dream, begin now, in however small a way, to lay the foundations of that dream, by planning small achievable steps, each one of which brings you nearer to that distant goal.
Rule #1: Determine for yourself how things really work. Listen attentively to those more experienced than you, but don’t take their generalizations for truths unless you can demonstrate to yourself that their truths hold up to the intensest scrutiny you can bring to bear on them.
Rule #2: Speak your whole mind, with its reservations about their presumed truths, only to those you judge to be truth-seekers without a careerist agenda of their own. Genuine intellectual integrity is rarer and more precious than brilliance. Never presume that it’s there unless you see clear signs that it is.
Rule #3: Never stake your happiness on a distant goal. Distant goals may never be achieved, and may transform in ways beyond your current imagination as they come closer to fruition. To tie your happiness to a goal that may not be achievable, or not achievable in the romanticized vision you have of it from a great distance, is to set yourself up for disappointment, disillusionment, and misery. Find the activity for which the journey is fulfilling whether or not you reach the promised land. Because it is only the journey that you experience at first-hand at every step of the journey; the destination only exists in your imagination, until you have arrived.
Always remember, your “Indies” may turn out to be a whole other continent than the one that sparked your dream.
Remember, too, that Moses never saw the promised land. Your pioneering path may open up horizons for those who come after you, and unless you can take joy in that, what joy can any achievement bring? Live well, set an example, and clear a path for those who follow; that is how humankind makes the world a place worth living in.
Rule #4: Begin early building small platforms for further achievements which you alone control, beyond the say-so of any institution. Do this alongside your work within institutions. You won’t be able to avoid preexisting institutions completely but you never want to depend entirely upon them; every safe haven needs an escape hatch.
Rule #5: Have a small and surely achievable, yet still worthy and satisfying dream, alongside your big dream. Great achievements cannot fill the emptiness of hollow souls. Make sure to have a dream fit for a decent but modest human being, one that is certainly achievable if only you make the effort, alongside your big dream. We all need the nourishment of modest but achievable dreams, even while we chase the big ones. The American Dream is just such a modest and achievable dream; let it be your sufficient dream, while you pursue the big one.