Don't Blink, Think, Part 2

An Interview with Michael LeGault, author of Think!
By Vern Burkhardt
Last week we ended with my question to Michael R. LeGault, author of Think! Why Critical Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye, regarding fear. We continue this week with his answer to that question and a number of other questions.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You say that the things people fear have not changed, but that people’s awareness of negative things has increased. You observe that while the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency experts did not rank radioactive waste and radiation from nuclear accidents as an environmental health danger, a study by the EPA found that these two things were the biggest environmental fears of the public. Is this an example of the negative effect of sensationalistic journalism? The type that reports the “scare of the moment”, and exaggerates to stimulate our emotions?

Michael LegaultMichael LeGault: Radioactive waste is a health danger of course, but it is not one that experts rank as a high risk to the public. These experts ranked indoor air quality of office buildings as a bigger risk to health than, for instance, highly publicized and feared exposure to chemicals in drinking water and food. It would help if someone would explain the fundamentals of toxicology—dose, frequency and concentration—but you generally won’t find it in any article on environmental exposure to toxins. Everything is toxic to some extent and, visa versa, below a threshold (dose, frequency, concentration) every substance is not toxic. If you drink 8 gallons of water in a short period of time you could die. On the other hand a nanogram of arsenic is not going to harm you.

People’s perceptions are influenced by the media and the media is incapable of reporting or analyzing complex, nuanced issues. I have worked in the media and my feeling is that part of it is deliberate—either they want to scare people to capture attention or, as I believe is the case with global warming, there is something akin to a politically-motivated intent to censor nuance and dissenting views. What’s interesting about the man-induced global warming theory is that it is not proven. In fact it is not even testable. A theory that can’t be tested is not science; it’s conjecture or worse, religion. This is a paraphrase of a famous statement made by the science philosopher Karl Popper.

Another scientific rule of thumb is that correlation (an increase in carbon dioxide) does not necessarily equate with cause (in this case warming). The body of evidence actually logically implies that natural variations in solar radiation (the thing that has warmed and cooled the earth for eons) is warming the earth slightly and inducing increases in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, not the other way around. There are thousands of scientists that disagree with Al Gore and the conclusions written by a small, hand-chosen committee of scientists in the UN report. But you won’t find any mention of them in the media.

I read a story in the NY Times recently about a principal at an inner city school who has turned the school around. The school was literally in chaos when he arrived. Now kids come to class, grades are up, the hallways are tidy. This is an amazingly positive story, yet even here the reporter went out of her way to find teachers and students critical of the principal. But when it comes to global warming it’s a different story. The media has effectively censored all discussion. In any given article on global warming you will not see one second, dissenting opinion—which is a breach of one of the most sacred rules of journalism. How does one explain this other than invoking deliberate, premeditated, politically-motivated censorship?

VB: Related to my last question, how much of a negative impact have major events like the bombing of the World Trade Towers, Hurricane Katrina and the “War on Terror” had on good critical thinking in the USA?

Michael LeGault:
I think the thing we’ve learned is not to build cities in hurricane-prone areas below sea level, and that government can’t manage a crisis, which we already knew because government can’t manage itself.

The destruction of the World Trade Center taught us a lot about radical Islam and that we should have killed bin Laden and dissolved Al Qaeda ten years earlier, when we had the chance.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have indeed taught the military about the need for appropriate manpower, the importance of adaptive, fluid tactics in fighting a shadow enemy and many, many lessons about using military personnel as instruments of diplomacy—entirely new—to create a stable, secure democracy, which is what the vast majority of Iraqis and Afghanis want.

VB: You describe strong personal motivators for developing our ability to think critically. You say that a brain that is mentally active, and a person who knows more, also thinks better. Are you aware of any empirical research that indicates a mentally active brain is less susceptible to debilitating diseases such as senility?

Michael LeGault:
Yes, I cite them in my book. Several studies have found, for instance, that rats placed in a stimulating environment develop more neuron connections and increased blood flow into certain regions of the brain. One research study has found that exercise and rigorous mental activities such as reading and cross word puzzles can potentially delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by five years.

VB: You are highly critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s essential message in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, which posits that snap decisions are often as good or better than decisions made deliberately, that instinct and experience can be preferable to analytical decision making, and that less information, first impressions and instant judgments can be more effective in dealing with complex phenomena. I thought you summed up your view succinctly with “Don’t Blink, Think”. Why do you think this “Blink-like” view of the power of the “adaptive unconscious” has become so popular?

Michael LeGault:
Again, it is in keeping with the age we live in; a time in which critical thinking has been devalued relative to social skills and the ability to emote and express. Celebrities, television, Survivor, American Idol—it’s all about personality baby. Daniel Golman’s 1989 book “Emotional Intelligence” in effect loosened up the audience for Gladwell’s message. It’s what everyone wanted to hear. It’s just like that commercial where there’s an “easy” button. Everyone wants an easy button. Emotion and intuition are those easy buttons.

VB: Do you think Malcolm Gladwell should have known better?

Michael LeGault:
Gladwell’s brilliance is in packaging psychology and social science in a way that sounds new and trendy. I give him credit.

People are fascinated by intuition and emotion in the same way we are intrigued by ghost stories and UFOs, even if we don’t believe in ghosts and UFOs. It’s mysterious and taps into an element of our psyche that requires mythology and allegory. But it’s entertainment, not science.

Think!Blink is just a series on anecdotes, many of them well known in cognitive psychology. But stories, such as the ones on the forged Greek statue or speed dating in his book, are not scientific experiments. It’s like saying Uncle Fred’s cancer went into remission after drinking a cup of green tea every day for a year. It doesn’t prove anything. Gladwell can be panned, I suppose, for pawning it all off as a type of science, but in a sense he is just feeding a demand.

As an aside to this, after my book was published in 2006 I gave over 100 radio and TV interviews. A number of these stations tried to set up a debate between Gladwell and yours truly but he refused. I would interpret that as a tacit admission that the veneer of scientific soundness in his claims is paper thin.

VB: Are you optimistic that your message about the power of critical thinking and the value of the scientific method is being heard in America?

Michael LeGault:
Yes, with some qualifications.

The response of the broadcast media to the message of the book has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The print media has generally ignored it and I’m not sure why, although I imagine it doesn’t help when you take the New York Times and USA Today to task. Sales of the book have not reached best-seller levels yet but are well above average. Both my publisher and I believe the book will have a long shelf life and continue to reach a wider and wider audience with its message.

VB: Two years ago you estimated there were about 700 billion documents on the Internet, and that the number of pages is increasing rapidly. You say the amount of usable, quality information on the Internet is increasing at a much slower rate. What do you think are some of the implications of these two trends for critical thinking?

Michael LeGault:
Not much really. The fact that there is a lot of garbage on the Internet is an annoyance but nothing that should really affect the practice of critical thinking one way or another. People who are engaged in high-level critical thinking get their information from primary sources—books, journals, research, interviews, etc.—or from specific databases or websites. I cited that statistic as a cautionary note to people who think the Internet is the end-all and be-all for gathering information and distilling knowledge.

20. Question: You talk about the epidemic of children, especially boys, being diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder. Stress in the workplace also appears to have become epidemic. You say stress has a debilitating effect on America’s critical thinking, creativity and work performance. What needs to be done?

Michael LeGault:
The diagnosis of ADD is totally subjective. There are no medical conditions such as swollen glands or elevated blood enzymes associated with it.

Same with stress. The concept of stress was originally associated with the biological flight-or-fight response we experience in life threatening situations. Now it has come to mean the anxiety we feel when we’re having the in-laws over for dinner.

We need to rein in the power we grant the pronouncements of the American Psychological Association and realize a certain amount of “stress” is not only natural, it is good. I’m willing to bet most of us become 100% more efficient and focused at the approach of a deadline.

VB: You say that the great thinkers of the past were Heraclitus and the Greeks, Albert Einstein, Nicolaus Copernicus, Shakespeare, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Lynn Margulis and Ed Watten. If you had to pick your “super hero” from this list of great thinkers, who would it be and why?

Michael LeGault:
That’s a tough one.

I’d have to go with Newton, despite his fondness for alchemy, because he deduced the first general laws about the physical universe in concise, elegant mathematical statements. No one had ever done that before.

VB: In the final analysis you are optimistic about the future of America and its ability to be run by reason and logic. Is that correct?

Michael LeGault:
The reason the United States is a superpower is because it has largely been run by reason and logic.

Many of the problems now faced by the country are rooted in the legal system—TORT law, affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws, increasingly unrealistic and unnecessary regulations. It costs a brain surgeon $100,000 a year for malpractice insurance. So much of the country’s energy is consumed not in innovation and critical thinking but in protecting one’s backside from legal action. If the country continues in this direction I am not optimistic but I also have to believe that so much is at stake that the people won’t allow it to happen, despite the minority for which this trend is self-serving. So in this sense I am optimistic.

VB: I gather you think many Americans’ values are shifting from materialistic wants to meaning wants—to a focus on having a purpose in their life. Why do you think this is happening?

Michael LeGault:
The country has the good fortune of being an extremely affluent society. It is also the most charitable nation on earth, primarily because it is affluent. But after you have met your basic material needs, and then your secondary and tertiary material desires, what do you strive for? We live in a material world but material and wealth alone do not bring fulfillment. A sense of accomplishment or living for a bigger cause does. I think many Americans have a sense of missing out on something and are now looking for that meaning, as you say. I propose that critical thinking is the key in helping them find what they are searching for.

VB: Do you have any final comments about why crucial decisions can’t be made in the blink of any eye?

Michael LeGault:
Because one has to look before one leaps but one definitely has to leap. As one of history’s great thinkers, Shakespeare, once said, “We know what we are, but not what we may be”. It’s a very, very short ride and there’s too much at stake to leave it to random chance.

Thank you for your kind interest in my book and thoughts.

Think! is a useful reminder that the creative process is hard work, and requires the will to think clearly. Michael LeGault says the trend in America and Europe toward a decline in critical thinking relates to “institutionalized mediocrity and glorified indolence”. Some causes being trash culture, marketing, reliance on therapy, aversion to risk, the self-esteem industry, lack of standards in the workplace, lack of standards in the classroom, and lax and hands-off parenting.

Critical thinking requires we use all aspects of cognition produced by our brain, our supercomputer: perception, memory, emotion, intuition, linear and nonlinear modes of thought, and inductive and deductive reasoning.

Knowledge is the world’s most valuable commodity, and access to it is universal and instantaneous—it’s all about brainpower. The spoils in our post-industrial era will “go to the ones sweating the details and doing the best critical and creative thinking”. And the secret for companies and other organizations is to do more work for less money by tapping into the interconnectedness of people world-wide who have this knowledge as well as critical and creative thinking abilities. This makes me think of IdeaConnection’s ThinkSpace.

Michael LeGault suggests that there are some “fixes” for changing America from being run by emotion, ideology and political expediency to being run by reason and logic. His advice, not limited to USA, includes:

  • return to active parental mentoring and guidance;

  • accept risk and change as a means of stretching the mind and finding fulfillment;

  • study the elements of critical thinking (try the scientific method!); and

  • understand there is an objective truth outside ourselves.

Also of particular interest to me is LeGault’s comment that stress may be largely a matter of perception and attitude. And that a certain amount of anxiety or stress should be embraced as a useful stimulus for productive work, and even for creativity. The stress epidemic, the self-propagating idea that we are stressed, negatively affects people’s ability to think and reason. Michael LeGault advises that the best “stress buster” is to reclaim our curiosity, our thirst for knowledge, and develop the full powers of our critical thinking as opposed to pure emotion.

Michael R. LeGault has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry and a Master of Science degree in chemistry. He is a former Washington Times columnist, an editor at The National Post, and an award-winning writer based in Toronto. He has written widely on business, culture, technology and science-related topics for numerous newspapers and magazines. He has also served as consultant to major corporations in business and industry. In 2002, Michael LeGault received the Canadian Business Press Award for the best regularly featured column.

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