Don't Blink, Think

An Interview with Michael LeGault, author of Think!
By Vern Burkhardt
We are what we think. Faulty thinking results from the inability to think critically and a lack of will to think clearly. Critical thinking plays a significant role in our physical and mental well-being. Critical thinking depends on analysis and logic, and on action. Critical thinking requires gathering, processing and evaluating information, and creative thinking uses this information to produce a result that would not have happened without that effort. Therefore, critical thinking is the key to releasing the mind’s higher cognitive powers—creative thinking.

Skepticism, not merely open-mindedness, is required for effective critical thinking. But extreme skepticism has led some bright people to say or write silly things (e.g., “heavier than air machines will never fly”, “there is a world market for only five computers”, “we will never obtain nuclear energy”, “the war to end all wars”).

Great historical thinkers like Heraclitus, Einstein, Copernicus, Edison, Newton, and Darwin were unique in that they had an unquenchable desire for knowledge and rigorous self-discipline. They were driven to effectively put their knowledge to some good use. Motivated thinkers are good thinkers.

Happily Michael LeGault was able to take the time to answer some questions that arose as I read his book Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You say that in America and many other industrialized countries there has been a decline in logic and reasoning. How does that mesh with the fact that innovation and advancements in technology seem to be accelerating at an ever faster pace?

Michael LegaultMichael LeGault:
Innovation in modern society is almost the exclusive domain of highly-educated and trained specialists in the sciences, health, computer technology, etc. The decline I describe in Think! is taking place in the wider culture and society. As a result of a decline in critical thinking, which is based on observation, gathering evidence and deciding what the evidence means, we’ve seen a corresponding rise in “thinking” based on intuition, superstition, subjective beliefs and emotions.

We’ve become a society that places highest value on “emotional intelligence” and “people skills” and this valuation cuts across all strata of society, from the boardroom to the classroom. The kicker is that this phenomenon has worked its way into the political and legal fabric of North American society. Our ability to address and solve problems in our personal lives and in wider society has declined because we can no longer reach a consensus on what constitutes truth. Why can’t we balance the budget or raise educational performance in the USA? These are issues we’ve talked about for decades.

Also, just because innovation is occurring doesn’t mean we’re necessarily a highly innovative society. It’s a relative scale. Innovation occurs when we question assumptions and debate ideas and know things—not just talk about our feelings and opinions. Surely the Internet and the computer will not be the same one hundred years from now as they are today. Good thinkers are those who are not willing to wait one hundred years for it to improve.

VB: You use the term “is-ness” as being pure perception uninformed by memory, knowledge, or critical evaluation. Do you think this state of mind is applicable to an ever increasing proportion of people, and if so, what is causing it?

Michael LeGault:
Absolutely and there are several reasons. We are taught in modern Western society to “forget and move on”. The idea is to purge all bad experiences from our memories and focus on the present. This edict fits in neatly with the self-esteem movement, which seeks to shield people from any criticism or failure that could damage one’s self image.

It certainly is important to focus on the present and live in the moment, but it is also illogical to believe that the past has no meaning other than as a source of fond or painful memories. In fact we are the sum total of our past experiences and decisions. The 19th century novelist Thomas Hardy was renowned for his portrayal of characters whose lives were shaped by small, seemingly inconsequential acts or decisions. There is a causal chain of events and thinking that has led us to this moment. Not only are we living from the past, we need to remember and understand the past in order to make good decisions in the future.

Memory of failure is especially important as it is a crucial factor in how we learn. We don’t need to dwell on our errors but we do need the reference points of mistakes to make progress. Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once said “In order to succeed I try to fail as fast as I can.”

Another factor in the growth of Is-ness is knowledge dilution. I know it sounds like the old refrain that life was better and people smarter back in the old days, but there is, or appears to be, an astoundingly high level of ignorance behind many, if not most, of the decisions and policies which are made today. To take one example, in the past fifty years the nations of the world have donated over five hundred billion dollars to the nations of sub-Saharan Africa without any appreciable rise in the standard of living. Obviously, if the goal is to improve the quality of life for the average African, another model is needed. We need reference points for our views and decisions and the only way we can get those is by knowing stuff and drawing logical inferences from it.

Finally there is the profound effect of television, movies, videos and the Internet, which is increasingly displacing active critical thinking with passively received images and information. Einstein himself noted that information is not knowledge. The irony of this is that many of the tech-savvy young people who, on average, spend up to forty-five hours a week in front of some type of video screen also aspire to be creative artists, to be entrepreneurs, which requires active engagement with the world, and trial and error. Sadly, there is usually parental complicity in all this.

VB: You talk about the “Age of Emotion”, and say emotion and subjectivity have become the popular methods of evaluating our world and making decisions. Why do you think the Age of Emotion has taken hold?

Michael LeGault:
As I alluded to earlier, there has been a basic change in the socio-economic structure of the world. In the West over the past thirty years or so, we’ve moved from being an industrialized, bricks-and-mortar society, which emphasized hard, technical skills and know-how, to a digital, computer-driven world which emphasizes the manipulation and movement of information. In such a society much of the “thinking” is often done for us. Why, for example, should kids learn the multiplication table when computers do these calculations?

The demand for hard skills such as proficiency in mechanics, math or writing is being pushed aside by the demand for soft skills such as public speaking or managing people. But the trend is having an adverse affect on the ability of North American companies to compete and innovate. General Motors executive Bob Lutz has observed a decline in the skills of young engineers trained in North America. He conjectures that the reason for this is that universities are, by and large, training engineers to be managers. This makes sense in a society in which management skills, not technical skills, are the basis for getting promoted.

Think!I also believe our culture promotes emotion over reasoning. The most important art form of the last forty years is rock and roll. I have nothing against rock and roll—I own the complete collection of Elvis Costello and the Ramones. But rock and roll is an emotional, not a reflective art form. Many people, from the baby boomer generation on down, have taken rock and roll, especially its emphasis on individuality and self expression, as the fundamental philosophical manifesto of their lifestyle. But these people are missing the point, in my view. Rock and roll is not really so much about rebellion and image and self-expression as it is about understanding and transcending our emotions to reach the higher ground of creativity, personal growth and self-discipline, which is where critical thinking enters the picture.

VB: You say Mick Jagger, Bono and Bruce Springsteen are well-read and thoughtful, and that high intelligence and critical thinking are not incompatible with their creativity. What more can you tell us about these three music icons in terms of their thinking abilities?

Michael LeGault:
I don’t know them personally but I have followed their music and careers closely. Even in the total absence of any specific details about their personal lives one could logically deduce from the quality of the music they produce that critical thinking is paramount to their success. Yet, as has come out in the many interviews they have done, Springsteen and Bono are extremely well read and up on current events. Jagger is more a man of action; yet he is someone, to paraphrase one of his fellow Stones, who is extremely good at picking other people’s brains for information and knowledge. In other words, these men are curious about the objective, external world they live in. They aren’t just going through life primping their hair and studying their pain.

VB: You say there is evidence of a decline in problem-solving and high-end thinking skills as we move from a literate culture to a visual and digital culture. And you say that the visual and digital media exists largely to stimulate our eyes and emotions rather than our thoughts. Given the importance of problem solving and critical thinking, what do you think will be the long term impact of what has been called Web 2 and the digital age we are moving into?

Michael LeGault:
The computer-internet-web is one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind with unlimited potential to spread knowledge and uplift critical thinking. But, like many of mankind’s inventions, it also has the potential to be misused and actually accelerate idiocy.

First, we should distinguish digital technology from the human fondness for the low-brow. I’m quite sure if the Internet had been around during the Roman Empire, Cleopatra and the gladiators would have received many thousand times more hits than Ovid or Catullus. There is a timelessness to the state of is-ness in the human psyche. And low-brow is not all bad—there’s probably an evolutionary reason for it. The challenge is what it has always been: to focus, learn, grow and be productive. The computer-internet-web is a tool that can help us do that.

That said the computer, the Internet and software represent entirely new shifts, not just in terms of technology, but in reality. We now possess the power to create virtual realities and these new realities could become entirely self-contained social, cultural, economic and political systems in themselves. In these worlds our video-game-playing, slacker teens are the new power brokers and savants.

We have already seen this taking place in the military where young people weaned on Nintendo are today’s skilled fighter pilots, completely at home in the high-tech cockpit interface. The novelist William Gibson has been in the forefront of imaginatively exploring the possible futuristic implications of technology. The problem with these virtual realities, as even Gibson has realized, is that humans are social animals. We need face-time. Research has found that email is a marginally effective tool for communicating and building relationships. It doesn’t capture the nuances of voice inflections and facial expressions which convey meaning.

The other problem with the computer-internet-web, despite all the hype about liberating people from control of governments and corporations, is that it also becomes a form of control. It can create new realities, but those realities have rules just like the old realities. It is essentially uncreative—we are just abiding by the algorithms someone has written. Used in this way, in the absence of creative-critical thinking, it is not empowering.

VB: You observe that over the past twenty years management improvement books have focused on task-driven thinking, not critical thinking. How would books based on critical thinking have been different from those that focused on aspiring to greatness by listening to customers, fostering empowerment and leadership, and increasing quality?

Michael LeGault:
I may not have been clear on this point in the book.

Businesses must seek feedback from their customers—this is a crucial feature of critical thinking; that is, gathering evidence. Businesses are generally very good at using rational approaches to solve problems and improve. But they also must deal with a large amount of uncertainty in their decision-making processes. The problem is one of probability and predictability—an inherent feature of reality.

Where the breakdown in critical thinking occurs is when a company becomes politically invested in a given decision and a course of action—think of Rumsfeld in Iraq ignoring all his field generals saying “we need more troops”. This happens with surprising frequency in corporations. In this way at least there is a lapse in critical thinking because critical thinking is foremost an adaptive method.

VB: There seems to be a clear message that youth needs to receive, this message being: if you want to be successful you need to develop your brain so you can think creatively, critically and “out-of-the-box”. How do we ensure this message gets to youth early enough and in such a manner that they will understand and act on it?

Michael LeGault:
This is a message that usually originates in the home. It’s a “tough love” approach and also a mentoring approach. If you look at the biographies of accomplished thinkers they’ve all had an important “crystallizing” moment in their upbringings. Frank Lloyd Wright was exposed to arts and crafts through his aunt; Einstein was given a set of magnets that made him wonder about the hidden forces and underlying reality of the physical universe. It doesn’t end there.

Parents have to make themselves available. There has to be expectations, an exposure to standards and criticism. I tell my own children they will always have my unqualified love, but not necessarily my respect. That doesn’t mean I won’t respect them unless they become brain surgeons. It simply means I want them to be passionate about something and use their gray matter by applying themselves to it.

VB: Using the brain for critical thinking makes it stronger. You say that improving critical thinking skills and tapping the enormous capacity and potential of the human brain is our final frontier. There are many frontiers left to be explored, such as distant bodies in outer space, or even cyberspace. Why do you think that the human brain is the final frontier?

Michael LeGault:
That’s a good question.

I think when I wrote that I was thinking that we have lots of theories about the nature of physical reality—quantum mechanics, relativity, evolution. All these theories are accepted because, not only do they provide immensely useful explanations about how the world works, they have been mostly confirmed by the evidence and experiments. Yet we have no general, proven theory about how the mind solves problems. We have conjectures and rules of thumb, but no powerful, unifying explanation for brain power.

In that way, turning the mind upon the mind in order to reach some fundamental understanding about how we create, discover and innovate has really never been done. There’s a gap in this area that is not exactly the same as our gap in knowledge about distant stars. Even though we haven’t visited those stars we still have a fundamental explanation of space-time between us and those stars—general relativity, and a basic theory about what happens inside those stars—quantum mechanics. The laws of physics are universal.

We have no fundamental explanation for the way people solve problems and innovate.

VB: You mention Steve Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open, which reports that modern imaging technologies have found that men’s and women’s brains are very different. In what ways are they different, and what are the implications of this?

Michael LeGault:
There’s a huge body of evidence which I cite in my book showing women are more adept at languages and men are better at math and spatial and abstract reasoning. Certainly there are women who do math very well and men who are good with languages. This is a pattern that manifests itself on average.

My purpose in mentioning this in my book was in the context of a discussion of political correctness and a defense of Harvard president Larry Summers for his suggestion that there seems to be a biological basis for the fact that men have predominated in math and the sciences. I cite the imaging research mentioned in Johnson’s book as evidence that the brains of men and women are indeed built differently. Summers was, of course, forced out and I liken political correctness to a form of thought control that, in this case, actually works against the effort to recruit more women into the sciences.

I’m not sure that in a society increasingly linked with digital technology these gender differences mean that much, other than what they always have—that men and women think differently.

VB: Many authors I’ve read talk about the negative impact of excessive TV watching. You say that in the USA people spend five times more time watching television than reading, and I suspect there is a negative correlation as well between watching TV and exercise—and perhaps even eating healthy foods. Given that, as you say, watching TV diminishes individuality, spontaneity and creativity, do you think the tendency of youth to spend more time on the Internet—presumably therefore less time watching television—is a good trend in terms of enhancing their creative thinking abilities?

Michael LeGault:
The thing about TV is not that it is inherently bad. There are many good things about TV—it provides us with information, it humors us, it can even be the source of stimulating ideas.

The problem is that, as a commercial venue with the objective of making the most money it can, TV must, apparently, strive for the lowest common denominator in terms of programming. I remember when the Arts channel, A&E, first started it actually ran programs about art. I told myself even then ‘this won’t last’. Sure enough it is now showing re-runs of Cold Case and the Sopranos.

This type of programming induces or requires a state of passive attention or is-ness, and the many hours people spend watching TV displaces other more thought-provoking activity—such as reading, writing, and exercise. I suppose surfing the Web or being involved in a multi-party cyber-discussion on MSN is nominally more stimulating than TV. At least one is engaged with the outside world, even if that world is filtered through cyber-space.

VB: What advice do you have for parents whose children want to spend more time on the Internet or using their computer to play games?

Michael LeGault:
Don’t let kids use computers in their room. Have them in public spaces in the house and monitor your kids. Set time limits.

A study done in Germany found a correlation between the number of computers in a house and lower grades. The more computers in the house, the lower the grades. You can interpret that to mean that it’s not the computers that are causing poorer performance, but the time spent on the computers out of eyeshot of mom and dad.

VB: Think!’s central message is that critical and creative thinking depend on analysis and logic, and on action. Why do you think this key message needed writing about?

Michael LeGault:
I disagree.

Think!’s central message is that we are in the middle of an intellectual crisis that is threatening our jobs, standard of living and security. Democracy, and especially the American political system, was founded on the idea of individual freedom and responsibility and the ability of people to use reason to govern themselves. It is a principle that goes back to the Enlightenment and thinkers such as Bacon, Locke and Hume. If we can no longer think effectively, if we can’t reach a consensus about the nature of truth and reality, we can no longer govern ourselves. Someone or something will think for us.

Think! is an analysis of the social and cultural causes of this decline in critical thinking, along with proposals to fix it. I mention near the beginning of the book that I am not setting out to demonstrate superiority of critical thinking over emotional or intuitive cognitions. There’s really no need to do this, as I say in the book, because it’s a closed case, the ball game is over. The entire history of human intellectual and material progress is the history of overturning our intuitive hunches and superstitions about the world by the use of critical reasoning. We once intuitively thought that the sun revolved around the earth, that ulcers were caused by stress and that taking large doses of anti-oxidants lessened the risk of cancer. All of these have been disproved by observation and evidence from systematic studies elaborated by critical thinking

VB: You say that the things people fear have not changed, and 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 in order to stimulate our emotions?

Michael LeGault:
Vern’s note: LeGault’s response to this question and many more questions will be included in next week’s issue of the IdeaConnection Newsletter.

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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