Thinking Ain’t What It Used To be

I’ve been reading a great book the last couple of weeks, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanehan. (I read books like I watch TV, I dip in and out, watching (or reading) several things at one time.) I recommend Kanehan’s book to everyone; it is not as hard to read as you might think–in fact the prose style is very pleasant, although the illustrative mental puzzles do take a bit of effort sometimes. I think most people will react like I have, reflecting on the implications of Kanehan’s findings for how I lead my life, how we make decisions. His major message so far is that all of us need to be aware of the shortcuts (fast thinking) we use and the likelihood that these shortcuts will lead us astray.

Thinking about thinking has ended up being a huge part of my life’s work. That’s a lot of what I did for CIA. It is no reassuring task to write or edit reports intended for policymakers, even for the President, and then pause to ask yourself whether the prose before you actually provides anything useful or insightful to the intended reader. Because the real truth is that facts (outside of science, and even there you gotta wonder!) rarely speak for themselves.  (And it hardly matters at all if they are secret facts.) In those rare instances when they do speak for themselves, then you don’t need an analyst or interpreter to make sense of them. Do you? Most facts require context, invite assumptions, have a back story, and probably also have a future. That’s what the analyst, the real thinker needs to bring to the conveyance of the fact. But it is all too rarely accomplished.

I can’t help but think we have a humongous thinking deficit in today’s world. (We also have significant values confusion and volatility, but that would be another blog.) I don’t watch any of the political debates because I can’t stand to watch people embarrass themselves. But I sort of follow them on Twitter sometimes so I know the various candidates drop Fact Bombs; Speaker Gingrich engages in carpet bombing and Rick Perry often misses the target. It doesn’t matter whether I support the candidate or not: they all misuse facts and encourage the sloppy thinking habits that haunt us today.

Some of our thinking errors have been monumental. For example you would think that when the US and other Western nations began investing in large social welfare programs in the 1950s and 1960s they might have actually done some actuarial planning, plotting out demographic, social, and economic trends to develop projections for how long the economy could sustain such benefits. Now my bet is that in some governments someone actually did something like this, but that inconvenient scenarios were dismissed as worst case scenarios and thus relegated to the low probability trash can. 

This is one of the most common thinking errors I encountered professionally: the association of worst case scenarios with low probabilities. Think about it. I bet most of you do it all the time. You hear worst case, you think “unlikely to happen”. The two values–probability, severity–move independently of each other, of course. There is a variation to this thinking pathology: that’s when worst case is is equated with high probability or even only possibility. In the past ten years, this has manifested itself in obsessive hoarding of gold.

Another area where a little long-range thinking and contextual analysis might cast some interesting light is the immigration debate. Some of us know that immigrants are an increasingly important part of US economic growth and that economic growth is a good way to ameliorate deficits. But these points aren’t often made. If the point can’t be conveyed in a soundbite or factbomb, then it isn’t conveyed at all.

What follows are examples of sloppy–even meaningless–analysis I see all the time even in the most serious publications.

The negotiations will be difficult. Now I’m betting that if the situation was easy to resolve, you wouldn’t need negotiations in the first place. Negotiations are supposed to be difficult. Also lengthy, bitter, hard-fought. This is one of my faves, because you SEE IT ALL THE TIME. (Also see below for discussion on use of adjectives and adverbs.)

It is too soon to tell and its cousin Only time will tell. No elucidation necessary.

The transition will be difficult or The transition will be smooth. I distrust just about all adjectives and adverbs in analysis. These slippery little modifiers disguise many errors in thinking. What smooth means to the writer may not be what smooth means to me. I would rather have the elements of the transition discussed so that in addition to considering the analyst’s judgment, I can develop my own.

The elections are too close to call. Basically, I don’t understand why we spend so much analytic and journalistic energy trying to forecast elections in the first place. An election is actually a specific event in the near future. Its timing is known to all. When it ends, we will know the outcome. If the election is rigged, then our forecast doesn’t matter. I’m gobsmacked at how American journalists in particular have convinced so many people to hang on their every word about events concerning which they have little insight and over which they have little control.

X dynamic is not a problem in Society Y because it only has the support of 10% of the population. Another classic mistake that you see ALL THE TIME and which, at this point, is absolutely criminal. When you hear about a particular revolution not being anticipated, you can bet that this type of analytic statement was at the heart of the faulty thinking. This analytic statement is flawed because it tries to capture extremely complicated societal dynamics in a criminally simple mathematical statement. Before making  such a statement, the analyst needs to examine his theory for social change. Is social change simply an arithmetic progression? Or do movements often gain support suddenly and/or exponentially?

Anyway I think I’ll stop now. Really I’ve just been venting on many of the thinking errors that get under my skin. For a much better discussion, do read Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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2 responses to “Thinking Ain’t What It Used To be

  1. I’ve just started reading “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson which sounds like a good follow-on to Thinking, Fast and Slow (still on my waiting list). Clay talks about the parallels between obesity and information overload. I’m only through the first section comparing the analogy of junk food producers to media industry content farms. Part of thinking deficit you mention is understanding how much information we really need to make judgements and where is the best source of that information. I don’t know yet if the Information Diet will help with that but it is also very readable. O’Reilly Media is also having a webcast with Clay Johnson on Jan 18. http://oreillynet.com/pub/e/2130

  2. Carmen,

    You & I are of the same mind. I happened across some of your work while seeking employment in the IC. I’ve really enjoyed the presentations & the few things I’ve read by you. My head works the same way. Am I correct that you are a Military Brat? I’m an Army Brat & there are a bunch of us on a website that you may want to check out if you are a MilBrat. There are 2 related sites, http://www.MILITARYBRATS.NET & http://www.MILITARYBRATLIFE.COM that you may like. I hope to see you there. Stay alert, be safe/healthy & have fun. Also, my wife works(ed) w/ Danny Kahneman at the Princeton Univ. Center for Health & Wellbeing so I’ll have to buy “Thinking” too. Thanks for the referral.

    Best regards, Don

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