Friday, March 11, 2011

Critical Thinking

The word critical makes you stand up and take notice. Doesn’t it blow your mind whenever this word crosses your field of vision? Yet, I notice that lately there is a lag in that standing up and equally longer a period of time of taking notice. I wonder why? Why is it different now? I mean, the meaning of the word has not changed; yet the impact seems to have dried out like a stone in the Sahara Desert. Just as the word critical has been misused and overused and inversely, thinking has been underused and its totality has fallen into disrepair.

We live in an environment soaked with “Breaking News” and titillating bits and pieces of information that cross our path hourly, if not minute by minute and somewhere in this mud, a new “norm” of fatigue has set in. Fatigue is a mechanism of drawn-down reserves through excess use.  So maybe seeing the scrolling news data below every television broadcast has finally depleted everyone’s reserves. Too much! Too much!

Illustration by Matt Mahurin for Newsweek

Critical thinking in its purest sense indicates the value of assumptions used to render a hypothesis, followed by clear concise interpretation of the gathered data -both hidden and visible -to prove or disprove that hypothesis and subsequently draw a reasoned conclusion. It is not accumulation of information but the derived reasoning from it and the changing sets of facts that determine critical thinking. Things change, so, rationally must the thinking. Critical thinking involves reasoning based on some assumptions and deductive rationalization before a conclusion is drawn. If the mind is capitalized with ancillary, irrelevant streaming data, thinking will be impaired. And that is where we spot our Little Red Riding Hood scamper through the forest in search of fruit only to find the Big Bad Wolf.

The algorithm of Critical thinking:

Assumptions -------> Hypothesis ------> Evidence ------> Proof -------> Conclusion

Extorting Emotions that deny Critical Thinking:

Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center of Neural Decision Making at Temple University has revealed through experimentation that information overload causes us humans to make stupid mistakes. The dorso-lateral part of the Prefrontal Cortex which is the key zone in the brain that makes smart decisions, when inundated with data overload gives up the ghost allowing less analytical parts of the frontal cortex to make stupid and arbitrary decisions.

 In spite of claims to the contrary, by people addicted to a surfeit of information, most of them lose the pitch and moment of creative decision-making and resort to just making a decision! Experiments done with MBA graduates working in financial quarters when given every hiccup on wall street lost significant monies as compared with those that were not subjected to each tick by tick, yawn and smirk of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The latter group made out handsomely on carefully crafted stock purchase decisions.

Ambiguous as it might seem and as anecdotal as it might appear, the phenomenon of fatigue is overtaking the society in a surreptitious incipience that we cannot deny.
Imagine a pilot in the cockpit of an airplane whose mind is overloaded with information and the gentle sirens of  “out of tolerance” warnings of non-critical systems are periodically sounding, fatiguing his sense of calm. This distraction keeps him from addressing the minor incongruities in the critical systems. All it takes is a conspiracy of the electronics and the hydro-electrical systems to create a perfect storm and disaster to strike the unsuspecting pilot and his passengers. As Eric Kessler points out, “we are fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality.” The brain integrates recency of information and makes it available for review towards decision-making and that preference of “quick” over “right,” causes problems. The conscious brain with an ambush of data resorts to the conscious system where it integrates both useless and useful information to eventuate an incomplete solution. This leads to poor choices. The decision system breaks down and as one person put, “it is as ineffectual as eunuchs in an orgy.”

A bleeping horn of an un-extended gear during the approach to landing phase of the flight may be overlooked due to distractions; such as a deer on the airfield, or a passenger with a minor but irritating complaint, or even the nerves of pilot’s own sanity frayed by personal and global issues. These events occur not too infrequently in aviation and in every day life. Distractions are natural phenomena that limit focus. However it is, the constancy of these distractions and over abundance of related information that causes unmitigated disaster.

Two real world scenarios in the aviation community that best exemplify critical thinkers not given into informational overload are Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III and Captain Alfred E. Haynes.
Miracle on the Hudson

Captain Sullenberger or “Sully” as he is known successfully ditched a disabled Airbus 320 on January 15, 2009, into the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives. 
Chesley Burnett Sullenberger II

The event was played out in real time on US national television and many consider him a hero, but his most endearing legacy will be his ability to decide to ditch in the water when three airports within the 15-mile vicinity were tantalizing him. The US Airways flight #1549 outbound from LGA (La Guardia airport) lost its engine thrust due to ingestion of a flock of geese. Calmly his mind reasoned the probability of survival. The result was a spectacular success.
Captain Alfred E. Haynes

UAL 232
Captain Al Haynes had an equally challenging but more difficult issue for the United Airlines flight #232 bound for Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on July 19, 1989. The incapacitated number two engine of the DC-10 aircraft had sent shrapnel into the vertical empennage severing hydraulic lines. 
Flight path flight UAL 232

Working without ailerons and elevator control and the two remaining engines he used asymmetric thrust vectors to land at Sioux City Iowa airport. 
UAl 232 Sioux City, Iowa

184 of 296 passengers and crewmembers survived the controlled crash. 
UAl 232 post crash image

55 attempts with identically simulated conditions on a simulator by different test pilots failed to accomplish what Haynes had done. What he had managed to do was extricate all extraneous information and relied on his basic piloting and common sense to save lives. If worries of life and death had entered in his mind, the results would have been much different.

The answer to erroneous decision-making lies in the multiple competing arguments in a multi-tasking world. Here in this existence, life is on the run, time is in retreat and days merge into nights without distinction. We as humans live in a world that demands constant attention, failing which it invokes various mechanisms of reproach to acquire it. For instance you did not post the letter today that was supposed to be received by the addressee yesterday and you end up with the dreaded fine. In this pressure-filled life, our rush to belong truncates life itself. In so doing, the essence is lost. Remember the paper boat that you watched as it rode the stream of water, hitting every pebble and changing course to your delight, now you wish a quick arrival at the personally specified destination. The journey no longer has the same “kick.” The point “a” to “b” is a nuisance and the destination, what we have instilled into our thinking, is what holds the key to progress. Life is being lost in the blur of “getting there.” Thus decisions are being made not on the whole but part of the reality.

To that preamble let me add another real world aviation disaster to illustrate the point that all arguments must be heard; a minority opinion can weigh heavily on a decision and predetermination without full knowledge can lead to a catastrophe.

Tenerife Disaster portrayed

On March 27, 1977 a Pan Am flight 1738 and KLM flight 4805 crashed on the single runway at the Tenerife North Airport. 
Tenerife North Airport (One runway)

Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten piloting the KLM decided in his hurry to takeoff without receiving proper (ATC) Air traffic controller clearance and acknowledging a statement from his first officer who told him that they did not have clearance to takeoff. In an airport bogged down with fog and 1000 feet visibility the “back taxiing” Pan Am aircraft was not visible to the KLM aircraft that had commenced the takeoff roll. The collision resulted in the largest aviation disaster in history.
What went wrong was a premeditated thought process, an inducement to hurry (flight prior to mandatory 8-hour pilot rest period) and a mental framework of disregarding contrary opinion. The decision to override all fail-safe mechanisms by a single individual resulted in 583 fatalities.
Tenerife Disaster actual image

So how do we extricate ourselves from beneath this egregious cloak of risk that shields our mental vista? How do we make ourselves less pervious to this reptilian shadow that slithers, within the tall grass of life?
Rodin's Thinker

It appears our brains are gifted with a decision making apparatus that views, reviews and then based on experiential knowledge and Bayesian probability comes up with a determination of how and when to act. This mechanism is relatively fail-safe, but it is dependent on the quality of information provided. Consider then the constant feed of misinformation of limited relevance through all the portals accessible to the average Joe. These bits of information (twitter, facebook, myspace) constantly demand a contract with Joe’s emotions, to which he succumbs and drops into his chair of “oh heck,” and blanks out.  Meanwhile the TV, competing for the same neurons in his brain, is showing images in 10-second segments; of some poor soul caught in a deluge, drifting in the wild flood waters, in a far-away land, abruptly switching the scene to a homicidal maniac with his wrists in cuffs behind his back awaiting justice followed by the economic data of jobs, GDP and national debt leading to the plunge in the financial markets. So Joe’s mental frame has hung itself onto another wall of misery. And right on cue admixed with this torture are the advertisers paying huge amounts for 30-second of contracted time, vying for Joe’s hard earned money, to regale their version of their revenue enhancing snake oils; the cure for athletes-feet, a nasal-spray for congestion and a pill for a robbed sex-life. Extraneous information robs us of our thinking. Adding complexity leads to mental chaos, quick decisions, confusion or even inaction. Oh what a web we weave in an attempt to deceive the unsuspecting, unthinking souls.

The parody that plays itself in our daily lives is overtaking the gravity of the reason for living. We aspire to compete and that is not a bad thing, but constantly being ushered into the domain of negativity, despondency and imprecision, which has little relevance to our lives, makes us wistful and fearful even for what we have. The brain needs to incubate new information and integrate it with existing knowledge to strengthen its synaptic connections to be able to see hidden and elusive patterns in this complex world. Life is not lived in the fringes but within the core. It is not a game of Jeopardy -a push of a button away from success. It is a thoughtful exercise in restraint and understanding.

Exploiting Falsehoods that affirm poor conclusions:

"Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." – John F. Kennedy

Shoehorning into this negativity I would be remiss if I don’t point out the even more perfunctory, illusive and egregious behavior exhibited by the ill-gotten celebrity status of actors and journalists who pose as scientists and scientists who pose as actors in helping disseminate nonsense, mis-sense and pure bull. These stalwarts, with their televised imprecision, armed with 15 minute of fame, exploit and force-trend the people’s thinking for their own gains. This is the tragedy of pseudoscientific ideas buried in troughs of conceit. The world is awash in the rigors of this blur. The truth is hidden from the gullible public under the nuances of deceptive and unproven “facts.”  Here “motivated reasoning” of these pretentious journalists falls in line with confirmation bias, denying any existence of counter-arguments and even turning a blind eye to Cartesian logic just so to effectuate and win the argument. To overcome this skullduggery, not only do we need critical thinking for our own sanity into not believing that “snake oil” works wonders for optimal health, contrary to some “Cinderella-like” epidemiological conjecture and correlative fiat, but also to relate to the true scientific information that requires verifiability, validity, legitimacy and purpose. Negative exploitation of human emotions and falsification of real world issues have similar impact; they make non-critical thinkers into believers -slaves to the over-ripened falsehoods of charlatans and by virtue of the opinionated and misinformed media label the true critical thinker, a naysayer.

Living Well:

There must be something we can do to rid ourselves of this agency of fatigued self-doubt. Ah! I see a hint of a smile precariously perched at the edges, hoping for some help. I begin with a few caveats, since fulfilling each and every vocation and desire is not the purview of this brief-reasoned exercise.


So if you are a pilot in general aviation or for a commercial airlines, you may consider a daily jog out in the fields where the air is clear and the grass, weed, bushes and trees are visible for your pleasure. Limit exposure to the television newscaster and radio-heads especially the “news-makers.” The real news, I guarantee will find you, but without the noise that deadens our resolve to function as human beings. Expand your knowledge of the aircraft-systems employed for your safety and that of your passengers. Explore relevant data in various circumstances within your mind to evaluate your thought process. Practice emergent events in a safe simulated environment at least every six months to keep yourself proficient. 
Garmin's Glass Cockpit in a GA aircraft

The “Glass-Cockpit” equipped newer generation of aircraft pose similar risks of “head in the cockpit” and “too much information” syndrome rather then the “see-and-avoid” that has saved many an aircraft from in-air collisions. The “Glass-cockpit” is replete with tremendous amount of information and although relevant, the pilot must always remember the six basic pieces of information that keep him flying. Exercise your mind and your body for optimum functionality and resolve. It is better to imagine an emergency and how to escape it rather then have one in real life in flight and devise mechanisms on the fly to save yours and other’s lives. (Sounds pseudoscientific thinking, but it isn’t).


If you are a physician, consider ignoring the television completely. You live in a “live and die,” universe where people’s lives are at stake. Consider options of positive energy constantly flowing to you and away from you. Yours is a universe bedeviled by nature’s wrath. Help others to help yourself. Expand your knowledge and art. You need the constant flow of verified information that determines outcome related to patient care. The wealth of love and respect come back many fold for a well-thought and executed patient managed process. (Sounds like mysticism, but it isn’t).


If you are a housewife consider joining a book club and discuss simple and complex matters of life and living with others. Read more and help your children to understand the reasoning behind facts rather then fill their heads with known facts. Teach them to reason. Keep the home fires burning, learn verifiable knowledge and teach your children the same with respect and love and focus your family on developing a stronger bond with your neighbors to enhance your lives. (Sounds corny, but it isn’t).


If you are unemployed, imagine a better life. No reason to revel in other’s miseries just to make yourself feel better. What you employ in your imagined universe has a better prospect of accomplishment then otherwise. Think and your universe will find means to fill your life with that reality. (Sounds new age, but it isn’t).


If you are working, enjoy the work and use your creativity to advance the environment and yourself. Think of ways to make your job more productive. (Sounds like more effort for same pay, but it isn’t).

In a world bent on exploiting the raw human emotions, it is time to look the other way and smile.

Please do strive,

Please do compete,

Please do achieve,

Please do elevate your knowledge and understanding but above all if you are a person reading this,

Please be a fellow human and consider all arguments, even the contrary ones with your own lens of critical thinking.

Think for yourself yet give credence to others for their opinion.

Question the legitimacy of any argument with factual and reasoned knowledge.

Perpetuate a desire to learn and your world will be a better place for it.

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle

No comments:

Post a Comment