Critical Thinking

I did very well in High School. Not Socially but academically. I quickly figured out the recipe for success. Listen to the teacher, scan the subject text book, and barf out the information back on the test. I got so I didn't really even need to listen to the teacher, the book would suffice to pull down the A.

It was all about getting information from a source that was deemed accurate and trusted, and then remembering it. Easy peazy.

When I got to college I expected to apply this same recipe for success. My first class I ever attended in College was "Intro to chemistry". This was my major and I was very exited on that first day of college. When I arrived at the classroom I was surprised to see it was a huge 500 seat auditorium that was almost filled with students. I waited patiently until the professor, Dr. Harris, took the large stage and a hush fell over the crowd. He looked out over all of the fresh faces and said: "I am going to get up here 3 times a week and tell you things. Some of them right, some of them wrong. It's your job to get them right on the test. Class dismissed." Then he left the stage.

That was bizarre I thought. Just what in the hell did he mean by that? He's going to tell us wrong things sometime?

It turned out that my first college course was indeed a game changer. I got a D on my first test. A D! The test questions were nothing like the sample questions in the book. In fact that test hardly even resembled what we were talking about in class. Yet apparently, others were answering the questions right. My recipe for success had failed me.

To make a long and painful story short, that first class was indeed an introduction to chemistry, but even more it was an introduction to critical thinking, an ability that all hard core scientists need develop.

Far more difficult than remembering things, it was learning to sort through various bits of data, some right and some wrong, and figuring out what had a high probability of being correct, versus information that could be discarded as likely wrong. Also, it dealt in trying to understand and guard against bias as well as encouraging an open mind.

Now the system I learned in high school, of absorbing information from a trusted source and then making decisions based on that information, is generally workable, but it has its pitfalls.

I was once I was at a lunch with 7 Information Technology professionals from Mattel, all of them quite smart. During the course of conversation, it came up that one the the gentlemen didn't believe the US ever landed on the moon. He pointed out that Fox News had had a special on it and he believes the whole thing was a fake. The conversation continued and it turned out that no one at the table believed that we landed on the moon except me as they had all seen the Fox special and they all felt Fox was a reliable source of information.

Now this was the first I heard of this belief, so I couldn't help but ask a few questions. The conversation went like this:

M: Why? Why would we fake the moon landing?

T: To impress the Russians and get them to stand down on the Space Race thing. That dog in the round spaceship thing scared the crap out of us.

M: OK, but its a pretty elaborate hoax. Wouldn't someone, one of the astronauts or someone have come forward by now if that was the truth?

T: No, it's a tightly guarded secret. Everyone was paid off.

M: OK, but we landed there 6 times. That's a lot of hoaxes. Why 6 times? Doesn't that open the door for a slip up somewhere?

T: Six times? Are you sure we landed there six times?

M: Yes, six times. Almost 7 but Apollo 13 didn't make it.

T: Well it is just more convincing that way.

M: So you're saying we faked an accident that almost killed 3 astronauts. Three real people who have given interviews and speeches?

T: Yes. It makes it that much more convincing. In the end the Russians bought the whole thing so obviously it was a good strategy. I'm pretty sure they still believe it (said with a slight smirk).

At this point I asked for the check.

After lunch I researched further and even found a web site that went over the Fox news special point by point and debunked it. Yet even with this new information, none of these people changed their minds? Their faith in the trusted source of information was unshakeable.

So given that no source of information is 100% correct, this form of thinking can lead to wrong conclusions. You can trust me when I say this, we did land on the moon on July 20th, 1969.

Also, trusted sources of information sometimes offers simplified solutions for knowing when something is right, wrong or good and bad. Often just definitions. Examples, Communism is bad, Capitalism good. One God good, No God, bad. Freedom good, Lack of Freedom bad.

While broad categories are efficient, convenient and easy, they can lead to wrong conclusions.

As an example, lets take freedom. Its widely believed freedom is good, non free bad. Forcing people to do something is just bad.

Yet we force people to wear clothes. Without this forcing, Ill guarantee you that I would be prone to walking around my neighborhood completely naked. Would this freedom be good? I think for my neighbors, the answer would be no. So sometimes lack of freedom is a good thing. All laws and regulations are really restrictions on freedom and most of them are needed. Can you imagine our traffic system without traffic laws and restrictions?

The other area that leads to false conclusions is bias. Our brains like to hear information the supports what we all ready believe to be true. Bias can lead to almost whacky conclusions.

I had a friend who was fond of saying that George W Bush was Hitler. He would list areas where Hitler and Bush were similar and conclude Bush was basically Hitler reincarnated. But what made Hitler Hitler was his killing over 6 million of his own population as well as a penchant for world domination. Certainly Mr. Bush was not similar in those ways. And if you look hard enough, you could find similarities with your mother and Hitler, but that doesn't make your mother Hitler.

In another example, I was with a financial adviser and she was showing me various charts. As she was going over the data, I noticed a picture of herself and ex-president Bush on her desk. We came to a chart that showed the stock market over time and who was in office, democrat or republican. I pointed out that the chart showed the market doing better under Democrats. She replied "Oh yes, the market always does better under Democrats but that’s because the Republicans set them up". She may be right, but that's certainly not the obvious conclusion.

Turns out, the market has gone up 6.9%/year under Republicans and almost double, 13.3%/year under Democrats (or so the chart said). I did more research on the web (more sources) and there are many sites saying essentially the same thing (See Here and even Here at a Fox based web site). What does that mean? Probably not too much to be honest with you but its interesting how bias drove the Financial planners conclusion.

As my last example I wanted to bring up up the question of Socialized medicine. For some people, Socialism is bad, period. But is it? I'm going to use Medicare as an example

In 1945, Harry Truman sent a message to Congress asking for legislation establishing a national health insurance plan.

Two decades of debate ensued, with opponents warning of the dangers of "socialized medicine" and rationing. Not until July 30th, 1965, were Medicare and its companion program, Medicaid were signed into law. And since then, Medicare has become one of the most popular socialized program in American history.

But not only is it popular, by most measures it has worked well. According to a study from Health Affairs, life expectancy at age 65 increased from 14.3 years in 1960 to 17.8 years in 1998 and the chronically disabled elderly population declined from 24.9 percent in 1982 to 21.3 percent in 1994.”

Prior to Medicare, “about one-half of America’s seniors did not have hospital insurance,” “more than one in four elderly were estimated to go without medical care due to cost concerns,” and one in three seniors were living in poverty. Today, nearly all seniors have access to affordable health care and only about 14 percent of seniors are below the poverty line.

One area where Medicare is not a success is how much it costs. Medicare only insures older Americans. The business model would be similar to a residential fire insurance company only insuring homes surrounded by dry brush. In the same way these homes are most likely to burn and require money for repairs, seniors are far more likely to need health care. Insurance companies are only successful if they also insure homes that are less likely to burn, or in the case of Medicare, also insuring young healthy people. This keeps overall costs down.

Some of today’s health care proposals do seek to expand a public option to include younger people. The goal would be to create a public, revenue neutral insurance company that receives no taxpayer dollars, but provide similar benefits as Medicare does to older Americans. Some proposals would also require that young people, indeed all people get insurance.

Is this a good idea? Its a complicated subject but most analysis of the issue do suggest that it is an approach with merit. Calling it a bad plan due to a label (in this case socialism) does little to help in finding the best solution. And we do need a solution as we do know that doing nothing will lead to an economic implosion. According to the Medicare Trustees, the Medicare reserve will be empty by 2017. Medicare will be more expensive than we can afford.

If the goal is to rid the country of socialism, one of the first steps would be the elimination of Medicare. Given its great results and immense popularity, I think that would be giant step backwards. Other programs would need elimination as well including public education, the public library system, and the post office.

Health care is just one topic where critical thinking is needed. There are many others. On all subjects, I believe an open mind is is the only way to arrive at the best solution.

I urge you all to question all incoming data and get data from many sources. These are tough times that require creative ideas and and above all, critical thinking.



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