April 20th 2008

4Cs NOLA Friday–J Session

Oh man, after the great session on revision, I had to hustle it back to the main hotel to see Peter Elbow. I met up with Jane and her daughter and we managed to secure three seats together way at the back. Way at the back of a very crowded hall. Alas. But I’ve never seen Elbow as a god, really, so I didn’t need to fawn at his feet–I’ve always thought of him as more of a demi-god. I fawned from further back.

Elbow’s presentation was “Why Critical Thinking Needs the Believing Game.” The Believing Game, if you haven’t read Elbow recently (or ever), addresses a problem with skepticism in critical thinking. He says we teach ourselves and other critical thinkers to constantly play a “doubting game” with everything we see and hear in order to protect ourselves from being scammed. It’s an analytical tool that looks for the “bad parts” in good things. Science uses methodological doubting to police itself and it’s generally a good thing to doubt, since human naivety can lead to astonishing consequences.

The problem is that while that game and good logic can help us identify what is wrong with someone’s argument, it can’t identify what’s wrong with someone’s position. In a chapter on the subject, Elbow notes

If we could have proven that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, that wouldn’t have proven that it was wrong to invade Iraq. “We should invade Iraq” is a claim that is impossible to prove or disprove. We can use logic to strengthen arguments for or against the claim, but we cannot prove or disprove it. Over and over we see illogical arguments for good ideas and logical arguments for bad ideas. We can never prove that an opinion or position is wrong—or right.

In order to assess someone’s position, Elbow says we should turn to a “believing game” wherein we could scrutinize something beyond our worldview for its hidden virtues.

Elbow points out that the Believing Game comes easiest for us–it’s the Doubting Game that we learn. We hear constantly of people being taken in by confidence schemes that prey on the naive and their beliefs.

Elbow argues that we need a richer culture of rationality in which we engage in understanding others by putting ourselves into their worldview first, and addressing what we share as the dialog that leads to real problem-solving.

This concept isn’t new to me–just before I got my bachelor’s degree I was one class short of a certificate in Peace and Conflict Studies at Fresno State. Essentially, the program developed strategies for cross-cultural and inter-personal collaboration and problem-solving by consensus. The main tenets of such an approach to problems revolve around resisting judgment and respecting the values of all parties–and trying to see through another’s lens. It requires that we set aside, for the moment, the tendency to look for the worst (the doubting game) and replace it with an embrace of what each of us agree is the best we each bring to the table. The more we look past anger, frustration and past slights, however large, the more we are able to create a situation beneficial to all.

There were several other speakers in this forum, all of them quite good, but all of them long-winded. I am constantly amazed at how academics, who (in theory) teach people how to present ideas apply few of the basics of time-management and good presentation strategy to themselves. Still, it was enjoyable. But after Elbow, I’m afraid my mind wandered…

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