July 01, 2009

For the first time in my life, I am grateful that I have purchased a book on publisher's clearance. I would not have regretted the money paid for the book. I just don't think this author merits a single penny of royalty money for this book.

I picked up Think! by Michael LeGault because, on the surface of it, it would seem to be one of the few books arguing for genuine independence of thought and an increase in willingness to engage that thought critically. It is hard to disagree with assessments such as:
More troubling in the long term, perhaps, is the effect that a decline in critical thinking is apparently having on public debate, discourse, and democracy in this country. The net result is an increasingly radical political partisanship that seems to preclude meaningful discussion and debate from public and private life.
He speaks of his own nation, the United States, but this has been a much broader trend through the past three decades and perhaps longer.

Set aside, for the moment, that LeGault's idea of critical thinking completely negates the value of intuition and emotion except insofar as it is grounded in critical thinking. I personally might have suggested that intuition provides a signpost and a direction, critical thinking some of the tools to get there, and emotion a part of the wisdom which determines in human terms whether this is a path appropriate to take: but independence of thought also allows differences of thought.

But then LeGault offers this interesting example of what is, and is not, critical thinking:
Even in Canada, a country dependent on trade with the United States for 50 percent of its gross domestic product, over two-thirds of the people say the United States is a negative influence in the world. Two-thirds! This is the same nation that has a love affair with Cuba, a country that has not held a democratic election in fifty years. The opinion of Canadians is not based on critical thinking or research, but on myth and balderdash dished out by the country's legions of left-leaning scholars and pundits, as well as, ironically, by Hollywood and the U.S. media.
Note that the internal logic of this passage demands that critical thinking skills cannot have been engaged unless the conclusion reached is the same as the author's. Any other conclusion is clearly the result of a flawed ability to think. By definition, any criticism whatsoever must also be the result of flawed thinking.

The only purpose of critical thinking here is to accept the author's premises and agree with his conclusions.

I wish I could say this was an isolated case born of a single a priori assumption (in which case I could have said fair enough, it ranks among the most difficult things to see one's own country objectively and opinions of precisely the same course of action may well differ), but the truth is that this book abounds in precisely the types of logic holes it rails against -- and each and every time, he holds his own reasoning up as an example of rational thinking. On one page, LeGault writes how it is important in rational thinking to take account of all the evidence: while on another he dismisses a study which contradicts his construct, using an argument which not only does not address either the methodology or the finding of that study but also demonstrates that he also does not understand the human biology grounding the study.

It should come as no surprise that LeGault has no use for emotional intelligence of any kind, since he perceives such things as empathy for others as interfering with clear thinking. (It does interfere, if the purpose of such thinking is not to take account of other human beings in the slightest, excepting only their value as resources.) He cites Leman and Kragh-Muller's (2005) finding that children of permissive parents tended to judge that adults would legitimise judgements, concluding from this that "permissive parenting does not promote moral development." He states this as if it were a paraphrase from this study, which it is not. More interestingly, LeGault defines the three primary types of parenting as follows:
When asked by a child for the reason he or she is being told "no," an authoritarian parent will respond, "Because I said so." An authoritative parent, on the other hand, will emphasize the equality of the moral universe: "You wouldn't like it if I did it to you." A permissive parent will focus on the consequences for others: "It will hurt her."
This is flawed at the core. Nowhere in the literature does it state that the difference between authoritative and permissive parenting is either a concern for consequences for others or an encouragement of empathy for the other person. Rather, permissive parenting holds few behavioural expectations at all for the child, as is illustrated perfectly by Ned Flanders' beatnik parents' ideas on raising a child and teaching him social limits:
He's a real flat tire. I mean a cube, man. He's putting us on the train to Squaresville, baby. We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas!
Having stated his false premises as if they were those of the researchers, LeGault goes on to demolish his artificial construct:
The reasoning of the permissive parent involves taking the perspective of someone else, a feat usually lost on a five-year-old.
neatly overlooking that the mean age of children in his cited study was 11 years, 5 months. Even assuming that the children in question were five years old, numerous studies have shown that the capacity for empathy and even for taking the perspective of others (not the same thing) begins as early as two years of age (perhaps even earlier), as soon as the child is able to distinguish between self and other: and that the potential for empathy is as hard-wired in the brain as language.

From several case studies of children reared in the wild, however, we know that there are critical ages beyond which, without the exposure to language, the capacity for language is forever crippled. These children themselves never notice that they are crippled compared to their human potential.

This is not an isolated example. LeGault's book is littered with similar sloppy research and thinking, and it is not limited to railing against the concept of emotional intelligence.

(The assumption that five-year-olds are incapable of empathy arises from Piaget's theory of cognitive development, where children up to age 12 are thought to operate within the limits of the concrete operational stage. According to this theory, children under the age of seven are believed incapable of taking the perspective of another. It is only between ages 7-12 that children gradually learn to eliminate egocentrism and see things from the perspective of others, but only if they are given concrete situations to which they can apply simple logic. Thus, according to Piaget's theory, children up to age twelve are believed only to be capable of being taught concrete rules. Lawrence Kohlberg builds on this foundation in his stages of moral development: once again grounded in the assumption that a child's cognitive development is based upon the growth of a cause-effect logic structure. Yet even Piaget himself recognised that his theory could not account for all his own observations. It was simply the best approximation he could make at the time.)

Given LeGault's attitude toward empathy in general, perhaps the reader can think of a different reason for the events in the following anecdote, given that it occurred at someone else's wedding reception:
Increasingly it seems we are sitting in an echo chamber listening to ourselves. Republican? That side. Democrat? Over there. Discussion not allowed. Too "risky." I inadvertently tested the thesis once while sitting with a group of people, none of whom I knew, at a wedding reception. Introductions were made and conversation languished politely on the weather, the state of this year's tomato crop, and dogs. After a while, someone, noting I was an editor for a business magazine, asked me if the economy would hold up. [book copyright 2006 - T] I'm sure I rambled but I certainly meant no ill will in drawing my analysis to a close by noting the obvious, namely, that globalism and the spread of free-market capitalism has been one of the greatest single factors in improving living standards around the world in history. Someone cleared his throat. For a moment I thought the lady beside me, a retired schoolteacher, I believe, might plummet out of her chair onto the hall's linoleum floor. She picked up her napkin and tried to use it like a fan. Others at the table gazed mildly off into space.
An entire chapter on risk and reward is fascinating to me because of its complete failure to understand fear as a survival mechanism, the role of cognitive biases, and the relevance of degree of personal control to managing personal risk. LeGault also displays no understanding of the distinction between probability and randomness, and perceives mathematics as an absolute science. Consequently he is able, within the space of less than a single page, to come up with the following two statements:
The evidence that we find with our senses is indisputable. ...
If there is no consensus, it only proves the limits of human perception.
Nothing written is devoid entirely of merit, and Think! is no exception. There are a few interesting observations in it ... four, I think, besides the awe-inspiring chasm of rational thinking that is the book as a whole. For example, the observation about larger houses offering more places for parents to not be disturbed by their children bears further consideration, and you will see it later in this blog. Similarly, an earlier observation wrt the true role of Ritalin in classrooms reminded me of a pattern I had intended to examine in more depth. Were there only those four observations, I would think the author's royalty well earned, even though I speak daily with people who give me this and more for free. As it stands, however, I feel the book's good is more than balanced out by its potential damage: not least because it sets itself up as example.

This is the reason I have written about it at all. I have never before written such a negative review -- or indeed a negative review at all. I sincerely hope that I shall never have to do so again.

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