The Bubble has the best readers in the world! While I am on a minor blogging break, furiously working on my little book project, Nubby has graciously come forth to fill the gap and has written a fantastic guest post! Anyone who has spent any time in the Bubble over the years knows that Nubby is brilliant, witty, no-nonsense, and just a great Catholic lady. We all are about to learn something important right now. Take it away, Nubby!
CRITICAL THINKING – Having better conversations
“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”
-- W. Edwards Deming, PhD., statistician, electrical engineer, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant.
“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford
Hello Bubble Readers,
Leila was kind enough to give me space on her blog to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on thinking – specifically, to give examples of two techniques that are sometimes used in logical problem solving in the private sector. One can search for all kinds of charts or explanations online regarding the principles involved in critical thinking and various skills that should be practiced to acquire smarter habits of thinking (which are helpful), but here I’ve just written up a summary of two useful tools that I’m familiar with.
Before I begin a rundown on mere process, I think it’s important to take a step back and include an explanation of why we’re exploring this topic of logical problem solving on a faith-based blog in the first place. Why are these techniques valuable here or in any discussion? Why is this topic of logical thinking pertinent to the interactions we have here in the Bubble?
It’s common knowledge that here on Leila’s blog her purpose is to teach the faith and to engage the wider culture at large. This means, of course, that her audience could be very broad and that her blog posts can usually generate a variety of perspectives from any number of people who respond in the comments section. This can be useful and entertaining as we know. Leila’s template here gives everyone a platform to contribute freely without censorship (unless there’s vulgarity), and she has always promoted the idea of clarity over agreement. Her goal is to see transparency of thought -- not merely for purposes of debate, but for the wider idea of educating her readership.
And here we’ve hit upon the issue of why I’m writing about logical approaches to problems: The main problematic issue that I see within the conversations in the Bubble (and Leila sees it, too) is that often times when commenters challenge the main idea of any given post of Leila’s, they typically start out with an emotional reaction and they continue to mentally wander around in that. The comments get stuck in nugatory thoughts that ignore the facts and disregard the logical application of those, and so we just end up chasing opinions. This doesn’t happen on purpose, perhaps, but it definitely illustrates why we should be (in my opinion) talking about logical reasoning, as we are in this post.
Picture the discussions like this: There’s a wide open pasture with nothing but horizon. Everyone wanders, everyone opines. The point of the comments and of the interaction is to start fencing off the thoughts, to corral the thoughts, so that if we’re going to “wander” and challenge intellectually then we’re going to do that together. We should aim to wander within the same logical parameters in order to clear up the thoughts, and to hopefully reach clearer intellectual insight on various points of discussion. We can’t have good or (even entertaining) dialogue if everyone wanders and nobody’s thoughts tie into anyone else’s. We can all agree on this.
So what’s a good approach to foster a better conversation? Here are a couple of techniques summarized briefly and casually that will illustrate what Leila is shooting for here at the Bubble when she reiterates “clarity over agreement”:
Technique #1: Splitting the Dictionary
One problem-solving technique used in the business sphere is called, “Splitting the Dictionary”. If you’ve ever played the childhood game, “Bigger than a Breadbox” or “20 Questions”, you’ll notice the similarities in technique. How does it work? A single question is asked that immediately divides the possible answers/solutions: 50% possible and 50% impossible. A person then asks another question to split the remaining 50% the same way. So in a mere two questions you have ruled out 75% of the possibilities. You’re now down to 25% to be analyzed. That’s it. The rest is off the table.
It’s a logical reduction. You can further split that 25% down with relevant questions and so on. Consider how much irrelevance and conversational noise we’ve eliminated in just two questions!
This is a very useful method that drives clarity of thought. This is probably the same formula used in those “magic mind reader”-type games. You know, “Ask the thing a question and it will read your mind”? They most likely use a similar splitting technique and funnel the possibilities. That’s all.
The goal -- and the skill necessary -- is to ask pertinent, logical questions. For instance, when you play “Bigger than a Breadbox”, an example of an unintelligent question would be, “Is it silver?” Why isn’t this a smart question? It’s not smart because you have not narrowed much down, not gained much new information, and you’ve left all the other colors besides silver as a possibility to sift through.
A better question for a tidier conversation is, “Is it alive?” Then you know -- in one question alone -- that your answer will only include those things logical to the answer of “yes” or “no”. You’ve halved the possibilities in one question. Your goal is to effectively cut in half, and then cut in half again, etc.
It’s all about reduction of possibilities so that you can focus on the more detailed questions of what logically remains. This is a tool often used to get people closer to a solution. It’s not statistics or math, but it is a way to reduce possibilities and to trouble shoot for a logical solution (or at least for clearer thought towards that).
Essentially what this sounds like in action in the Bubble is:
“Ok, here are the facts on the post on the Resurrection of Jesus (for example). Here are the opinions. Everyone has given their input. Now couple the facts to opinion. Start with one question to ‘set the table’. Ask one question to clear off what doesn’t belong and leave the rest for exploring. Categorize: If this question is true, then, say, we’ll move 50% of these possibilities off to the left since they can’t be true, but we’ll move 50% to the right, because they potentially could be true.”
Then you’re on a systematic road to exploring, reducing, and perhaps seeing the logical answer -- or at least seeing the logic in the possible answers -- without someone popping over on to the other side of the dividing line, bringing up what has already been logically dismissed. “Timeout. We’re over here now, on the right. These are the only pertinent possibilities.”
We use this method to parse and analyze. We simplify, compartmentalize, reduce, and synthesize. We want to drive good dialogue and separate fact from opinion now that everyone has given their input, and from there we logically apply the facts and distill down the thoughts.
See, facts talk to logic, and logic gives clarity, and clarity gives the answer/solution. So there’s no real discussion until we all agree on these: Do we all understand what is what? Have we guided the thinking and explored together? Have we pruned off the extra noise of the conversation and focused on what is relevant to the facts and therefore to the logic?
Technique #2: Extreme Contrast
There’s another logical tool implemented in problem solving application that deals with analyzing through extreme contrast. Certain work projects have tagged these as, “a BoB and a WoW”. That stands for “Best of the Best and Worst of the Worst”. So we use what is called ‘extreme contrast’. We mix and match to trouble shoot a solution to fix the ‘worst’.
A simple example from everyday life I can use here is an example of two different light bulbs in two different lamps. You know you have the Best bulb working in one lamp already. That’s your tester to put in the lamp with the bulb that doesn’t light up.
If it lights up, then you know it’s a bulb issue with your non-lighting bulb, because this (best) one lights in this lamp (the other bulb didn’t). If the best tester bulb doesn’t light up then we know it’s a lamp issue, because we know this bulb works since it came out of a lamp where it worked. You need to prove if the bulb is any good and, likewise, you prove if the lamp has any issues.
Essentially, this extreme contrast is helpful to drive better dialogue in the Bubble because it’s a line of thinking that contrasts meanings of things against a standard (a Best or a tester). It’s a process of holding up ideas to a standard that’s already in place (like our working lightbulb and working lamp). We test what seemingly doesn’t work against what is already working (logically). But so as not to confuse you, reader, just think in terms of these types of good questions that are outside the realm of feelings and peer inside at the dialogue, objectively:
Are the facts driving the logic? Does the logic align with the facts? Am I being accurate in my thoughts by holding them up to a firm standard or next to a working theory?
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
-- Albert Einstein
Leila’s aim in questioning her readers and commenters here is to promote thinking in a culture that, quite honestly, doesn’t “think” as much as it “feels”. This is a common complaint we raise here at the Bubble, and the factors that contribute to this intellectual cultural laziness are many. But this quote above attributed to Einstein should hopefully inspire us to stick with the learning process in order to acquire the skills to learn how to think better.
And this quote below from the late, great Pope St. John Paul II should inspire us as to the “why” it’s important to learn to correctly put the right questions together:
"Step by step, then, we are assembling the terms of the question. It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth. This search looks not only to the attainment of truths which are partial, empirical or scientific; nor is it only in individual acts of decision-making that people seek the true good. Their search looks towards an ulterior truth which would explain the meaning of life. And it is therefore a search which can reach its end only in reaching the absolute.”
-- Pope St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio