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Better Thinking

It helps if think about how we are making associations, in other words how we are putting our ideas together. Sometimes our generalizations are sloppy, or we generalize when we should be reaching for greater specificity. Someone (I don't know the source) said that bullshitters are panaramic rather than particular.

Asking someone to speak for his race or ethnicity is an example of lacking specificity. It's better to give that someone credit for his or her individuality.

Our words (except for proper names) are abstractions, but we can avoid overuse of the abstract and add clarity to our ideas by following one of Sandra D Mitchell's points in her book Unsimple Truths: the importance of context in conceptualizing the world.

We all have our big picture of what we consider reality — a lot of contexts and a lot of particulars — and the more we can tie ideas together (valid associations) with particulars the better.

Sometimes our ideas are overly simplistic. One example is the assertion that "guns don't kill" — a pompous generalization suggesting that we might be thinking that firearms trigger themselves and nothing more need be discussed.

There were those who blamed Adam Lanza's murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School on his suffering from Asperger's syndrome, but others with Asperger's syndrome had not engaged in shooting rampages. We needed to look for other influences that were working on Lanza.

Some of us trudge ahead, our minds closed, never measuring our ideas against rival ideas or measuring new circumstances that impinge upon us.

The new circumstances problem (a new context)is something military leaders have faced. A few (or more) have drawn too much from the previous war — fighting the last war.

The mental pictures we create are most clear without metaphors or analogies. Poetry and lyrics (sometimes decorated with music) add emotive power to our ideas but not clarity. Thucydides did the world a favor when for clarity he began writing history without poetry.

And clarity, of course, is served when we don't confuse coincidence with causation. This is so also when we recognize correlations as generalities that with specifics might not be causation. And clarity is served when we don't confuse anecdote with evidence.


CONTINUE READING: Writing History

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