Friday, March 03, 2006

Fit for the Pit: Think Redux

My mom was pretty pissed off at me for my last post about Think: "That's a really mean thing to write," she said. "The author obviously thought his book was good when he wrote it and someone thought it was good enough to publish, so you shouldn't be mean about it."

My mom was obviously right. Being harsh doesn't really tell anyone anything about the book. All it does is just tell you that I hated it and that I'm a bit fanatical when it comes to books. So I figured I would write a comprehesive review and post that. I wanted to post this ages ago, but couldn't because my computer decided to have a billion issues. But at least that gave me time to cool off and gather my thoughts.

Think is marketed as a case for critical thinking and a response to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which LeGault equates with emotional, gut-feeling thinking. I read Blink. In it, Gladwell explores the idea that, if you're an expert at something, you can make decisions (many times correct, but also sometimes wrong) in the blink of an eye, before you've consciously thought about it. Which makes sense because if you're, say, an art appraiser, you know what to look for when deciding if some piece of art is fake. To everyone around you, it looks like you made some random, gut-feeling decision, but you actually just know your stuff and don't need a billion years to figure out what's going on (though it'll take you a billion years to write out the report explaining your reasoning).

The unfortunate thing about Blink is that the whole book is a series of anecdotes, giving the whole book a "truthy" feel, as Stephen Colbert would say. So while Gladwell doesn't advocate emotion-based thinking, the book isn't really full of cold, hard research either.

That said, I can see how Think would be a response to Blink. On the other hand, once you start reading the book, you get the feeling that Think isn't going to be doing a great job at hard, unbiased critical thought either (page 53):

Ultimately, I trust that my libertarian instincts will ring true with the reader.

I don't know about you, but I never equate something "ringing true" with critical thought. In my universe, critical thinking usually involves picking things that "ring true" apart into little smithereens using logic and analysis.

This inability to stay on message was one of the main reasons why I wanted to send the book back to the publishing house. Think is a poorly-written rant against...something. I can't say that it's a rant against gut-feeling thinking or liberalism or anything really because the book is totally disjoint. The only underlying theme that seems to hold the book together is Einstein.

LeGault keeps bringing up Einstein throughout the book. The author feels (note that I say "feels" and not "thinks") that had Einstein not been a critical thinker, he would never have been creative enough to come up with the Theory of Relativity (special and general) or Brownian Motion (though LeGault doesn't seem to know about Brownian Motion, for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize). LeGault holds up Einstein as this paragon of critical thought and even praises him for questioning authority -- about two paragraphs after getting all in the face of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" for being anti-authoritarian and thus anti-intellectual. From pages 30-31:

Rock and roll culture has helped glorify a number of macho, monosyllabic myths about education and intelligence in general. As Pink Floyd sings:
"We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control"
("Another Brick in The Wall," 1979)

Multiply the above anthem by a thousand variations and you begin to get the picture. Thinking and learning are for boot-licking conformists destined for lives as cubicle mice.

[...] Or one more common take found in the tough-guy world of many adolescents, including grown-up ones: To read, reflect and think is to be an egghead, a genius. Here we also detect that hint of social ostracization that awaits the unsuspecting egghead: "You're intelligent. That's pretty uppity and pretentious of you, buster."

Yet the consummate egghead, Al Einstein, was neither pretentious nor obedient nor conventionally bright in his youth. In her memoir, Einstein's sister, Maja, writes that [...] Einstein "had formed a suspicion against every kind of authority."

Hello convoluted reasoning! I'm not sure what LeGault was getting at in that passage. Was he saying that rock music is bad because it turns people against authority and makes them hate education and be stupid? Or was he saying that it's OK to hate authority as long as you're doing so "critically?" Or is he saying that smart people can be cool cuz they also hate The Man, dude!

LeGault also conveniently omitted the next line of "Another Brick in The Wall" ("No dark sarcasm in the classroom"). I'm not sure where LeGault went to school, but where I was, "Another Brick in The Wall" was the anthem of the alienated smart kids, for whom the whole point of The Wall was how society focused on obedience rather than independent thought. Then again, until I read Think, I never realized how much cherry-picking was involved in critical thought, so what do I know?

The book just goes on from there. LeGault basically decides that anyone who comes to different conclusions than he does isn't thinking critically (like "unscientific environmentalists" who still think that carbon dioxide causes global warming). And you know who the hero of all this is? Managers in large multinational corporations (bet ya didn't see that one coming!). Yes because (page 319):

Managers at today's companies display a concrete understanding of how reason and the pursuit of self-interest advance the betterment of the whole when they aspire to make their organizations "lean."

LeGault just throws ideas like this onto the page without any supporting statements or analysis. OK, my debating and persuasion skills aren't fantastic (which is why I ended up in the mathematical sciences rather than in, say, political science), but even I know that you need to back up your statements with some kind of argument. And, again, I'm not writing books, here. (Though the more uber-crappy books I read, the more I wonder what's stopping me from getting a book deal.)

In the end, it wasn't as if LeGault didn't make good points about society. It's true that most people nowadays don't read and don't really think about what the media feeds them. It's also true that we're over-medicating children with Ritalin instead of just changing the way schools are run (I'll let you put your own reference to The Wall here). But the author jumps around so much and says so many weird things (like lamenting the "feminist agenda") that the good bits get lost amid the insanity.

Finally, as for Einstein, even the real Einstein wasn't the mythical Einstein. It took Einstein 8 years to come up with the General Theory of Relativity. Eight years of learning topology and differential geometry and playing around with equations and proving theorems. To me, that's more of a proof of perseverance than critical thought.

1 comment:

  1. Dude, I appreciated your review of Think! I've just finished reading it, and am constructing my own review of it. You reminded me of some of the stranger claims made by LeGault during his weighty treatise.