Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Timothy Taylor — I Don't Know So Well What I Think Until I See What I Say

I've known writers who have the essay almost fully formed in their mind, and it just pours out on to the page. It's happened for me a few times. But most writing for me, and I suspect for others, starts from a place of less clarity. There's an idea, to be sure, and some support for the idea. But as you try to put the ideas into concrete words, you become aware of a lack of precision in what you are saying, of a failure to capture what you really mean to say, of holes and inconsistencies in the argument, of places where the argument is not persuasive or connected or fluent. I sometimes find this hard to convey to students: Writing isn't (usually) about transcribing thoughts, but instead is intertwined with a process of developing insights that are more accurate and complete.…
This is the process of applying critical thinking to creative thinking, of which Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "The purpose of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity... Philosophy should clarify and sharply bound thoughts that would otherwise be cloudy and blurry, as it were. " (Tractatus 4.112)

Rigorous thinking need not be formalized, since that is not always possible. For example, this may occur when quality predominates over quantity, or quantity is not sufficiently measurable for the degree of precision needed. or the number of variable and parameters involved makes formalized models intractable.

It's also a reason for using math where measurement is possible and quantity is a factor. For example, a lot of apparently promising entrepreneurial ideas are deflated when one puts numbers on it.

But logic is always applicable is some form, and logic is one pillar of critical thinking. The other pillar is substantiation, e.g., through evidence or authority such as expert testimony or documentaion.

 Another aspect of critical thinking is tacit knowledge. This is a reason that experts in a field are more reliable on matters in that field that non-experts. Their tacit knowledge provides the necessary background upon which to draw.

Critical thinking combines the categorical and dialectical, the dialectical aspect considering possible errors and objections by playing the devil's advocate.

Ideas of any degree of complication or complexity should be discussed in a team that brings may inputs to bear in a dialectic process. RAND Corporation invented the Delphi method for this purpose, for instance. Academics do this by passing their papers around among colleagues before releasing them. Working papers are also used to solicit feedback.

The Internet both helps and hinders this process. Obviously, I think it helps more than hinders.

It helps by forcing clarity, brevity and precision in thinking and expression, as well as training in drawing on and distilling tacit knowledge as background.

It hinders owing to the limited scope of the media, e.g., blogs and social media posts, and the breadth of scale, which necessitate a certain degree of "dumbing down" to reach the broad non-expert audience. As a result the output may be somewhat superficial and even be misunderstood, which poses a reputational risk that some are not willing to accept. There is also the risk of appearing foolish if one exceeds the bounds of one's field of expertise and makes errors, revealing lack of discrimination.

Conversable Economist
"I Don't Know So Well What I Think Until I See What I Say"
Timothy Taylor | Managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota

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