Critical analysis toolbox in the age of imbecility

Imbecilicus Morritrumpicus
Imbecilicus Morritrumpicus

Here’s the thing: we live in an era of imbecility.  Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison have encouraged wilfully ignorant, aggressively stupid people to vigorously push cretinous ideas and propositions, demanding for them some kind of equivalence with facts, reasoned argument, and rationality.

Ugh!  What a repugnant achievement.

In itself that wouldn’t be so bad.  But since the late 1990s, our universities have no longer taught critical thinking.  Not even in the humanities, which used to exist principally to teach critical analysis of information about our history, politics, philosophy, literature, and other arts.  To create the intellectual engagement necessary to maintain liberal democracies, free from the depredations ushered in by the Trump-Johnson-Morrison imbeciles.

It means we have nominally educated people who actually don’t understand much more than following formulae or applying models straight out of textbooks.  That’s OK for dead-end jobs in our dead-end economy, run into the dirt by Morrison’s neoliberal incompetents.

But it doesn’t help to refute the aggressively stupid when they make breathtakingly ignorant assertions.  Nor does a Google search or any amount of Wikipedia blather; neither have any credibility as reliably factual or remotely relevant to any adult consideration of serious issues.

Fortunately, though, while doing something else, I came across some of the knowledge management theory I studied as part of my IT degree.  It occurred to me that even people who can’t think critically, but who can follow paint-by-numbers instructions, can trash imbecile arguments by using the three analytical tools I’ll describe below—

  1. A theory of knowledge management to trace the development of knowledge, and how its relevance and value can be tested. Pretty useful as a rock-solid method for evaluating whether a claim, policy, or argument is based soundly on fact or just hot air.
  2. A reference to the theory of wicked problems to highlight that not all issues or problems can be addressed with the ‘solutioneering’ of science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) practitioners. I use the term solutioneering as defined by Texas product designer D Keith Robinson: ‘the act of working up a solution prior to really understanding the problem that solution is set to solve’.
  3. A reworking of the Cynefin management framework to highlight that pretending all can be known and manipulated doesn’t make it so. In fact, most people would be well served by double-checking their assumptions about the context of any claim, discussion, or argument in which they may doubt some of the positions being proposed.

Knowledge management

There’s an academic and professional domain of practice called knowledge management.  It concerns itself with making sense of, and leveraging for commercial or political purposes the information collected and controlled by any organisation.

In the 1990s there was an almost meaningful theory about single and double-loop learning.  I rubbished it at the time for the apparent attempt to force the veneer of ‘respectable’ science onto matters that appeared entirely unquantifiable and not tractable to scientific method.

Academics Chris Argyris and David Schön came up with the notion of single and double loop learning.  They did it by using what, for want of a better term, is the data-information-knowledge-wisdom (DIKW) model.

DIKW hierarchy
FIGURE 1: a hierarchy of data to knowledge.

So, the model proposes a progression from raw data to sophisticated human thinking.  The origin of the DIKW model is uncertain, except it seems to be American, arising sometime in the 1940s or ‘50s.

As is clear from the illustration in Figure 1 above, a hierarchy is proposed by which human activities transform raw data into information, and then knowledge and wisdom.  Wisdom in this context is probably a high level of professional and social competence in pursuing self-directed goals and outcomes.  Distinct shades of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Figure 2 below shows what Argyris and Schön did with the DIKW hierarchy, and what I did with their interpretation.

Triple loop learning
FIGURE 2: single, double, and triple loop learning models.

It all seems so obvious now, but Argyris and Schön dined out on the single and double loop learning concepts for the remainder of their lives.

What the diagram shows is that—

  1. Raw data is just unordered signal. Like static on a radio, or cosmic radiation background noise.
  2. Someone can impose order on raw data to make it information. Like selecting sequences of raw data that are dated and timed to imply relationships.
  3. Someone can concatenate and/or contextualise information to use it in practical applications, like rules of grammar, principles of philosophy, or formulae for rocket fuel. This is knowledge.  Still neutral about why it should be used, but usable.  At this stage of the DIKW hierarchy there can be re-checking with data or information (single loop learning), or with both (double loop learning) to update or amend knowledge.
  4. Finally, in this series, someone integrates or develops knowledge into a wider understanding of one or more domains of knowledge, to develop an ‘expert’ theory or principles of practice, possibly combining various pieces of knowledge to create entirely new knowledge. Discipline at this level involves double and triple checking all that underpins the knowledge being turned to wisdom, and perhaps also innovating by seeing new patterns in the process of revisiting the entire chain of data-information-knowledge.
  5. Transposed onto a typology of everyday experiences, raw data could be seen as cultural messages bombarding a blank intellect.
  6. In all cultures there are people or sources of arbitration about what cultural signals mean: journalists, public intellectuals, academics, authoritarian public servants, and so on. Always beware of their interpretations because they almost always serve interests they will not willingly disclose.
  7. Social and cultural norms arising from what seem to be consensus agreements on contexts and meanings are often relied on by a majority of people to ‘fix’ the boundaries of knowledge and its meanings, and as the basis for rejecting all alternative interpretations, even if they make more sense. This is how and why imbecility has become normalised in recent years.
  8. People capable of independent thought and critical analysis compare and contrast normalised knowledge with the data and information on which they are said to rest. That’s likely to expose ideological lies and malicious stupidity built into interpretations, often pitched at the kind of uncomplicated certainties suitable only for children and mentally incompetent adults.

My adaptation of the theory may seem cynical, but anyone applying its principles is likely to see that cynicism revealed as realism in an information-rich environment manipulated by many ruthless individuals and organisations, who benefit greatly from discouraging critical thinking.

In the Argyris and Schön version at the top of the diagram, the triple loop process is just checking that data and information actually supports the received meanings of knowledge.  In my adaptation, the triple loop must include the constant question ‘cui bono’-who benefits from structuring data and information into the normative meanings fixed by authority figures.

In most cases this will come back to money.  To the political economy of how a society’s wealth is distributed, and how such a distribution is justified or criticised.

With this tool in mind, let’s move on to a great intellectual caution about highly specious arguments arising from the uses of economics, politics, and religion as tools of social control and oppression.

Wicked problems

Let me just say that the entire concept of wicked problems, and what it might mean when considering any particular issue, is so enormous that academic volumes can be and have been written about it.

To simplify: problems relating to human purposes, motivations, or a sense of self are always ‘wicked’, not because they misbehave, but because they have no fixed solution, no single method for their resolution, no repeatable method for addressing similar circumstances, and no ‘fix’ that may not also be regarded as a success or failure at different times, and sometimes even both at the same time.

Wicked problems
FIGURE 3: complexities of wicked problems.

There is a lot to say about the theory of wicked problems.  I won’t say much of it.

One point that deserves to be highlighted is how misguided it is to apply the perennially popular framework of binary oppositions.  You know the saying: ‘There are two sides to every story.’  Nonsense!  Sometimes there is only one, but mostly there are many.  Already embedded in Western political institutions is the notion of multilateralism: that many ideas can coexist comfortably.  That instead of choosing one or another option, we can choose parts of many different options in an intellectual eclecticism aligned with what’s best, rather than the autocratic bilateralism of party-political systems in the Anglophone world.

The power in Rittel and Webber’s formulation of wicked problems is that STEM ‘solutioneering’ simply does not apply to managing human wants and needs.  Not only do the STEM disciplines lack the tools to fathom human motivations, but they simply cannot deal with problems that have no defined parameters at all, including especially no indication of where to start or finish.

Instead, skilled and experienced professionals can manage wicked problems, like herding cats.  Never easy, and frequently appearing to be pointless, but done every day in workplaces, legislatures, and families by negotiation, compromise and temporary accommodations we all know will need to be revisited.

The failure to recognise limitations in STEM frameworks has delivered most contemporary failures in economic management and political policy development.  Instead it has delivered an increasingly authoritarian tyranny of technocrats.  It’s not always deliberate malice so much as ignorance and arrogance to suppose that shallow people can address wicked problems by pretending they are only technical issues.

Let us not forget that the pre-eminent technocrats of the modern era were Nazis and Soviet communists, who both abstracted humanity to such a degree that mass murder and other atrocities became normalised.

All this to say that some arguments, debates, and positions relating to how people are ‘controlled’ by the state or their peers are based on entirely false premisses if they proceed from STEM logics that dehumanise people, proposing instead they are manipulable ‘things’ who will passively accept or predictably respond to such manipulation.

If not STEM logics, then what other kinds are there suitable for wicked problems?

To answer that, I will dust off an old management framework.


Developed in 1999 by IBM’s David Snowden, this management paradigm was named after the Welsh word for ‘habitat’ (pronounced something like kuh-nay-f’n), and was probably influenced by the rising tide of alarmism about what might happen when two digit date fields in computer systems were forced to tick over from 99 to 00.  No one really knew what would happen when 99 elapsed.  I still remember the terror instilled in many IT people by the notion that all sorts of embedded systems would cease to function.

FIGURE 4: a STEM approach to management.

Snowden made disorder a central component of his Cynefin perspective, implying there is no way of managing much of anything under such circumstances.  But the model does highlight four types of manageable environments, in increasing order of difficulty.

  1. Simple environments are what most people think they live in. Simple and repeatable solutions frameworks are available for people to learn and use.  This is mostly a delusional world that economists, politicians, and religionists pretend they live in.
  2. Complicated environments are what most professionals think they live in. Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and some others actually do live there, and skills honed by expertise seem to work pretty well for most things that need managing.  Just remember that technocrats live here too.  Managing things is easy compared to managing people and their diverse needs and wants.  Managing people as if they were things is a constant fallback for ignorant people and sociopaths; it never ends well for the people being herded onto cattle cars.
  3. Complex environments are the norm in liberal democracies. This is where creative thinkers and intuitive professionals excel.  Education, experience, and applied expertise all count.  Mistakes in such environments are to suppose you can manage by applying method from a textbook model, the way an entire generation of Yuppie MBA grads did in the 1980s and ‘90s.  And the way Western ‘leaders’ are doing in the Anglophone world right now by denying scientific facts and solid evidence.
  4. Chaotic is what Snowden thought of as the year 2000 when system clocks turned over from 99. His idea of rapid response is a bit like sending out emergency services teams.  Not very practical.  Chaos is emergencies normalised, and we’d all have to be first responders.

Underlying Snowden’s Cynefin framework is an engineer’s terror of circumstances in which the orderly progression of paint-by-numbers methods becomes meaningless and independent, creative thought is required.

That phobia of disorder highlights one of the greatest tensions in the modern era: that between the sciences and humanities.  In recent decades the rise of IT-related economic drivers has eclipsed the humanities and often devalued their importance in education and the intellectual development of even nominally educated people.  From my perspective (with both humanities and STEM qualifications), this ‘tilt’ of Enlightenment values too far towards only one side has led to a generation of private and public sector leaders who are unable to think critically and independently.  They mask this failing by pretending that following the rules of some textbook method is just as good, leaving the wreckage caused by their ignorance in their wakes.

From my perspective, in the West we mostly live in complex environments, in which the idea of known, best-practice approaches is often laughable for being completely misaligned with reality.  It is the STEM practitioners’ urge to force a one-size-fits-all solution on every problem they encounter, and to rush into solutioneering before understanding the problem, or even whether there is a problem in the first place.

Nevertheless, with a little tweaking, the Cynefin model can at least suggest what we ought to be looking for in leaders, and more generally in thinking people socially or professionally.  Meaning the model could have application in the day to day sorting of nonsense from useful information and knowledge

Cynefin tweaked
FIGURE 5: my adaptation of the Cynefin model.

In my tweaked version of the model shown in Figure 5, I move away from STEM paranoias about chaos, and embrace instead the notion of wicked problems, needing wicked management, and not ever really being resolvable.

At the core of my amended model is disruption rather than chaos, implying a state in which norms are re-defined, new methods are developed, and new approaches become valid, while older methods and approaches become increasingly less useful.

  1. In my tweaked Cynefin model, ‘the simple’ is just that: an uncomplicated view of the world as possessed by children and mentally incompetent adults, in which they observe and emulate behaviours to manage their uncomplicated tasks. Unfortunately many politicians and public servants think and act as if the entire ‘public’ lives, or can be compelled to live in this world.
  2. The complicated becomes a more adolescent conception of the world in which you might turn to textbooks, social media, and other sources of ‘authority’ for guidance on managing your tasks. This is probably home to wilfully ignorant, aggressively stupid people.
  3. The complex is pretty close to the Western world. Advanced industrial, economic, and social systems come with complexity that requires skilled, experienced, and creative managers.  Unfortunately, a lot of mediocre ones exist in key public and private sector positions.  Worse, indescribably silly people are given credibility as nominal experts or influencers, and millions of social media addicts uncritically emulate or parrot the nonsense that passes for wisdom in that domain.
  4. Unlike Snowden or the dinosaur that is IBM, I don’t really see much chaos in the Western world. Even in wartime.  Instead I see that people fear change, and that transformational change cycles are to be expected every few years.

So, I propose that the Western world probably straddles the complex and the transformational in the diagram, and that the higher order complexities associated with transformational change are likely to be comprised of wicked problems, requiring wicked management, and an expectation that such problems can never really be solved, just managed along.

Putting it all together

It’s not like all of this hasn’t been said before, and in much greater detail.  It can be found in the great works of the Western canon, spanning the eras of the classical Greeks to the contemporary post-modernists.  But no one is going to make it through that material if they haven’t already made big inroads: it takes decades of reading and cogitating.  Anyone who makes it through a goodly portion of the material is unlikely to make the amateur intellectual mistakes highlighted above.

In the meantime, however, the ‘shortcuts’ explained above will suffice as tool for analysing and verifying the credibility of many preposterous claims given oxygen by unthinking people in politics, business, news, and social media.  Equally importantly, the analytical toolkit of my little disquisition can also be used to reject the breathtakingly impertinent litigious claims by many simpletons that their nonsense perspectives deserve to be respected as on par with hard facts and reasoned positions.  You know the sort of thing: politicians denying there is such a thing as man-made climate change and demanding that the hard scientific proofs of it are no more valid than their own personal religious superstitions.

Try verifying a religious belief by tracing its origins and credibility back to raw data.  It just can’t be done.

Foolish inanity dressed as respectable, evidence-driven ideas is easily exposed if double or triple loop verification isn’t possible.  Qualitative claims not based on hard facts can nevertheless be evaluated by aligning them with a dimension of the adjusted Cynefin model, and by determining whether such ideas are simply private, or contain an ambition to impose control on others.

So, for example, a statement that a certain film is ‘bad’ could just be personal taste.  But the concatenation of that aesthetic opinion with a demand to have the film banned, boycotted, or otherwise discriminated against deserves to be validated against evidence of ‘badness’ and managed in the permanently transitional continuum of public standards on freedom of speech, expression, and access to information.  That management might come up against an already institutionalised multilateralism, like film ratings categories for content deemed to be suitable only for mature audiences.

And here ends my little consideration critical thinking tools for people who never learnt to do it using the humanities route.

If you got this far, I hope what I have described will be of some use to you.  Drop me a line if you think I missed anything.


2 thoughts on “Critical analysis toolbox in the age of imbecility”

  1. Love the concept of the tweaked Cynefin and it will certainly help me clarify my thoughts. Rather unfortunately most people want the Johnsons, Morrisons and, in my area, Kenneys to correct. Those politicians control education topics and are backed up by Facebook

    It’s just all around depressing..

  2. Sorry I’m late to respond to your comment. I have had medical problems. Glad you liked my rather acid prescriptions. But yes, we are currently in the grip of morons in government, business, and the academy. Sad to see. I thought so highly of Western universities.

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