Tag Archives: critical thinking

Review: The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century

The Future We Want

The Future We Want

“The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century” is a collection of essays from an eclectic group of young writers and activists. They look at all the problems we normally think about, education, inequality, racism, a justice system that lacks justice, and societal bias over sex and gender. As an example of that last I need to point out that on the book the authors are listed as Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara. The online citation I found for the book, “Sunkara, Bhaskar. The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century. City: Henry Holt & Co, 2013.”, lists Sunkara, the male, as primary author. The book did open my eyes to a few problems that I have just begun to notice, “bad science”, the way financial interests are twisting what research we do as well as the outcomes of that research. .

As a lifelong liberal I wanted to like this book and, for the most part I did. Almost every goal mentioned in the book has my full support but, unfortunately, the book offers little, almost nothing, in the way of a roadmap to achieving these goals. We need a color blind justice system? Duhh. We need a justice system blind to color and wealth but how do we get there? A book I reviewed earlier, “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”, explains the problems in detail and gives a list of very doable corrections. Perhaps the problem is that each of these problems needs a full length treatment by an expert in the field to offer sufficient insight to allow a vision on solving them.

The one glaring problem I had with the book was its naive view of economics. Yes, today’s economy needs major reform but capitalism, Adam Smith’s capitalism not the “Free Market” Ayn Rand God is Greed, Austrian and Chicago school capitalism, is still the least bad of all economic systems. People do really work the best when they are working for their own improvement. That means that poverty wages do not inspire the best work, even with the whip of homelessness and starvation driving the workers. Regulating for living wages and safety nets for the calamities that naturally befall everyone are needed to, frankly, benefit the employers to ignorant or greedy to act in their workers and their own best interests.

The book is a good examination of what young liberals see as our current problems but it lacks any reasonable ideas to fix them. For that we have to look elsewhere. At least for ideas on repairing the broken criminal justice system I can recommend Adam Benforado’s “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice”.

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Review: Unfair the new science of criminal injustice

Book Cover

Unfair: the new science of criminal justice

Several years ago I took a class on social psychology and, after learning about some “classic” experiments and the damage done to the participants I wrote the field off as, well, evil. Adam Benforado forced me to rethink that with his constructive use of that science in supporting the arguments in his book “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”. Benforado is a law professor, after reading his book I have to imagine he is a good one. He is an insider and I expected him to be more supportive of the current state of the American criminal justice system than I am but, no, it seems that the view on the inside is even worse than it is from the outside.

Benforado divides the book into four parts. Investigation, where he looks at the victim, police, and the suspect. Adjudication examining lawyers, the jury, the eyewitness, the expert witness, and the judge. Punishment, both popular views and the real effects on prisoners. He explains what our system gets wrong and provides evidence to support his claims. In the final part, Reform, he discusses possible solutions to those problems.

Personally I am proud to call myself a bleeding heart liberal. I think that admission should lend a little credibility when I say that Benforado in not a liberal, bleeding heart or otherwise. Some of his major concerns are not wasting taxpayer money, convicting the right person and administering just punishment. I agreed with almost everything he said even some solutions that I believe to be beyond our current capability. Change the focus of our criminal justice system from punishment to rehabilitation? Not going to happen.

Blame and punishment is to deeply imbedded in our Judeo-Christian culture. When discussing blame Benforado said “When a dangerous virus overwhelms a town, causation is relevant, but blame isn’t. We don’t treat someone who has contracted Ebola or dengue fever as sinful. We get to work restoring the person’s health, preventing new cases, and trying to eliminate the root cause.” I am not so sure I can agree with that. I am old enough to remember when AIDS first made the news. It took an innocent child, someone who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, to slow done the blame the victim attitude. “Christian” preachers can’t resist the chance to label a disease as “God’s revenge” for sinfulness. We even blame the victims of natural disasters for causing the destruction through their sinfulness.

I have to recommend this book to everyone. If you live in the US it will help you understand how and why our criminal justice system is failing and if you live in Europe you can see what your systems are doing right. I expect to hear about this book quite a bit over the next year as Benforado’s suggestions are debated in the media.

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Review: Engaging with History in the Classroom The Civil Rights Movement

Rockwell's "The problem we all live with"

Rockwell’s “The problem we all live with”

Janice Robbins and Carol Tieso’s book “The Civil Rights Movement” is part of the “Engaging with History in the Classroom” series that provides outlines to help classroom teachers present eras of American history When I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program I expected a textbook, not a lesson plan. I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I did recently earn a degree in history and have been studying American history for a long time. Since I am not even sure if I understand the exact definition of the word “pedagogy” I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can. The authors both teach new educators about working with “gifted students”. I can comment on that aspect of the book. I was once considered a “gifted” student, before anyone knew how to deal with us.

Of the six key concepts listed, concept development, critical thinking, discussion, recognizing historical perspective, historical inquiry, and assessment I feel comfortable talking about only three. Critical thinking is the most important skill that a citizen can develop and I am happy to see it as a goal in middle school education. In past discussions instructors told me that even high school students were too young to master critical thinking. I am glad to see that it introduced this early. No one can master a skill until they start practicing.

Historical perspective is difficult for anyone to master. It requires understanding the history that led up to the time in question and understanding the then existing culture. At times I felt that the book was failing to impart the information needed for the students to gain a historical perspective of the United States in the 1950s and 60s but then I considered that this was just one in a series of US history lessons and some of the necessary background would be in earlier modules. Also, this is for middle school students. They have only had a little over a decade to study the world. This class is by default an introduction and does what it can to give students the background needed to understand how people lived and why they did what they did.

I feel most comfortable talking about historical inquiry. Robbins and Tieso do an excellent job of exposing students to different types of historical documents. From the start students are examining photos, news clippings, listening to narratives and “freedom music”. Lesson two has them compare photos of two schools from South Carolina in 1950, one for white and one for black students and asks which they would prefer to attend. Is there a better way to introduce critical thinking? They read and discuss both the “Statement from Alabama Clergymen” and Dr. King’s response, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The only resources offered to the students that I was uncomfortable with was the reading list, almost all historical fiction. That concerned me but again, I am not an educator, I have not read any of the suggested books and I have to trust that the authors did and that they chose books that lack the errors inherent to historical fiction written for an adult audience. I hope that any teacher using this in the classroom points out the difference in primary and secondary sources, the flaws of each, and explains that photos, music, paintings, sculpture, artifacts of everyday life as well as written documents are valid historical evidence.

There are two more important features to each of the twelve lessons that I want to mention. “Important Terms and Ideas” is a feature I would welcome in most of the non-fiction I read, short, simple explanation of terms that might be unfamiliar. As much as I like the idea the execution was flawed. Starting in lesson one with “prejudice: a bias that keeps someone from being fair”. Is someone unfamiliar with “prejudice” going to be familiar enough with “bias” to use it in a definition? Later, in lesson five, we find the term segregation but only after four lessons on Brown v Board and segregated schools? I feel that the “Terms and Ideas” would have benefited from more attention. I do realize that I am picking at nits here but there are only so many terms defined and they should all be helpful.

The “Hook” is, in my opinion, the best feature of the lessons. Most of my time in school I spent in the back of the class reading. Not my textbooks but not always fiction. Most lectures I thought were boring or were on subjects I had already read about. If the class started with a hook sharp enough to catch my attention I might have paid attention. I might have learned a little more from the class. Each lesson here features a hook. Some are much better than others. Some I am sure would have grabbed my attention and hooked me into participating. I had to chuckle at the instructions for one, listen to and discuss a recording of “The Times They Are A Changin”. The instructions are to hand out copies of the lyrics. How could anyone be expected to understand Dylan’s vocals? The “Hooks” are, in my opinion, some of the best feature of the book.

Given the grades that the book focused on and the fact that is started with Brown V Board I was concerned that the violence used against the Civil Rights Movement would be glossed over. We, as a society, are protective about exposing children to violence, the real stuff, not movie mayhem. Then I saw that one work of art offered to teachers was Norman Rockwell’s painting Murder in Mississippi. It is a great choice. There are so many question that the illustration asks. Who are these three young men? What is happening to them? Whose shadows do we see? Why are those people hidden? Rockwell’s illustration, “The Problem We All Live With”, which I have used here, is the first one used in the lesson and is less threatening. It is a powerful painting in its own right but I hope teachers point out to their students that Rockwell was a beloved artist whose work was best known to celebrate American, not to point out problems. An important part of historical inquiry is to know your sources.

I am not a teacher, but I have children and grandchildren, and I believe that the lesson plans in this book would grab their attention, even of the ones who are, lets say less than ideal students, and that I am confident that they would improve their critical thinking skills and expose them to “doing history”.

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Book Review: The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866

Book Cover

The Cholera Years

“The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866” is only tangentially a medical history. Charles Rosenberg used the opening year of the three worst epidemics of cholera in the United States as lenses through which he could take snapshots of American society. In each year examined the disease spread westward across Europe to inevitably reach the shores North America. By looking at how the medical and religious communities, public officials, and the people, those represented by newspaper editorials, reacted to the stress of the impending epidemics Rosenberg was able to clearly show how society changed over the decades.

“The nest of college-birds are three
Law, Physic, and Divinity
And while these three remain combined
They keep the world oppressed and blind.
On Lab’rers money lawyers feast
Also the Doctor and the Priest.”

This poem, from 1832, shows that popular American distrust for academics is long held. However by 1848 even the upper-class was turning its back on physicians. Today we see governors who ignore the best scientific opinions and follow their own ignorance on Ebola. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same. Rosenberg attributes this to the medical communities inability to cope with epidemics, the 1832 outbreak of cholera in particular. The fact is that Galenic physician’s had never been effective. What was it that changed between 1832 and 1848 that made their ineffectiveness unacceptable? Rosenberg does not really look at what caused the change, he just shows that the general attitude did change.

Originally published in 1962 Rosenberg’s book is still readable. The writing is better, in my opinion, than most of the histories published today. I recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century American history, it provides insight to the social values of the times. I do wish that someone would take a look at what caused attitudes about physicians to change. Was it competition? Thomsonians, herbalists, and Homeopathic medicine was giving the traditional physicians competition. They were saving more people by avoiding, at least in large doses, the mercury, arsenic, and other poisons that were some of traditional physicians favorite medicines. I have read how physicians reacted to the competition. One way strategy was forming a trade union, the American Medical Association, and blackballing Homeopaths. I would like to see a scholarly paper on how people reacted to the competition.

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Book Review: How to Lie with Statistics

Book cover

How to Lie With Statistics

For a book to remain in print for fifty years it must be good. This one was originally published in 1954 and, as far as I can tell, has been in print ever since. A book less than 150 pages long, generously seeded with amusing cartoons is not what you would expect to find on a graduate school reading list but that is exactly where I learned about this one. Darrell Huff and illustrator Irving Geis produced a little marvel with their book “How to Lie with Statistics”. As Huff points out early in the book a cat-burglar who writes a how-to memoir in prison does not do it for other cat-burglars. They already know how to burgle. The intended audience is people who do not want to be burgled, or, in the case of this book, lied to.

Huff is careful to spread the blame for lying statistics widely, overeager researchers, poor information gathering by statisticians, advertising people willing to apply lipstick of any color to their pig, journalists looking for a marketable story. The fact that most of these lies are “true” is not ignored. For me the most memorable story he uses to make this clear is the restaurateur who explains his rabbit-burger is 50% rabbit, he mixes it in a 1 to 1 ratio with horse-meat. One rabbit to one horse.

After nine chapters of explaining how easy it is for statistics, charts, graphs, and percentages to lie the last chapter makes a serious attempt to explaining how we can avoid being lied to by asking a few simple questions like, who says so, how does he know, what’s missing, and does it make sense. As Huff points out it is important to be able to detect these lies, not just because of misleading advertisements but because we have elections every few years.

As an amateur historian who is just a few years younger than this book I have to admit I enjoyed the window into the past that the many cartoons offered. Yes, we really dressed and smoked like that. The books age was a little disconcerting when Huff dissected an article about the income of the “average” Yale graduate. Going to Yale hardly seemed worth the $25,000 income it offered until I ran it through an inflation calculator, then it made sense. This book is one of the most informative and fun books I have read in a long, long time. It was informative not because I know nothing about statistics, I do, it was informative because neither of the classes I have taken on statistics covered how easy it is to miss-use or misunderstand exactly what it is the numbers say. If you do not like being lied to, consider reading this book.

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Review: How to become a really good pain in the ass

    After reading the title to Christopher DiCarlo’s book How to become a really good pain in the ass : a critical thinker’s guide to asking the right questions I really wanted to read it, I wanted to like it. I have been working on my critical thinking skills for years so this is not my first exposure to it. I was hoping that DiCarlo’s style, judging from the title, would put a new spin on the things.


    DiCarlo divided the book into three sections, the first, which until I looked back at the table of contents I felt was the shortest, looks at the nuts and bolts concepts involved in critical thinking. It was wonderful, the explanations were fresh and relevant and most important, clear. The second sections was a brief look at the founders of critical thinking, DiCarlo calls them “the best damn pains in the ass in history.” I think Socrates deserves better but I am not an undergraduate anymore and that is the audience DiCarlo is writing for. The third section, well, that is where things started to go wrong.


    In the introduction DiCarlo discusses what he calls the 5 Big Questions, What can I know, why am I here, what am I, how should I behave, and what is to come of me? Interesting questions that DiCarlo examines in great detail in the final section of his book. Very soon it is obvious that the book has changed into a long, long argument against superstition. Specifically the superstitions that many people call religions. I have two problems with this tactic.


    First, DiCarlo wasted both his and the readers time as well as a small forest of trees. Early in the section he said all that needs to be said, there is no evidence supporting any claims of any supernatural creator, it is strictly a matter of faith.There is no way to prove the existence of a creator and there is no way to prove that there is no creator. There you go, the argument is a logical stalemate, why waste time on it?


    Second, if moving superstitious thinkers to adopt critical thinking is your goal, alienating them is not the way to do it. The book would have been much better if it had included examples of diagramming arguments and practice detecting fallacies and building strong arguments. Teach a man to fish and all that. Teach a man to think critically and one day he will turn it on his superstitions.


    I find that I have to give each section its own recommendation, the first is wonderful, if you are at all interested in the topic read this. The second is an adequate introduction to the founders of critical thinking. I recommend you avoid the third, all I can say about it is that it is a waste of time. Book cover

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The 5 Questions

Socrates photo by Juan P. Aparicio

photo by Juan P. Aparicio

What can I know?

Why am I here?

What am I?

How should I behave?

What is to become of me?

I recently started reading a book by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo on critical thinking. I try to explain the topic before giving the title because it could be misinterpreted, “How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions”. So far the book is interesting and the author’s lighthearted approach to the difficult subject is a big plus. (Coursera’s class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue takes the same approach) DiCarlo starts off with these questions because to “know thyself” is basic to understanding why we believe what we do.

So to answer the first question, what can I know, what can we be absolutely, positively, 100% sure of, the simple answer is – not much. While studying history I came to understand that everyone is biased, everyone who writes anything has some bias that may or may not affect what they are writing. In addition there are more records in archives than any one person can look at in a lifetime. Our ideas about what happened in the past is constantly changing, usually improving, as more data on any given subject is found. Not all the new data comes from archives, some comes from research done in fields outside of history. Science sometimes explains what the written records cannot. So, we can’t know anything we read with absolute certainty.

If you watched the television program House you know that, as Dr. Gregory House says, “everybody lies”. Thanks to the same biases that prevent us from being sure of anything written we are unable to trust anything anybody says. I have never heard anyone say anything bad about my mother but is she said that she read my blog and loved everything I wrote I am not sure I could believe her.

Have you ever seen a magic act? If so then you understand why we cannot believe everything we see. But what can we “know”? Math? Is 2+2=4 even if your name is Winston Smith and it is the end of the book? I think so. II and II is IIII. But statistics are math and everybody knows that as Mark Twain said there are, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” so how can we trust math? Back in 1954 Darrell Huff wrote a little book filled with a lot of silly little illustrations titled “How to Lie with Statistics” in which he demonstrated that lying statistics are designed to do that. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally. If you asked dentists “do you recommend Crest toothpaste? it is a leading question. If you do it at a Procter & Gamble shareholders meeting it is downright dishonest. If you announced that Mitt Romney was going to win the last election after polling subscribers to the Wall Street Journal your math was not your problem, you “random sampling” was.

We can trust mathematics and math based science that offers reproducible results but there is one more hiccup. As much math as I have studied, and I have taken a lot of math classes, that was years ago and I have forgotten or misremember much of it. So how can I know if the math I am seeing is accurate or error filled?

There is the real problem, none of us are experts in everything. We have to carefully evaluate our sources of information against our own standards for truth. Personally I want my facts as close to the truth as humanly possible. Which is why I am reading yet another book on critical thinking skills.

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