I have seen recently that there are companies holding seminars on “critical thinking.” One can’t blame them – if there is a demand for something, at least something that isn’t harmful, there’s no good reason not to take people’s money.
But I couldn’t understand why anyone would even think (haha) about attending such a course. I assumed that I’d missed the stage in this, as so many other things that appear to come from nowhere, at which someone created a buzzword and that led to the development of awareness of it and a willingness to pay for it.
So, with my pseudo-psychologist’s hat on (the hat is real, the description of me as any form of -ologist is not) I turned to the font of all knowledge, a search engine, at least to give me a starting point to go and find out more. Having swatted away Wikipedia and various “sponsored posts,” and ignoring the Oxford definition which talks about “professors” when it means “lecturers,” I was left with a mountain of vapid information on, for example, job websites feigning journalism or industry rags which are, to one degree or another, paid for by advertisers including those who run courses. Advertorial runs amok in such cases, even when it appears to be Public Relations.
There’s a “foundation” in the USA. It’s called “The Foundation and Center (sic) for Critical Thinking” and it has a .org website. And, to prove its worth, it writes in long sentences with big words. Oh, look – another “profession” in the making. But, I keep asking myself, what’s it for?
Hong Kong University’s Philosophy department is the first reference that I found that seemed to have a handle on it without, seemingly, commercial intent. That of course is nonsense as all universities are businesses in one way or another but at least it’s not singling out the subject and running short courses or claiming it to be something really special. It demonstrates that it can be studied but that really that’s just a pre-cursor to its inclusion in other courses. Or maybe it’s reminding students of their role in the education process.
HKU says “Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe.”
But that’s not all: “It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” Think about that for a moment. And think about what I recently wrote about the herd instinct. ” When the whole world has gone mad, only the sane look crazy”.
There is a widespread tendency to confuse knowledge with intellect. How often do you hear someone who has a good memory and can recite things being described as being “smart.” But intelligence isn’t about the ability to regurgitate what has been read or heard. It’s the ability to apply that. It is worrying to see the hundreds of holders of various certificates posting articles around receptive but ignorant media and in comments made on e.g. LinkedIn. Often what they say is wrong. Just plain wrong – they didn’t even remember properly; then that flawed recollection was the catalyst for their opinion on something. Worse, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people like it or send messages of support.
I understand why people might not want to stand up and tell the poster that he’s posted rubbish. But those who actively promote it to their own contacts means that they haven’t understood that it’s wrong, and why, and now it’s going to infect all that person’s contacts, too. Viral spread of ignorance or mistake is undoubtedly a thing.
Why is this? Is it ignorance or is it laziness or is it the curse of social media? There’s no “this is bullshit” option amongst the “likes” and “love it” buttons to click.
The more I look at what HKU says, the more I realise that this is exactly what I have been encouraging in the training and education in financial crime risk and compliance that I’ve been doing, both face to face and on-line since 1994. Moreover, it’s at the heart of the books and many articles I have written. I just didn’t know it had a name. But for sure, I have noticed an increasing tendency amongst others not to do it and in some cases to actively disparage those who do incorporate it into training and consultancy.
I had my moment of clarity as to how people don’t think early in the development of the various forms of communication I used to get the message across. There were several questions that crop up all the time. One (the central thesis of my book “ Understanding Suspicion in Financial Crime is this: “how do I know if I’m suspicious?” That’s a big hint – it shows that people are looking for an empirical solution to a problem that is essentially nebulous.
The second give-away is the question “can we have more case studies about our own industry / country?” The answer, today, is that there are lots but no, you can’t have them. The reason is simple: there is no point in spoon-feeding people information that militates against their need to think. For people working in a bank in New York, a case about a lawyer in Auckland teaches them that there are more things in common than are different and that they should be looking outside their own four walls, outside their type of business and outside their borders if they are genuinely interested in financial crime risk controls.
They want to be taught facts they can repeat: I want to teach them facts that they can use, think about and apply.
What I’m fascinated by is why we have reached this point, the point where there is now an industry teaching people to think, the point where even one of the world’s most highly regarded universities teaches students “A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself. ” Aren’t all people born inquisitive? Don’t all babies learn by example and by trial and error at least as much as they are taught? When do we remove that natural desire to question, analyse, conclude?
In 2017, there was a rush to say that Singapore students were too rigid-minded, that they needed to learn to think for themselves and to question. One paper published that year said ” The first is a need for policy-makers and educators to be cognisant of cultural constraints in the teaching of critical thinking. The second is the significance of teacher efficacy to engender student engagement and successful learning within socio-cultural constraints. ” That was written in the context of a country where even minor dissent is frowned upon and conformity is a much lauded trait. Keep that in mind – we will come back to that point later.
By 2019, there was a huge PR push – you can see it for yourself simply by searching for Singapore students must learn to think – crowding the pages of search engines with stories about how Singapore students do think, how they problem solve and many more good news stories raises its own questions. One has to ask: is it possible that this turnaround could be achieved in less than two years – and how come graduates were, suddenly, able to think?
I’m probably going to get myself locked out of ever working again in Singapore when I say that my experience with Singaporeans at senior levels in public companies over two decades is overwhelmingly that they take opinions from those they feel some affinity with and run with that; they do not like to be told there may be a better way than that currently adopted in their organisation or in their country, especially by strangers. There is a genuine island mentality that borders on a mix of arrogance, inferiority and paranoia which is odd for Singapore is also the home of “kiasu” which the rest of the world subsequently renamed “Fear of Missing Out” or “FOMO.” For the avoidance of doubt, that is not unusual in those jurisdictions that are surrounded by large land-masses and populations other than their own. But there is one more thing in Singapore – in one of the fastest developing commercial and physical environments in the world, Singaporeans don’t want to change themselves. Fundamentally, they want to keep doing as they’ve been doing and they don’t want to ask why or if there’s a better method. There is nothing at all wrong with that, I’m not insulting Singapore or its people by saying it. Stability has served it and its population well over many years. And there have been significant changes in the past decade or so: a not-very-long-ago highly repressed society now has theatres, concerts and a wide range of entertainment venues – a far wider range than the capitals of its much larger neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia have.
In fact, Singapore is a microcosm of much of South East Asia and, indeed, the world – the reason for explaining it is because it has become aware of it and it is at least talking about it. Other countries nearby are heading in the opposite direction – repression and even serious prohibitions on free speech in some subjects and outright censorship in areas that are, across the vast majority of the world and in large parts of their own societies, seen as perfectly normal. The big issue that afflicts businesses right across all sectors and across the world is this: those who are now in middle to senior management are more interested in the “how” rather then in the “why.” They create a x-year plan. A bank will have an additional 200 branches across the region in three years, a development company will build another six shopping centres in the next six years, a farmer will plant 200 acres of the current favourite variety of a fruit even though it will take eight years to come to full maturity and start, literally, bearing fruit and by then, if history repeats itself, that variety will be out of fashion.
The following statement appeared in an article in the Financial Times in 2014: “Countries that excel at problem-solving encourage critical thinking” It goes on “As computers have grown more powerful, humans are no longer needed to crunch the numbers. Instead the role of people is to work out which mathematical model approximates best to a real life situation – whether that is the fastest way to deliver Christmas shopping or organising relief in a disaster zone.” The article names the UK as high on the list which is odd, as will be shown below.
Going back to the Hong Kong University pages, we find “critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks.” This, it is emphasised, is not the same as delivering a critique nor even being critical of something for the sake of it. “Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. ”
The extent to which my own training and education services and consultancy are characterised by critical thinking is that those talking about critical thinking often say that it is compatible with or, even, depends upon “thinking outside the box.” I disagree – the whole time I’ve been doing this, I have used the slogan, “don’t think outside the box, deny there’s a box.”
Here’s my last quote from the Hong Kong University pages: “Critical thinking is quite compatible with challenging consensus and pursuing less popular approaches. If anything, critical thinking is an essential part of creativity because we need critical thinking to evaluate and improve our creative ideas.” That resonates with another of my blog posts: “20171207 OK, I give up. Call me a contrarian if you want to. But you are wrong.”
Compliance is a mechanical activity: do this, don’t do that… Identification of risk along with awareness and management are matters of art.
In 1996, when I wrote How not to be a money launderer I said ”
All of these systems need to be monitored and they also need to be reviewed for exceptions in the same way as any management system. I would recommend an audit after one year and every two years after that. The systems also need to be maintained to take account of legislative changes in the UK and elsewhere. The term “audit” does not mean you should employ accountants. In fact, this is a field in which lawyers should be involved.
The reason is simple and it’s as true today as when I wrote it: risk and compliance change. Monitoring, auditing and maintaining them is an art not a technical challenge. Lawyers are more likely to be problem solvers than accountants (except when it comes to tax schemes but then accountants are providing advice on law) and, especially, auditors.
The test is, all too often, “do you do this?” not “why do you do this?”
I’m not fascinated by the buzzword “critical thinking” but I am fascinated by why, as a global society, we appear to have lost the power to think.
I don’t have detailed research, but I do have several decades of personal observation, going back far before I became fascinated by financial crime.
Let’s go back to the beginning:
When I started school in the late 1950s, I could already read newspapers and discuss what I had read. I don’t know if that was particularly unusual but for sure even today I can remember that, at that school, everyone from those of four years old to the sixth formers were encouraged to mix. Sixth formers would take classes on, for example, growing broad beans in a glass jar with a sleeve of blotting paper inside, placed in a dark cupboard to germinate. Everyone learned together, although not always learning the same things. From there, I went to a school in another part of the country where a new style of teaching put groups around octagonal tables so we worked in groups but only of our own age. There was no mixing with children much older. Despite the informal setting, we were taught in a much more rigid style. But there was a school bank – run by the Yorkshire Bank – so we learned saving, how to manage a passbook and general fiscal responsibility. From there, another school – this one with rows of desks, a teacher at the front and a blackboard. Yet the formal setting was used to deliver informal teaching – we were encouraged to debate, to write fiction, to produce reports. We took it in turns to run the school tuck-shop which sold the kinds of biscuits that even today are regarded as a treat – Crawfords’ Custard Creams and Bourbons, for example. All of this was before the age of 11.
My first senior school liked to consider itself a school for individuals and that was great – within bounds of good behaviour, we were pretty much allowed to think as we pleased. The school put on reviews at which inventive comedy featured heavily. Then it all changed – my parents moved and my second senior school was rigid in form and deed. Thinking (except in Art and English Lit.) was actively discouraged. It was all about taking in information and regurgitating it when asked questions. In English Lang., we had comprehension tests but they were unrelated to any subject we were studying: even though the texts were genuine, to us they were abstract. By the end of sixth form, in the mid 1970s, there was a fascinating split between education and life. In school, we had to knuckle down. Outside, we were a creative bunch, some pretty badly behaved although not pure hooligans. But there was a clear tendency to test boundaries and, in many cases, to break rules that we saw as having no point except to be rules.
What was interesting is that those in the years behind us were not following the same system. Increasingly, there was a focus on individual learning from a very young age; from learning through play; to learning to read in text that was phonetic (that caused a lot of problems as the thankfully short period that was in vogue left several years’ pupils struggling to spell correctly later). There was less focus on discipline (in the sense of good behaviour) – but when it came to subjects in which there were tests and grades or exams, everything that could be measured was measured and that meant even very young children were instructed. Did it work? No.
In October 2013, a report by the OECD said that school leavers in England “were ‘among least literate and numerate in the developed world.’ And yes, you are right: my generation does criticise those who are younger for poor use of language and poor analytical skills – and it’s for good reason: “England was the only country in the developed world in which adults aged 55-to-65 performed better in literacy and numeracy than those aged 16-to-24 after taking account of other factors such as the economic background of those taking the test.” So-called “grade-inflation” became a plague – it’s true A Levels, etc. really did get easier so that results would look better. Ditto degrees.
But it’s clear that the dismal performance of English schools, particularly for those entering school after the late 1990s, cannot be the reason for the failure of “thinking” across the entire world nor, obviously, across generations. But before we leave the question of generations, there is one more thing – and it all comes back to that herd instinct and whether people are, simply, too lazy to think.
A couple of days ago, I received via a messaging service, a note that I was not happy with. It was malicious rumour about the supposed closure of part of Kuala Lumpur due to the finding of Covid-19. Actually, the finding was true but not at the location in the message and everything else in the message was false. Worse, the message referred to a major transport hub which, if that were indeed to be closed, would paralyse the city. The friend who sent it to me was adamant: she had it from someone she trusted and it was absolutely true. It wasn’t. It took seconds for me to prove that it was at least suspicious and a couple of minutes to prove it was very unlikely to be true. A couple of hours later, official statements by various companies announced that it was not true.
Why did I not fall for it when, clearly, so many did and instantly passed it on without question? And, worse, given that the city centre was extraordinarily quiet the next day, how many people believed the message but didn’t get or did not believe the official denial, and why? The simple answer would be experience – it purported to be an official notice but it was in very informal language. Not poor – in fact the standard of English was surprisingly high showing that it originated with someone educated in English, not merely familiar with it. It had an Australian twang in its phrasing. Formal notices in Malaysia aren’t like that. So, from the very first two letters, it stood out as not what it purported to be and as the notice went on, the inconsistencies as against what I would expect to see became more apparent.
But my experience isn’t common amongst the general population. Were those those passing it on being gullible or lazy? Probably not either: while I saw those inconsistencies, the quality of the English which I saw as suspicious, in the hands of most of those who will have received it gave it a credibility that a poorly written notice would not have had. The bias that creates gives rise to a state of mind where it has an element of authority.
Incidentally, I am guilty of the opposite bias – if a notice has poor grammar or spelling, even layout, I will dismiss it as fake. Or return it to sender suggesting they employ staff with the appropriate level of English. I do that for UK government departments all the time because, often, their press releases are so badly written they are hard to understand – but there are also official documents within the UK Department of Justice website that contain serious errors.
Now let’s return to the false information received yesterday. We can translate that small experience to, say, twitter, instagram, facebook, telegram….
Why do people follow hashtags when, mostly, the information upon which those hashtags is based is far too little to allow any reasonable consideration of the facts? Are we simply conditioned to accept what we see on social media. Do we presume that everyone is telling the truth, and the whole truth at that?
The answer to that is, yes, we are. Here’s an extract from an academic paper I published in 1999
It must be true, it’s on the computer A generation learned to trust what the computer handed out. In a modern version of “it must be true, it’s in the papers,” the computer industry persuaded those who have now become middle and senior managers that, if it’s on a screen, it is true. So, as the Internet becomes a mixed medium of broadcasters, news content and mass mailings, all delivered on a screen, we find that each of these means of suspending the natural cynicism of the reader have combined to make the Internet user a willing victim of Internet fraud.
It’s not only middle managers, it’s everyone who has access to a screen. That’s one reason why we don’t question; one reason we do not think critically.
So, it appears that:
a) those that question are ostracised not embraced
b) those that do not question do not do so because the education system, in effect, teaches them not to and insists that they do not.
c) after education, they are required to live according to narrow bands of behaviour – at work and in society – which actively discourages independent thought
d) there are certain types of culture in which to question, especially to question authority, however that is defined, is punished. These are often political or religious but today anyone who disagrees with a view strongly held by another is likely to be attacked on social media. We hear the recently abused expression “call out” someone which is the social media term for disparaging them. It is no surprise that the expression has been co-opted from its original purpose which meant to tell someone to go outside for a fight.
e) some people are lazy and don’t want to question, much less work out what the answer to a question means and its effect.
f) unpopular is it will be to say it, some people aren’t bright enough, and many others are too poorly educated, to question.
g) some people are, or think they are, too busy to do anything but rote learning and incantation. That’s fine if you are a monk but you should realise that the incantation is designed to help you clear your mind so that fresh thoughts can enter and be allowed to flourish.
In all of our courses, we say what the law and regulation is, we refer to the diktats of various bodies. And we not only question what they say but we explain why there’s a problem.
We don’t expressly teach you a course on critical thinking – we teach you to think at every moment of every minute of your working life. And when you invest in our learning for your staff, we teach them the same. We teach them to comply but to know why they must comply and we teach them how to consider information presented to them.
We deliver culture and we deliver understanding. That’s why what we do is so different to other courses: from the clerical workers to the main board, they learn to understand and to think.
I hadn’t realised that until I started to look at what I thought was a fad hiding behind a buzzword. It isn’t a fad at all – it’s important and it’s fundamental to the way organisations must operate to protect themselves. It’s common sense and it’s second nature to me that has, somehow, been lost to the wider population.
Fancy doing a test? The US Library of Congress has one for you – based on the events of 1668 when King Lous XIV of France was trying to make sure that his country did not lose its possessions in what would later become the USA. See http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/france-americ…
HKU – Philosophy Department – Critical Thinking – online course https://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php – no charge to read.
Teaching critical thinking: Cultural challenges and strategies in Singapore – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318166820_Teaching_critical_thi… free to read.
The Use and Abuse of the Internet in Fraud and Money Laundering (1999) International Review of Law, Computers and Technology Volume 13 Number 2, Pages 211-228, 1999.