Friday, April 29, 2011

The Effect of Ideology on Thinking

I wrote last week about the value of obtaining reliable statistical data as a resource for thinking. I added the qualification that one must understand where the data comes from and one must assess what is actually being measured by it. But of course, statistical data has never been the only source of available information. Take the example of political discourse. We hear about values-based information, decisions made as a “matter of principle,” information that is based in loyalty to a particular ideological perspective. While people may believe that their values, principles, and ideologies are “true,” their veracity is always difficult to determine. In the absence of proof for their foundational beliefs, such people rely on the affirmation that their beliefs about the world should be true. Perhaps such beliefs could be seen as matters of “faith.”

Beliefs based in faith are extremely difficult to challenge and almost impossible to discredit, because the very attempt communicates disloyalty to the purported source of the information. (The source might be seen as God or some beloved charismatic figure.) One example of this dynamic can be seen in the basis of libertarian doctrine. Much of the detail about this belief system appears to come from the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. The idea of super benefit being fair compensation for superior creativity may make for good fiction, but the way a novel turns out cannot produce the same quality of useful data as properly constructed research might. I say this with the humility of a novelist. My novel expresses a particular point of view that may invite people to look at life and its possibilities differently, but in no way can it be seen as a source of reliable data. It has value for what it is, but using it like research data would be completely inappropriate.

The main defense against challenges to current libertarian philosophy usually takes the form of a statement like: “Well, if our politicians ever had the nerve to try it honestly and completely, they would discover that an economic system based in free-market deserving would certainly work!” While it is true that libertarian economics has never been tried fully, that does not serve as a reliable indicator of its legitimacy. Some data does exist indicating that the limited experiments in libertarian economics have been disastrous, and from that I conclude that it would be unconscionable to subject the entire economy to such a radical experiment. (Now, just in case you’re wondering, that last statement is my opinion, and it should not be used as fact just because I said it. If you take the time to evaluate available economic data, you can then think it through to your own conclusion.)

One the consequences of any ideologically based information is that it tends to be one-sided and selective. Such information is chosen to defend an established position rather than offer new understanding or perspective that can facilitate the process towards more comprehensive truth. I don’t believe that any of us are capable of filtering all ideology out of our thinking. We all select the data we will utilize, albeit unconsciously. To borrow a phrase, the goal here is progress, not perfection. As individuals, perhaps we need to take more care in scrutinizing and validating the information that is available, and perhaps we can be more courageous in the process of further illuminating reality. But as individuals we can take the process just so far before unavoidably we become overshadowed by our preconceived ideas or even our prejudices. So let’s consider how healthy community can help facilitate healthy thinking.

Adding the participation of a community to the thinking process must be done with great care. Sometimes communities enforce ideology and will attempt to discredit the brave individual who dares point at “the Emperor’s new clothes.” There is plenty of that going on today in the arenas of religion and politics. But communities also are capable of providing a much broader set of perspectives from which to produce and evaluate information. If the objective of the community is courageous exploration to illuminate truth rather than the preservation or enforcement of ideology, then community can support healthy thinking.

You may have noticed that I end each of my blog posts with some version of “This is how I see it; what do you think?” I rely on other perspectives to help me evaluate my sources of information and to help me think more clearly. It is obvious that I write from a particular perspective, one that I believe is useful. But I know that it is not the only perspective, nor is it the only useful one.

Finally, the healthy sharing of perspectives does not determine who is right and who is wrong. In this post, I am referring to sharing that is a different kind of act of faith. It is not about faith in a particular ideological position. Rather it embodies faith in a process that can evaluate available information and use it to fill out our understanding of reality. In short, this process invites us to experience and embrace deeper and more comprehensive truth. I think it is a good plan.

(OK, here it comes:) “This is how I see it, what do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

My post next week will address how we can obtain and utilize information from the realms of personal experience, the emotions, intuition, and spirit in the service of a healthy thinking process.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Garbage In, Garbage Out

You probably already know (even if you forgot it for a while) that it is impossible to reach valid conclusions if you begin with unreliable information. So, how can you discern what information to trust, particularly in the areas of research-based sources, religious persuasion, political rhetoric, and advertising information?

Let’s begin with research. If you get information that is based in research, it must be true, right? Well, maybe if it’s scientific. Or maybe its truth depends on whether you understand how research-based conclusions work. For example, how can you be sure that the apparent conclusions actually measure what they say they measure? Furthermore, statistical data from scientific research can be used in a wide variety of ways and the same data can even seem to support opposite conclusions.

Let me give you an example of how confusing research-based statistical data can be. I was the chaplain in a state prison for a number of years from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. At least a part of my job was to provide “rehabilitative” opportunities to the inmates. A common measure for those who addressed the viability of prison and its rehabilitative programs was called the “recidivism rate.” Recidivism measures the tendency of released inmates to re-offend. Depending on the source of the information, you might discover that the recidivism rate was about 67%, or maybe 33%. If you were in favor of rehabilitative programs, you would tend to believe the lower number, but many who were not in favor of rehab programs typically used the higher number.

One of these numbers must be wrong, right?
(NOTE: these numbers are 30 years old, are probably no longer accurate, and are used only to illustrate a point about statistical data.) Well, actually both results were correct. Let me explain.

Let's begin with these two questions: how can these very different numbers possibly come from the same raw data, and what then might they mean? The difference in the numbers results from two different ways of measuring recidivism. If you had polled the new inmates as they arrived at prison, you would have discover that about 2/3 of them had been in prison before, but if you had followed the people released from prison over the following few years, you would have discovered that only about 1/3 of them would offend again.

So, is one measure of the recidivism rate more correct than the other? Not really, as long as you know what the given study was actually measuring. But even you know what is being measured, there remain many more layers of complexity that might need to be considered. For example, the recidivism rate only measures the rate of repeat prison sentences. It does not consider the relative severity of the crimes. What if most of the people who returned to prison had been newly convicted of a lesser crime than the time before? Or what if most were convicted of a more serious crime this time? Without any observable variation in the Recidivism Rate, you still might make an argument for or against the effectiveness of rehabilitation, but how reliable is your data. I could identify several additional factors that might affect the validity of the Recidivism Rate, but hope you get the point from this illustration: if you want to think clearly, research-based data must be used with great care.

In my non-scientific observation of how research-based data is used, particularly in the worlds of politics and advertising, it is seldom intended to offer reliable information that helps voters or consumers make a more informed choice among alternatives. Typically, (in my experience) the point of advertising and political discourse seems to be to direct the choice of the recipient in a predetermined direction. In short, the point of such communication is manipulation.

You might wonder if I am using this blog to manipulate your thinking and your choices. Well, considering that I am a product of this culture, probably so. But I don’t want to do that. I invite you, therefore, to call me on any perceived (though largely unintended) manipulations. My intentional objective, however, is to stimulate your thinking, not manipulate you toward specific conclusions.

In the spirit of honest disclosure, I do believe that manipulation is minimized when one participates in the give and take of information and perspective that is characteristic of healthy community. In community, we help keep one another honest, or at least more aware. So if I want any particular result from my blog, it is that you will grow in your understanding and appreciation of healthy community.

This is how I see it. What do you see from your perspective?

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thinking and Community

I live in a community that makes decisions by means of a consensus process. Deciding by consensus requires people to think together, but while there are many positives about consensus, unfortunately, the process can get bogged down, and sometimes it just doesn’t work the way it is designed to work. At a superficial level, one might conclude that the process should be abandoned, but but I prefer making an attempt to observe the quality of thinking that goes into it. I hope that greater understanding about the nature of thinking can improve how it functions. Rather than writing specifically about thinking and consensus, I plan instead to write a series of more general posts about some of the elements of the thinking process. I hope that these reflections can be useful in any setting where thinking is required or is at least useful. I do not intend these posts to be an academic exercise. Rather, I will try to keep them at a practical level so we can all improve the clarity and validity of our thinking.

Many people know the first three words of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Peck later asserts in The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in the Age of Anxiety that “Thinking is difficult.” (Page 24) I agree with him, and plan to write about why that is true and how we can learn to think more clearly.

The first of these posts will begin to address the complex question, “What is thinking?” My essays will not be dealing with how the brain functions, although that might be interesting, too. I will, instead, look at thinking more in terms of its functions.

The later posts on the topic will address the ever-present barriers to clear thinking: that is, what gets in the way, and what skews our thinking, often without our being aware that such modification of the process is even happening.

So, let’s begin to explore what it is to think. It the most basic level, thinking is the process of collecting relevant information, putting it through some kind of analytical process, and producing a conclusion that we take to be true. If only the process were as simple as those few defining words seem to imply.

If we are to think clearly, we must first consider the accuracy and scope of the information we employ, including the validity of our sources. When computers began to be used for analytical purposes, the validity of the process was determined by the clever slogan “Garbage in – Garbage out!” In other words, if a thinking process is to be valid – either by machine or by human mind – the informational raw material we use must be accurate and sufficiently comprehensive.

Once we have accumulated sufficient valid information that includes a mix of scientific and experiential/emotional data, then we must analyze it by means of a reliably logical process. It helps if we know what kinds of logic we are using. When we reach what we believe to be a valid conclusion, we must then consider the situational scope of our conclusions. This might include present/future considerations, gender, geography, and an understanding of what specific measures can determine the quality of our conclusions. For example, a conclusion can be financially valid and be morally bankrupt at the same time.

Here is a list of some of the topics I will address in subsequent weeks. I may address several in a given post.
Regarding what it is to think:
  • The ability to gather relevant information
  • The ability to acknowledge and accommodate competing values
  • The ability to see the scope of a particular position (e.g. regarding longevity and geography)
  • Problem solving is not the equivalent of thinking.
  • How wants and needs affect conclusions
  • Opinions and logical conclusions are not the same
  • How honest are thinkers about their self interest ?
  • How does your given moral framework affect your conclusions?
  • What are the underlying metaphors representing “truth,” and how do they affect the validity of conclusions
  • Recognizing that we seldom have enough information to generate completely true conclusions
  • New information should lead to modification of our conclusions.

I will then write about some the barriers to clear thinking:
  • My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts”
  • How emotionality (as distinguished from emotional experience) blocks the validity of conclusions
  • What if I must be right?
  • How credulous am I in collecting information?
  • How much faith do I have in my conclusions even if they turn out to be uncomfortable (or “inconvenient”)?

Well, this post gives you a glimpse of what is to come. I hope you enjoy the series. Please read and comment. Let’s think clearly together about these matters.

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Friday, April 8, 2011


Last week I did not post in this blog because I was attending the annual conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Phoenix, AZ. Last summer, just after Arizona had passed what many believe to be a draconian immigration law, the planning committee for the conference considered boycotting Arizona. In consultation with some of the religious and community leaders of the Mexican population in Phoenix, the committee learned that neither the hotel nor the state would be impacted significantly by a boycott, but that the immigrant poor who work in the hotels and surrounding businesses would be hurt badly. (The hotel would still have received its $60,000 cancellation fee.) Local leaders pleaded with conference planners to come to Phoenix.

Instead of a boycott, the planning committee arranged for conference attendees to participate in an “immersion day” at a community center in the barrio section of Phoenix where we learned about the complexity of the issues and about the impact of immigration law and cultural prejudice on the lives of the people.

I want to tell you about what one of the speakers, The Rev. José Valenzuela, taught us about his experience of “Nepantla.” I will also comment on its effect on community. He described his experience of growing up in an Arizona town, made up primarily of Mexican laborers retaining its Mexican culture. He was an American citizen, but his whole world was rooted in Mexican culture and identity. When his father, a Christian minister, was called to a church in the white, affluent part of Phoenix, José moved with the family into a new world. As a result of the experience, he became too “white” to be fully embraced by the Mexican Community and was still too “Mexican” to be fully accepted in white society. He experienced this new place “in the middle” as a kind of hell. In time, he learned about an Aztec word that describes the place where he found himself: Nepantla. In this middle place, this “no person’s land,” he could not find acceptance either from the Mexican or the white communities and so he fell into shame and self-blaming as a result.

Rev. Valenzuela has since learned that he cannot expect his personal validation and acceptability to come from these communities. He learned that what felt like “no place,” “hell,” a place neither fully Mexican nor white, had this name, Nepantla. The name made it a real place for him and it became possible for him to affirm his identity as the real person he had become through his bi-cultural experience.

Does his ability to affirm himself as a Mexican-American then let the people in the two constituent communities off the hook? I don’t think so. It is grossly unfair (although predictable from the perspective of fear) for either Mexican or white people to expect him to be more “like them” than is possible. Perhaps the naming of “Nepantla” can help people in each community to embrace the identity of those who participate in both. The Mexican and white communities can help transform Nepantla from hell to a real place that is a legitimate home to real people.

Hell on earth is created by arbitrary conditions and expectations that are impossible to fulfill. Heaven on earth is created by embracing people in their diversity and being willing to learn from their unique perspectives and experience. To condemn and exclude people simply on the basis of some perceived deviation from an arbitrary definition of acceptability is the embodiment of a great evil. In the short term, such evil creates hell for many people, particularly those who find themselves in Nepantla. But in the long run, the resultant destruction of the fabric of community creates hell for all of us.

It may be that all people experience some form of Nepantla: between adolescence and adulthood, between gay and straight, between sacred and secular, and between the old country and the new whenever our ancestors immigrated here, for example.

I invite us to recognize this systemic evil and by our loving acceptance of one another, however different or “mixed” we may be, put a stop to it.

This is how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

(The Rev. José Roberto Valenzuela is pastor of Alleluia Lutheran Church in Phoenix. He has written and lectured extensively on issues of culture and race in the Church and within the United States. He can be contacted at