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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Lack of Critical Thinking

Comments (30)

I believe I’m seeing a steady increase in the lack of critical thinking from everywhere.  In an effort to be recursive, I thought about why I thought I was seeing more of this (and if in fact it was an increase, or I was just noticing it more.)  My “instinct” is that I’m seeing more of it, which amuses me when I ponder it.

My hypothesis is that it’s coming from a few places:

  • The coming election cycle is causing sound bites and hyperbole to accelerate to “get the message out.”
  • The proliferation of blogs – especially with fact masquerading as opinion and assertion – is changing the texture of the way people present (and consume) information.
  • Mainstream media – in an effort to overcome the emergence of new media – is looking more like the new media – which creates a self-reinforcing loop of nonsense.
  • People enjoy writing opinions that are not fact based because it’s easier and – as a result – leave real critical thinking by the side of the road.
  • Agendas are commonplace and – if you want to accomplish your agenda – you sacrifice critical thinking for the outcome that you want.
  • People are too distracted to actually do the work, so it’s easier to just pile on a current theme that one finds interesting without actually thinking about it.

I ran into two particularly strong examples of critical thinking in two categories that I’ve seen a huge lack of it in – (1) climate change / global warming and (2) Software as a Service.

  1. Climate Change / Global Warming: The transcript with slides (very good ones, by the way) of Michael Crichton’s speech titled Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century given to the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy on 11/6/05 is an excellent example of critical thinking applied to the topic of global warming.  Actually – it’s brilliant.
  2. Software as a Service (SaaS): Richard Davis at Needham is one of my favorite software analysts.  In addition to actually doing real analysis and using up shoe leather visiting companies, he’s hysterical.  His recent article titled Software as a Service: World’s Greatest Innovation or Just a Good Idea? is the best piece I’ve seen on SaaS yet and – as a special bonus – demonstrates real critical thinking.

Now – it might be that I’m just more tuned into this because of all the time I’ve been spending with Atlas Shrugged – but I don’t think so.  When Amy and I were talking about this the other day, she reminded me of the bumper stickers from the 1970’s that said “Stop Continental Drift.”  Er – um – yeah.  It turns out you can sign a petition to help stop continental drift.

  • Brian

    I’m actually also in the middle of re-reading Atlas Shrugged. Here are a few of my thoughts on your observation as to the lack of critical thinking in today

  • Dave Jilk

    Is this not whence derives the Colbertian concepts of “truthiness” (“we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who *know* with their heart”) as well as “Wikiality,” referring to reality by consensus?

  • http://www.adventuresinbusinesscommunications.com Dee Rambeau

    truly a thought-provoking post Brad. I actually plowed through both referenced pieces and found the Chrichton speech to be so simple and so elegant.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.returnpath.biz Tami Forman, Return Path

    Brad — You might enjoy this book: The Thinker’s Way by John Chaffee http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&EAN=9780316133173&itm=11

    It’s a little pop, self-help, but has some good stuff in it. Author is a professor and writes textbooks on the same subject.

    (By the way, love your blog!)

    • Elizabeth G.

      Thanks for mentioning the book. I browsed through the first section and I believe I would also enjoy it.
      Elizabeth

  • http://www.sotirov.com Emil Sotirov

    “Critical thinking”… “complexity”… what kind of un-American words are these. When was the last time you were in an Ivy League university? These are bad words… “French” words… as opposed to good American words like “positivity” and “simplicity”… “Critical thinking” and “complexity” would never help you “get to the point”… or “get the job done”… or get a job for that matter. Who would pay you for “critical thinking”… or “complexity” mumbling. Just contemplate for a moment a presidential candidate somehow implicated with “critical thinking” or “complexity”… Instant political death/murder/suicide… :) Whatever… like… you know…

  • http://westcoastgrid.blogspot.com Dan Ciruli

    It seems to me that with any hype bubble there’s a tremendous lack of critical thinking. I agree that it’s happening with SaaS right now, and I think that’s kind of funny. There’s no reason for there to be hype around SaaS in 2006; it’s been around for a relatively long time.

    I was at a company that started offering some SaaS to electric utility companies in 1997. We also had traditional enterprise software, and we even had desktop software.

    Nearly 10 years later, that company still exists (well, there have been 3 buyouts since then), and the products are still in use today. They’ve got a decade of comparison of SaaS and subscription-based enterprise software.

    How do they stack up? It’s pretty much as you would guess: they can get much larger license fees for their installed software. In addition, they get consulting projects (because, with enterprise software, there’s always some integration work). Of course, with those integration projects comes risk: some projects make money, some lose money. They do get good hands-on experience with the customer, though.

    With the SaaS, there’s much less risk–they sell that with nearly no integration work. The margin on the sale is higher, but the numbers are smaller (much lower license fees). And, because they don’t get as much direct exposure with the clients, they run more risk of non-renewals simply because some clients aren’t using the software as much as they could–and with no implementation people onsite, that’s a risk.

    Anyway, there is one company’s experience for you. My point is that *these*things*are*known*. None of this is new information. Any investor who is getting caught up in SaaS-hype (or, even worse, Web 2.0 hype) rather than paying attention to technology and business model deserves to lose his dough…

  • http://www.venturegeek.com Nathan Dintenfass

    I take no exception to your underlying argument, but Crichton’s speech hardly seems a great example of deep thinking. He starts by saying only 50 people died at Chernobyl — he gives no citation for that argument, and a quick Google search makes it pretty clear that it’s not just “alarmist journalists” who think that number is MUCH higher, but scientific studies conducted by medical scholars and others — 50 people died of “acute radiation” in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. He then uses quotes from the most alarmist Y2K sources (all from books trying to cash in on the hype of Y2K). Then outdated environmentalist over-reactions in Yellow Stone. And then he says the world is complex, and therefore we should all just calm down about things like global climate change — his speech seems the exact opposite of critical thinking — instead he comes in with a specific agenda and pieces together disparate, anecdotal “facts” to support that agenda, with no attention given whatsoever to dissenting viewpoints from his “facts” or any context to the nature of the sources of his “facts”. Ok, so I didn’t mean for that to be as snarky as it is — rant over ;)

  • Lex Luther

    You must mean: “opinion and assertion masquerading as fact…”

  • http://avc.blogs.com ferd

    it’s time to add some new feeds to your feed reader.

    we all spend too much time reading about the tech/startup/vc world and there’s way too much groupthink in that space driven by the twin tech’s (techmeme and techcrunch).

    check out gary becker and richard posner who give the blog world serious critical thinking every week

    http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    Fred – I used to subscribe to Becker-Posner but I got tired of it and unsubscribed. Now that I’ve had a break from it for a while, I’ll try it again.

  • sigma

    Crichton seems to discuss (A) the quality of information in
    the media and (B) ‘complexity’, especially of the environment.

    For (A), Crichton has discovered that the ‘old media’ are
    commonly a source of poor quality information, especially for
    detailed numerical data, e.g., deaths from Chernobyl.
    Congratulations to Crichton! He has taken the first step
    toward a new, larger, and more meaningful world (paraphrasing
    one Jedi Knight!).

    It is possible to give some fairly simple and old descriptions
    – that commonly emphasize the roles of drama, formula
    fiction, entertainment, vicarious experiences, fear — of what
    the media does, but providing high quality information,
    especially well-supported by numerical data, is mostly NOT
    important in such descriptions! E.g., Crichton provides some
    bar charts that illustrate well the wide range of estimates of
    deaths from Chernobyl, but clearly in the old media graphs are
    rarely meaningful or more than just artistic decorations.

    For this problem of low quality in the old media, Crichton’s
    essay is a good example of what I hope will be a major part of
    the solution — ‘new media’! The old media low quality
    described by Crichton I regard as a tyrannical incompetence of
    the least common denominator from too few media sources and
    too high cost of production and distribution of words and
    pictures, thus, a case of “the medium is the message”
    (commonly attributed to M. McLuhan), indifference to the role
    of providing sufficient information for the citizens in
    democracies, my candidate for the worst problem facing
    civilization now, and a fat old animal ready for slaughter by
    the Internet sword!

    There is some irony in the essay: As is easy to see, old
    media nearly universally ignores the high school term paper
    writing standard of careful use of primary references, and the
    discipline of this standard would help correct errors such as
    the wild data Crichton found in the old media on deaths from
    Chernobyl. But, from Crichton we have

    “About 50 people had died in Chernobyl, roughly the number of
    Americans that die every day in traffic accidents.”

    without references. ‘A priori’, whom are we to believe,
    Crichton, without primary references, or the old media sources
    he quotes that omitted primary references?

    The irony is that Crichton makes the error, too little use of
    primary references, that is one of the major causes of the low
    quality he describes in the old media.

    This irony is worse than incidental, curious, or humorous:
    E.g,, in his

    ‘Why Politicized Science is Dangerous’, (Excerpted from State
    of Fear)

    at his

    http://www.crichton-official.com/fear/index.html

    he has

    “In my view, there is only one hope for humankind to emerge
    from what Carl Sagan called ‘the demon-haunted world’ of our
    past. That hope is science.”

    In that essay, his main examples of

    “the demon-haunted world”

    were some sloppy arguments, e.g., vast conclusions, with
    disastrous consequences, millions and millions killed, from
    tiny evidence.

    With his statement about hope and science, he quickly gets me
    standing with my hands high in gleeful standing ovation. I
    didn’t want to make, and have to support, such a narrow,
    definite statement but welcome his having made it! Well, one
    of the crucial keys to science is careful support of
    arguments. In mathematics, the process is definition,
    theorem, proof, with NOTHING taken at all seriously until the
    QED at the end of a fully detailed, correct proof. In such
    work, primary references are just baby talk. Another crucial
    key is peer-review, and for his

    “About 50 people had died in Chernobyl”

    a reviewer might write “This unsupported statement is your
    first fatal error.”.

    Net, he NEEDED to support his claim of 50 but didn’t.

    For (B), ‘complexity’, Crichton fumbles a lot.

    His definition of ‘linear’ is crude and strained, especially
    considering that linearity is one of the most important topics
    in all of mathematics and is crucial in most of applied
    mathematics, much of engineering, and, in particular, control
    system engineering. Linearity is a solid, deep, profound,
    powerful, valuable subject.

    Crichton assumes far too quickly that linearity does not hold
    in nature: Enormous nonsense! E.g., take two points, X and
    Y, in the ocean. At point X, put in acoustic signal A and at
    point Y get out signal A’. At point X, put in signal B and at
    point Y get out signal B’. Now, for constants s, and t, at
    point X put in signal sA + tB. Then at point Y we will very
    likely get out very accurately signal sA’ + tB’. That’s a
    beautiful, powerful, valuable case of linearity. E.g., with
    this linearity, it follows that there is a ‘transfer function’
    that characterizes what the ocean does to the signals and says
    that all the ocean can do is adjust frequency (complex number)
    amplitudes. Similarly for acoustic signals in rooms,
    electronic signals in media of wide variety, etc. With the
    power spectra of the signal and the noise, we can do Wiener
    filtering, etc. There are many other very important examples
    in the role of Hilbert space (a linear space with an inner
    product and complete in the norm induced by the inner product)
    and the principle of superposition in quantum mechanics,
    stiffness of mechanical objects, the huge catalog of
    applications of Lagrangian techniques, the role of Fourier
    theory in solutions to the heat equation, our Euclidean three
    dimensional space, a local linear approximation, and even
    velocity, i.e., the first derivative and, thus, a local linear
    approximation.

    Crichton also has

    “By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the
    system interact among themselves, such that any modification
    we make to the system will produce results that we cannot
    predict in advance.”

    Here he is being confused: Both in practice and in principle
    (e.g., from the uncertainty in quantum mechanics), no system
    can be predicted exactly and deterministically. But, in
    principle we can predict the results for any system if we make
    the predictions probabilistic. E.g., consider global nuclear
    war limited to sea. How long would the US SSBN fleet last?
    Once I found an answer in terms of a continuous time, discrete
    state space Markov process, wrote some software, and printed
    out numerical answers. Deterministic? No. Probabilistic?
    Yes. Impossible? No. E.g., given a ‘system’ at a server
    farm or in a network and given data, typically on several
    variables, from that system, e.g., from instrumentation by
    Microsoft, Mercury Interactive, or SNMP, say if the system is
    healthy or sick? Do this with meager assumptions and exact
    selection of false alarm rate and, for that rate, and in an
    average sense and asymptotically, the highest detection rate
    possible from any means of processing the data. All doable,
    even if the ‘system’ is wildly ‘non-linear’ and
    ‘non-deterministic’. Indeed, that the system is NOT
    accurately predictable very far into the future HELPS ease
    this work!

    Moreover, that a system is probabilistic does not mean that we
    cannot control it; indeed, there is a well developed theory of
    stochastic optimal control. Practical control in the face of
    stochastic processes is not always too difficult: E.g.,
    airplanes are always pushed around by air turbulence, but
    autopilot mechanisms have worked well for over 60 years.

    For his

    “By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the
    system interact among themselves”

    apparently one example he had in mind was the ecology of
    Yellowstone. But, actually he did outline how one could
    construct a promising predictive model based on an initial
    value problem of a system of ordinary differential equations
    that describe ‘predator-prey’ relations.

    For his

    “Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to
    initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but
    the identical interaction the next day may yield a different
    result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will
    respond.”

    Sure, systems are ‘sensitive’ to initial conditions; this is
    an old subject going back at least to R. Bellman’s work on
    stability theory of ordinary differential equations. The
    issue isn’t so much ‘sensitivity’ as ‘stability’. In some
    cases, changes in initial conditions have their effects
    quickly die out. In other cases, even tiny changes grow
    wildly. These are old topics in, e.g., differential equations
    and feedback control systems.

    His concern about no “certainty” is naive; of course we don’t
    have certainty. Instead, we get estimates, sometimes
    astoundingly accurate estimates. That we don’t get
    “certainty”, so what?

    Crichton seems to be trembling before the challenge of
    complexity; he trembling too soon and should calm down: In
    particular he is trying to argue that when lower level
    mechanisms such as hemoglobin or mitochondria are complicated,
    a good model of the behavior of the higher level system is too
    complicated. Not always! At times, some ‘complex’ systems
    can have explanations from simple theories with good
    predictive value: E.g., motions of the planets can be
    predicted accurately for thousands of years just from Newton’s
    second law and his law of gravity. Indeed, it is a fact,
    curious but easy to observe, that commonly even forbidding
    ‘complexity’ becomes nearly irrelevant after being a few
    ‘levels’ down. E.g., we can do quite well predicting the path
    of a rocket while essentially ignoring the quantum mechanics
    of atoms and the strong and weak nuclear forces. E.g., the
    genes of an organism reduce to just some sequences of four
    letters; the rest of the forbidding quantum mechanical details
    of the DNA molecule are irrelevant.

    For “critical thinking”, Crichton might have applied more to
    his essay before posting it!

  • camille roy

    It hardly recommends you as a ‘critical’ thinker that you use Crichton on global warming.

    What, are you afraid of the science, so you trot out a guy who is to science like truthiness is to truth? You must know that Cricton is nowhere near the scientific consensus in this area. To use ‘critical thinking’ as a (sloppy) slogan to justify defending Crichton, without examining the evidence, studies, the overall basis of the scientific consensus, shows poor judgement. If you left your ideological puddle you would know that there are expert blogs out there where climate scientists examine and debate these issues. The best I’m aware of is realclimate.org. Their post on Crichton is
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=74

    You owe it to your readers to inform yourself.

    I for one utterly fed up with the ideologues & pretend experts who got us into Iraq, people who claimed it would be a cakewalk and never bothered to inform themselves of Iraqi history or culture. The dispicable ‘neo-cons’. I heard a fellow on NPR the other day striking the same notes wrt global warming: oh, we’d have a fine time farming in Antartica, he claimed. Nothing to worry about. Warmer is better!

    Well, Show Me, Dude. Before you opine on global warming and strike a pose about ‘critical thinking’, do your fellow humans a favor and bother to inform yourself.

    I expected better! This is my first time on this blog and this post is a distinct disappointment.

  • Jerey

    Well, let me throw some more fuel on the flame…

    I like Crichton’s Hydrogen is the answer slides!

    I’m stoked hydrogen has so few carbon atoms. Wow, awesome. (Thanks Mike! :) Yes, let’s all burn hydrogen and be done with these gasoline-haters. Of course, the teeny tiny fact that hydrogen isn’t waiting to be drilled and in strict scientific terms, is a MASSIVELY INEFFICIENT ENERGY SINK is of no concern. For us critical thunkers, hydrogen is the answer. (what was the question.)

    I also agree with previous bloggers that Chricton’s love of the weak strawman is laughable. I’m surprised we don’t see a Coke versus Cocaine controvesy, and maybe some bashing/promotion of leeches in medicine? (Or maybe I must have missed the novel/movie/E.R. where Chricton slipped in the magic/harm of leeches)

    Brad, that you included this Chricton utter wank in a subject starting with: I” believe I’m seeing a steady increase in the lack of critical thinking from everywhere” is like watching the firehouse on fire. I sit in disbelief and wonder how you can put this out?

    -jeremy

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    Camile / Jerey – whew – sarcasm and vitrol as a rebuttal of critical thinking!

    If you read my post carefully, I didn’t say that I agreed with Crichton – I said “is an excellent example of critical thinking applied to the topic of global warming.” I actually disagree with a number of the things that Crichton postulates, but it doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for how he makes his argument.

    Oh – and I like his powerpoint slides also.

  • Howard Roark
  • Pat

    So, I have some issues here. That is, with the initial post-not even interested in arguing about Crichton.

    First, I assume that when you say that your initial feeling is that you're seeing more lack of critical thinking (rather than more actually existing). This is a bit of a problem for me, because for me personally, in an academic setting I AM seeing that there actually is less critical thought. But even if it weren't based on my personal experience, the fact that you are seeing more means that more exists, or at least the same amount exists, which I still fell is stagnation if not full on decline in the ability of people to think.

    Burt really, I just wanted to point out that even though you are seeing the gaps in thinking in people's output – blogs, media, opinions, agendas, time crunch – I think that it is way more important to think(critically) aboput not the source of our recognition of the lack, but of the lack itself. I mentioned experience in academia, and I am involved in higher education at the moment, but I think there is something that anyone who has been through a public education system like the one in America can see. The education in teh early years is based on memorization and not on thinking. Teachers say "this happened, these atoms wiegh this much, and teh holocaust was bad ". I have rarely , if ever, gone into a junior high classroom and found students and teachers enganged in any kind of analytic discussion about things like Jefferson's motivation for sending out Lewis and Clarke or Michael Crichton’s speech about global warming. The media may need more support based on primary references, but in the schools, when you have to prove (or cite) information, all you have to do is prove that some "expert" or Ph. D. or just anyone said the thing before you did. Basically, even when quoteing sources, relianceand emphais is on secondary sources. Not personal research and experimentation, or critical thought and analysis.

    If it's missing in education there is no surprise that it's getting harder and harder to find when you look around you.

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    What, are you afraid of the science, so you trot out a guy who is to science like truthiness is to truth? You must know that Cricton is nowhere near the scientific consensus in this area.

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    By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the
    system interact among themselves, such that any modification
    we make to the system will produce results that we cannot
    predict in advance

  • http://www.condomman.com/articles/condom-use/advantages-of-buying-condoms-online/ cheap condoms

    simplicity"… "Critical thinking" and "complexity" would never help you "get to the point"… or "get the job done"… or get a job for that matter. Who would pay you for "critical thinking"… or "complexity" mumbling. Just contemplate for a moment a presidential candidate somehow implicated with "critical thinking" or "complexity"…

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    You must know that Cricton is nowhere near the scientific consensus in this area. To use 'critical thinking' as a (sloppy) slogan to justify defending Crichton, without examining the evidence, studies, the overall basis of the scientific consensus, shows poor judgement

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    I also agree with previous bloggers that Chricton's love of the weak strawman is laughable. I'm surprised we don't see a Coke versus Cocaine controvesy, and maybe some bashing/promotion of leeches in medicine? (Or maybe I must have missed the novel/movie/E.R. where Chricton slipped in the magic/harm of leeches)

  • http://www.condomman.com/articles/condom-use/advantages-of-buying-condoms-online/ Cheap Condoms

    The education in teh early years is based on memorization and not on thinking. Teachers say "this happened, these atoms wiegh this much, and teh holocaust was bad ". I have rarely , if ever, gone into a junior high classroom and found students and teachers enganged in any kind of analytic discussion about things like Jefferson's motivation for sending out Lewis and Clarke or Michael Crichton’s speech about global warming.

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    The problem with many social networks are that they hover between 1 % and 5 to 6% with no hope of reaching the 19%. "Walking Dead" so to say!

  • Southersjoshua

    i am currently acquainted to a girl named Klarissa who happens to be of lack of critical thinking.

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