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Wednesday, August 1st, 2007


The other day, Dan of tdaxp objected to my appreciation of logic as an analytical tool in the comment section:

Humans are pretty terrible logical reasoners, so relying on logic doesn’t do much. Expertise comes from analogical reasoning, which allows faster processing, more reliable rejection of bad options, and effortless cognition in general.”

I agree with much of Dan’s statement. Most people are highly illogical and emotional in their decision-making process and not a few, though still a minority of the population, remain concrete thinkers their whole lives. We could not get anything done without cognitive automaticity kicking in to gear; having to consciously, sequentially, reason out the steps of every action would leave us exhausted before breakfast. My only quibble with Dan would be to replace “expertise” with “insight” or “creativity” as many variables, including the effects of chance, go into accumulating an experential base of knowledge. That is a minor divergence, for like Dan, I am an advocate of the benefits of synthesis, analogies, metaphors, horizontal thinking, metacognitive reflection and intuitive cognition – those forms of thinking that are generative of new insights.

I have also seen many complaints recently in the blogosphere about the negative effects of analytical thinking, if overused or abused, in these cases by lawyers, the profession most noted for elevating analytical reasoning above the factual variables to which the reasoning is to be applied. Here’s one:

From Kent’s Imperative:

“Worse yet, we detect a discernable strain of legal thinking which now seeks to impose restrictions not only on the collection of information, but on its use. The idea that a warrant might be required to search against previously accumulated foreign intelligence materials sounds absurd, but recent legal opinions appear to have laid the groundwork for such an argument in future cases. This would also be very nearly absolutely fatal in the context of fusion and collaboration for homeland security intelligence purposes (particularly if critical elements of the intelligence picture are obtained from foreign intelligence activities of DOD and other agencies, as if often the case.)

We have long maintained that the mindsets of the lawyer and the intelligence professional are diametrically opposed. The first seeks to present a structured picture through adversarial argumentation, and by training attacks to exclude evidence from the picture to support a particular viewpoint. The latter struggles to understand puzzles and mysteries, and to assemble a coherent narrative in the face of incomplete, conflicting, and deceptive information in order to support the decision-maker’s choices regarding courses of action. Allowing the lawyers to dictate further the key aspects of the world of intelligence – and allowing intelligence activities to be framed into an “investigative” basis rather than continuing inquiry into matters of standing interest – will be the death of the profession.”

Analytical thinking is a tool for reductionism. It helps you take the watch apart and explains how the gears fit together. It can identify broken parts and quantify performance. Analytical thinking works well in this instance because a mechanical watch represents a closed system with limited boundries. What analytical thinking can’t do, being an interruptive, destructive, activity is conceptualize an alternative way to tell time or arrive at Einstein’s insights about Relativity. For that you require a constructive, generative, pattern of thinking.

Used incorrectly, and analytical thinking often is because more people can analyze than synthesize well, it can destroy group dynamics and productivity through ” paralysis by analysis”. The downsides of all options become the most significant variables and opportunities are lost. Used correctly, to fine-tune, trouble-shoot, tweak and better adapt, analytical thinking can prevent disasters.


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