Critical thinking and challenging rules

Some rules are good and preserve us from anarchy. Too many rules can stop any reasonable growth. Where to draw the line? which rules should be challenged? Is there a good timing to challenge the rules? In this article, I want to check some relatively fresh perspectives on the subject. For more reading, you can try here, here, here, here, here and here.

Rules and parenthood

I had a funny situation recently. I was driving in heavy traffic looking for parking. Knowing that drivers have little patience I decided to park a car on a side street where I knew I would find a spot. My four-year-old daughter insisted that I park on the main street where there was a free spot, but also was harder to park due to traffic. I said that since I was driving, it was my decision to choose the parking spot. She replied that she owns her body and where it should be parked. Annoyed, I told her that at least until she is 18 years old I will have to approve all major decisions she makes. This is a legal requirement in my country. She was very unhappy but decided not to fight the laws.

Authoritarian vs permissive parenthood

People tend to pick opposite extremes. This is not surprising since accurate balancing and optimization is a much harder task. When we become parents we do not get a user manual. So we tend to follow the main trends in our society.

My childhood

When I was a child in Ukraine, the prevailing parenthood style was authoritarian. The parents knew exactly the realities of life and the price of making mistake. The world was dangerous for those who do not play by the rules. The children were better off following the guidelines provided by their parents. The parents tried to micromanage the kids and decide everything for them. Any rebellion was crushed.

The new generation

Now I raise my kids in Israel. The world changed. Probably I know more about the world than 99% of the population, and yet I understand the world around me much less than my parents 30 years ago. The world simply became more complex. The realities change all the time on several levels. We constantly adapt new technology and this technology changes the way we live. Parents do not have time to micromanage their children. The children are anxious about the overwhelming task of learning and finding their place in quickly changing society,

Permissive approach

Facing the challenges of our lifestyle, we trust our children to be responsible and make the right choices. We do not say no, we just point out the tradeoffs. If a child asks to eat something sweet we mention the effect on obesity and dental hygiene. When the child does not want to do his homework, we mention that his teacher will make him study during fun activities. Occasionally we say “no”, but most of the time we say “yes, but”.

The state of confusion

Our children are confused. Children need rules. They do not like rules, they will fight over the rules, but they do feel better where the rules are clear. It is easier to live when we have fewer degrees of freedom. However, being polite and enlightened parents, we often delegate the life balancing act to our children. Effectively, we ask our children to grow up before they are ready.

Having a target for rebellion

Children occasionally want to oblige, and occasionally need to rebel. Rebellion is a great way to learn: sharpen the critical skills, improve communication arsenal, and understand that the goal of every war is a better life afterward. Having a daily routine and simple guideline makes obliging easier. Parents picking their battles can provide a place for rebellion and skillful negotiation. However, we are usually too exhausted to strategize with the kids and default to “why not”, “never ever”, and “do it and suffer the consequences” solutions.

Leadership style

We would love to think that we are raising great leaders. Our children are more independent than we used to be. They have access to great sources of information.  The new generation can maintain and leverage social interactions in ways we could only dream of. They value reputation over anything else. Yet, are they really better leaders?

Looped linear thinking

When we were children, we have few situations to consider and few experiences to weight in. As a result, we always tried to infer from one experience to another, trying to leverage the underlying patterns.

This was hard, but we had plenty of time. We could procrastinate or dream. We could be creative.

Our children are very productive, not necessarily creative. As they need to face a challenge, they learn the required skills. They train and loop, doing the task over and over. Eventually, they become very skillful in doing the task. So they get another task, and they repeat the process. There is very little inference between different tasks since the inference is hard and takes time. Quite often the children simply prefer to follow the rules, rather than try to understand why these rules were created.

Are we losing the ability to challenge the rules?

I see very little willingness in the new generation to understand and negotiate the rules. It is often easier simply to remove old rules and invent new ones. Occasionally they create a different environment where the old rules do not apply, as a method for generating new rules.

In Israel only 7% of parents want their children to be journalists or politicians. Compare this with overwhelming 60% support for medical and engineering careers. We want our children to have happy and relatively easy lives. Challenging the rules is hard. We do not want our children to do that.

In 1930s America, many Jews were mobsters. Jewish parents did not want their children to be mobsters. They preferred to raise doctors and advocates. Their children obliged. Are we raising a generation who will prefer to create virtual realities, rather than improve the physical reality? Are we any different?

Inspiration leadership

The leadership style I am most familiar with inspirational. There is a leader who has a vision of a better future. He is building the future. And the team around him is united in this vision, trying to create that particular future.

Clearly, this is not the only way to lead people. It is possible to lead through personal example, knowledge and empathy. On the dark side, it is possible to lead through projected strength, fear, greed. Maybe very few leaders are inspirational. However, the inspiration leaders capture our imagination and make us achieve more than we could perceive.

Is our vision suicidal?

It is quite clear for people who have enough understanding and foresight, that artificial intelligence will eventually have more capabilities than the humanity. Nobody knows what goals this intelligence will pursue and which means will be used. Yet we do anything we can to promote the artificial intelligence. Cryptocurrency is not regulated, and prone to scams and manipulations, yet we invest in it quite heavily.

New technologies are disruptive. Lots of people will probably lose their jobs very soon. The middle class is bleeding money. The fabric of our society is breaking.

We create new technology because it is easier than fighting bad regulations. And our curiosity is stronger than our discipline. Do not think for a moment that I am somehow above this. The new technologies are exciting, engaging and rewarding.

Rules nobody can understand

The complex bureaucratic regulations that governed our life in 20th century slowly become irrelevant. Instead, we are getting self-regulating processes we do not understand.

Twenty years ago, when I needed to go segmentation or classification, I could program the process. I would look for features, and improve handpicked features over time. Then I would apply a classifier I understood very well, and fine tune it slowly. Now everything is done by a neural network that can learn. We can try to control the learning process and the architecture of the network. However, we do not stand a chance understanding the particular role of each node in a sufficiently complex network.

Governments, banks, economies are very complex, but for the last 300 years, they were playing by a set of rules we could understand. I do not think anyone truly understands what is happening in cryptocurrency. The new technologies develop very fast, and the new generation adapts much faster than their parent. The rules are changing faster than we can understand them.

Critical thinking

For generations, knowledge was a precious commodity, collected and nurtured with great love and dedication. Suddenly we are finding ourselves handling more knowledge than we can handle, trying to figure out what is more important and separate truth from “alternative facts”.

Exponential creation of knowledge

It is not new, that the more we know the more questions we have. The number of questions rises exponentially with the amount of knowledge. But does the ability to answer the questions rise accordingly?

In electronics, we have the Moore law. Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. As the technology developed, the Moore law was generalized. We have a nearly exponential rise in computational power, in communication speeds, and in energy efficiency. This means that our machines get exponentially smarter. In fact, 20 years from now the machines will probably be smarter than humans.

Our ability to program these machines also rises exponentially, although not as fast. The human population growth. As economies get more efficient, more people can pursue knowledge and they have more teachers and mentors.

Overwhelming availability of knowledge

With search engines, we have immediate access to more knowledge than we could handle. A 100 years ago, to access information, people needed to go to libraries and push through the sheer weight of thousands of paper books. Today with a couple of keypresses we get much more information. And we have it in a more clear form, including simulations, videos, and open source projects.

Recent studies show that fake news travel even faster than true knowledge. Which means the amount of false information we need to sift through is rising. Twenty years ago, the problem was our ability to separate the relevant information from the irrelevant. Today we have relevant information, but we need to check whether the information is honest or cleverly dissipating disinformation.

The crisis of critical thinking

Generally, once we learn to analyze the particular subject we learned in the University, we should be able to apply the same tools of critical thinking at work. Unfortunately, the reality is very different.

Our schools teach fairly generic subjects which become outdated a couple of years after graduation. In the meanwhile, we get access to very specific expert-level challenges, solved using tools we did not learn at school.

Even our motivation and ability to generalize is degraded with respect to previous generations. We need to produce results very fast, and we have a very little margin for pondering.

More often than not, we simply cannot generalize the tools of critical thinking we learned at school to the real situations we encounter.

Reputation over knowledge

In middle ages, many arguments were won by references to stronger authorities. With enlightenment, we learned to use reason and critical thinking to figure out what is right. We learned to build theories, check them with experiments, and argue using mathematics. We are losing this ability. With mathematics becoming increasingly more complex, and raw data more abundant, we need once again trust other people to sift through the data.

Once again, the reputation is more valuable than the knowledge. We ask ourselves:

  • Can our source distinguish false data from the true one
  • Does the person we quote have an inferior motive?
  • Is  the person we quote ethical and scurpulous?

Only some thieves take our money. Others take our time, our focus, our confidence, our ability to distinguish right from wrong.

New hierarchies

Quite possibly we see the rise of new hierarchies and a new form of social status.

The benefits of hierarchies

Hierarchies are not always bad. Good hierarchies coordinate people, increasing efficiency, and decreasing conflicts. We can learn from our superiors. It is very comfortable for a protege to know that somebody more powerful than us cares about us, and as for mentor, there are others who are willing to carry out our vision of the world.

Respect

Hierarchies are cemented by communication. The communication in hierarchical society is based on respect, with well-regimented forms of respect expected from each member of the society. Even today, in so different countries like South Korea and Iran, you will probably feel this sense of regimented respect governing all aspects of human communication.

Telling hard messages

It is hard to tell complex messages well. Different tools can be used. In countries governed by reason, one can apply to logic and numbers. In countries governed by respect, people listen to each other due to social connections. The new generation has a different way to pass a message.

Checking what resonates

The new generation of influencers does not draw their power from respect or from knowledge. Instead, they can make their messages resonate. Young people try different things and fail when the failure is cheap. There is no reason to learn something in depth if we can fail and will need to move on. Then they try things and fail very quickly until some ideas start to resonate. They are often quite surprised by their success, and that surprise pushes them to learn more about the subject. The strategy is very simple: try several things, and once something starts working find someone who can explain why. Clearly, trying many different things people have very little time and experience to apply critical thinking and filter truth from the faked news.

Confusion

We live in a confusing world. Old rules do not apply to new technologies. Regulators cannot guide us to safety. Critical thinking is collapsing under information overload. Our vision is one of disruption. The voices we loudly hear are poorly informed. What to do in such situation?

Even though our information sources are polluted, it is still better to read, learn and analyze the situation than to drift blindly. There is a deficit for deep thinkers, and the current trends might reverse one way or another. Eventually, the reputation is the new currency, and people need a cohesive vision.

Some of the old rules might be irrelevant, but they can be fixed. The human spirit did not change as fast as our technology.

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