T214: Block 2, Thinking Traps

This block introduces the term “thinking traps” – an all-encompassing description of the ways that our brains fail us when trying to understand complex systems.

There are a number of different thinking traps:

  • short attention spans (I’m really guilty of this)
  • oversimplification (most science stories in the news)
  • groupthink – seeking out opinions of like-minded individuals in order to reinforce your own beliefs
  • rational thinking – believing that rational logic is superior to intuitive insights and moral reasoning
  • learned helplessness – believing that we are powerless to do anything

I have a problem accepting one of these as a thinking trap: the rational thinking one. Surely rational thinking is superior to the use of intuition? For instance,  rational thinking leads science to show that vaccines prevent potentially fatal diseases, and yet many parents’ intuition suggests otherwise. These parents are wrong, so isn’t rational thought preferable to intuition?

I understand that the OU are attempting to define intuition as a subconscious way of thinking around complex problems, rather than just “something feels right/wrong” but, still; I don’t get it (yet).

The course notes state that reductionist thinking is useful only when a problem is fairly straightforward, but useless when a problem is complex, covers very long periods or crosses many science disciplines. I do get that, and I think that many scientists would do too.

The course notes say that:

systems thinking allows a ‘big-picture’ view of the situation, investigating the relationship and resulting emergent behaviour of interacting parts.

OK, fine. I get that. This is where we see feedback between the different components of a system. Climate change is a good example of this.

Systems Thinking enables us to discover “underlying structures and processes that determine system behaviour” and see where different components of a system might interact with each other. It enables us to accept that we won’t understand everything about a particular complex system and that each of us has the potential to identify points of leverage within a system. The responsibility for changes within any system does not lie with an individual person or component of the system.

The most contentious part of block notes for me is this: “recognise that intuition and moral judgements play a significant role in the way we understand and engage with systems, alongside rational reasoning “. Alongside rational reasoning – well, that’s making a bit more sense, but what have moral judgements got to do with understanding complex systems?

Lots to think about.


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