All You Need

grecian urn
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’
–that is all Ye know on earth,
And all ye need to know.

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Cultural IQ

Organization and classification are two fundamental activities when it comes to critical thinking. But we seldom give much thought to the organizational criteria we are using. In fact, the criteria we use often seem to be a ‘given.’ In other words, there’s a degree of automatic, culturally-dictated thinking in our organizational choices.

Different cultures use different methods of organization. We tend to be blind to those differences because we only see our own culture’s methods. The exercise below helps you become a little more flexible when considering appropriate methods of classification and helps you to see that there’s more than one way to organize things.

Most IQ tests are built upon culturally shared notions of what things should be grouped together. In part, they test what you know about cultural classification systems. Here is a hypothetical “test” of your aptitude and intelligence. Some examples are ethnographic; some are hypothetical. In each case, choose the most different item that doesn’t “belong” in the set. Discussion follows below.

Set 1. Auto, turtle, basket, bird

Set 2. Laundry, beer, clothing

Set 3. A chair, a spear, a couch

Set 4. A pig, a goat, a snake

           OR a cow, a pig, a chicken

           OR a horse, a cow, a pig


Set 1. In general, Americans tend to select auto or basket using the culturally familiar categorizing device of machines vs. non-machines or movement vs. non-movement. At least a few non-western cultural groups, however, would see birds as most different because their culture emphasizes shape, and birds are relatively angular rather than rounded in shape. Western culture tends to emphasize use or functionality. Thus correctness in this case is culture-dependent. Are there sub-cultures in the US that use ‘different’ organizational methods?

Set 2. Generally, and with great assurance, people from Western cultures select beer as most different. Functionality places clothing and washing machines together. Yet, at least one culture views clothing as the different item because laundry and beer are both “foamy.” Visual appearance is most salient. US slang for beer (“suds”) also recognizes the attribute of foaminess.

Set 3. Again most Westerners select the “wrong” answer—at least from the perspective of traditional West African cultures. US Americans tend to emphasize use, thus placing couch and chair together as types of sitting devices (i.e.“furniture”). The Ashanti people apparently would see the “couch” as the most different because both a chair and a spear can symbolize authority.

Set 4. This hypothetical example helps us understand the use of alternative classifying devices. One can use “edible” vs. “inedible” animals—i.e. which are “food” and which are not, although it depends on which culture. Some Hindus (but perhaps not in Nepal) would find a goat edible but not a pig. US Christians might see cows-pigs as different from a horse. Most of our culinary choices are culturally dictated. In other words, our taste preferences are learned responses and not necessarily something we’re born with. See if you can think of other alternative responses and what cultural values they might reflect.

Material drawn from How Real Is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture, and Biology, (2007), pp 116-117, by Carol Mukhopadhyay, Rosemary Henze and Yolanda Moses, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Books. © 2007 American Anthropological Association.

Who is an Expert?

I mentioned in another post Americans’ love/hate relationship with experts. We have despised and adored them, and it seems we’ve often done the despising and adoring for all the wrong reasons and in association with all the wrong stereotypes. With so many people wrongly claiming expertise, how can we ever know who’s the real deal? Anyone claiming to be an expert must possess three qualities. An expert must be professional, current, and representative.


Being professional refers to the person who lives and breathes the subject matter and who has the appropriate credentials to demonstrate their depth of knowledge and preparation. When I had cancer, I had a choice to make early in my treatment: would I go the traditional route and do what my oncologist told me to do, or would I undertake a regimen of alternative medicine? The alternative-medicine practitioners had impressive knowledge about herbs, but my oncologist graduated from medical school. The oncologist was the professional in the matter of cancer treatment.

To be current is to be up-to-date. Has your expert been actively engaged in the field, published an article in a professional journal, attended professional conferences and continuing-education seminars? Is your dentist using the cutting edge techniques of the year she graduated from dentistry school twenty years ago, or has she kept up-to-date on the latest practices and procedures?

Finally, for a person to claim expertise, they must view the subject area in the same way other experts do. Their views must be representative. The opinions and point of view of your plumber about plumbing should go with the flow and be in close alignment with the way other plumbers think about plumbing. If your electrician thinks it’s a good idea to use aluminum wiring for residential service, then your electrician is not an expert. And he will not be an expert until he has convinced all the other experts that aluminum wiring is the way to go. At that point, his view would become representative.

The drawback here, of course, is the time involved in convincing everyone else that you’re right. But there are significant benefits. For one thing, fads, fakers and snake oil salesman usually get stopped in their tracks. And because of these requirements—professionalism, currency, representativeness—we can have a high degree of confidence in those who truly are experts.

What You Don’t Know

—from the NYTimes (June 5, 2019):
“I don’t see any protests.” Mr. Trump called the demonstrations “fake news,” contradicting photographic and video evidence.

Somehow the rest of us know that thousands of Brits are protesting Trump’s visit to the UK, and somehow the President has missed this fact. The President’s frequent denials of reality have taken a number of forms.

This time the kind of denial he’s made is called argumentum ad ignorantium or the argument from ignorance. If you’re claiming something cannot be the case because you haven’t seen it, then you’re denying about 95-percent of reality. When you shut your front door, what’s on the other side of it does not disappear. It’s a lot like the case of the toddler who covers his face with his hands and says, “You can’t see me.”

Again, the argument at the base of these kinds of claims is “if I can’t see it, it can’t be happening.” Your inability to see the tumor does not mean you have no tumor. Your inability to see your heart does not mean you lack one. “I didn’t know I was pregnant,” but you were. And “I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer” is a fallacious argument that you may have heard from a smoker you knew who didn’t want to quit. Your personal ignorance of evidence is not good enough to claim there is no evidence.

This kind of confused ‘thinking’ also produces a fallacy known as Special Pleading: “My Grandpa smokes two packs a day and he’s 94.” One supporting example from your personal experience (sometimes called anecdotal evidence) is not enough to carry the day. “My camellias are award-winning so I should be allowed to water them during the water restrictions put in place because of the drought.” More Special Pleading. And there’s the now-classic claim from Richard Nixon: “When the president does it, it isn’t a crime.”

These fallacies share a common element. The claims are based on the unanalyzed experience of a single person. In general, we should be wary of ‘I’ based arguments. The perspective of an individual can be extremely limited and their experience could easily be unusual rather than the norm.

Below: a NASA image of the night sky showing what you will never see in the night sky—  X-rays


“Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge, Say No More…”

Following the election of Donald Trump, I found myself thinking on more than one occasion “this can’t really be happening.” The more I listened to the stream of nonsense coming out of his mouth, the less sure I felt about reality. I’m relieved to find I’m not alone. We saw more proof during his trip to Britain that Trump is the laughing stock of world leaders with the publication this week (June 3, 2019) of a telling photograph. Granted, some interpretation is involved, but in the photo, the wife of Prince Charles certainly appears to be winking at journalists behind Trump’s back.


Watching Trump floundering around on the world stage (once again) has many observers questioning the reality of it all. They can hardly believe it’s actually happening. As reported in the Washington Post:

[W]itnessing its veracity up close, hardly made it less surreal, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2016. As the late Philip Roth once observed, the task is simply to “make credible much of American reality.”

“It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination,” Roth wrote in Commentary magazine in 1961. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Indeed, in this case, there is hardly any need for invention. The facts themselves are hard enough to believe.

Trump is stranger than fiction. Truth is stranger than fiction. And since 1961 (when Roth made his remarks about American culture), it’s only gotten stranger. As long as the public is sucked in by ‘reality’ TV, celebrity and buffoonery, that’s what we’ll get: not statesman, but people like the Kardashians who are famous for being famous. It has been observed that DC politics is the Hollywood for ugly people.

Finally, let’s not forget who uttered these amazing words:

“(Obama) doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that.”

“(John McCain is) not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, (Carly Fiorina’s) a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”

“You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.”

“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

You Won’t Be Needing That

The Boat

Just because you used a boat to cross a river, it doesn’t mean you should pick up the boat after you reached land and carry it with you wherever you go. And just like that boat example, sometimes you should consider using teachings or methods the same way.


This piece of advice comes from the Buddhist tradition and asks us (among other things) whether we’re using the right tool for the job. The concern brought out here is reminiscent of Maslow’s Hammer, the idea that if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail (if your only tool is a boat, everything looks like a river). It also raises some questions about using the appropriate tool for the task and the problem of carrying around a lot of excess baggage. Some things need to be left behind, or they will hinder rather than help.