Critical Thinking 101: Understanding Mutual Exclusion



(...or, Why The Drive-Through Habit Portends Terrible Critical Thinking)

Since I teach high school students all over the United States, it’s pretty noticeable when they’re uniformly unfamiliar with something. For almost ten years I’ve been explaining to students from Boca to Toronto to Palm Springs the same term. I mean, every time it comes up I’m thinking, “Well, here we go again.”I’ve been kvetching about this in my head for a good decade, and finally this week I figured I should share with the rest of you. No time like the present! After all, many of the students I teach come from [insert trumpet aire here] The Finest High Schools in the United States. If they don’t know something, it’s because we’re not teaching them (…and I mean you and me and the rest of culture, not Mrs. Samuels down in the English department). These kids are like little litmus tests for our collective ability to think, and, friend, let me tell you: it ain’t looking good out there.

The words that stump ‘em, over and over? “Mutually exclusive.” You may be surprised at how few of them can explain mutual exclusivity at its most basic: you cannot have one thing if you have the other.While the concept pops up in a reading comprehension section on the SAT, mutual exclusivity isn’t a literary term. It’s a key ingredient of critical thinking, and in our culture we just love to pretend it exists where it doesn’t and ignore its presence in other situations.Why? Because, counter-intuitively, ignoring things that really have to be mutually exclusive can make it much easier to form an opinion about an issue and stick to it, and, as youmay have noticed, we’re far more into our opinions than our thinking. Ignoring mutually exclusive parts of a problem is a way to be mentally lazy, the downside of which is pretty bleak; not only are we having stupid arguments, but we’re not collectively getting anywhere anymore (government shutdown threats, anyone?) and we're not equipping our kids with problem solving skills, either.I thought I might draw up a little case study of this is in action.

The Debate over Nationalized Healthcare

If there’s one thing we’ve heard an awful lot of yammering about since the Clinton administration it’s the healthcare situation in the United States—and rightly so. I mean, this is a huge issue. Oddly enough, though, I have yet to see an article on the cover of Time or Newsweek called “Choose One: The Right to Consume Unlimited McRibs or The Right to Unlimited Healthcare.”Really, that's the heart of the healthcare debate: two mutually exclusive behaviors.Michael Pollan wrote a great Op-Ed in the NY Times a few years ago called Big Food vs. Big Insurance, in which he points out that because of our obesity and smoking,

three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat ‘preventable chronic diseases’. [emphasis mine]

According to the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease,

Heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States and 17 percent of U.S. health spending, is estimated to affect 40 percent of U.S. adults or 116 million people…

It’s pretty common sense that a group of people cannot eat unlimited fast food, consume untold quantities of saturated fat and salt, smoke cigarettes, and hope to maintain high-quality affordable health care for anyone, even for people who got sick through no fault of their own, like those with lupus, cancer, or MS. We can either: A) subsist on fat, salt, smoke, and TV or B) expect unlimited affordable healthcare for all in times of illness and disease.However, when’s the last time you heard people arguing about government healthcare spending and heard any of this come up? Ignoring mutual exclusivity keeps the issue muddy--and safe. Common sense is a pain in the butt! It's much easier to quote rules and ethics— e.g. It's unconstitutional to force citizens to purchase things or It's unethical to let someone die of ovarian cancer because she didn't have access to screening—than to acknowledge a fundamental divide at the top of the argument.Our sloppy thinking actually affects our ability to come to clear, reasonable conclusions. Obviously.A focus on the mutually exclusive--"we have to pick one or the other and work from there"-- throws a monkey wrench in our "I have the right to do whatever I want" mentality and disrupts our penchant for black-and-white, pick-a-side decision-making. Acknowledging mutual exclusivity in the healthcare debate makes the conversation more nuanced (hate to acknowledge that the drive-through lifestyle actually helps funnels money away from cancer research, you know?) and leaves the onus of responsibility directly on our own shoulders, so we scrap it.

We're doing this all over the place.

By ignoring the 900 pound gorilla in the debate--those things we have to choose between--we’re modeling really shoddy thinking for the next generation—the generation that will ultimately be making decisions about our own welfare and carving out our society’s place in the global community.At this rate it’s difficult to say that what they’ll be doing is “making decisions” if they’re unfamiliar with the most basic of critical thinking skills. It’ll probably be more like throwing ideas up against the wall in the hope that something sticks. They’ll be lacking strategery, if you get my drift.If we teach them to be just like us—lazy thinkers--we can only expect that they’ll return the favor with poorly explored decisions in the future.

Elizabeth KingComment