Independent Thinking

The Wisdom of Professor Elkins

From a newspaper article:
Some years ago, the then prime-minister Pierre Trudeau - queried by a reporter 
about extensive polling Prof. Elkins was doing that showed the main cause of 
Western alienation to be Mr. Trudeau himself - snapped:
"Does he have a PhD. ?"
"I think so", said the reporter.
"You think so," replied Mr. Trudeau.
"Well, find out. If he hasn't, I don't want to deal with him. Next question."

In any event, long before the present fury enveloped David Elkins's corner of the university (the political science dept. at UBC), he became concerned about difficulties many of his best students were having in challenging false assumptions and hidden prejudices. So he sat down and wrote them a few pointers.
They are worth sharing with the country.

Prof. Elkins quoted Bertrand Russell: The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

Prof. Elkins said: Be wary of dichotomies; be suspicious of all or nothing choices; be dubious about mutually exclusive possibilities. Look for gradients ... complementarity.

To a person with only a hammer, all problems look like a nail. Try to use several tools (perspectives, theories, biases) before you conclude it is a nail.

Read from time to time on topics that do not interest you. Serendipity is a slow guide, but sometimes it is all we have.

Make a point from time to time of listening to people who you know disagree with you. And I mean listen, not argue.

Read lots of history. Concepts, institutions and beliefs which have a specific historical origin cannot be universal or timeless.

Read lots of history to see if things you believe were not always believed. In reading about other periods, recall that words change meaning; thus they mask ideas as well as reveal them.

When criticizing or condemning or evaluating ideas historically once more common - or current views held by other people - stop and ask if you would be willing to be judged by the standard you are using on them. If not, ask what lurks behind your feeling or threat.

Read science-fiction. All good science fiction shares at least this feature: If [such-and-such] a premise (axiom, law, principle) were different, in what other ways would the world be different ?

Clichés, aphorisms and colloquialisms can often tell you a story if you let them. Collect bumper stickers, graffiti, epithets. "Life is a sexually transmitted disease." "Old soldiers never die; the young ones die."

Watch out for keywords in what you write or say. Especially likely to cover up unexamined assumptions, are words and phrases like obviously, naturally, undoubtedly, universally, how silly and self-evident.

In what you say or write, ask yourself whom you mean to include and exclude, by using "we.".

Minorities, the oppressed and the marginalized almost always have a better understanding of the unconscious underpinnings of their society and culture than do the majority, the top dogs and the insiders. To pass, they must play a role consciously whereas those in control usually can pass without conscious effort. Thus, listen to poets; look at unpopular art; seek out the malcontents and deviants.

Whatever the year David Elkins, PhD., is having; at a guess his university, and his students are fortunate in having him.

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