Best practices are not inherently above scrutiny

Josh Ducharme posted a few thoughts about best practices the other day that got me thinking.

The concept of a ‘best practice’ is both critically important and insidiously limiting. Once you know you are conducting your work under parameters set by best practices, why bother being critical, curious, or interrogating the efficacy of your practice further? Logically, what can top ‘the best’?

In truth, I think we can agree that best practices evolve all the time. (Exhibit A: the history of medicine.) We call some practices the ‘best’ in a temporal sense: they are only the best right now, and it is nonsense to imagine that any given practice today will necessarily hold its grip on the throne of ‘bestness’ forever. A more honest label would be: as-good-as-we’ve-got-so-far practices.

Just because a protocol or procedure wins the label of ‘best practice’ ought not mean that it is no longer subject to scrutiny.

Critical Thinking: A Cheatsheet

  1. What would it take to convince me that I am wrong? (Falsifiability)

  2. How could I empirically prove the exact opposite of what I suspect to be true? (Null hypothesis)

  3. How could someone else argue that my position is illogical or irrational? (Self-debate)

  4. Who benefits the most when I hold this belief? (Critical discourse analysis)

  5. How would a rational person who holds an opposing viewpoint explain and justify their position? (Empathy)

  6. Can I conceptualize an alternative position that does not yield a binary ‘true or false’ dichotomy? (Non-dualism)

  7. How does my position and experience in society inform my assumptions and perspective? (Reflexive intersectionality)

  8. What unconscious mental shortcuts can I identify in my reasoning and rationale? (Cognitive bias mitigation)

  9. How can I guard myself against the illusion that I am reasoning objectively? (Skepticism)

  10. What beliefs have I already unconsciously accepted in order to arrive at my present position? (Presuppositions, tacit assumptions)

  11. What do the words that I use to express my beliefs connote implicitly that they do not denote explicitly? (Semantics, pragmatics)

  12. What are the psychological, social, institutional, or cultural costs of changing my mind? (Motivated reasoning)

  13. How would my identity be threatened if my beliefs or reasoning were shown to be flawed? (Externalize epistemology)

  14. If faced with sufficient counter-evidence, would I care about truth enough to abandon my present beliefs? (Ideological commitments)

  15. Who is framing, shaping, and informing the questions that I can even think to ask? (Social influence)

  16. What questions am I most afraid to ask? (Courage)

If you can’t possibly imagine

If you can’t possibly imagine a scenario where your mindset changes, evolves, or adapts, then you possess a ‘mindset’ in the sense of dried concrete — ‘mindstuck.’ Or: ‘this mind hereby refuses to actually think any further.’ A solidified mind is basically ‘set’ like a brick.

And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question

Have you ever had a time in your life when a friend or colleague asked a question that made you stop and see the world differently? Have you ever pivoted or readjusted your approach to an issue because you thought of a way to think about it from a new perspective? Have you ever encountered a question that invited you to rethink your assumptions and biases in a safe and non-threatening way?

What is better than a good question? Join us for a conversation all about learning to ask better questions.

Open-mindedness

A few days ago, I heard someone say, “You need an open mind,” at the beginning of a sentence to explain why their view of an issue was indisputably correct.

I chuckled at the irony.

Mostly, of course, I was laughing at myself.

Close-mindedness is a curse and burden I tend to assume is carried by other people.

If they would just open their minds, then they’d see the light, accept the facts, and know the truth.

Most of the time, I use “a willingness to learn” as a laudatory description for those who have journeyed to the camp of my conclusions.

If travelers pack up and continue down the road — beyond the confines of my settlement — I rename their “willingness to learn” as rebellion, ignorance, heresy, or a listless lack of commitment.

I guess the only mind I need to worry about opening and closing is my own.

Prejudice and Power

A recent panel discussion at London School of Economics highlights two distinctive ways to think about the nature of prejudice.

On the one hand, we might think about prejudice as a function of individual psychology. We might say that humans are wired by evolution to spot patterns and predict the behaviours of others. Yes, people make erroneous judgments all the time, such as ascribing incorrect beliefs and motives to individuals from observed external characteristics, but these glitches might be corrected by education and training.

The other way to describe prejudice is to locate it in a social environment. In this case, it is not merely the case that some individuals make incorrect prejudgments, but rather that the structures of society more or less train us to systematically assume certain things about one another. For example, if the media repeatedly pummels us with images of a particular group performing violent acts, we are far more likely to prejudge (unconsciously or otherwise) an identifiable individual from this group when we meet them on the street. Scale this up and you have oppression: societal discrimination operationalized to assign certain groups subordinate roles in society.

The idea here is that we need to see the causation of discrimination as cyclical: we have biological processes that equip us to make heuristic snap judgments about one another, yes, but we live in a social world that informs the objects and content of our prejudice. In other words: our prejudice frames the world and the world frames our prejudice. To understand how prejudice manifests itself, we need to realize that these two “distinctive” modes function reciprocally, not in isolation from one another.

This view of prejudice as a self-reinforcing social phenomenon leads us to a critical observation: we cannot fully talk about the prejudice of individuals without talking about who has power in society. Power and prejudice are inextricably linked to one another. Thinking about prejudice as an exclusively “personal” or “individualistic” problem fails to account for the ways that institutions and governments are critical actors in the social environments that nurture, inform, and bias the opinions of individuals. At this level, then, we need to think about prejudice as systemic and structural as it is personal and individualistic.

If this is true, it does little good to place the “blame” for prejudice at the doorstep of an individual who has a preconceived opinion about another group of people, at least to the extent that their preconceived ideas came from reified “cues” in society. The end game of this perspective is not to fully write off the responsibility of the individual for acting in prejudicial or discriminatory ways, but rather to situate the individual in a context that attempts to account for the array of social, political, and corporate interests pushing and nudging them at all times.

If we say that prejudice is only a “natural” human phenomenon, we are effectively (and selectively?) ignoring all the other structures we have enshrined to organize society.