My frustrating Peter O'Neill years
The best I could have done at the time

Writing helps your critical thinking


TUMBY BAY - Writers, poets and journalists are generally thought to be intelligent and articulate people, even if you disagree with the opinions they express about particular issues.

Perceived intelligence cuts across political and social boundaries. Neither is it particularly related to educational levels.

Left wing, right wing, progressive or conservative, ivy league education or bush school education, all have little bearing on how smart a person is perceived to be.

There is one common denominator, however, and it doesn’t just show up in writers, poets and journalists.

No matter the person or their profession (or lack of it), it is the practice of writing that makes the big difference.

Writing improves thinking and contributes to the development of critical thinking skills. It is those skills that largely differentiate smart people from dumb people.

While it is possible to develop critical thinking in a number of ways, nothing is as good as writing in forcing people to clearly state ideas and lay out logical and realistic arguments.

To produce a good written argument, writers must undertake research and read widely before they can pull all the strings together and make their case.

When developed, this skill improves other aspects of their life. When they speak, they are able to articulate ideas and opinions more clearly and assess and respond to situations in a balanced and logical way.

Scientist and writer Michael Dom recently circulated a YouTube clip, which you can view here, in which Professor Jordan Peterson lamented the fact that university students are not taught to write correctly.

One of the reasons Peterson thinks this happens is because teaching someone to write is time intensive and expensive.

Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

In the clip he makes the point that through the process of writing people become articulate. Being articulate, he says, is a very powerful weapon.

He says there is little difference between writing and critical thinking. If you can do these things you are deadly. They are your sword or your M-16 rifle. Being articulate makes you deadly.

I’m not entirely convinced by Peterson’s argument, mainly because of the limiting context in which he expresses it. He doesn’t directly claim wider relevance beyond tertiary education but the implication is there.

I would suggest he might modify the general thrust of what he says and its relevance beyond academia if he were exposed, or had been exposed to, pre-literate societies.

One can hardly claim that critical thinking didn’t or doesn’t exist in pre-literate societies. Not being familiar with the art of writing doesn’t make the members any less intelligent than a literate society.

Without the benefit of writing, other societal practices contributed to the development of critical thinking.

One good example is the hausman as it existed in many areas of Papua New Guinea prior to colonisation.

These were places where ideas and opinions were discussed and responded to in a similar way that writers use, but in an oral fashion.

In the modern context writing is an excellent way of developing critical thinking skills but, as our ancestors have demonstrated, there are other ways that it can be done.

The important thing is the development of the skill and not the way it is learned.

You may have a different view.


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Bernard Corden

Well worth a read:

Michael Dom

Opinionated criticism is not delivered with the same intention as critical thinking.

Rhetoric versus reason.

It's interesting how many words it takes say that someone else is talking too much.

That's socialism these days, arguments without intrinsic value. Or perhaps it was always that way?

Philip Fitzpatrick

I like Nathan Robinson's opening paragraph:

"If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method.

"First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like “if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of” or “many moral values are similar across human societies.”

"Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work.

"Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite.

"Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any sceptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct.

"Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured. It also helps if you are male and Caucasian."

Bernard Corden

Dear Phil, When Jordan Peterson recently appeared on the ABC's Q&A program, Terri Butler was almost wetting her knickers.

Philip Fitzpatrick

After reading that I'm not sure that Peterson isn't just another run-of-the-mill academic, maybe even an anthropologist. I know lots of anthropologists who can make the simplest thing sound incredibly complex.

I wonder if Scott Morrison is a fan. I know Malcolm Fraser et al were fans of Ayn Rand.

Bernard Corden

The following links provide some interesting commentary on Jordan Peterson:

Lindsay F Bond

Writing as an exercise marks materials such as might become enduring.
Thinking if so energised makes matters of cognition for encountering.
Sharing as an eloquence masks means of enkindling and encouraging.

The thrust of this discussion is about getting interest, getting started, getting a ‘spik’ (that works for the writer, who will have found along the way, a ‘spik’ that is acceptable to listeners and readers), and ‘getting’ by reading other writings.

Some will say all this ‘getting’, is a bit of a fetch. The truth is it takes effort, but the rewards can be very satisfying. Now, just to be a bit more plain, not every dictionary will show that the word ‘fetch’ also can carry the meaning of “trick”.

Be confident that not all writing has to be ‘plain’ or is on every plane:

In flow, wiser to be on cue
In fluence, cajole to a tee
in flexure, remain true to you
in floreat, try caring be
in flippancy, coax with why.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Writing plain English is a real skill Caroline and is an essential element in connecting with readers.

I think we have to differentiate between good writing that develops critical thinking and creative writing.

Writing plainly and logically is definitely a skill that can be taught but creative writing tends to be a talent that is difficult to teach.

Creative writing is an innate skill that is refined and honed by practise and lots of reading.

Despite the plethora of creative writing courses these days it really all comes down to that innate talent. Someone with a PhD in creative writing isn't necessarily a good writer.

In pre-literate societies oratory was refined in much the same way as creative writing. Creative speech-making and creative writing have a lot in common.

You can actually see the influence of oratory on modern Papua New Guinean writing. Colourful oratorical flourishes have now become colourful written flourishes.

This connection is what gives Papua New Guinean writing its distinctive flavour. It's also why slam poetry is so popular in PNG, it's a hybrid of the traditional oratory style and modern writing.

Papua New Guinea is unique in many ways because it's oratory traditions still reach right into the near present time. This makes it important, not only in PNG but in the world at large.

This is why I like reading Papua New Guinean literature with its roots in tradition and why I find a lot of the imitative stuff that tries to follow western styles less appealing.

Caroline Evari

Writing is the primary basis upon which one's work, learning and intellect is judged - in school, in the workplace and in the community. Writing fosters our ability to refine and explain and refine our ideas to others and ourselves.

To get into someone's mind, get them to write. Read what they've written and observe if their writing is clear and concise, or if their arguments are organised, coherent and have sufficient evidence.

Writing like any art requires skill and talent. Some people are naturally talented, for others it can be developed. In PNG, more awareness is needed to educate our people, and especially the young generation who have been corrupted with smart phones and modern technology.

When I started my talk series on writing and publishing in PNG, one of my focus was to educate Papua New New Guineans of the importance of writing such being a critical thinker, and knowing how to accurately translate their ideas in writing.

Given our traditional history in oral story telling, most of us write plain English and lack the skill to connect with our audience.

Bernard Corden

Dear Phil - I also notice the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business has crawled from beneath her rock and was recently pictured beside our evangelist leader following a prolonged period of silence.

Every time her mouth opens it sounds like a Scotland Road (low provenance Liverpool UK thoroughfare) fishwife snorting shabu.

Bernard Corden

Dear Phil, Michael et al - Another two fascinating minds that are worth exploring are Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Caudwell:

Kenny Pawa Ambaisi

This piece confirms my believe that I can become smart through writing. Thanks a lot Phil, Michael, Bernard and Simon.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Nicolescu could be on to something.

Perhaps religion only persists because it deals in those things that science can't explain in a way that the gullible public can except as against, say, a secular ethical proposition might..

I wonder whether this explains how climate change deniers think. Perhaps they reason that science is trespassing into that area between the objective and subjective that religion claims as its own and which it equates with morality i.e. that the science of climate change is something immoral.

That might explain something about Morrison and why people like Dutton want to lock up the young climate change activists.

They are a lot more dangerous than we think.

Bernard Corden

I quite like Giroux because much of his work aligns with Paulo Freire and many of the other free schoolers such as Howard Gardner, Parker J Palmer, Guy Claxton and Ivan Illich.

And as the late Albert Camus once remarked...…"Always go too far because that's where you'll find the truth".

If you find his work too radical another fascinating mind is Basarab Nicolescu with his trans-disciplinary approach, which explores "The Hidden Third" and the fecund middle ground between the objective and subjective.

This includes poetics, spirituality and metanoia and accepts the coexistence of multiple contradictions and realities, some of which are unfamiliar to the physical sciences.

It seeks to liberate reason from a positivist domain and covers the unfathomable realities of complex wicked problems, which are beleaguered with paradox and ambiguity:

It is conducive to bohemian disciplines and does not merely accommodate the validity of another profession for the sake of appeasement.

People from every walk of life or multiple realities can enter this milieu and their perspectives are encouraged. It welcomes discernment, which can temporarily reconcile contradictions and respect emergence, synergy and fusion.

This aligns with the thoughts of Albert Einstein who once said.... "Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source".

This was also reflected by Wilhelm Reich..."Scientific theory is a contrived foothold in the chaos of living phenomena".

The intent is not unity but a collective coherence that confronts the many formidable challenges, which include volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The trans-disciplinary process regurgitates many traditional polemics such as science versus religion and the arts or humanities. Science is unable to explain everything but this does not mean it knows nothing.

It recognises enough to describe Newtonian and nuclear physics although……When we understand every single secret of the universe, the eternal enigma of the human heart will remain.

Trans-disciplinarity seeks an alternative way of knowing, which has been termed metanoia or a knowing

It faces many extraordinary challenges, especially from the academic tradition of establishing and
sustaining disciplines, which constrains synergy and retards growth and enrichment.

Integration of scientific disciplines with subjects such as poetics or religion will undoubtedly continue to encounter
resistance and the lyrics from the late George Harrison resonate.... "And the time will come when you see we're all one and life flows on within you and without you".

It is traditional to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable adversaries. Indeed, science has been
charged, somewhat irrationally with undermining morality.

Ethical behaviour should be based on the social
context, sympathy and education and any religious basis is unnecessary.

It would be an impoverished and interminable state of affairs if humans were restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. Indeed an intellectual, heartless man can never become inspired.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Your point about Giroux and the path to communism and totalitarianism is interesting Michael. I'd be interested in what Bernard thinks.

I've often wondered where progressive politics and anti-capitalism is headed. As you say, a logical endpoint is not pretty.

I'd assumed that such thinking was about a kinder capitalism but Giroux's strident commentaries suggest something a lot darker.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Peterson and Giroux are similar in that they disseminate lots of YouTube material.

In the clip Peterson is specifically addressing students but he is obviously aware that for someone with his high profile what he says will be disseminated widely.

It would be interesting to hear what he thinks about critical thinking and pre-literate societies. Given his background the thought has probably never occurred to him.

I agree that intelligence is not necessarily something that can be taught. It already resides in the individual. Making use of innate intelligence is, however, something that can be taught and refined by such activities as writing.

People like Peterson and Giroux are representative of a growing band of secular evangelists that seems to have expanded exponentially through social media.

The point that Peterson makes about writing is important nevertheless and I'm glad Michael shared the clip.

Not sure about Giroux. I hadn't encountered him before and will reserve my judgement.

Michael Dom

Education works with available intelligence but is not necessarily the source.

Literacy helps with the learning process just the same as oral means. But you can simultaneously gather and repeatedly review many more sources if the words are written down rather than spoken by each person and including your own.

Of course critical thinking was developed without written language, how else did people thrive rather than merely survive elsewhere in the wide world without it?

However, writing as a means of self reflection, conseptualization and sharing of complex ideas and as a learning tool prevails today (whether we like it or not), and can be the purveyor of some very stupid ideas.

Hence Petersons emphatic appeal to write and the unstated but consequential need to bloody well read the material available.

Peterson limited his "turgid sludge" exactly where it was required: in the lecture hall, specifically to university students.

Universities should not be a location where people spout academically ornate words without check, and here the balance is to write them down - ideas and opinions change like the wind - tell me again what you said, starting from...and let me see if it makes sense to me.

Peterson made no claim that writing was superior to preliterate societies oral cultures because this was not within his "exposure". The wider implications are your own, Phil.

And I'm not impressed by the op-Ed verbiage spewed by Giroux for "radical education". This is an effort to raise the modern age proletariat (and SJW forces) with the unavoidable endpoint in communist totalitarian government.

Simon Davidson

Writing is thinking on paper. Writing organises and refines thinking and allows the mind to hew gems from the mind that are as fine as apples of gold in settings of silver.

In the process of writing and thinking, the writer becomes a critical thinker. I agree with the gist of Phil's article.

Bernard Corden

I find Henry Giroux much more interesting than Jordan Peterson's turgid sludge:

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