The lack of (and urgent need for) critical thinking in public decision-making

In the ‘Sunday Times’ of 5 July, Matthew Syed explains how poor governmental decision-making is. This is not just the case over the coronavirus crisis, but in general. He argues that ‘the litany of stupendous overspends on infrastructure projects…have become so common…that we scarcely notice them even more.’ He quotes Professor Rumeldt (‘a leading thinker on such matters’) who says that politicians make ‘vague and meaningless statements, full of fluff, failing to make any real choices to address the challenge in question and mistaking grand ambition or goals for a strategy.’ He also quotes from a report by Tom Lees (‘a construction expert’) who argues that ‘Too little time, thinking and rigorous process goes into the start of the projects’.

Syed then provides lots of examples in which it is the central lack of any critical thinking that characterises public decision-making. Questions such as ‘Why were assumptions shown to be wrong?’ and ‘What lessons can be learned?’ are not asked. Nor is there even an acceptance that mistakes in decision-making were made. He gives a striking example of how to ask good questions with the ‘fail fast’ culture in Formula 1. The astonishing speed with which pits-stop procedures are carried out is achieved by this ‘fail fast’ approach such that ‘Everything is measured, so that errors can be identified and improvements acted upon.’ James Vowles, the Mercedes chief strategist puts it well: ‘Engineering is not just about what we know, but finding out what we don’t know, for with a complex problem there is a lot that even experts don’t know. That is why you challenge your assumptions quickly, figure out where your ideas are wrong, so you can improve them.’

A thorough-going acceptance of the value of critical thinking (with its emphasis on careful and accurate analysis, on widespread creative and rigorous evaluation of claims made, on the need to consider carefully the possible significance of claims, on the need to produce carefully structured – and supported – reasoning) would make a big difference to the problem of consistently poor public decision-making.

It is a matter of continuing regret that critical thinking is no longer given the status of an examined subject in schools, a decision taken some years ago without any clear account of why this was done. Perhaps, with hindsight, it was because critical thinking is not valued by those who in government who make decisions.

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