Sunday, July 7, 2013

Barnes: Society needs more right-brain thinkers

It fascinated me how quickly and savagely the trolls have targeted Ron Barnes. In today's column he discusses how the future needs a different kind of thinking, an idea that's painfully obvious to anyone who's attempted any real thinking at all, and there's no hint of political divisiveness or judgment in it. Yet because they see Ron as an adversary, nothing he says can be right.

What's most ironic here is that commenters who have demonstrated publicly for years a desperate aversion to logic and fact in forming their opinions are insisting on identifying themselves with left-brain thinking, and concluding that Ron would doom them to the dustbin of history.

Perhaps Ron might have incurred less trollish wrath had he used other terms than the left-right dichotomy, which some people will always see (unthinkingly) as political. But the possible alternatives — holistic, intuitive, comprehensive, integrative — just as easily trigger the embedded aversion to hippie-dippiness.

We have an old cultural bias in favor of concepts like logic, hard evidence, system and method, instilled in the centuries since the Enlightenment brought us out of bondage to superstition and gave us the sciences and the scientific method, which in part led to the material wealth we enjoy today. (The most important part was slave labor, of course.) These are obviously extremely useful modes of thought and action, and despite the knee-jerks of his critics, nowhere does Ron say that we don't need them anymore.

The alternatives to linear thinking are not limited to a return to superstition. What Ron means to point up is the developing need for the ability to grasp complex systems in their entirety and work with both the big picture and the microcosm simultaneously — systems like economics, climate, big data, urban engineering, quantum physics and sustainable agriculture. We are coming to recognize the deep interdependence of the system services that support our survival and prosperity, but the numbers of variables are exploding to the point where linear thinking becomes a drag on understanding them.

This is not an original idea, of course. Many forward thinkers have advanced it, from Alvin Toffler to Bill Mollinson to John Muir (the VW mechanic, not the naturalist) and many more besides. I expect Ron was teaching it at Prescott College in the '70s. Again, it's obvious if you look.

As the conservatives of the Enlightenment chose to persecute Galileo rather than look at his results, and as those of the Industrial Revolution chose to retreat into dead-end agrarian utopias, will the conservatives of today resist the need to think bigger? Of course they will. But they're only fooling themselves when they choose to think they're being logical about it.

Neither political team can claim an edge in either linear or nonlinear thought. As Ron points out, everyone uses both. What we must be most aware of is that when we aspire to intuitive success, we risk seeing only what we want to see, intensifying the political divide. It really is a skill we need to develop as a species, and as (or, sadly, if) we begin to achieve it, we'll be surprised that it doesn't look anything like we imagine it now.