Oh! My heart is broken, another crushing blow to me and my geek tendencies… :)
The recent hoo-has involving a celebrity TV dog trainer, a pig, a dog and a whole bunch of folks in the dog training community made me think (well, so did what I ate for lunch, but y’know.) To the incident itself, I have nothing helpful to add to the debate. But there are some lessons in it that go beyond that I think are worth talking about.
I thought I had an answer: Critical thinking skills! You bet, what the world needs now is critical thinking skills! If I could teach those, I could save the people, the pigs and the little dog, too. So I hopped online and did a bit of research. And I found this lovely paper, “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel T. Willingham that broke my little geek heart.
It seems, according to the data looked at in this paper, that critical thinking skills are devilish hard to teach—because they aren’t really “skills.” Critical thinking isn’t like riding a bicycle, something you learn once and don’t forget. It’s not about memorizing rules and then following them. It’s more complicated than that, because being able to think critically About Something—and it’s always About Something--requires at least a bit of a knowledge base, the more accurate and deeper the better. It would be hard, for example, for me to think critically about fine wine, skiing or physics, subjects I know nothing about. I would be much better—and more critical—if the topics were grill cheese sandwiches, sword fighting and birdwatching, arenas of knowledge I’ve visited. Without some amount of information, maybe even some factual facts, I haven’t got enough foundation to critically evaluate much beyond I feel, I like, I believe, or—perilous ground—I like, believe or trust the source. Absent a fund of knowledge to draw on, I’m left with an emotional response to the “expert” or the all-too human tendency to cherry-pick my sources according to my own biases and self-image. I might ask around, demand some evidence or fact check—but I might not. In the broad information ocean, I might not even know how to find who to ask, a good source of proof or facts.
Given this, hopping up and down and exhorting pet owners, etc., to “Think critically!” isn’t going to accomplish much. Far better minds than I—entire groups of brilliant minds—have designed entire programs to promote critical thinking in youngsters, and it seems that they haven’t worked very well at all. Unless those lessons are grounded in the About Something part—real, accurate information to give us the means to judge for ourselves—appeals to Think Critically can take on a paranoid gloom. It ends up sounding like “Trust no one! Believe nothing!” Or worse, it ends up sounding like “You’re stupid and you’re wrong.” Which may or may not be true, but is rarely productive.
I know this, but me being me, I can’t help wanting to offer something to think about. Two things, actually.
First, I want to talk about love. I have loved, albeit sometimes quietly and in my own eccentric way, this planet we live on. I have marveled at the Earth, the creatures that dwell with us, the sunsets over the beaches I grew up on, the stars over desert skies on bitter cold nights, the extraordinary moments found in mangrove swamps and reefs and surf. With a deep and abiding passion since I was very tiny, I have loved the Earth. Always and forever.
I still don’t get to say it’s flat and expect huzzahs.
People who love dogs truly, madly and deeply can be utterly mistaken about the “shape” of dogs. They can say and do truly silly or dumb things, can be irresponsible pet owners, can be—intentionally or unintentionally—mean, scary, hurtful or just plain wrong. They can be terrible trainers. They can do great things to help 100 dogs and awful things to “help” another 99. Being a nice person and really loving something doesn’t = right. Or factually accurate. Or well informed. The world is full of wonderful, decent, well-intended people who are wrong all over the map. The proof of objective fact is never in the wonderful, decent or well-intended—or lack thereof. It’s in the fact.
Dog trainers can argue over “methods” until the critters come home. Logical fallacies are logical fallacies no matter who says them, or how nice a person they are, or how loving and well-intended they have been. More to the point, the condition of the animal is the condition of the animal: it is what it is, regardless of what we say about it.
I have, in my nearly 14 years as a shelter professional, seen hundreds of—very often weeping—pet owners needing to surrender their dogs. The dog they bring me can be filthy, matted, flea-ridden, unvaccinated, untrained, under-socialized, terrified, morbidly obese or otherwise in wretched condition, physically or emotionally. To a man or woman, these folks will tell me how much they love the dog. The little old cat hoarder who keeps 40 semi-feral, ill and starving cats in a single-wide mobile will cry passionately “I love them! I’m saving them!” The self-proclaimed “rescue” group will passionately set out to “rescue” every dog in sight… and lock them in filthy cages in a garage without food or water for hours at a time in the name of save and rescue. A trainer will scare the snot out of a dog or use physical pain in the name of “rehabilitation,” pat themselves on the back and say they “saved” the dog from euthanasia, and anyhow they really love dogs, they are “rescuing” dogs and look how many they’ve helped…
It took me years (and lots of work on controlling my temper) to realize that all these folks are telling me the truth: they really do love dogs. Madly, deeply. They are trying to save them. Their intentions are nothing but good. They are sincere and honest in how they feel. The problem isn’t in how they feel. It’s how they act.
When lots of very good, intelligent people—and there are lots of them, and they aren’t mean or stupid, they just aren’t—commit the same mistakes over and over, it suggests a problem that runs deeper than “mean” or “stupid” or “ignorant.” If we all do it—and we all can do it in our own ways—it suggests a human problem, a core bias, a glitch in the spin of our brains. In the case of our well-intended “rescuers” or “trainers,” it looks like they’ve fallen heavily into the clutches of a common Logical Fallacy.
It’s called Either/Or and can show up like this:
The dog kills chickens
Either the dog is trained to stop killing chickens
The Dog must be shot dead
There’s a litter of abandoned kittens in a box
Either I take the kittens home and raise them myself (in the trailer with 40 other cats)
They will all die
The obvious trouble here is that the road from premise to conclusion doesn’t allow for multiple solutions, like: don’t have chickens, build a better fence, find the dog a good home without chickens; take the kittens to a shelter, or find someone else willing to help with them. It’s black-and-white thinking that leaps from A to Z without visiting B,C, D, etc. Another common way it shows up:
The dog needs to be rescued.
The dog is better off living in a filthy cage without food or water for a while
The dog has a behavior that is putting her at risk for losing her home.
The dog is better off if I use pain and fear to train the behavior out of her
Losing her home
The obvious snarl here is that the dire dreadfulness of the outcome (euthanasia, loss of home) actually doesn’t make the option presented necessary. How about keeping the rescued dog in a nice clean kennel, with plenty of food, water and opportunities to play and exercise? How about using a gentler (but equally effective) way to train the dog? But, no: the possibility of dire outcomes is used to justify crummy practices. Meanwhile, much ado is made about Love and Good Intentions.
What I think I see in this kind of black-and-white thinking (and oh boy, would I love a real sociologist to have a go at the dog training/animal rescue field) is a curious common thread: the ONLY ONE syndrome. I am the Only One who can save the dog, the kittens, the day. Only I cares, knows, feels, loves enough, has the right magic method, etc. If I am the Only One willing to take the mission on, the fact that I don’t actually have the resources, knowledge, expertise and so forth to accomplish the “save” without using crummy practices is moot—I am the Only One, so it’s my way or Death. My crummy practices are beyond criticism since the alternative is so awful.
And that brings me to my second musing in Part 2.