Critical thinking combined with evidence-based research is a powerful methodology for understanding and providing solutions in circumstances in which statistical research methodologies are either inappropriate or unsustainable. But if the facts are not recognised and accepted as facts and the problem is not recognised, understood or acknowledged, then no amount of critical thinking and evidence-based research will produce sustainable and valid solutions. This failure of reason is a now a very real issue in the modern world.

In this social media-driven world, most people don’t bother thinking, they simply rely on their intuition and heuristic responses as this is less like hard work: after all, they don’t have time to think and every moment is focused on reacting. Even amongst those who should be thinking, there appears to be a significant number for whom the classical empirical research methodology of developing a hypothesis after analysis of pre-existing theories, designing a data collection process, collecting data, analysing them using a statistically robust method, comparing and contrasting them with the results contained in the published literature before drawing conclusions is the only acceptable research model. This might be an acceptable approach with undergraduate and maybe graduate research but is hardly appropriate when considering post-graduate research, as such thinking rejects or choses to ignore what Albert Einstein called Gedankenexperiments (‘thought experiments’) or the use of critical thinking based on first principles and multiple sources of evidence to infer or deduce new knowledge and understanding.

Michael Scriven and Richard Paul suggested in 1987[1] that critical thinking…

… is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Whilst Karen Robinson (2009)[2] considered evidence-based research as being ‘the use of prior research in a systematic and transparent way to inform a new study so that it is answering questions that matter in a valid, efficient and accessible manner’.

But it is the lack of critical thinking and evidence-based research and the over-reliance on empiricism that has, on numerous occasions, led to a failure of reasoning, resulting in some avoidable catastrophe occurring.

In his 2005 book, Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Jared Diamond, an American polymathic geographer and anthropologist, describes a range of cultures and societies from modern USA, back through medieval and iron-age Viking Greenland, to the ancient statute-carving Polynesians of Easter Island, and examines the critical steps each takes that led to the collapse of their societies.

Diamond’s thinking leads him to postulate a four-step failure model in which he describes what happens when societies fail to recognise, refuse to consider, or simply cannot address the issues that face them, and which then fundamentally undermine the critical assumptions that are the foundations of the societal models in operation. These factors lead to failures in group decision-making, resulting in catastrophic failures, including failures to survive:

  • The failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives. This is similar to, and maybe a synonym for, the failure to understand that current short-term decisions may lead to future problems in what can be considered as the law of unintended consequences.
  • The failure to recognise as a problem a problem that has already arrived. This can also be a refusal to recognise a problem as a problem because, in the short term, it doesn’t appear to be a problem. This is often associated with the failure to learn from history.
  • The failure to attempt to solve a problem once it has arrived and been recognised. This is denial of, and a tendency to ‘turn a blind eye’ to, the issues. This often stems from the belief that things will resolve themselves or that someone else is responsible for solving the problem – a case of ‘passing the buck’.
  • The failure to solve a recognised problem due to the problem and /or the solution being beyond the capacity and competence of the group to solve or is not in their short-term self-interest to solve. This may include being beyond the available resources of the group or because the group has lost the skills to resolve or address the issue. It also occurs when the group has a short-term socio-economic need not to solve the problem: in other words, they would lose political or economic power by doing so.

This four-step approach, which I will call the Diamond Collapse Hypothesis, does not, however, only apply to the anthropological study of societal collapse, it also has an application in the study of the historical decline of empires, the collapse of companies, the defeat of armies and, on a micro scale, it is central to the success or failure of critical thinking. And it almost always starts with the ability or inability of people to process and understand reality, and to define and then take action that will lead to rational and desirable solutions.

Although the underpinning concept is originally attributed to René Descartes (1596-1650), the Santiago Theory of Cognition (1972) proposes that ‘we do not perceive the world we see, we see the world we perceive’: in other words we each of us have our own ‘reality’ and this is entirely autopoietic , i.e. it is created by ourselves as a result of our cumulative personal experience. The result of this is that we believe what our experience has taught us to believe, even when the evidence suggests this is wrong. This blind adherence to a fixed set of beliefs seems to be the very antithesis of critical thinking and evidence-based research, and may well lead us to reject ideas that are not aligned with our own autopoietic reality. This was dramatically illustrated by Hans Rosling (1946-2017), a Swedish physician and statistician, in a TED talk entitled How not to be ignorant about the world[3] in which he showed that people have a highly distorted understanding of reality, one that is not even randomly wrong.

According to Rosling, this inability to grasp reality is caused by personal bias, reinforced by outdated knowledge taught in schools and universities, and coupled with biased news reporting. And it is then further embedded in our brains by what Daniel Kahneman (b. 1934) called ‘loss aversion’ in which we value what we have twice as much as what me might gain from changing our minds: thus we are very reluctant to abandon our current reality even when it is made absolutely clear that it is wrong and we would be significantly better off with a new reality.

It is this that underpins the first two parts of the Diamond Collapse Hypothesis: the failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives and the failure to recognise as a problem a problem that has already arrived. Putting it simply, our personal reality makes it difficult for us to believe that our actions and ideas may logically (and thus more or less inevitably) lead to failure. And, of course, once that failure (the problem) has arrived we often have too much political, social or economic interest invested in our personal reality that we deny the problem exists. This is what economists would call the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ in which it is better to continue to invest in a failure than to abandon it, cut our losses, and re-think the situation.

This process has been clearly visible in the recent past with the 2007/2008 sub-prime loans crisis in the USA’s banking sector in which it was obvious what the logical outcome would be, but too many bankers had too much invested in a disastrous scenario to be able to abandon it[4]. It is also evident in the 2016-2017 Brexit situation, in which too many politicians and other Brexit supporters had too much at stake in pursuing Brexit to be able to step back, abandon the process, and re-think their relationship with Europe[5].  It reminds me of what one wise business leader said: ‘the golden rule of holes is to stop digging when you’re in one’.

The third and last part of the Diamond Collapse Hypothesis, the failure to attempt to solve a problem once it has arrived and been recognised, is founded on a well recognised but often misunderstood behavioural response to stress: that of denial. This comes from the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), an American-Swiss psychiatrist whose pioneering work on terminally ill patients showed that when faced with a very unpalatable and deeply stressful future event, the mind created a behavioural response, which was to deny that the event applied to them. This denial was considered to be the first phase of a coping cycle that then led through anger, bargaining, depression, and finally to acceptance. This was subsequently built on by Colin Carnall (b. 1947), a management school professor, to illustrate people’s reaction to change[6] and I used it in my 2009 paper, From Comfort Zone to Performance Management. As denial turns to anger and then bargaining, this turning of a ‘blind eye’ to the problem appears to lead to two scenarios: the problem becomes undiscussable as it is ‘someone else’s problem to deal with’, or else it is thought to be unnecessary to deal with as it will simply go away if ignored.

This denial phase is evident in the USA in 2017 and 2018 in response to gun violence – it is undiscussable but it remains as a problem. It was also evident amongst British politicians in early 2018 during the Brexit ‘divorce’ negotiations between the UK and the EU when the subject of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland was raised. This was always going to be a problem if the UK were to leave the EU customs union and there are many who pointed this out even before the 2016 referendum to leave the EU: the problem was not recognised as a logical outcome of a course of action (Diamond Collapse Hypothesis stage 1), it was not recognised as a problem by the UK even when it was raised by the EU in early 2017 (Diamond Collapse Hypothesis stage 2), and by March 2018, the UK had still made no effort to come up with a workable and practical solution and continued to deny that it was a problem (there is even evidence in news reports of the time that the UK thinks it is someone else’s problem or that it can be negotiated away as part of a future trade agreement).

The fourth stage of the Diamond Collapse Hypothesis, the failure to solve a recognised problem due to the problem and/or the solution being either beyond the capacity and competence of the group to solve or is not in their short-term self-interest to solve, is the recognition that with the passing of time, the necessary knowledge, skills, attributes, competencies and capacity to solve the problem may have been lost: in other words, those tasked with solving the problem may simply not be able to solve the problem or it becomes simply too expensive to solve. At this stage the problem simply becomes overwhelming, the situation then collapses into total failure and has to be abandoned as unsustainable.

This may be the outcome for the Brexit negotiations since the UK believes that free trade agreements can be negotiated in two to three years despite all the historical data showing that, even when there are no impediments, trade deals take seven to ten years to complete. Thus the UK may cease being a member of the EU and, at the same time, have no trade deals in place with the inevitable consequence of a shrinking GDP and economy for a decade or so. This would be made worse by the fact that as of the beginning of 2018, the UK has no trade negotiation capacity or competency, as these have been lost due to not being involved in trade negotiations for many years whilst a member of the EU.

The inevitability of the progression of the Diamond Collapse Hypothesis can, of course, be avoided provided people engage in critical thinking and evidence-based research … but one has to admit that, as Kahneman talks about in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, thinking is hard, and it is even harder for those not used to it, and it is far, far easier to react using our own preconceived ideas and autopoietic reality, even when they have nothing to do with the facts.

Alasdair White is a lecturer in Behavioural Economics at UIBS, a private business school with campuses in Brussels and Antwerp, as well as in Spain, Switzerland and Japan. He is the internationally respected and much cited author of a number of business and management books and papers, as well as a historian and authority on the Napoleonic era. 

[1], accessed 21 March 2018.

[2] Robinson, Karen A. Use of prior research in the justification and interpretation of clinical trials. The Johns Hopkins University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2009.


[4] You would have thought a banker could spot a sunk cost fallacy a mile off, but no; they blindly carried on pouring money into these loans and eventually the whole bubble burst.

[5] The UK politicians, in particular, apparently felt that had they stepped back and said ‘this is wrong’ they would be unelectable for a generation.

[6] Managing Change in Organizations, Prentice Hall, 1990.


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