Baron’s search-inference framework

Last year, I read Mitroff’s “Rethinking the Education Mess”. Chapter 7, entitled ‘General heuristics for coping with the education mess’, discusses 19 heuristics to cope with such a mess. He doesn’t use the dialectical framework of Churchman’s systems approach as one of the heuristics, which puzzled me. Not even a reference. This led me from July 2018 onward to a search into the world of heuristics and biases and, finally, the nature of critical thinking. I read some material by Jackson Nickerson of Olin Business School, Halpern’s ‘Thought and Knowledge’, Hastie’s ‘Rational Choice in an Uncertain World’, a video about thinking, fast and slow, by David Kahneman (Nobel Prize) and finally Jonathan’s Baron’s ‘Thinking and Deciding’, which was a real eye-opener (review). In this post I will discuss some of the main points of Baron’s textbook and suggest how they may be linked to C. West Churchman’s work (this blog).

Search-inference framework      Baron (2008) describes thinking about beliefs, actions and goals in  a single framework for thinking processes of search and inference. This process has the following main steps: (1) thinking is kindled by the realization (dubbed ‘doubt’) that a certain belief in a certain action may not be justified; (2) thinking, especially rationally thinking, then seeks to resolve those doubts by searching for alternatives of action, belief and even goals; (3) evidence is then sought to justify, or rather infer the strengths of certain courses of action or belief; (4) the process ends by taking a decision about how well certain actions are expected to help achieve certain goals. This is a stark simplification as many considerations may enter into the equation. There is a great deal of interdependence between evidence, actions, beliefs and goals. We need goals to judge actions and beliefs, we need evidence to judge beliefs as sufficiently trustworthy. Goals are invariable part of a broader set of goals. The framework is amazingly flexible and helps explain any topic having to do with decision-making, from logic to science and statistics and from decision analysis to social dilemmas.

Generic planning tool       Baron argues that the framework can be used in any kind of planning, from a student deciding which courses to take next term to the question of what apartment to rent or inquiring about the safety of a neighbourhood, or when creating music, poetry, paintings, stories, designs for buildings, scientific theories, essays. Planning is often an ongoing process. Subplans or long-term or overarching goals may lead one to make adjustments to a plan, as will new evidence that emerges during implementation of a plan.

Actively open-minded thinking        Good thinking consists of (1) search that is thorough in proportion to the importance of the question, (2) confidence that is appropriate to the amount and quality of thinking done, and (3) fairness to other possibilities than the one we initially favour. The application of these three principles can be expected to result in a good prescriptive approach to planning. Such an approach encourages the use of certain heuristics. Heuristics are a kind of rules of thumb that help people to become more actively open-minded thinkers and planners and ovoid a number of mistakes, including omissions of relevant evidence, omissions of statements about goals or purposes, omissions of alternative possibilities, and unqualified assertions not supported with evidence.

Critical thinking and biases        Critical thinking in the modern sense emerged as a result of developments in cognitive psychology. It could be considered a reaction to behaviourism. People like Kahneman and Tversky devised many experiments to show mechanisms or processes of bias in human thinking. Bias is what prevents people from being open-minded. Their most productive period was 1971-1981, which suggests that they came too late to allow Churchman to fully benefit of their insights and those of cognitive psychology and critical thinking generally. In fact, critical thinking involves the use of cognitive skills or strategies to increase the probability of a desirable outcome, which suggests that there is a lot of overlap and complementarity with systems thinking.

West Churchman      In Churchman’s terms we could speak of the search-inference framework as an inquiring system. In Baron’s framework a plan could be said to be a hypothesis about the use of resources (cause, including partial causes, hence need for – conducive – ‘environment’) for achieving a purpose (event). That’s the short version. The long version is embodied in Churchman’s teleological framework. The 12 categories in Churchman’s framework (see here) serve as a heuristic (i.e. a search tool) to critically examine human activity conceived as a (complex) system. The categories in Churchman’s framework are in fact categories of assurance, which corresponds to ‘doubt’ and ‘evidence’ strengthening ‘possibilities’ in Baron’s framework. Baron states that his framework can be applied to any kind of planning, Churchman goes one step further and gives doubt in planning a rational structure, which cannot be ignored when we want to address real-life problems.

A synthesis     What Churchman lacks is heuristics to make his general heuristic (or framework) operational. Mitroff has devoted much of his career to operationalizing Churchman’s systems approach and provided a large variety of heuristic tools. Some of these tools follow directly from Churchman’s theories, some seem to follow from the cognitive psychology-critical thinking foundation as explained by Kahneman and Halpern. This is a loose collection of mechanisms (or biases) of the human mind. The beauty of Baron’s work lies in the fact that he is able to take the loose sand and give it structure. Churchman goes one step further and gives structure to planning. Mitroff designs a large number of approaches, heuristics and psychological frameworks to turn Churchman’s and Ackoff’s ideas into practical tools for inquiry and design. A possible synthesis is therefore: (1) scientific foundation: cognitive psychology-critical thinking nexus of Kahneman and Halpern (and many others); (2) Baron’s epistemic search-inference framework to give structure to the loose sand of the foundation; (3) Churchman’s teleological framework (‘the dialectical systems approach’) to give structure to the search for evidence and counter-evidence of planning problems; (4) Mitroff’s approaches, heuristics and psychological frameworks to deal with various key aspects of planning problems. It builds on work such as Baron’s and Churchman’s frameworks, but is more practical, especially where real-life, complex, wicked, ill-structured problems are concerned.


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