The Last Thing You Hear

When I teach any of my writing courses, I ask who has had a class in analytical thinking. I’ve had maybe two or three hands go up in over 1,200 students. Why does a writer need analytical thinking skills? Because otherwise you believe the last thing you hear. Every speaker sounds true. The aperture of your world twists down to one truth at a time, all equally true.

Analytical thinking is the hand-grenade in the hand of someone who demands meaning. You pull the pin and drop it into a pile of deep verbal sh stuff, and all the easy answers go away.

High fructose corn syrup, picture via

High fructose corn syrup, picture via

And that, of course, is the problem with analytical thinking. No one wants messy. No one wants unanswered questions. No one wants to live in anbiguity. It’s easier to be spoon-fed fads, trends, poll numbers, and sound bites. See it on You Tube. Find someone you like and agree with their choice.

Analytical thinking involves asking simple questions with hard answers. “Have we tried this before?” “What happened then?” “Where did you get that figure?” “Where is the source material for that fact?” It’s hard to think of good questions, but without good questions, all the answer sound similar.

But it’s intellectual work, and that is not valued in our current culture. The trouble is, if no one asks the hard questions, we’ll each have to do it individually, and each become experts, which is too much work for the average person.

Here’s an example about analytical thinking:  At the moment, I’m seeing a commercial about high fructose corn syrup. The point of the commercial is that corn syrup is very much like sugar, and fine in moderation. I began to wonder why this commercial is being run. Here are the questions I’d ask:

1. Who is paying for the commercial? As Deep Throat said, “Follow the money.” The person who is paying for this must have a reason for running it.

2. Why is the message ‘high fructose corn syrup is fine in moderation” important to the person paying for it? What is the payoff?

3. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is a sweetener, but I started checking labels and it is also in bread, ketchup, cereals, instant stuffing, Shake n Bake glaze, tonic water, Starbucks Frapuccino, Eggo pancakes, Heinz 57 sauce and Robitussin cough syrup. And more food and medicine items than I can list. Why is it in items that don’t need sweetening or that could use sugar instead?

3. What does the company paying for the commercial want the result to be?

4. What is the complaint against high fructose corn syrup?

5. How is corn altered to create high fructose corn syrup? (I noticed that the word “natural” isn’t in the commercial. “Natural” is such a keyword there must be a reason it’s missing.

6. Who stands to gain financially from the sale of lots of corn?

Each answer will bring more questions. And eventually your discover facts you didn’t know before. That there is a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Texan shore. It’s the size of New Jersey and nothing can live there, there is no oxygen left in that part of the ocean. What happened to it? Well, all the organisms were killed off by the runoff from giant corn fields. The fertilizer is one culprit and the herbicide atrazine is another. All crops require some help, but corn is particularly energy-INefficient. Corn is grown in the same plot of land year after year, so it needs more fertilizer and herbicides than other crops.

Taxes on imported sugar keeps the price of corn used for sugar fairly low, making it easy to use and over time, gave us a taste for the sweet taste of it in food. Now the corn fields are being turned to fuel for our cars, and people are starting to eat less processed (and that means HFCS) food. So to keep up the use, we start to see commercials praising it as a yummy food used “in moderation.”

You can read more about HFCS in this Washington Post article. Meanwhile, a few questions turn up a whole interesting string of facts that are all tied together and make for some interesting diet decisions.

Analytical thinking can be as interesting as unraveling a mystery, help you discover real answers and make good decisions for your life. Not a bad advantage for a few questions.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach who asks a lot of questions and lives happily in ambiguity. See her work at