By Craig Cavanaugh.
I was told the first post wasn’t a complete disaster, and nobody was enraged enough about my brief foray into traffic lights to firebomb my apartment. So, let’s give this another shot.
Today, rather than picking a specific topic, I’d like to write about something a bit more general. Mainly… critical thinking. Mostly because I like to (attempt to) wield it whenever possible, but also, there appears to be a great scarcity of it in this modern world… especially in relation to the shit show that our elections have devolved into. While, I’m not old enough to appreciate some of the messes that the government and political leaders have created in the past, I’m told they were pretty much just as bad then as they are now. And, it’s possible that they were worse (and no one knew it) because nobody had a pocket-sized spying device with instantaneous access to most of the world’s population. Hell… think of the shit that still gets stirred up by Hoover and all he did was wiretap.
Anyways, back to the topic… the scary part is that a lack of critical thinking has extended well beyond politics. I have seen examples (personally and publically) where people can’t discern between fact and opinion or between reality and beliefs. Jon Oliver aired a few choice moments from the Republican National Convention. One I remember in particular was Newt Gingrich flat out denying a report by the FBI stating that on average, crime has been going down since the mid-90’s. It was almost too much… first, he said, “well, where is that report from?” And, the reporter replied, “the FBI.” Then, he says, “well, obviously they have not been to inner-city Chicago or Baltimore.” And, the reporter (a bit flummoxed) said, “there are areas that have seen a rise in crime, but we are referring to the average.” Finally, Newt retorts, “I don’t accept it.” I believe this is the adult version of sticking your fingers in your earholes and closing your eyes while shouting, “I’m not listening” at your adversary.
This behavior is excruciating to watch, because I know there are a lot of people sitting out there watching it and feeling as though Newt just used critical thinking to ‘win’ (or at least ‘tie’) a disputed point. The Newt-argument has three tactics. First, he asked for the source of the information. Second, he cherry picked data points that disagree with the trend. Third, he basically said, to hell with math and statistics, my anecdotes trump your data, therefore it is fine for me to continue spewing them as the truth. Ugh.
People feel like this is a worthy argument, because he performed a bit of mental judo. First, he questions the validity of the source, which is actually an important thing to do, because bias is actually difficult to eliminate from studies. So… he begins with what appears to be a critical argument. But, in this case… the source is the FBI, and I’m pretty sure the size of their budget is proportional to the crime rate, so… they don’t have a lot of incentive to say that crime has gone down. The issue I have with Newt’s question though… is that rather than being step one of an open minded argument it is more of a legal approach intended to distract and/or cast doubt on the real point of the discussion (though granted… if it had been a study of the crime rate in Mrs. Alexander’s first grade class, then that should indeed be the end of the argument or the start to a much more interesting conversation…). Second, he cherry picks data. This is also a distraction. We are talking about an average… of course there are data points that are above… incidentally, there are also quite a few below the average too, should they talk about those as well? Third, he finishes up by slamming the door shut on his mindhole. There is no truth outside of what he thinks. Case (mind) closed.
And, I’m not just talking about conservative politicians… I just picked a memorable instance off the top of my head. I can reach into my own anecdotal bag and talk about plenty of scientists that do the exact same thing. Out on the cutting edge of research, there is a lot of unknown. (shocking statement, right?) And, scientists constantly have meetings to devise theories of why they see a certain behaviors in a system and how to design an experiment to show one theory is more plausible than another. They have to have meetings because science is big and scary and there is a hell of a lot of data and theories in it. No one person is an expert in everything… and it really does take a village to do it properly. But, a lot of scientists use this exact same Newt-argument in place of critical thinking. When presented with something new which challenges their mental models… they ask where it’s from (who published it, what journal, etc), and if it doesn’t fall into their categories of ‘acceptable’ they ignore it and go back to gazing at their belly buttons (or building mass spectrometers or particle colliders or what-have-you). If it passes test one… they look at an equation or the data set and project it out to some extreme value that was not accounted for in the original study and state, “look it falls apart” or “this needs more work” and then go back to gazing at their belly button. If it somehow doesn’t fail the second test… then they will just say, “I don’t agree because it violates the <insert obscure theory they are the only expert in>” or (non-ironically state) “the lead author is a jerk and does bad science. Again… this is not critical thinking. This is more of what I’d call, close-minded thinking. This is the line of reasoning employed when the mind has already decided an opinion/outcome and figures out ‘a way’ to get there.
Bringing things back around… how do we actually get our thinking to be critical? Well… there is one very simple rule. If you follow it… then everything else is natural. And, the rule is to approach conversations/arguments/debates/etc with an OPEN MIND. Now, don’t confuse this with agreement or god forbid… weakness. An open mind simply allows you to look at a topic or situation from multiple points of view. Of course, you have your opinion on a topic. You even have reasons for that opinion. But, whoever you are talking to is also a person with an opinion backed by their very own reasons. An open mind allows you to acknowledge and attempt to understand their ideas through their eyes. If you practice this… then you can get really good at it and even bring in hypothetical people’s points-of-view or play devil’s advocate. The point is… this is where critical thinking lies. This is where you will develop logical counter-arguments to help support your ideas rather than burying your head in the sand and pretending like everyone else is wrong all the time. And… it’s tough. It takes effort to step away from your thoughts and try to look at a topic from a different point of view. Hell… you may even find out that your argument sucks and that you are wrong. But it’s worth it if you want to have productive interactions with people whether it is at home or work or in politics. And, I know it sounds weird. But, admitting your wrong is actually a good thing. There’s a reason why ‘the bigger man’ admits when they’re wrong. It buys you credit and trust… which in turn helps open the mind of those around you. And… then it might help sway people to your point of view when it turns out your right and they are not.
A great place to start developing an open mind is driving. Weird, right? How’d we go from politics and crazy scientists to driving? Well… think about the last time you got cut off so some other guy could get to the next stop light a little faster. What was your first thought? Depending on my mood… I have two responses. First is… “what an asshole (or ‘jerk’ if my kids are in the car).” This is not very helpful, and often ends up with me getting angry or in a worse mood. The second is, “he must be late for something important… maybe the interview of his life or the birth of his child.” This second one usually ends up with me thinking about what sorts of situations I might find myself in that would lead to me driving like that… which in turn cuts the other person some slack and ends with hoping that they don’t cause an accident or hurt anybody. Note… you don’t have to agree with that person’s reasoning or actions. But, the simple act of acknowledging that they have their own reasons for those actions that might be different than, “I’m a self-important prick that is going to drive like nobody else matters,” naturally opens your mind to other possibilities. Do it often enough… and you’ll find that this sort of open mindedness will creep into other facets of your life, and you might just start to have more productive interactions with other people. I’ll admit… this last sentence is not a fact. But, I can say anecdotally (from my personal experiences) that it works. Additionally, there is a growing body of studies employing fMRI which suggest the brain has a remarkable amount of ‘neuroplasticity.’ This is just a fancy way of saying that the structure of your brain can change to suit your thought practices… or in other words it is possible to change your cognitive habits if you practice. If you are interested in learning more about these summaries… check out ‘Search Inside Yourself’ which extends well beyond bringing an open mind to a gun fight.
Wow… that went on for a hell of a lot longer than I anticipated. Thanks again for reading… Next up will be something a little more concrete and interesting (hopefully).