“A night of heavy thinking” (Critical thinking)


Most people would agree that it’s better to be objective and corrected than to be biased and wrong. But since the journey from the latter to the former is painful, many people avoid it.

A couple of ideas might make the trip less unpleasant. First, try separating yourself from your beliefs. They are not one and the same. Second, think of disagreements as collaborations, not conflicts. If discussing an issue with someone, both of you should be trying to find the truth. That’s where critical thinking comes in. This is using your knowledge and intelligence to reach the most reasonable position, while overcoming roadblocks to rational thinking.

These roadblocks include selective memory, especially when it strengthens one’s belief. If Maria is convinced that full moons leads to crazy behavior, she will notice when these two collide. But she may pay no attention to full moons without crazy behavior or to crazy behavior without full moons. For an objective approach, Maria should first analayze patterns over the past five years to see if there is any change in criminal behavior during a full moon. Next, she should remember that correlation does not imply causation and consider various conclusions.

Another hindrance to overcome is false memories. I was baffled when I couldn’t find the ID card I put in the slot between my seats three minutes prior. When I found it, it was not in the slot, on the car floor, or under the seats. It was in my wallet. A false memory had been created, and this involved only me and a short passage of time.

This phenomenon manifests itself in a tragic manner when a parent, perhaps dealing with a lack of sleep and change of routine, creates a false memory of having left their child at daycare instead of in the back seat. After the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, a group of students were surveyed about where they were when they heard about the explosion. They were asked the same question 10 years later and a majority gave the wrong answer. It is a handy tool in one’s critical thinking kit to know memories are often manufactured to fill in gaps in our recollection.

Without this understanding, the thinker is subject to the flaw of relying on anecdotes from others to bolster their views. A person convinced that dowsing can be used to find water is going to put more credibility than is justified in an uncle’s friend’s story that he could do it. Testimonies can be subjective, inaccurate, even invented. Thrilling tales of encountering Yeti or of a cousin’s trip to an amazingly prescient fortune teller do not prove the existence of the beast or the accuracy of the crystal ball. Anecdotal evidence is often an oxymoron. Resist making judgments on testimonies, especially the more extraordinary the claim. Let’s base our conclusions on the most likely reality, not the most appealing.

Also, beware the appeal to emotions. While not always meant to engender a reaction, words such as patriot, children, traitor, God, flag, socialism, terrorist, and white privilege can be an attempt to heighten feelings and to bias the listener for or against a topic or person. Instead of the emotive words, focus on the reasoning and facts behind the claim. A similar tactic is the false dilemma, where the speaker frames the only choices as good-or-evil, right-or-wrong, and with-us-or-against-us. This is common during war or national emergencies. When confronted with these deliberately limited choices, seek opposing viewpoints which may reveal the existence of other alternatives. These can include being for both, against both, neutral to both, or partially for or against both.

Another tactic to look for is the ad hoc hypothesis, where a rationale is invented to keep a theory from being disproven. James Randi was interviewing three men who claimed to be able to detect a type of water with supernatural properties, and they had a sample with them. Randi put the magic water in a container, then filled two similar containers with water from a tap. He then proposed the three men be put in separate rooms and the containers rearranged. The three would enter the room individually and determine which was the magic water. There would only be a one in 27 chance the trio would all pick the lucky liquid, and if they did so, it would be a good sign the claim was accurate. At this point, the experiment abruptly ended. The men claimed the magic properties had emanated from its source and infiltrated the other samples. Put no stock in claims such as these since they cannot be independently tested.

It is also crucial to get a rudimentary understanding of the Law of Truly Large Numbers. With a large sample, many seemingly stunning occurences are actually likely to happen. Telepathy, astrology, and clairvoyance all play on ignorance of this idea. The Lincoln-Kennedy assassination coincidences are another well-known example. This list puts stock in the idea that the presidents were elected 100 years apart, but ignores the years of their births and deaths being separated by uninteresting periods of 108 and 98 years. With practice, the listener can begin to realize when numbers are being used correctly and objectively, rather than incorrectly and with bias to support an argument.

Another barrier to overcome is the post hoc fallacy. This is falsely asserting that because one event happened near the same time as another, the two are related. Astrologer Valerie Livina wrote that a lunar eclipse caused deadly fires in Australia. But skeptic leader Dr. Robert Carroll replied, “How do we know that the fires didn’t cause the eclipse?” We don’t know that, but there is no reason to believe it, and there is no reason to believe the opposite. To think critically, employ Occam’s Razor and identify the possible causes and effects, beginning with the most likely.


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