Seven rules for sharpening up your thinking skills
Every day we're flooded with information from all sorts of sources. Much of it is trying to sell us some kind of conclusion: “PMart is the cheapest”, “Global warming is the biggest problem facing humanity”, “Susan thinks you’re cute” and so on.
The problem is often information from one source contradicts that from another. Worse, there are people out there who try to persuade us of false ideas in order to further their own interests.
In such a world, learning how to think for yourself should be one of the primary goals of every person. Of course, most people believe they already have this skill in spades. But becoming a sharp thinker is an ongoing process - an aim that's never fully realized.
Just in case your skills need a bit of brushing up, here are some good strategies for doing so.
Have a healthy level of scepticism
Scepticism is the belief that knowledge is very difficult to obtain. As an attitude, it means believing that any new idea presented to you is false until reasonable evidence is provided that it’s true.
Don’t trust new information at its face value. Instead, dissect it carefully before accepting it.
This is particularly necessary for claims that seem incredible or fail to match your experience of the world. If someone states they can teach you superhuman powers, make you rich quickly, or help you lose weight without much effort, you should be extremely sceptical. Make them present plenty of evidence to back such claims up.
Look for hard data, not assumptions, arguments and conclusions
Data is raw information about the world. It should be the starting point for any argument or conclusion. If someone tries to present an idea to you without credible, objective data to back it up, you should not accept it as truth until such data is forthcoming.
The best data is completely objective, such as “Mike is 2 meters tall”. It should not contain value judgements like “Mike is a great guy” or “Staff in that store can’t be trusted”. Data must be verifiable from more than one unrelated source before it can be considered of reliable quality.
If there’s not enough data then no conclusion can be formed
There are lots of things in the universe that we simply can't confirm. In cases where there’s not enough data to form a conclusion, “I don’t know” is the only acceptable answer.
This is a very difficult point for many people to accept. It seems to be human nature to believe that any answer is better than no answer. Such an attitude is just plain wrong.
The question: “Is there life after death?” is a good example. People have argued over this question for thousands of years. The best minds in history have pondered it. All sorts of clever-sounding theories have been proposed - often wrapped in seductive language.
Despite all the effort, there has never been any reliable, verifiable evidence presented to support any conclusion on this point. There is simply not enough data to back an argument either way.
Of course, some people say they're in contact with the dead, and others claim to have had near-death experiences which gave them an insight into the afterlife. But no-one has ever managed to provide convincing evidence of these phenomena.
The only acceptable answer to the sharp-minded thinker is: "There’s not enough data to form any sort of conclusion".
Many religious and spiritual questions come under this umbrella, as do speculations about alien life and the far-future. Perhaps one day we'll have the evidence we need to make reasonable conclusions, but so far that hasn't happened.
Look for and verify assumptions
An assumption is data to back up an argument that isn’t explicitly stated. Any argument has assumptions, simply because we as humans are unable to know everything.
Even the conclusions presented by science have in-built assumptions that can't be proven. Most scientific facts are verified by experiment, but no experiment is perfect. No matter how many times you test a hypothesis, you can’t test it under every condition. Sooner or later, you must assume that just because it works under a certain number of conditions, it will work under all.
Science also assumes that the future will continue to look like the past. There’s no implicit reason to believe, for example, that just because gravity has worked one way every time it’s ever been tested up to now, it will continue to do so in the future.
Before accepting any argument, you should probe its assumptions to see how credible they are.
Here’s an example of how to examine assumptions:
Fred: "One day, our machines may become so intelligent that they decide to kill us all."
Alice: "Why would machines want to deliberately kill us?"
Fred: "And so they can rule the world without our interfering."
Alice: "Why would machines want to rule the world. What would be their motive?"
Fred: "And so they can never be switched off."
Alice: "Machines don't seem to care if we switch them off today. What makes you think that will change?"
And so on.
Look for circumstances where the conclusion may be found false
If you can see cases where a particular conclusion may be right, now rack you brain to find a circumstance under which it may be wrong. If you can’t find one, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
For example, if someone says "All English people like pop music", try to find an example of an English person who's explicitly stated he doesn't like pop music.
If you accept that something's right, challenge yourself by looking for others who disagree. Give their views a fair hearing and use them to examine your own beliefs.
Make strong attempts to overcome your biases
Everyone has biases which affect their judgement. You should try to suspend yours, as much as possible, while evaluating new information. Initially approach anything new in a humble manner, recognizing that it’s impossible you could know everything and be always right. Give the information a fair hearing based on the data presented, and keep your particular world-view out of it.
Be willing to change your conclusions in the face of new data
Legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, upon being accused of inconsistency, once said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
This is an admirable attitude to have. We're all just imperfect mortals forming conclusions with only a shred of the data we really need to do so. Accept that you'll often hold ideas and beliefs that are wrong. Be ready to change those ideas and beliefs when the world tells you that the time has come to do so.
So there they are, my rules for improving your critical thinking and sharpening up your mind skills. I hope they help you form better conclusions about the world.
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