CAT | On Thinking
Some time back after I had returned to the United States after living in Eastern Europe I was invited to speak to a local chapter of Mensa about my experience living abroad during an exciting time in history.
Mensa is the international high-IQ society founded in 1946. Its only criterion for membership is an IQ in the 98th percentile. In other words, in a group of 100 people you’re one of the two smartest people in the room.
The first time we tried to get together they sent me to the wrong address. So we rescheduled.
The second time they’d forgotten there was a scheduling conflict so I wound up going out for a beer with the three people who did show up.
So how come the smartest people in the room couldn’t arrange something every Cub Scout den mother does on a regular basis?
I think all of us probably know some pretty smart people who have dumb ideas. And the stereotype of the unworldly impractical genius has been around for a long time.
An article in the New York Times Sunday Review of Sept. 16, by David Z. Hambrick, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and graduate student Alexander P. Burgoyne, summarizes research that confirms what some of us have suspected for some time.
Smart people can be pretty dumb.
“As the psychologist Keith Stanovich and others observed… some people are highly rational. In other words, there are individual differences in rationality, even if we all face cognitive challenges in being rational. So who are these more rational people? Presumably, the more intelligent people, right?
“Wrong. In a series of studies, Professor Stanovich and colleagues had large samples of subjects (usually several hundred) complete judgment tests like the Linda problem, as well as an I.Q. test. The major finding was that irrationality — or what Professor Stanovich called “dysrationalia” — correlates relatively weakly with I.Q. A person with a high I.Q. is about as likely to suffer from dysrationalia as a person with a low I.Q.”
So it turns out that people with high IQs are just as prone to bias, prejudice, and rationalization as anybody else. No matter how smart we are, it’s difficult to think objectively about things we are emotionally invested in.
Though perhaps not surprising. How many smart people do you know who can be spectacularly stupid about for example, their romantic affairs? Money? Car repairs?
In fact, it seems really bright people are capable of much larger scale and much more harmful stupidity than your average-bright person.
Worse news, it doesn’t seem that higher education has an effect on how prone to cognitive bias we are. So much for those freshman logic classes.
The good news Hambrick claims, is that computerized training can affect long-term improvements in people’s ability to think objectively.
Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I haven’t looked at the experimental results in detail, but I’ve seen a lot of a tendency to label something “objective” when it seems to mean “agrees with me.”
That however could be my own bias in favor of a classical liberal arts education where logic and rhetoric are taught early. Logic is about objective thinking, rhetoric is about persuasive speaking, and the study thereof is about knowing the difference between them.
Perhaps we will find, or rediscover ways to teach objective critical thinking. One may always hope.
But one thing is for sure, we have every reason to be skeptical about the ability of other people to run our lives for us based on the argument they are smarter than we are.
“The spirit of liberty is one which is not too sure it is right.”
– Judge Learned Hand
This is something I posted on a Facebook discussion thread vis-a-vis our political differences in this country:
“Has it ever occurred to you that the other side might be merely wrong?
For example that they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the measures you think necessary for the welfare of poor and working class people are in fact actively bad for them?
The right-wing equivalent is the belief that people on the left want to impose a totalitarian dictatorship on the American people.
This is what I’m talking about – there seems to be a deep felt need in a great many people to believe that those who they disagree with are not just wrong – but evil.
I saw this when I was young and hanging out with the anti-war movement in the ’60s. There were young people then who would tell you straight up that a great many people in this country had to be killed to achieve a just society.
All of this looks very familiar to me.”
The reply contained the comment “you can’t see…” concerning what the writer called my “false equivalence.”
Perhaps I see too much. And what I see is beginning to scare me.
Though there is really no politician or party with which I agree 100 percent, yes I think one side is right on more things, or rather has a viewpoint more in accordance with reality than the other.
But I could be wrong, and I’ve changed my mind on some substantial issues in my lifetime.
Moreover I think most people never consider it’s entirely possible that on some pretty contentious issues that both parties could be right.
The example I use sometimes is the social welfare issue.
On the left people argue that private charity is not enough to meet the needs of the chronically poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill and that the failure to maintain social welfare services will produce social instability.
On the right they tend to argue that the welfare state has created learned dependency, destroyed initiative, forced us into unsustainable spending, and weakened social capital.
I have not met anyone willing to concede these might both be true, that the choice might be between bad and less bad alternatives. It goes against the grain of the American world view that there might be problems with no completely satisfactory solution.
That’s why we have people saying, “you can’t see,” which all too easily becomes “you refuse to see” implying malice or self-interested motives.
I think this is why each side sees, not what the other side believes, but a caricature of it. And yes I think it’s more pronounced on one side than the other, but that could be sample bias.
There really are people that believe roughly a third of their fellow-citizen actively want poor people to starve in abject misery, want women to be semi-chattels, want rich oligarchs to make war in distant lands to enrich themselves over the bodies of their children.
Too many people these days do not seem to get that disagree is what free men do.
I discovered author Steven Pressfield when I was living in Warsaw, Poland and just starting out as a professional writer.
The book was “Gates of Fire” about the battle at the Hot Gates, called Thermopylae in Greek. I bought it because I’ve always been fascinated by the last stand of the 300.
(Actually closer to 7,000 at the beginning of the defense of the pass. At the end the remnant of Leonidas’ guard stood with 700 citizen soldiers of the small city of Thespia who refused to leave when he sent the bulk of the Greek force away after getting news the path around the pass had been betrayed to the Persians.)
When I opened the book I knew right away I had a work of literary genius on my hands. I have since read more of Pressfield’s books, but none has quite hit me like that one.
Although I must say, after seeing the movie made from “The Legend of Bagger Vance” I marvel that he could grip my attention with a work about golf – a sport I am not merely uninterested in, but one I have an active dislike of.
Every book you enjoy is a wonderful gift from someone you may never meet. But the greatest gift Pressfield has given me is the concept of Resistance. He writes about Resistance often on his blog, and in his books such as “The War of Art.”
Resistance is a writer’s constant companion.
Resistance wakes up with me when I first check my email, get my children up and send them off to school
Resistance has breakfast and coffee with me while I think about what I’m going to write today.
Resistance gives me an overwhelming desire to do housework when I’m stuck on a sentence.
Resistance whispers in my ear that I can’t finish a book-length work and nobody will be interested anyway.
Resistance says tomorrow is always a better day to start.
Resistance asks wasn’t it better when you had a flesh-and-blood boss to tell you to write? Wasn’t it better when you wrote for an audience you knew was there every day?
I have known Resistance for a long time. She has been with me all my life, and will never leave me.
But though I often give in, I know I must never give up.
Pressfield showed how to defeat Resistance in the most masterful way – write about it.
Now back to work.
I have been a professional writer, meaning I get paid for what I write, for going on two decades now. I’ve been making a full-time living at it for six years now.
I started with five goals as a writer:
1) Write regularly.
2) Publish what I write.
3) Get paid for what I write.
4) Make a living writing.
5) Make a lot of money writing.
I like to say I’m on stage four. However each stage is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last, so the jump from four to five…
When I started getting paid for writing advertorials for the English-language press in Poland, I looked on it as paid practice.
When I became a working journalist it imposed a certain kind of structure on my writing: more terse than my usual wont, and organized in the “inverted pyramid” style. It’s not quite how I like to do essays, and I think of myself as an essayist above all, but it’s great discipline.
Opinion columns are great practice too. You have to make your point within a certain word limit, which really makes you think about how to organize your thoughts and what is the minimum necessary to leave in to support your point.
I’ve also written quite a few movie/TV reviews and that is a whole lot of fun.
Now I’ve taken off six months from work to write a book, maybe two short books, and it’s a whole different ball game.
I’ve actually written two books already. One was a book of vocabulary-building essays for English students and teachers who are non-native speakers.
The other was a book on linguistic humor for the same audience. Meaning jokes that cannot be translated because they use a feature of the language, lexical or phonetic, for humorous effect: puns, play on words, spoonerisms, accent and dialect jokes, etc.
Now I’m working on a book with some of my thoughts on politics, “The Progressive Mind and Other Essays.”
Like my other books it’s partly a collection of essays, revised and expanded, and partly new material written to extend my original insight and bring it all together.
A lot of the work so far has been just copying and pasting the essays, writing transitions and editing. And boy has there been a lot of editing!
I have had to ruthlessly prune phrases down to single words or eliminate them entirely. I constantly ask myself, “Does this support the point or did you just include that because you thought it was interesting?”
And I have to organize thoughts I’ve had that previously just rumbled around in my brain.
It’s a challenge for sure, and win, lose, or draw it’ll make a better writer out of me.
But what’s really tough is the self-doubt and failure of nerve that threatens to overwhelm sometimes.
That nagging little voice that asks, “Is this really good? Is anybody ever going to find this insight as fascinating as you do? Have you got it in you to finish this?”
I’m discovering that writing can be an act of courage as much as discipline.
Note: Cross-posted from my blog at The Marshall Independent.
Most of us try to get at least some physical exercise.
A great many studies have shown the health benefits of even moderate exercise. A 30 minute walk every day, or every other day, walking with a heel-to-toe roll strengthens the calf muscles enough to take a lot of wear and tear off your heart and flakes the rust out of your joints.
A little time spent at the Y during the winter months does a lot for quality of life, especially those of us who spend entirely too much time sitting down. Not trying to emulate the lifters, not going for weight, just moving.
But what about our brains?
Turns out there’s a whole science and a growing industry dedicated to brain exercise, and I’ve become an enthusiastic convert.
You buy a subscription and you get 5-10 minutes a day of games that help improve memory, speed, decision-making, calculations, pattern recognition, and helps get the brain started in the morning better than coffee.
For me personally it’s great for writer’s block, concentration, and articulation. If I’m stuck on a piece, a little break for training helps get the words flowing again. And it’s something productive to do in those frustrating times while waiting for someone to return a phone call!
The site lets you chart your progress in the areas you chose to work on, and compare your improvement to other users in your age group. There are said to be physical changes in the brain too. There’s neuron growth, just as physical exercise causes muscle growth.
It’s even supposed to make you a better driver!
There are several different companies, the one I use is called Lumosity.
Note; My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, but I am cross-posting entries in my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent, or in this case in the print edition of the TV guide.
Last week I caught the premier episode of “Penn & Teller Tell a Lie” on the Discovery Channel.
I’ll be catching a whole lot more of them I think.
The show features the comic illusionist team of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, who by the way first partnered up at the 1975 Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
Penn and Teller present a number of claims of the odd-but-true kind. Except that one isn’t. They invite you to vote on which one you think is the fraud.
The first episode featured claims that:
1) You can steer a light plane with a disabled rudder by opening and closing the plane’s doors.
2) Research shows swearing helps relieve pain.
3) A wall made of Aerogel, a substance that is mostly air, can insulate against a flame thrower.
4) A rope made from a head of hair can lift a Mustang convertable.
5) Alligators get sexually excited when they hear the note B flat.
6) You can drive off an attacking tiger by punching down its throat.
7) A petite woman can prevent a body builder from picking her up just by changing her stance.
For me number one just makes sense, a door can act as a control surface by deflecting the air stream. Two I believe because it works for me. Three I thought was probable because I’ve seen demonstrations of similar insulating materials. Four I was pretty sure of because I’m a history geek and know that human hair has been used for rope when extreme strength was required for things like torsion catapults.
However five sounded fishy to me. But I wasn’t sure about six either.
Seven I knew was true because I know that trick, and several others of the same kind. There’s no mumbo-jumbo secret power involved at all, it’s all about leverage.
So which was it, five or six?
Well right off I noticed the video of a tiger attacking a zookeeper was allegedly captured by security cameras – except it had TV quality color and image, and close-ups that caught the alleged incident just right. And that tiger sure seemed to have an easy time just batting the lock to the door of his cage off, which again was captured by a perfect video close-up. how likely it that?
“Ah ha!” thought I, and was justly proud when proved correct.
(Oh, except that I hadn’t noticed that Penn & Teller had included views of a stone lion in front of a library building in a quarter of the “security camera” video.)
And isn’t that weird about alligators? Turns out it’s true, and has been known for almost a hundred years, but nobody is really sure why.
This show is enjoyable on a number of levels. Penn’s patter, allied with Teller’s mime, is pretty entertaining to begin with. The fun facts are well, fun. Amuse and entertain your friends at parties will all the weird things you know!
And most importantly, it helps people learn to think skeptically, especially about things which can be faked by camera trickery and sincere-sounding acting.
And in this day and age, that’s not a trivial contribution to society.
Note: my weekend op-ed.
I’ve just read an interesting study about how buying green makes people mean.
Two PhDs at the University of Toronto; Chen-Bo Zhong, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, and Nina Mazar, Assistant Professor of Marketing, asked the question, ‘Do Green Products Make Us Better People?’ now in press at the journal Psychological Science.
The answer, according to the article’s abstract is, probably not.
“In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products.”
In layperson language, good examples encourage good behavior, but good behavior can justify bad behavior later.
The researchers set up three experiments with a total of 305 students at the University of Toronto. Subjects were tested to see if buying green products creates enough “moral credentials” to encourage them to lie and steal for their own advantage.
The results were clear, and depressing. It does.
The study attributes this to what the authors call, “the licensing effect,” whereby “virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors.”
In other words, I’ve been really good so now I get to be bad.
This is interesting because it offers insight into a lot of behavior way outside the scope of the experiment.
Did you ever wonder how pedophile priests justify their betrayal of their oaths, their parishioners, and their duty to God? “Climate change activists” who travel about in chartered jets and chauffeured limos, leaving carbon footprints the size of a small town? Idealistic politicians who get on the gravy train to enrich themselves after just a short time in office? Animal rights activists who treat mere people like dirt?
Explanations offered for this include: they’re hypocrites, they’re phonies enlisting in a cause they don’t really believe in but find more profitable than working for a living, or they’re degenerates infiltrating a respected institution to gain access to innocent victims.
It could be all of these, but maybe it’s also something else. Maybe it’s the licensing effect.
As I read the study, I started to get the feeling I’ve seen this movie before. Literally.
Silver Bullet is a 1985 movie based on Stephen King’s novella, ‘Cycle of the Werewolf,’ starring the late Corey Haim, Gary Busey, and Everett McGill.
The story is, a crippled boy Marty Coslaw (Heim) believes a werewolf is behind a series of grisly murders in a small New England town. The boy sets out to discover which of the townspeople is the werewolf.
It turns out, it’s the town’s pastor Reverend Lowe (McGill.)
Before Marty and his Uncle Red (Busey) manage to kill the werewolf with a silver bullet, the boy confronts Reverend Lowe.
The Reverend is aware he’s a werewolf. But, he tells Marty, surely all the good I do when I’m not a werewolf justifies ripping a few people to bloody shreds once a month?
I mean hey, nobody’s perfect.
The medieval church used to have a practice called “selling indulgences,” offering absolution for certain sins for money. The revulsion caused by this practice eventually became one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation.
So now that feel-good causes have largely replaced religion in people’s hearts, is this what we’re doing? Buying indulgences?
I’d like to draw your attention to this message from my friend Robert Bidinotto, which he posted on his facebook page. It deserves wider distribution than his mailing list, and his web site is hors de combat after the hosting company fraked up.
Underneath I’m going to indulge myself in some sour grapes. Or at least that’s what some may say.
Lest you think Robert is indulging himself in some of those, I’ll point out here that wa-a-a-ay back, Robert was the writer who broke the “Willie Horton” story in Reader’s Digest during the Bush/Dukakis campaign.
And by the way, Robert NEVER referred to the oft-incarcerated psycho as anything but “William Horton.”
In Defense of the “Right-Wing Populists”
by Robert James Bidinotto
Jonah Goldberg—the undeniably intellectual author of Liberal Fascism—criticizes those intellectual weenies, both left and right, who attack talk-show host Glenn Beck and other right-wing populists, including Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Partiers. (See his article here: http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/10/column-in-defense-of-glenn-beck-.html )
I’m with Goldberg on this.
I’ve spent most of my professional life within the right-wing think-tank world. Sadly, in my experience, the majority of the wonks and theorists who populate this mini-universe live in the rarified air of theoretical abstractions severed from real-world experience—that is to say, totally inside their own skulls. Many have migrated straight from grad schools into think tanks, without the invaluable rite of passage provided by a job out in the competitive marketplace. As a result, they have become cocooned in a self-selected world of other intellectuals, and many are uncomfortable around those who don’t share their bookish preoccupations. This causes an interesting cultural tension for right-wing intellectuals. As a point of ideological faith, they profess to like “Americans,” at least in the abstract—but they despise most of the concrete examples of Americans whom they encounter in the streets and shops.
Read conservatives such as David Frum, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan, or even some prominent denizens of libertarian think tanks. Such right-wing intellectuals are about as disconnected from Main Street America as are left intellectuals. Their alienation from their nation’s citizens finds expression in constant, condescending contempt toward people like Sarah Palin and “Joe the Plumber,” toward rank-and-file Tea Party activists, and toward the talk-show champions of Main Street America, like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin. Such people, they sniff, are so intellectually impoverished, so unrefined, so lacking in Ivy League nuance and subtlety.
I sense that such conservative intellectuals would love to spend hours at a Georgetown dinner party trading bon mots with a smooth and refined progressive like Barack Obama, or exchanging light-hearted barbs with a quick-witted left-wing comic like Jon Stewart. But they wouldn’t be caught dead with a beer in their hands at a barbecue hosted by Sarah, Joe, or Glenn.
Many have noted that America seems to be undergoing a political realignment. But I think that’s merely one part of a much broader cultural realignment. It’s a realignment of American society based on fundamentally clashing values. And this value-conflict reveals itself in a host of other profound differences—in lifestyle preferences, personal priorities, and social-class affinities.
Of course, the most public manifestation of this great divide can be seen in the political arena. There, we’re witnessing an all-out attempt by arrogant, technocratic know-it-alls to take over our lives, our social institutions, and entire industries, and to run them strictly according to their pet theoretical systems. Educated at the best universities, comfortably surrounded by other anointed members of the Establishment elite, they believe they know how to manage the lives and affairs of ordinary Americans far, far better than those little people can do for themselves. Meanwhile, Main Street America is righteously rebelling against this self-appointed aristocracy, and popular figures like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin are giving eloquent voice to their cries of protest.
In this pivotal battle for individual freedom, those intellectuals on the right who align themselves with the power-hungry elites, rather than with the beleaguered citizenry, are akin to the Tories who betrayed their fellow colonists and supported the coercive Crown during the American Revolution.
As for me, I’ll gladly leave the parasitical aristocrats to their glittering cocktail parties, preferring to stand outside in the streets with the protesting crowds bearing signs, torches, and pitchforks. It’s an easy choice, because not only do I know which side is right, but also which side will ultimately win.
The author is online at www.RobertTheWriter.com, www.facebook.com/bidinotto, and www.ecoNOT.com.
I’ve refrained from bitching about this too much, because it’d sound like sour grapes, but…
A few years back I returned from 13 years living and working in Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, with frequent visits to the Baltic States and points east) with a good working knowledge of Polish and street competence in a few other Slavic languages. I was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for my work with Serbian dissidents. I ran money to Belarusian dissidents, founded the Liberty English Camps (now operating in a half-dozen countries around the world,) been in a few truly hairy situations, and have been kicked with honest-to-God jack boots and beaten with real rubber truncheons. (They’re not all rubber, they have a steel rod inside.)
I thought, thought I, with my education, accomplishments, and experience, I should be working with think tanks and foundations dedicated to spreading liberty throughout the world.
So I applied in a number of places over 3-4 years. The responses usually went through three stages: 1) initial enthusiasm, followed by 2) rapidly cooling ardor, and 3) excuses for not hiring me.
“Oh Steve, we thought with your experience you’d be bored in this position.” (Real example.)
Now, I don’t actually know, but it occurred to me that since most of these positions would have had me working for people who in your description, “have migrated straight from grad schools into think tanks, without the invaluable rite of passage provided by a job out in the competitive marketplace,” they might have a problem hiring someone who’s been some places and done some stuff.
Or as my (Polish) wife asked, “Who are these children who keep calling you?”
I did get a paid internship through the conservative National Journalism Foundation, which placed me at Human Events for three months. I had a ball and made some good friends – but you’re right. Inside-the-Beltway people often have more in common with their inside-the-Beltway opposite numbers on the Left than they do with their alleged constituency outside the Beltway.
Victor Davis Hanson called the right-wing think tanks, “gilded ghettos.”
Amen. Every time I hear that yet another libertarian or conservative think tank has moved “up” to offices inside the Beltway I think, “Another casualty in the war for liberty.”
Or maybe that should be “defection.”
Robert’s comment: “Maybe Victor Davis Hanson is so sane because he’s a farmer, as well as an academic, and not afraid to get dirt under his fingernails.”
On reflection it occurs to me that the inside-the-Beltway crowd is actually out of touch with the real Washington as well.
Three months in D.C. I stayed in a nice little flat behind the Supreme Court, a five-minute walk away from the office. From Capitol Hill, out to Dupont Circle and Embassy Row in one direction, to Foggy Bottom in another is it’s own little world, kept reasonably safe by at least three separate police forces (D.C., Metro, and Capitol Hill P.D.) and innumerable private security agencies.
A 20-minute walk in another direction, or a 3-5 stop ride on the metro, and you were in a different world entirely. (Which then changes back around Silver Springs.) Even within the metro system you are in a different city if you get on the green line.
D.C. is an island of calm surrounded by a sea of barbarism the insiders have zero contact with, and though they’re aware of it, they prefer not to think of it. (I was told, “If you live on Capitol Hill, you have to, have to, send your kids to private school.” No elaboration needed.)
And weirdly, on weekends inner D.C. has the quiet deadness of a small town on Sunday.
P.S. For those who know D.C. – apologies if the geography is vague. I never got a sense of spatial location there, which kind of makes the point…
I’ve recently come across two good, thought-provoking presentations.
One is from the Heritage Foundation archive of their noon lecture series.
Evan Sayet, a comedian, writer and former liberal talks about Regurgitating the Apple: How Modern Liberals “Think”. http://www.heritage.org/Press/Events/ev030507a.cfm
Sayet begins with a story about a friend who continually says, “I hate my wife.”
He reacts by thinking, “Oh of course he doesn’t really hate his wife” until one day they’re having lunch together and he sees his friend’s wife getting mugged in the parking lot.
“Hey let’s do something!”
“Nah, I hate her.”
And then he realizes, “He really hates his wife!”
Likewise, after the post-9/11 reactions from the Left he realized, “My God, they really do hate America!”
This is his notion about why.
Now over here http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=437008356106616816
you can find Dr. David Brin’s Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0
There is a lot where I disagree with Dr. Brin, but damn he makes you think! And, last I looked disagree is what free men do.
Brin looks at the Enlightenment project – and how unique it is in the history of the human race.
He points out that everyone in every previous civilization has run into the problem of the impossibility of perfect knowlege. You can’t perfectly know the chair you’re sitting on (for example.)
But here’s where Western civilization differs from all previous approaches: eveyone else reacted to this realization by – giving up.
Only in the Enlightenment project did men start to say, “OK, we can’t ever have perfect knowlege, but we can keep poking away at it, learning more about it, and most importantly we can say a lot about what it’s NOT.”
Great stuff. Now get a cup of coffee because they are both about a half-hour.
Nota: I’ve written a fair amount about my own notions as to why so many intellectuals in this country seem to loathe it.
“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”
I have noticed a thing: everybody I know or have read, no matter how much I respect their intellect, no matter how much I have learned from them, has some beliefs and opinions which are absurd. There is one exception – me.
The funny thing is that there are people, whom I respect for their intellect and insight, who agree with me on many things (obviously prima facie evidence of their intellect and powers of perception) – but don’t except me from that general rule. I am forced to consider the possibility that I may hold beliefs and opinions which are false, even absurdly so, without knowing what they are.
Now let me ask you a question. Can you think?
“Of course I can!” (I hear you say indignantly.) “Whaddaya think I am, dumb?”
That’s not what I asked though. What I asked was whether you can think, i.e. can you examine data presented as fact, assess its reliability and use it to reach conclusions reasonably free of preconception and emotional bias?
“Of course, I’m a rational person after all.”
Do you do it all the time? Trick question, say “Yes.” and I’ll laugh in your face. Nobody does it all the time – nor can we, there are only 24 hours in a day, some of which we must spend sleeping. For most of our day-to-day activity we rely on preconceptions, conditioned responses, early-formed habits, decisions made once and never reassessed (which the marketing industry relies on and the advertising industry fights against) etc. If we subjected all of our ordinary activity to deep cognition we’d be paralyzed by indecision.
So perhaps it would be better to ask, how much and how well do you think – and about what? More to the point, what does it mean “to think” and how do you measure it?
Well, fortunately I’ve come up with a short quiz that ought to give a rough idea of what level your cognitive processes are operating on.
Take this simple test, answering each question as honestly as you can. Each question is worth from 1 to 4 points, scored as follows:
4 points: never
3 points: almost never
2 points: sometimes
1 point: probably not often enough
The questions are:
1) How often have you changed or abandoned a deeply held belief because of either:
a. Personal experience?
b. A persuasive argument backed by compelling evidence?
2) How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?
3) How often have you admitted honest confusion about an issue that was important to you and decided to defer judgment – or simply live with the uncertainty?
4) How often have you realized while listening to someone speak for a position you agreed with, that it was nonetheless being supported by a weak or invalid argument?
5) How often have you listened to two sides of an issue and concluded that you agreed with someone you disliked and disagreed with someone you liked?
16-20 points: Congratulations, you win! Now go back to sleep.
11-15 points: There’s hope for you yet. Not much though.
6-10 points: You’re definitely thinking at least some of the time. It probably hurts.
1-5 points: You’re thinking enough to make people around you uncomfortable.
OK, obviously I’m making a point here. Nobody thinks rationally all the time and in every case, or perhaps we could put it, nobody thinks all the time, as opposed to reacting to stimuli with responses learned earlier and not thought about since.
Nor, when you think of it, is it desirable to think rationally all the time about everything. To begin with, rational cognition is slower than reflex. How often do you think about what you’re doing when you’re driving? If you’re an experienced driver, most of what you’re doing is going on at a level way below articulated thought while you devote your higher attention to planning your route, looking for your destination etc.
And how much time out of our lives do we have to spend doing the research and deep thinking to form rational opinions about things of no immediate importance to us? Not to mention frequently reexamining them in the light of new data. There are things I should be thinking carefully about, and things I really needn’t bother with.
The point, one which sometimes keeps me up at nights, is this: How do I know the difference?
“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here… I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”
Richard P. Feynman