You've heard of Galileo, right? He was the guy who went against astronomers of the time, as well as public opinion, and insisted that the earth was not the center of the universe. After a life of persecution, in the end it turned out that he was right.
You probably haven't heard of Lindi or Jonah who go against public opinion claiming that Elvis is still alive and living on the planet Hounddogian, in the constellation Bluesuede. When questioned about their odd beliefs, Lindi and Jonah confidently reply, "You know, people thought Galileo was nuts, too."
While you don't know Lindi or Jonah, you most likely know of people like them who hold bizarre beliefs and call upon the "Galileo Defense" to validate their own reasoning ability and cause you to doubt yours. Remind yourself, and these people, that for every Galileo, there are millions of cranks, quacks, and wackos, and statistically speaking, they are one of the latter.
About 10 years ago I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and the doctor said that I won't be skiing, playing tennis, running, or any similar activity again. After about 6 months, my knee healed and I have been skiing, playing tennis, running, and doing many other similar activities since. Now I could claim that God healed me, that my perseverance overcame all odds, that my positive thinking made this happen, or that it was the vitamin supplements I was taking, but there is a much more likely explanation: the doctor was simply wrong.
Misdiagnoses are extremely common for all types of conditions. Even DNA testing that is said to be 100% accurate is wrong 1% of the time because of screw ups in the lab (the test itself is 100% but the process is prone to error). We like to be the subject of a miracle story, so we often overlook the obvious in favor of the miraculous or even just inspirational.
The next time your doctor tells you that you will most likely never ______ again, and a few weeks later you are ______ing, remember Occam's Razor—your doctor probably just screwed up.
My wife shared an entertaining column with me from the April 1 issue of TIME magazine. In short, it is about how the columnist pitted his marriage against the algorithms of the online dating site, eHarmony. In taking the eHarmony compatibility test, the columnist and his wife received a "0" in one category because they are both atheists—and according to the eHarmony algorithm, atheists are not as happy in marriage. The validity of that "fact" aside, algorithms and statistics are descriptive, meaning they describe data obtained from current samples, they are NOT prescriptive, meaning they do not alter the chances of any individual relationship succeeding. This might seem like a minor detail, but the psychological implications are significant. Specifically, since beliefs can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.
When you see studies and statistics that appear to tell you how likely you are to fail or get some horrible disease, remember that these studies and statistics are describing averages and likelihoods based on sample data—they are NOT describing YOU, and certainly not offering a prescription to your future. Acknowledge the risks, be mindful of the statistics, and take action toward the future you desire, not the one described to you based on sample data.
"A new study suggests..." just about anything and everything. There are many reasons for this ranging from flawed methodology to outright fraud. One concept that probably confuses the public most is generalizability, or drawing conclusions from one or more studies to an entire population.
Let's say we are comparing men and women and their coin flipping abilities. In our tests, the men flip heads 51.8% of the time. The women flip heads only 49.8% of the time. The results are published, and the headlines in the media read "A New Study Suggests Men Are More Likely Than Women To Flip Heads When Tossing Coins." In this case, the results are almost certainly due to chance (statistically insignificant results) and would not hold true for the population at large.
1) If you see a "shocking" headline about the results of the study, READ THE ARTICLE! Any media outlet that as at least some set of standards will make it clear in the text of the article (usually at the very end) how insignificant the findings actually are—assuming they have read the study!
2) Google the study and look at how other media outlets reported the results (or if they even did). If they didn't, it is very likely that there is nothing "shocking" going on, just inaccurate reporting. If there are conflicting spins on the data, you know someone is misinterpreting or spinning the data. Is it possible that your news source (mypoliticalparty-quote-news-endquote.com) is?
3) Find the original paper yourself using Google Scholar (scholar.google.com). You can almost always access the abstract for free and quickly get a good idea of the accuracy of the claims being made.
In short, it is not a good idea to make life-changing decisions based on headlines. Do a little research first. It's worth it!
I began to write a post about how people fail to think critically when it comes to Facebook, then I realized that my assumption was unfair. Lack of knowledge (in this case, the technical limitations and advertised "like" formulas of Facebook) is not a problem with critical thinking. So here are some tips in recognizing when you are probably being duped.
1) When you see a photo of a beautiful girl with Down Syndrome, a horribly mutilated troop, maimed animals, or any other photo that tugs at your heart strings or infuriates you, with a caption that specifically asks you to "like", realize that if you do, you are most likely a pawn in the game of someone who is creating popular Facebook business pages and selling them. You may choose to "like" or share the post anyway because you care more about the message than the motivations of the one who created the post, but at least you are aware of the possible, less-than-honorable motivations.
2) When you see a post asking you to "like" or comment within a certain number of seconds, realize that you are NOT being timed. This is a classic psychological technique employed to create a sense of urgency and bypass critical thought.
3) When you are asked to "like" a photo and "see what happens," don't expect anything to happen besides the number of likes to increase by 1. This technique plays your curiosity against your reason (and your reason typically loses).
4) When you are asked to comment on a photo with a special word to "see what happens," don't expect anything to happen besides the number of comments increasing by 1, for the same reason as in #3.
5) When you are given the choice to "like" a post or "ignore if you don't care" or some equally as guilt-inducing statement, realize that you are being played. Confidently ignore these posts knowing that you are not contributing to spreading this emotional blackmail.
Feel free to "like" or share this post, or don't. You have no time limit here, and your choice not to "like" or share this post in no way reflects negatively on you. If you do "like" or comment on this post, nothing miraculous will happen, but maybe, just maybe, more people will be aware of these cheap tricks and fewer people will attempt them.
A man can dream.
Critical thinking involves being open-minded and accepting knowledge from different sources. Crystals have been known to channel specialized knowledge from the universe into the person practicing the following technique. To discover this knowledge for yourself, do the following.
1) Obtain any kind of crystal(s)... table salt will do.
2) Find a quiet place where you can perform this technique, free from distractions.
3) Put an undergarment on your head—the fibers used in most undergarments help magnify the energy waves into your brain.
4) Place the crystal(s) in your left hand while with your right hand, pointing to your head and making circular motions. These motions stimulate the neural fibers and pathways making your brain receptive to new information.
5) Chant "uba-duba mooba pooba" 3,7, then 40 times. These numbers have special significance mathematically, and the phonics produced by the chant induces a hypnotic-type state that accelerates the absorption of knowledge.
By the end of this ceremony, you will have gained the knowledge that millions of mystics have discovered throughout the ages—that some people will fall for all kinds of crap.
Happy April Fools Day!
This morning my kids will wake up and find the baskets of candy we hid for them. We will have a big breakfast together, and they will finish coloring eggs. These are traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation in our families. When it comes to traditions in general, all we can say is that they are the transmission of customs from generation to generation. We cannot say any the following:
1) That a tradition is morally, ethically, or legally right.
2) That a tradition *should* be practiced today.
3) That a tradition is based on historical events.
4) Because our ancestors practiced a tradition, they must have had good reasons.
5) A traditions that was once necessary or beneficial is necessary or beneficial today.
Claiming any of the above is a form of the appeal to tradition fallacy, which is essentially making unwarranted claims about a tradition just because it is a "tradition."
It would be equally as fallacious to claim, based only on the knowledge that something is a tradition that it is wrong, shouldn't be practiced, non-historical, no good reasons to practice, or not beneficial.
To make any of the preceding claims, we would need more information besides "it's tradition."
Enjoy your traditions. Traditions are a way to celebrate our past and share similar events with our children. Many traditions are fun, bring families and friends closer together, and are harmless, but it might not be a bad idea to look at the traditions you practice with a critical mind and have your own reason for practicing a tradition besides, "because that's what my parents did."
Daniel Kahneman posed the following question to college students at Princeton and the University of Michigan: “A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” What is the answer?
If you are like more half of some very bright students polled, then you incorrectly answered $.10. At the very least, you almost certainly initially thought of $.10 as the answer, before you started to think more critically rather than let your "intuitive math skills" dictate the answer. This wasn't an exercise in math skills as the math involved is simple addition and subtraction. It was an experiment demonstrating how the mental shortcuts we take, often unconsciously, result in inaccurate information.
The answer is $.05. If the bat cost $1.05 and the ball cost $.05, then the bat cost $1.00 more than the ball ($1.05-$.05=$1.00).
Why do most people not recognize a loaded question? First, let's define a loaded question: it is a question that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption. These kinds of questions are quite successful at getting people to accept information with which they might otherwise not agree.
Back to the question. One possibility is that attention is diverted from accepting the claim stated in the question to answering the question. This diversion can be mitigated by simply being aware of the loaded question and looking out for it.
Here are a few examples:
1) Why are sitcoms so trashy these days? Sitcoms might be trashy by someone's standard, but this is still an unjustified assumption.
2) Who is the "banger" of the Big Bang? Who said there has to be a "banger", and why does a "banger" have to be a "who"?
3) Why do most people not recognize a loaded question? Did I get you? A claim like that should have a reference; given the kind of study that would have to be conducted to provide evidence for "most people," it would be safe to assume that this claim is more rhetorical than factual.
An anecdote (not to be confused with the thing one takes after one is poisoned) is a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person, often used fallaciously as evidence in an argument. A good anecdote is memorable, good at making people feel emotional, effective at changing opinions, and rarely has any valid connection to the argument.
Here are three things to keep in mind when hearing or reading an anecdote:
1) They are often bogus. You know that kid "Mikey" on the Life cereal commercials? He drank soda with Pop Rocks and his stomach exploded.
2) They are all too common. There is an anecdote for virtually any position. Should you ever lie? There was this little boy whose nose grew each time he lied. There was this woman who divorced her husband for his answering "yes" to the "does this dress make me look fat" question.
3) They are untrustworthy. Anecdotes that are based on truth are commonly greatly exaggerated through the telling and retelling process. In high school, I got a black eye when I clumsily opened up the car door with my eye in the way. By the end of the week, the story morphed into me being attacked by three guys, two of whom I sent to the hospital (BTW, I never bothered correcting that story).
An anecdote as evidence is about the same value as a poorly conducted and highly flawed study with a sample size of one. They work so well because we generally prefer stories and emotion to facts and logic. They are powerful rhetorical devices and should be used to entertain and even drive home a point, but rarely as evidence. Because this one time, this babysitter... forget it.
Do you believe that your first impressions are accurate? What we consider a "first impression" is our mind's way of categorizing people, objects, ideas, and situations using as little cognitive energy as possible. In psychology, these processes are often referred to as heuristics or schemas and have an evolutionary explanation. In somewhat simple terms, we have adapted a system that is best suited for forming impressions that increase our chances for survival. This means that accuracy of these cognitive processes is not the main concern—survival is, which leads to something called false positives, better known as "false alarms."
This survival mechanism comes with a price tag that leads to stereotyping, prejudice, irrationality, being unreasonable, and inaccuracy in our judgments. Critical thinking requires that we don't always take the shortcut, but invest the mental effort to avoid these costs. Admittedly, this exercise is a blow to the ego for all those people who believe they are "highly intuitive" because they remember the times they were right but conveniently forget all the times they were wrong.
We are presented with too much information to update all impressions with critical thinking, but the more we practice, the more efficient we will become at determining the accuracy of our first impressions.
One of my favorite critical thinking games is the "Monty Hall Problem" as it is yet another demonstration of how our intuition fails us where reason succeeds. The problem is as follows:
Imagine you are on a game show where there are 3 doors and behind two of the doors are goats (one behind each door) and behind one of the doors is a new car. Assuming you like new cars and don't have some weird goat fetish, you want to pick the door behind which is the new car. You make your choice.
Now the host of the game show opens one of the two doors that you did NOT pick to reveal one of the two goats. The host asks you if you want to stick with your choice, or switch doors. What do you do? Think about it for a moment then read on when you have your answer.
Most people would stick to their original guess figuring that the odds are 50/50, and they would kick themselves if they switched and lost, but you are not like most people. You know that your chances of picking the right door at the start of the game were 1 in 3, now, based on the elimination of one of the doors that definitely does not have the new car behind it, IF YOU SWITCH you have a 2 in 3 chance of winning the car. If you don't, your chances remain 1 in 3. Based on this information, you switch doors.
A key to critical thinking is realizing "you" are not in as control as you think you are. I am not referring to "free will" or other metaphysical concepts here; I am referring to overwhelming evidence of the biological drives, cognitive pressures, and social/environmental situations that guide our beliefs, thoughts, and behavior.
Perhaps the most universally experienced and least controversial example of this concept is our physiological needs linked to individual survival such as eating, sleeping, and excreting wastes. We can only control our behaviors for so long until biology takes over. Before we get to this point, most people "decide" to make dinner, "decide" to go to bed, or "decide" to excuse themselves and find a restroom. These are all virtually undisputed examples of how our physiology greatly influences our behavior. What about situations?
In July of 1961, Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments showing how ordinary people can do monstrous things (administer painful and even lethal shocks to innocent victims) simply by putting them in a carefully crafted situation. In the Summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo created a mock prison environment situation which turned a group of Stanford college students into sadistic torturers. Since then, thousands of similar (but less ethically questionable) studies have been done demonstrating the power of the situation to change a person's behavior, beliefs, and in some cases, disposition.
What does this have to do with critical thinking? We can only begin to understand our own beliefs and behaviors when we stop attributing everything to some metaphysical "self" and start understanding the circumstances that lead us to form beliefs and behave the way we do, and this kind of self understanding will inevitably lead to greater understanding of others.
Our intuition seriously fails us in situations for which evolution did not prepare us—like a day at the casino. Consider the following vignette and see if you can spot the errors the "hypothetical you" made in critical thinking. Hint: there are 3 of them.
You are at a casino's roulette table and you are about to bet lots of money on 22 black, but another player tells you that 22 black came up right before you got there. You thank the player profusely and chose another number, "reasoning" that the chances are extremely slim that 22 black will come up twice in a row.
You move on to a lottery-type game where 6 numbers are chosen randomly between the numbers 1 and 40. You strategically choose 3,14,19,26,34, and 39. You peek over at the guy next to you and see that he chose 1,2,3,4,5, and 6. You think to yourself, "what a moron that guy is!"
You move on to shooting craps. You seem to be winning quite a bit at the game and conclude that you are "on fire," figuratively speaking. You choose to miss your dinner reservations "reasoning" that you don't often get a hot streak like this so you might as well take advantage of it.
Roulette wheels don't have memories. Any number has an equal chance at coming up regardless of the previous results. If anything, a wheel can be miscalibrated so some number come up slightly more than others. Casinos frequently rotate wheels because of this imperfection (or at least they use to... this imperfection may have been resolved with newer wheels).
Again, any string of numbers is equally as likely to be drawn. It does not seem that way because we see patterns but probability does not. The numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6 are meaningful because we give them meaning.
Hot streaks, especially in games of chance, are nothing more than the inevitable grouping of wins that is bound to end at any turn. In other words, after 5 wins in a row, your chances are no greater that you will win a 6th time as you will lose.
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