Welcome to part 9 of a 10 part series:

How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

In this article we’re looking at:

  • Why you should try to prove yourself wrong – instead of right
  • Probability neglect
  • Why you can’t trust statistics
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Sacred Cows

Let’s begin…

10. Try to prove yourself wrong 

“It is easy to obtain confirmations or verifications for nearly every theory – if we look for confirmations. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or refute it.” – Karl Popper

There are 2 ways to try to test the validity of a theory:

a) You can look for evidence to try to prove it

b) You can look for evidence to try to disprove it

I suggest option b)

Here’s why…

Why you should try to prove your theories wrong – instead of right

  1. You can find evidence and information to support almost anything – whether it’s true or not (including Bigfoot and the Lochness monster). However, just because there is evidence to support something – even a lot of evidence – that doesn’t mean it’s true (it’s about quality of evidence, not quantity)
  2. If a theory is wrong – you want to know ASAP so you don’t waste your time. Looking for contradictions, errors, flaws etc. in a theory is simply the fastest and smartest way to test the strength and validity of it, and to sort fact from fiction, truth from lies, reality from fantasy. And even if it’s not entirely wrong, you want to know about any contradictions, errors, flaws, vulnerabilities, weaknesses etc. so you can correct them

Let me give you a couple of examples to prove my point:

Let’s say you wanted to test the theory: “All NBA players are over 6-feet tall”

You could either:

a) count up every NBA player over 6 feet tall

b) look for one NBA player under 6 feet tall

Obviously looking for a single exception to the rule (in this case 5’8 Isaiah Thomas) would be the fastest and smartest way to test the validity of your theory.

Another example:

Let’s say you wanted to test the theory “All swans are white”

You could either:

a) look for as many white swans as possible

b) try to find one black swan

Again, looking for a single contradiction or exception to your theory (in this case a black swan) would be a much faster and smarter way to test the validity of it, rather than simply looking for evidence to support it. Because even if there were billions of white swans, all it would take is one black swan to completely disprove the theory.

How to test the validity of a theory

  • Instead of arguing for your beliefs – argue against them
  • Instead of trying to defend your beliefs and theories – attack them
  • Instead of looking for evidence and information to try to confirm and prove your theory (what conspiracy theorists/religions/most people do), look for evidence and information to try to contradict and disprove it
  • Invite others to try to prove you wrong too

If you’re a Christian, don’t try to prove Christianity – try to disprove it.

If you’re a Muslim, don’t try to prove Islam – try to disprove it.

I realize this is counterintuitive and goes against the natural instincts of almost everyone. 99% of people only look for evidence and information that supports their beliefs whilst simultaneously ignoring everything that contradicts it. This is know as confirmation bias – something I’ll be speaking more about next week.

“It is not natural for us to formulate a hypothesis and then test various ways to prove it false. Instead, it is far more likely that we will form one hypothesis, assume it is true, and only seek out and believe information that supports it. Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.” – James Clear

I also think a lot of people resist looking at evidence and information that might go against their beliefs because deep down they’re secretly afraid of finding out that what they believe isn’t true…

But you have nothing to fear by trying to prove yourself wrong because if what you believe is true – if your theory is right – you can’t be proven wrong. Why? Because you can’t disprove facts – no matter how hard you try. How can anyone disprove gravity, the laws of physics, mathematics etc.? You can’t. 2 + 2 = 4. The end.

And if what you believe is false – why should you believe it?

“If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” – Carl Sagan

In summary: You want a theory that cannot be contradicted and resists all efforts to disprove it. And the only way to know if you have such a theory is to put it to the test and attack it with everything you’ve got – and invite others to attack it too.

If despite your best efforts you can’t find any evidence to contradict or disprove your theory – and no one else can either – you’re probably on to something.

“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.” – Richard Feynman

9. Probability neglect 

“The neglect of probability, a type of cognitive bias, is the tendency to disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty and is one simple way in which people regularly violate the normative rules for decision making. Small risks are typically either neglected entirely or hugely overrated.” – Wikipedia 

Tony Robbins is right when he says:

“It’s your decisions NOT your conditions that determine your destiny!”

Your decisions determine almost everything about your life. Therefore it’s important to not only make smart decisions but to be smart and start to factor in realistic probabilities into your thinking and decision making, and think through the likely consequences of your actions.

Yes, anything ‘could’ or ‘might’ happen if you make that decision but:

What will PROBABLY happen?

What will MOST LIKELY happen?

What decisions, actions, and habits, are MOST LIKELY to bring you happiness and success?

What decisions, actions, and habits, are MOST LIKELY to pay off for you 1, 3, 5+ years from now?

A good way to think in terms of probabilities is Bayes theorem:

PS: Make the best decisions you can, but even if you can’t make the ‘perfect choice’ because no such option exists, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make any decision.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire

You don’t have to have the ‘best’ solution, it just has to be ‘better’ than what you currently have.

“The perfect solution fallacy (also known as the Nirvana fallacy) occurs when an argument assumes that a perfect solution exists or that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented.” – Wikipedia

8. Why you can’t trust statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disraeli

Did you know that 87% of all statistics are either false or misleading?

Actually I have no idea if that’s true – I just made it up.

And that’s the thing: You can never really tell if the statistics you read are true or not.

Here’s why it’s a good idea to be skeptical of statistics…

Why you can’t trust statistics

  • Bullshit statistics are everywhere:
    • You only use 10% of your brain. Nope. You use different parts of the brain for different things.
    • “9/10 Doctors agree” or “9/10 Dentists agree” is generally a bullshit statistic made up by advertisers to sell you something
    • Men think about sex every 7 seconds. Bullshit.
    • You swallow 8 spiders a year. Bullshit.
  • Bullshit charts and graphs are everywhere. This article gives a good overview.
  • Remember the bullshit statistics that said Hillary Clinton was going to win in a landslide and had a 90% to 99% chance of winning the 2016 US Election?
  • Which statistics do you believe anyway? According to current polling, President Trumps approval ratings are anywhere between 32% and 50% depending on which poll you follow. That’s an 18% variance. That’s not insignificant.
  • Also when people are polled during elections or at any other time, it assumes:
    • People will answer honestly and not lie
    • People will do what they say (people might have publicly said they’ll vote for Hillary Clinton, but secretly have voted for Donald Trump)
    • People won’t flip flop and change their mind
    • The question asked wasn’t leading, nor was it asked or worded in such a way to get a particular result
    • The sample size was large and indicative of the entire population instead of being limited to a small number of people or just one group e.g. Asian men or black women

More reasons you can’t trust statistics:

“I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.” – George Canning 

“Torture numbers, and they’ll confess to anything.” – Gregg Easterbrook

  • Paid studies AKA “Junk Science” is done all the time (when a scientist or group of scientists are paid to cherry pick results in order to further corporate or political interests e.g. Scientists hired by drug, oil, or tobacco companies)
  • People can cherry pick both statistics and the people that take part in their studies and surveys to make whatever point they want to make…

For example:

  • Surveyors can cherry pick anyone they want to participate in their surveys and leave out others e.g. asking only Christian conservatives if they support creationism being taught in schools
  • People can be pre-screened before they take part in the survey to make sure that they’re likely to answer in the ‘right’ way
  • The demographic and sample size can be anything the surveyor wants it to be

More reasons you shouldn’t trust statistics:

  • Governments manipulate unemployment data worldwide from America to the UK to Australia to make it look much lower than it is
  • Governments also manipulate economic and GDP data worldwide from America to China to India to make it look much better than it is
  • The police manipulate crime statistics worldwide from New York to Los Angeles to London to Australia to make crime seem much lower than it is
  • What about the millions of crimes (assaults, rapes, thefts etc.) that never get reported to the police?
  • Statistical headlines are often used to suggest things they don’t actually say

So beware of media reports, news, and articles that claim: “studies have shown” or “statistics show” because people make up bullshit statistics all the time, and then other people quote and retweet them without fact checking them.

“Statistics is like a high-caliber weapon: helpful when used correctly and potentially disastrous in the wrong hands.” ― Charles Wheelan

How to question statistics

Don’t just accept or believe any statistics presented to you. Be skeptical.

Ask yourself the following questions when presented with any statistic:

  • Who paid for the study or survey?
  • Who conducted the survey? Does it come from a credible and reliable source?
  • Why was the study or survey being done? What is the likely agenda? Is it likely that they’re biased and trying to convince you of something or sell you something?
  • What are the statistics measuring?
  • When was the study done? Is the information out of date yet? Is it still relevant? Times change. Public opinion changes. Trends come and go.
  • How long did the information take to gather? Was it a 2 week survey? A 6 month study? A 10 year study?
  • What questions were asked? How was each question worded and asked? Were the questions leading or loaded or worded in such a way as to encourage a certain answer?
  • What is the context of the survey?

“Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.” – William W. Watt

  • Who was polled? Conservatives or liberals? Religious people or atheists? Blacks, Whites, Asians, Arabs, or Hispanics? Men or Women? What age group? Was the group surveyed representative of the whole? How diverse was it?
  • How large was the sample size? How many people were surveyed?
  • How was the research done? (Phone, email, social media, face to face?)
  • What is the number as a percentage?
  • Are the statistics in any way biased or statistically insignificant? I.e. 500, 000 Americans might be addicted to Heroin, but as a percentage that’s ‘only’ (any number above one is obviously too high) 0.153% of Americans
  • Do the author’s conclusions and the headline logically follow from the statistics? Or is the author reading too much into the data? Authors may draw conclusions or make claims from the data that is not fully supported by it.
  • Find the raw data if you can. Don’t just accept and believe headlines for statistics. Make sure it says what the headline says it says.
  • Is the research confusing causation and correlation? (Check out: spurious correlations for a perfect visual example of why correlation does not equal causation)
  • Finally beware of unsourced statistics

“The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. Statistical methods and statistical terms are necessary in reporting the mass data of social and economic trends, business conditions, “opinion” polls, the census. But without writers who use the words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense.” – Darryl Huff

A good 4 minute TED video on lurking variables and how statistics can be misleading:

7. Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a term used in psychology that simply refers to a feeling of mental stress or discomfort experienced by someone whenever one of the following things happens:

  • When two or more contradictory or incompatible thoughts, beliefs, or values are experienced simultaneously
  • When someone has a realization that they’re behaving in opposition to their belief system
  • When someone is confronted with evidence and/or information that contradicts their existing beliefs, ideas, or values

When any one of these things happen we feel uncomfortable. That uncomfortable feeling is called cognitive dissonance and we feel an urge to eliminate or reduce it.

Cognitive dissonance can be especially strong if

  • You’re presented with irrefutable evidence and information that goes against beliefs you hold with a deep conviction (e.g. political or religious beliefs)
  • You’re fully committed to the belief and have taken action that is difficult to undo (e.g. you have a leadership role in the armed forces, a gang, a political party or a religion)
  • You act in a way that directly conflicts with your strongest beliefs and values
  • You’re forced to do something you don’t want to do

Things that might trigger cognitive dissonance

  • Being an alcoholic or a smoker but caring about your health
  • Lying to a friend but considering yourself an honest person
  • When a religious believer consciously sins, they definitely feel cognitive dissonance (God says NOT to do this, but I’m doing it anyway)

How to deal with cognitive dissonance

Because cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling we feel an urge to reduce it, if not eliminate it.

We can do so by changing either our thoughts, beliefs, or behavior.

You can either:

  • Change your beliefs (which isn’t always easy especially if the belief is a long held personal, political, or religious belief, if it relates to your self-image, or if it might cause the collapse of an entire web of mutually-supporting beliefs)
  • Change your behavior to align with your beliefs (“I’m better than this. No more junk food or smoking!”)
  • Ignore, justify, rationalize, or trivialize the contradiction/incompatibility (“Who cares?” “It isn’t that bad” “It’s not a big deal” “Nobody’s perfect”)
  • Compartmentalization
  • Add new thoughts, change perspectives and the way you think about it (“I’m eating junk food now but I’ll work out later)
  • Try to convince yourself that there is no contradiction
  • Be indifferent to the contradiction that is inducing the mental stress
  • Avoid, ignore, or deny any information which might conflict or contradict what you believe and cause cognitive dissonance

The bottom line is that in order to eliminate or reduce cognitive dissonance you either have to change your thoughts, beliefs, or your behavior.

Another common way people deal with cognitive dissonance is criticizing or rejecting that which they cannot have, and lying to themselves about how much they really want it, as told in the story of the fox and the grapes…

The fox and the grapes

“The fable of “The Fox and the Grapes”, by Aesop, is an exemplar of cognitive dissonance and dissonance reduction by the subversion of rationality. A fox spies high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When unable to reach the grapes, the fox decides the fruit are not worth eating, and he justifies his decision by claiming to himself that the grapes likely are sour, for being unripe.

The moral of the fable is that “Any fool can despise what he cannot get”; hence the popular phrase about dismissing a thwarted goal as “unimportant” is mere expression of sour grapes. The pattern of psychological behavior illustrated in the fable of “The Fox and the Grapes” indicates that: When a person desires something and finds that it is unattainable, he or she diminishes the resultant cognitive dissonance by criticizing the object of desire as worthless; said pattern of behavior is an “adaptive preference formation” that allows the person to subvert rationality. – Wikipedia

My advice

Pay attention to cognitive dissonance whenever it arises and let the mental discomfort alert you to the fact that you’re either a) not acting according to your beliefs and values, or b) your beliefs are wrong and are being contradicted by the facts.

Whenever you’re confronted with irrefutable and undeniable evidence that contradicts your beliefs and proves them wrong, it may not be comfortable or easy to change your mind but do so. Be a truth seeker and follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Don’t just dismiss information or evidence that contradicts your beliefs and makes you uncomfortable just to make yourself feel more comfortable.

6. Sacred Cows

If you want the truth:

  • No belief
  • No holy book/religion
  • No person
  • No subject
  • No teacher
  • No teaching

Should be off limits, or safe from criticism, questioning, and/or scrutiny.

You should have no sacred cows.

sacred cow
noun
  1. a person, institution, custom, etc, unreasonably held to be beyond criticism

Examples of Sacred Cows

  • Anything considered “politically incorrect”
  • Cultural traditions
  • LGBTI community
  • “Me too” – Tony Robbins recently found this out the hard way
  • Jesus, Muhammad, and any other religious leaders or Gurus
  • Holy books
  • Religions – especially Islam
  • Race – especially in America

Almost everyone has at least one sacred cow that they’re afraid or unwilling to criticize or scrutinize. Maybe it’s Jesus. Maybe it’s Muhammad. Maybe it’s God. Or Allah. Or a Guru. Or a Holy book. Maybe it’s some kind of political or religious ideology.

What is your sacred cow?

What beliefs, subjects, people etc. are off limits with you?

What are you unwilling to criticize or scrutinize?

What are you unwilling to debate or discuss?

What cannot and should not be talked about?

Why?

You must be willing to question and scrutinize not only your most deeply held sacred beliefs (just as you would any other belief), but also all of the things society says you’re ‘not allowed’ to criticize, because anything you refuse to think critically about will almost certainly lead you into deception.

Questioning your sacred cows (and societies) isn’t about being disrespectful or rude, it’s about knowing that the truth fears no questions, nor does it need you to defend it any more than gravity, logic, or mathematics needs you to defend them.

“If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” – Carl Sagan

That’s why Zen Buddhism teaches:

“If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him” – Zen Kōan 

Again: The truth doesn’t need defending or protecting. Only lies and falsehoods do. If what you believe is true, it will easily stand up to questioning and scrutiny.

Unfortunately not only do most people refuse to question their sacred cows, but they only use critical thinking – if at all – on a part time basis as a way to defend and protect their beliefs from criticism and scrutiny, rather than as a way to find out if their beliefs are actually true in the first place.

How many religious believers for example, do you know that seem to be able to think critically about everything EXCEPT their holy book or religion?

Christians don’t think critically about Jesus or the Bible.

Muslims don’t think critically about Muhammad or the Quran.

I think most people could benefit a lot more from critical thinking than from mental gymnastics.

Nuff said.

“When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.” – Thucydides, 460-395 BC

Summary

This is part 9 of a 10 part series:

How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

Let’s do a quick recap of this weeks points:

10. Why you should try to prove yourself wrong – instead of right

9. Probability neglect & the relativity of wrong

8. Why you can’t trust statistics

7. Cognitive Dissonance

6. Sacred Cows

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If you would like to read the other parts in this series here they are:

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 1

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 2

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 3 

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 4

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 5

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 6

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 7

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 8

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 10

You might also like to check out my article: How to Learn: 21 Smart Strategies

Or if you would like to read my other articles: Life Lessons All Articles