This article is the first of a multi-part in-depth summary of the brilliant course:
Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking
This course is a series of audiobook lectures by Dr. Steven Novella that I rate on par with Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, another classic text for critical thinkers and skeptics.
This course is about metacognition, thinking about thinking itself, and scientific skepticism, and that includes systematic doubt, essentially questioning the process of your thinking, everything you think, and everything you think you know.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The motto for this course could be, “The unexamined thought is not worth thinking.”
Flaws in our thinking
The brain is an organ that can think, remember, feel, believe, calculate, extrapolate, infer and deduce. It does everything we think of as thinking, it’s self-aware, and it’s not only the most complicated organ we know about, it maybe the most complicated organ in the universe.
The brain is also strangely deceptive. It’s also the root of many of our flaws and weaknesses.
Humans tend to make a lot of errors in thinking, we make logical fallacies, our thinking is plagued with many false assumptions, our heads are filled with false facts, things we “know” to be true that are in fact false.
Our thoughts also follow the pathway of least resistance, not necessarily the optimal pathway, and our memories are also massively flawed. We tend to naively assume that our memories are an accurate passive recorder of what has happened, when in fact, our memories are plagued with numerous flaws that make them highly unreliable. We also rely upon heuristics that may not always be right.
We’re also subject to delusions. Sometimes our thinking goes so far awry that we invent beliefs, invent our own reality, or we can get swept up in the beliefs of others.
We’re living in the age of misinformation
Thanks to the internet, we’re living in the age of information, but also the age of misinformation.
We’re subject to fake rumors, urban myths, marketing claims that are highly motivated to misrepresent the facts, friend of a friend stories, whether they’re innocent and fun, or malicious and trying to steal our money and lure us into a scam, as well as people trying to influence our thoughts and behavior, or our political thinking and our voting.
As consumers every day we have to sort through these deliberately deceptive claims to figure out which ones are reliable and which ones aren’t. Many companies will use pseudoscience, or even anti-science claims in order to backup their marketing and products.
How to think critically
What does it mean to think critically?
- Base your beliefs upon actual evidence. As opposed to wishful thinking. “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” – David Hume
- Examine all of your premises. Examine all of the facts that you assume or think are true. Many of them may not be reliable. They maybe assumptions. You may not know whether or not they’re true.
- Examine your logic. Is the logic you’re using legitimate or is it flawed in some way? Is it systematically biased in a certain direction?
- Try to become aware of your motivations. People are extremely good at rationalizing beliefs when they have a desire to believe a certain conclusion. Understanding your own motivations will help you to deconstruct that process, and it will give you the skills to lead to conclusions that are more likely to be true, as opposed to the ones you just want to be true.
- Thinking through the implications of a belief. Different beliefs about the world should all be compatible with each other. We have a tendency to compartmentalize, to have one belief walled off from all of our other beliefs, and therefore we insulate it from refutation. But if you think, “If this were true, what else has to be true? …and does that make sense?” that’s a good way to tell how likely and plausible a certain belief or claim is.
- Check with others. No matter how developed your critical thinking skills are, you’re still one person whose thinking is going to be individual and quirky, you only have a limited fund of knowledge, and a limited perspective. In fact, your knowledge and perspective may be limited in ways you’re not aware. You don’t know what you don’t know. By checking your beliefs with others, it increases the probability that the holes in your thinking will be covered up. When a large consensus on a specific claim is achieved, there is probably a greater chance that consensus reflects reality, then the process of just an individual. There’s no guarantee of that, a consensus maybe systematically biased as well, but at least you’re stepping out of yourself and the limitations of your knowledge.
- Be humble. Know your own limits. We tend to get in trouble when we assume we have expertise or knowledge that we don’t have, or we don’t question the real limits of our knowledge. The world is a very complicated place, no one knows everything, so we always have to be on the lookout for where the limits of our own knowledge are.
- Be comfortable with uncertainty. There are some things we simply cannot know, or we just currently don’t know. There may be times when after reviewing all of the logic and evidence and knowledge that our only conclusion is, we just don’t know.
- Consider thinking as a process. It’s helpful to consider thinking as a process, and to focus on the process, rather than on any particular conclusion. Because once we emotionally invest in a conclusion, then we start to twist facts and logic in order to fit that desired conclusion. Humans are very good at that.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – Sherlock Holmes
Benefits of critical thinking
Why should you learn critical thinking?
Critical thinking is a defense mechanism against all the machinations that are trying to decieve us, whether for ideological, political, or just marketing reasons, and it also liberates us from being weighed down by false beliefs, and perhaps mutually incompatible beliefs that we tend to hold because of our emotional makeup.
This completes part one.