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21 tips to improve your critical thinking

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In this article I interview Dr. Madsen Pirie, President of the Adam Smith Institute think tank, and author of How to Win Every Argument, 101 Great Philosophers, The Book of the Fallacy, and The Sherlock Holmes IQ Book, on the art of critical thinking:

Let’s begin:

Why is it important to be a critical thinker?

Michael Frank: I want to start by stating the obvious, because I think in order for anyone to learn anything, they need to see the value in it. So if someone asked you, “Why do I need to be a critical thinker?” “Why does it matter?” What you say to them?

Madsen Pirie: Well, I think you might get more out of life as a critical thinker. You might find it more rewarding and more interesting, and you might find yourself not being led astray if you do indulge in this process.

Look, there are people out there who are trying to defraud you, there are slick salesman, scam artists, people who come to you appearing to be one thing and they’re not. But if you’ve developed your critical faculties, you’ll be able to smell a rat a mile off. You’ll know that this person is obviously here with no good intent, they’re just after my money, or if it’s a politician, they’re just after my vote, and it’ll be much easier to spot the fakers and scam artists, and that’ll make your life not only better, but safer.

Mensa

Michael Frank: You were a member of Mensa weren’t you?

Madsen Pirie: Yes, I was secretary at Mensa for about 13 years. Mensa is of course the worldwide organization for people with IQ’s in the top 2%. Entry to Mensa on the Cattell III B IQ test is 148, and on the Binet IQ test it’s 132, whatever type of test you’re using, you need to be in the top two percentile to get into Mensa.

Is IQ genetic?

Michael Frank: Do you believe that people are born with a genetic maximum capability for their IQ e.g. 120, or do you think that we can always get smarter?

Madsen Pirie: We can always get smarter yes. I think you have a potential genetically, but that potential can certainly be developed and enhanced. The mind is like a muscle. It grows when you work it. And if you deliberately work it by performing a series of exercises, you can actually increase the score you will gain on an IQ test.

How to get smarter

Michael Frank: How does one build their IQ, increase their intelligence, get smarter?

Madsen Pirie: I think brain exercises, puzzles, including crossword puzzles, are a good place to start. As people age, their cognitive power diminishes somewhat, but you can somewhat prevent that by exercising your brain continually, by doing puzzles, getting puzzle books, taking IQ tests, things that test your ability to see whether one thing follows from another or not.

How to improve your critical thinking

Michael Frank: Let’s talk critical thinking specifically. What can we do to improve our critical thinking skills?

Madsen Pirie: First of all, you should try to search for, and if possible eliminate, unconscious bias. That is, bias in yourself, or in the material that is being presented to you on the radio, television, news etc. Very often we keep the company of people who hold similar views to ourselves and we began to think that those views are it, that that’s what the world is actually like, because we haven’t realized we’re in a group of people who think that.

So be careful of your own unconscious bias and watch out for it.

The state broadcaster, the BBC, are people who share a mindset. They go meet each other in the canteen and so on and they chat over lunch and they think that their worldview is it. They think that’s what the world is like. They don’t realize it’s actually a very small subset of the world. In their worldview Trump is an evil, arrogant, foolish, nasty monster, and the idea that there might be another point of view that sees things differently never occurs to them, because all of that friends, contemporaries, work colleagues etc. share that view. Be careful.

Critical thinking questions

Michael Frank: What are some good critical thinking questions that should we be asking ourselves when we’re reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching the news etc.?

Madsen Pirie: I start by asking how the particular book, documentary, person being interviewed etc. comes to be there.

Every historian starts with a document and asks:

How does this document come into my possession?

Who wrote it?

Why?

How did it survive?

Ask those questions first so you can be alert to any biases there might be.

Similarly, I always ask of a book:

Why did the author write this book?

If someone is being interviewed on TV I ask:

Why are they up there telling me this?

I even ask of the presenter:

Why did they choose to put this item in the news rather than a thousand other items?

You see, I might be getting a bias and I’m on the alert for it. And I think everyone should really approach what they’re being told in a similar vein.

If it’s a news program, ask about the item itself:

Does this stand up?

Am I being fed a load of bullshit?

Why have they included this item at all?

Why is the news full of this rather than that?

I’m looking at the bias of the producers of the program, as well as the presenters, and the producers look at it and say, well, this is what’s going on in the world, this is what’s important, but of course it isn’t. These are just the things that they think are important. Other people might not share that view.

It’s notorious of course that bad news fills the headlines. People aren’t terribly interested in good news. I once had a book rejected by a publisher because it was too optimistic.

The publisher told me:

“People want doom and disaster, you have to forecast the end of the world, mass starvation, wars, everything going wrong, that we’ll publish, but optimism, nobody wants to read that.”

Michael Frank: No one wants to hear your good news. That’s hilarious.

Why Madsen is an optimist

Madsen Pirie: I’m famously optimistic. I believe the evidence has shown that human creativity, ingenuity and determination can achieve almost anything. Even putting a man on the moon. You can do anything if you apply enough resources, brain power and indeed in some cases money, to whatever it is you want humanity to achieve. It can be done.

The narrative

Michael Frank: You alluded to the narrative and that is one thing I really hate about the media, everyone is pushing a narrative, everyone’s trying to push an agenda. So one of the questions that I ask when I’m watching the news:

“You’re making this assertion, but where is the evidence behind it, and what is the quality of that evidence?”

Madsen Pirie: That is exactly the right attitude, I do that like breathing every day:

Is there any evidence to back this up?

What is the quality of the evidence?

Do other people respect this evidence?

Is the evidence itself biased? 

You also have to think about:

What is the criterion by which I would accept this?

What does it have to have about it that makes me prepared to accept it?

And the answer is probably the evidence has to be visible, it has to able to be inspected and replicated by others, and if all of that objective stuff can take place, then the evidence looks pretty good. That doesn’t mean that it’s true though. No we haven’t proven truth. We’ve just proved that there are things in support of that.

Critical thinking mistakes

Michael Frank: What do you feel are the biggest critical thinking mistakes that the average person makes?

Unquestioning acceptance of authority

Madsen Pirie: One thing that makes me nervous is people’s uncritical acceptance of authority, that is people that are in positions which imply that they know more about the subject than you do, because they have degrees or Nobel prizes or whatever, or because they’re in positions of authority and are respected people, then lots of people just accept without question all too readily. And I don’t, I am a disrespector of authority.

I am in particular a disrespector of authority that comes to me in one field, by someone whose expertise is in another. So when Noam Chomsky tells me about politics, you know, I’m not interested. Paul Krugman’s Nobel prize was basically in trade, and when he starts talking about Middle East laws, or the economy of tax cuts and who they benefit and so on, well what authority does he have on that subject?

I always question authority and I think the biggest mistake of critical thinking is accepting authority too readily.

Examine the statement not the speaker

Michael Frank: Let’s go into logical fallacies a little bit, probably the one that annoys me the most is the genetic fallacy when people reject an argument or statement because they don’t like who said it or where it came from. But it doesn’t matter if Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden etc. said it, it’s either true or not, or it has elements which are true or not. It’s not automatically evil or untrue just because they said it.

So if I could only give one piece of critical thinking advice, it would be:

“Examine the statement, not the speaker”

Madsen Pirie: Absolutely right. Yes. Do we condemn all vegetarians just because Hitler was one? He might have been right about vegetarianism even if he was wrong about everything else.

Argumentum ad temperantiam

Michael Frank: What are some other logical fallacies that you think the average person needs to be aware of?

Madsen Pirie: There’s one called the argumentum ad temperantiam (argument to moderation) and it’s because none of us likes to be thought of as being a lunatic extremist. We all want to be thought of as as moderate and reasonable, and I call this the Englishman’s fallacy, it’s the assumption that the middle course somehow has more virtue and soundness than either of the extremes, and I point out that if people in a pub are arguing that 2 + 2 = 4, against others who are arguing 2 + 2 = 6, an Englishman will conclude it’s probably about 5, because that’s the moderate middle course between those two.

It’s wrong of course in this case. The middle course has no particular value that makes it superior. I mean millions of people used to think that the world would end up with some kind of compromise between the two extremes of capitalism and communism, and it would be a middle course, not necessarily. That’s the fancy of assuming that moderation in argument has some kind of virtue.

Now in manners in your daily life, of course, we like a person who behaves moderately rather than screaming their head off at everybody fine, but that’s manners. In arguments, the middle course has no particular merit. One of the extremes might be wholly right.

The runaway train

Here’s another one, which is not obvious. I call this one the runaway train, and it goes like this:

We should lower the speed limit on our highways to 60 miles an hour from 70 miles an hour in order to save lives. To which I say, no.

What do you mean “no”?

It would save lives, yes of course it would. But if your purpose is to save lives, why not go for 50? That will save even more lives. Why not 40? You see the train runs on until it reaches the point where it saves the maximum number of lives, namely zero miles an hour.

If you want to stop at 60 you need additional reasons why you are going to stop there.

Tu quoque

Michael Frank: I guess two of the most common logical fallacies are of course the strawman where you misrepresent and exaggerate your opponent’s argument to make it seem ridiculous, and then you beat that argument up, leaving their real argument left untouched. And the ad hominem, where you attack the person, and make personal attacks against them, instead of the argument.

What are some other fallacies we should be aware of?

Madsen Pirie: Well those two fallacies occur every day. Another common one which you will see every single day in the British House of Commons is Tu quoque, meaning “You also”.

You attack the government because unemployment has risen or whatever, even though when you were in power it rose even more, however it doesn’t deal with the subject at hand, which is what you’re going to do about unemployment, it just says you did it worse. Tu quoque.

Debating tactics

Michael Frank: Do you have a lot of experience in debating or moderating debates Madsen?

Madsen Pirie: Yes I do

Michael Frank: If you were coaching a debater, what are some key things that you would teach them? I guess in addition to researching the history and the strengths of their argument and the opponent’s argument, but beyond that, what are some debating tips that you might give someone to win an argument?

Madsen Pirie: I think you usually get further if you get the audience on your side, if you get your audience sympathetic to you, not by haranguing them or provoking them, but almost like tickling a trout. If you put your hand in a river and tickle a trout under its belly, you can catch it because you lure it into a false sense of security, and a skilled debater might try to get the audience into a receptive mode like that.

Logic isn’t enough

Michael Frank: So understand the big picture and that is it’s not enough just to convince people through logic, you need to understand how people are actually persuaded in real life, and the more likable you are, the more rapport you have, the more likely they are to listen to you.

Madsen Pirie: That’s exactly right yes.

Michael Frank: So knowing the facts of your argument, your opponent’s argument, likability, humor, building rapport with the audience, understanding how people are persuaded at a base level, anything else that you would recommend to the average person to improve their argumentation?

Madsen Pirie: In a debate, courtesy goes a long way. It really does. Don’t accuse your opponent of lying. You can accuse them of intellectual error. We all do that. But you mustn’t question their motives and treat them as if they were unworthy people.

I said that the middle course is not necessarily correct, but in manners it is, and if you are courteous and moderate in your demeanor, people are more inclined to be on your side. So in public debating, I would say first of all, always start with a joke because that relaxes the audience, They think, oh this guy is probably not going to bore me, which is good stuff.

Then list your reasons almost numerically, my first reason for saying this is… my second reason for saying this is…. my 3rd reason for saying this… and no lesson important is…. then the audience realizes that you’re building up a systematic case, and my opponent is actually wrong on four levels, first of all, he’s wrong because of… secondly he’s wrong because of… this is user friendly stuff, and people like it.

Don’t be afraid to concede ground

In a public debate, you stand no chance at all of convincing the person you’re debating, you’re trying to persuade the people watching, who are in a sense the jury, and you are the defense or the prosecution, your opponent is the opposite. But in a pub with friends, you’re trying to convince them, so you address them.

When you’re arguing with friends, it helps to concede a little ground sometimes, “Well you’re right that we should spend more money on overseas aid, but I think there’s a strong case to say we should spend it more wisely…”

You’ve conceded a little part of your argument, and you appear to be very reasonable, but the point is that you can have the best argument in the world and if people don’t like you, they won’t accept it.

Justified true belief

Michael Frank: I want to pick your brain on some of the age old philosophical questions, questions that seemingly don’t have an answer, at least not a consensus answer…

What constitutes a justified true belief?

Madsen Pirie: If we’re talking about the world of our observation, then this is the world of science. This is the world in which we propose theories and we test them. My doctoral thesis is published as “Trial and error and the idea of progress” and that very title tells you how I think we arrive at things.

Karl Popper thought that we don’t get to know things by induction, we do it by equally conjecture and refutation. That is you look at your observations and you propose a theory that would explain these observations, and then you test it and you perform experiments to see if your theory holds good for new cases as it did for the existing observations. And he famously said you can never prove anything to be true, but he thought you could prove it to be false, and by eliminating the ones that failed experiments, and he thought you had therefore proven false, you are left with an even more concentrated core of truth.

But you can never know for certain, even the trivial thing, “All swans are white”, because all it takes is somebody in Australia to produce a black swan.

My doctoral thesis basically said, you can’t actually prove anything to be false, and you can’t prove it to be true. What you can do is give yourself a reason to discard it, and you discard it because it’s of no use to you. And we do these theories in order to be able to predict what we should observe. We retain the theories that do that better than others, and we throw out the ones that do it worse.

But you see at the core of it, I’ve put human motivation. What we want to do is to predict what we shall observe, predict the world around us. And it’s because we want to do that, that we embark on scientific inquiry.

Now you see in, in my book, the theory of gravitation was not out there in the universe waiting for Newton to find it. In my book, Newton invented the theory of gravitation. It produced brilliantly, a mental model that accounted for disparate observations and it was able to be tested against new observations and suddenly the world of the ball rolling down an inclined plank is the same world as the moons of Jupiter orbiting, because the same formula that Newton devised, that mental model of his, explains both and suddenly realizing that they were going to retain this for the time being until something better comes along. And of course something better did come along when Einstein appeared, something that explained everything Newton explained and a little bit more.

The point is that in the scientific world there are no known truths, or indeed perhaps not even falsehoods, what there are are things we can use to help us to predict and things that we can’t. And so all we’re talking about here is the world of our observations, what I call the real world, the physical world about us, we have five windows, our senses, eyes, nose, ears, mouth, fingers. When we move out of that world into the world of our thoughts, things like love appear, that’s not in the scientific world at all, and therefore it’s not surprising that we use a different process to arrive at a set of beliefs.

We don’t believe scientific theories. We either accept them or reject them, we retain them or discard them on testing, we don’t do that with our innermost beliefs. We don’t use the same process.

I always call it using a different part of my mind, what I really mean is we separate that from the physical world, which is the world science is concerned with, this is if you like the mental world, the world of our thoughts, our emotions, our liking people or disliking them, and we’re not using the same process, so you can’t establish that kind of belief by testing at all.

We’re not trying to prove things, you’re trying to give yourself a reason to accept them for the time being, or to chuck them out.

We have brains that are basically designed to throw rocks and spears, and that’s what we’ve been doing for most of that time in our 3 million years of evolution, and now we’re down into the world of quantum, we’re down to the first few microseconds after the big bang. We’ve done amazingly well for brains that were never designed for this at all, they were designed to throw rocks at Mammoths.

So are we actually looking at what is the true state of the universe?

No. We’re looking at a series of mental models we have created in our minds in order to predict it, and to make sense of our observations of it. Immanuel Kant said that the universe is ordered because the human mind is rational. Space and time are human constructs to make sense of our observation. A stream of stuff is coming at us all the time into our eyes and ears and fingers and we make sense and these are human constructs. That’s the point.

Intuition

I also think that a lot of what we think is non-rational, might be unconsciously rational. Our brains are constantly processing at a subconscious level. And the thing we call intuition, which sounds remarkable, simply represents the visible part of unconscious processing that’s been going on. So intuition, people being apparently psychic, these things aren’t magic, they don’t subvert the laws of the universe. It’s just that stuff is taking place below the level of observation.

I am regarded as quite a good predictor of the future. Indeed I’ve made five political bets in my life and one won all of them. The last three I won were that the conservatives in Britain would get an overall majority in 2015 and Britain’s top bookmaker William Hill paid me £1,000, after that I bet that Brexit would be carried, and for that I won £850 pounds, and six months before the presidential election of 2016 I put my money on Donald Trump and I won another £850 pounds, and I’m regarded as being a seer so to speak. But I’m not.

This is just me evaluating trends at a probably subconscious level. All I’m doing is unconsciously joining together observations, there’s nothing remotely uncanny about it. 2016 was the year of the insurrection. People were rebelling against their political masters. We were seeing people rebelling against the establishment. Brexit was one example, and we saw it with the emergence of nationalist parties in other countries of Europe.

The sinking of the Titanic predicted in 1898?

I’ll finish on a story…

In 1898 Morgan Robertson published a novel about the world’s biggest passenger liner, called “Titan” hitting an iceberg and sinking with great loss of life because there weren’t enough lifeboats, on it’s maiden voyage between America and Britain.

And then of course on April 15th 1912 the Titanic sinks. And everyone was saying, the man is completely psychic. No he’s not. You see they were building bigger and bigger liners, and they were going to build the the biggest passenger line. When you’ve done that, you don’t send it between Southampton and Hove, you go where the money is, on the blue ribbon cruise across the Atlantic.

“Maiden liner has safe voyage”. That’s not a very good story is it? It’s got to do something. Either the boilers blow up and the ship burns, or it hits another ship in the fog, or as often happened in those days it struck an iceberg. He chose number three. Oh, okay, now he’s got a good story. What’s he going to call it? It’s the biggest ship in the world. Hercules? Atlas? Titan? He called it Titan.

When I’ve explained that, what looks utterly remarkable, like psychic predictions of this novelist, turn out to be commonplace, because you simply point out that the guy who was drawing together various currents that are developing like people building bigger and liners and so on and so on and it becomes totally unremarkable.

Michael Frank: This has been an absolute pleasure. Anything you’d like to say in conclusion in regards to critical thinking or philosophy?

Madsen Pirie: Only what we said at the beginning, watch out for bias, your own bias, and the bias that’s being presented to you. Watch out for cracked steps. Watch out for fools and charlatans and crooks. There’s false information out there. Train yourself. Do puzzles. Read critically and watch critically. Just be self-aware all the time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute think tank, and has contributed to many policy initiatives that were enacted into legislation, and worked on the UK market liberalization programme.

Prior to that he worked on Capitol Hill in Washington and was Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale in Michigan. He served on the Prime Minister’s Citizen’s Charter Panel from 1991-1995. He was co-winner of the National Free Enterprise Award in 2010, and is a Senior Research Fellow in the Dept of Land Economy at Cambridge.

A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews and Cambridge, Madsen has authored several books including The Book of the Fallacy, Micropolitics, Privatization, How to Win Every Argument, 101 Great Philosophers, Blueprint for a Revolution, and Freedom 101. He also writes children’s science fiction, and with his colleague Dr Eamonn Butler he has co-authored a series of books on IQ, including The Sherlock Holmes IQ Book.

Madsen’s personal website: Madsen Pirie

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