Welcome to part 1 of a 10 part series:
How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies
In this article:
What is Critical Thinking?
“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” – Socrates
Let’s start with some definitions:
“Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment.”
“A cognitive bias is a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.”
“A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.”
Why learn Critical Thinking?
How to think, not what to think
Critical thinking teaches you how to think, not what to think.
This is important in a world where everyone wants to tell you what to think, believe, feel, do etc.
Lies are common, truth is not
If we lived in a world where everyone was 100% honest, and fully committed to speaking only the absolute truth, we probably wouldn’t need to screen information and be as skeptical.
The reality is however, we live in a world of:
- Alternative facts
- Fake news
- Fake reviews
- Fake people
- False advertising
- Mass delusions etc.
Critical thinking improves your bullshit detector
Critical thinking improves your bullshit detector, stops you from being gullible and naïve, and makes it easy for you to sort fact from fiction, truth from lies, reality from fantasy.
Critical thinking makes you smarter
Critical thinking improves your logic, reasoning, decision making, problem solving and analytical skills. In a nutshell: It makes you smarter.
Before we get into critical thinking, cognitive biases, logical fallacies etc. we need a commitment to intellectual honesty and to avoiding intellectual laziness, intellectual dishonesty, self-deception and willful ignorance.
“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” – Thomas A. Edison
Intellectual laziness is easily one of the biggest obstacles to higher intelligence.
Most people are intellectually lazy, don’t think for themselves, and believe whatever they’re told.
If you’re too lazy to think for yourself, to think through and persist with the hard problems, to do your own study and research, to question the answers and information presented to you, you can forget about getting smarter.
“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford
Are you intellectually lazy?
Here are some signs you might be:
- You have an ignorance is bliss mentality and are willfully ignorant about almost everything. Your attitude is “I don’t know and I don’t want to know”
- You have no intellectual curiosity, no real desire for answers, to know how things work, why things are etc. to the point where if someone tries to teach you something your attitude is “I don’t care”, “I’m not interested” etc.
- You avoid intellectually challenging conversations/topics/books/videos etc. preferring celebrity gossip/entertainment/social media/video games etc.
- You get angry/defensive/frustrated when people ask you intellectually challenging questions e.g. “Does anything in life have any objective meaning – or are all meanings subjective and man made?” If you’re intellectually lazy you might respond angrily as my friend did: “Why do I need to know that?” “Why does it matter?”
- Instead of thinking for yourself, doing your own research, following the evidence where it leads etc. you simply believe:
- Whatever you want to believe
- What everyone else believes
- Whatever the experts believe
- Whatever your parents, teachers, friends, religion etc. tell you to believe
- Whatever is on the news/trending on social media
- Instead of studying both sides of an issue, and gathering as much information and evidence as you can to make an intelligent and informed analysis on the whole, you simply research the arguments and evidence for the side that appeals to you more
- Instead of taking the time to understand opposition arguments, other perspectives, why other people think differently than you etc. you simply dismiss any alternative view as “dumb”, “ignorant”, “retarded”, “stupid”, “wrong”
- You don’t know anything about other economic and political theories e.g. Communism, Socialism, Marxism, other philosophies e.g. Determinism, Humanism, Stoicism, or other religions e.g. Advaita Vedanta, Jainism, Taoism, Zen etc. you just know they’re “wrong”
- You stay in your echo chamber and only read/watch/listen/speak to people you agree with
- You’re quick to dismiss claims from people you don’t like or respect without taking the time to investigate if they’re true e.g. “Alex Jones says that scientists are making human/animal hybrids?! Whatever. I don’t care what that crazy conspiracy theorist thinks, he’s insane.”
- You’re quick to dismiss advice/evidence/information you don’t understand “Who cares?” “Whatever” “I don’t care what you think” etc. without having a clue as to what it is you’re rejecting
- You take appearances for reality and are quick to draw conclusions about things you know nothing about
- Instead of reading between the lines and taking the time to ask questions to try to understand what someone is trying to say, you often take people literally as if they were perfect carriers of information, and frequently get caught up in stupid arguments over semantics that are completely irrelevant to the point
- You’re too lazy to look up a word you don’t know
- Your homework and research goes no further than a quick Google search and a few YouTube videos
- You’re too lazy to think through and persist with the hard problems (Most people give up on difficult problems and throw in the towel after just a few minutes)
- You care more about the consistency of your beliefs, than you do about the accuracy of your beliefs
- You automatically assume your beliefs are right just because they’re popular and on the side of the majority “everyone knows that”
- You automatically assume you’re right just because your opponent/the opposition is wrong (e.g. Liberals are right because conservatives are wrong, or Christians are right because Islam is wrong)
“Do not condemn the judgement of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong.” – Dandemis
- You assume you’re right just because you can’t think of any other possibilities (Argument from incredulity)
- You have a habit of oversimplifying complex issues instead of thinking things through in depth, and of giving overly simplistic solutions to these oversimplified problems
- You try to shift the burden of proof to others e.g. if you claim the Illuminati controls the world, instead of providing evidence to support your claim, you challenge others to come up with evidence to debunk it
- If you’re religious: You believe whatever the Bible/Quran/Bhagavad Gita tells you no questions asked – even if it contradicts your own experience/logic/science
- If you’re religious: You have an ignorance is bliss mentality and whenever you don’t understand something instead of trying to understand it you’re content to say “Goddidit” (This is the “God of the gaps” argument and it is commonly used by Christians, Muslims, and other religious believers whenever they don’t understand something. The argument is: I don’t know how it works or why it happened – therefore “God did it”)
- In a nutshell: You’re too lazy to use your brain, to think for yourself, and you have no real interest in learning or getting smarter
Intellectual laziness is a habit just like physical laziness is, and like physical laziness it’s a habit that can be broken.
If you’re not used to thinking for yourself, doing your own research, thinking through and persisting with the hard problems, you’ll get tired and frustrated easily. But I promise you: The more you do it – the easier it gets – and the smarter you’ll get.
Don’t be intellectually lazy. You have a brain so use it. Think for yourself and don’t allow anyone else to do your thinking for you, no matter who they are, no matter what their credentials, no matter how smart you think they might be.
“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison
“The core of science is not a mathematical modeling – it is intellectual honesty. It is a willingness to have our certainties about the world constrained by good evidence and good argument.” – Sam Harris
Are you intellectually honest?
Here are some signs you might be:
In an argument or conversation:
- You don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, or to know things you don’t
- You tell “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”
- You believe what you say and say what you believe. You don’t lie to yourself or others. You keep your promises and do what you say you’ll do
- You listen with the intent to understand, instead of simply waiting for your turn to speak
- You steelman your opponents arguments, presenting them in their strongest form, even if it’s not the one they’ve presented, instead of attacking strawmen
- You follow the evidence wherever it leads, no matter how inconvenient, uncomfortable, unpopular or politically incorrect it may be
- Your loyalty is to the truth, rather than to your tribe e.g. your gender, race, political party, religion, country, family, friends, social group or sports team
- You resist the urge to form a conclusion or to make a judgement when there isn’t enough data or information available to form an opinion one way or another
- You have a desire and a willingness to be corrected if/when you’re wrong, and to have your ideas challenged and scrutinized by smart people
- You will change your mind and admit it when you’re wrong, instead of dragging your feet and stubbornly digging your heels in
You’re also quick to acknowledge:
- All the facts and evidence, not just those that support your preferred conclusion
- The weight of evidence, instead of acting like both sides of an argument are equally valid, or have equally good points if one side is clearly superior
- The arguments and evidence against your position, even when it’s not asked for, or is unknown by the other side
- Contradictions, errors, fallacies, weaknesses or uncertainties in your argument or statement, instead of trying to change the topic, deny it, dismiss it, rationalize, point fingers and blame someone else (and you’ll highlight and publicly admit your mistakes and print corrections if you have a blog, magazine, newspaper, podcast or vlog)
- When someone else makes a good point
- Alternative viewpoints, not just your own, instead of acting like your perspective is the only “correct” or “right” one
- Your assumptions and biases, instead of pretending you don’t have any
- When you have a conflict of interest
“Someone who is intellectually honest follows the facts where ever they may lead, and does so in spite of discomfort, inconvenience, or self-interest. That means that someone’s opinions may shift as the facts change, but if there is no change in the situation, then there’s no cause for an intellectually honest person to change positions.” – Jonathan Koomey
Intellectual honesty is ultimately about a commitment to the truth at all costs. Even if it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable or unpleasant.
Unfortunately most people are not intellectually honest – with themselves or with others.
In fact, most people are intellectually dishonest.
Are you intellectually dishonest?
Unfortunately most people are.
Here are some signs of intellectual dishonesty:
- Misrepresenting yourself and others
- Pretending to be someone you’re not
- Pretending to know things you don’t, or to know more than you do
- Playing dumb and pretending to know less than you do
- Pretending not to get it when an inconvenient point is raised in an argument
- Deliberately being an unreliable narrator
- Lying to yourself and others
- Portraying yourself as 100% honest/objective/unbiased, and your opponent and anyone who disagrees with you as dishonest/illogical/stupid
- Speaking with a smug sense of superiority as if you were vastly intellectually superior to others (this could be due to intellectual dishonesty, it could also be because you’re delusional)
- Any refusal to take responsibility for your words and actions “It wasn’t me” “It’s not my fault” “That’s in the past” “I’m not perfect”
In an argument:
- Ad Hominem: Attacking the person, instead of the argument
- Kafka trap: Accusing someone of being a racist or a sexist etc. and then claiming that any attempt to argue, deny or defend themselves is proof of guilt e.g.“Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of racism, confirms that you are guilty of racism”
- Poisoning the well: Planting seeds of doubt in the listeners mind by implying that someone can’t be trusted before they’ve even opened their mouth e.g. “The fact is that Bobby’s a liar and a conman – you can believe him if you want but I definitely wouldn’t – and if you do you’ll be sorry…”
- Strawman argument: Misrepresenting your opponents argument to make it sound much weaker than it really is, and then attacking that instead of attacking their real argument
- Hollow man argument: Attacking an argument no one holds and no one is making, destroying it, and then claiming victory
- Weak man argument: Attacking only the weakest and worst parts of an opponent’s argument, and then treating it as the best or the only argument they have – or comparing only the best and strongest parts of your argument, with the weakest and worst parts of your opponents argument
- Nutpicking: Cherry picking only the craziest, nuttiest, most extreme members of a group, as if they were an accurate representation of the group as a whole
- Non Sequitur: A conclusion or statement that doesn’t logically follow from the previous statement (not necessarily intellectual dishonest but can be)
- Red herring: An argument or statement that maybe accurate, but is irrelevant to the issue being discussed, and has been introduced by the speaker in an attempt to attempt to change the subject and divert attention from the original issue
- Tu quoque (aka “appeal to hypocrisy”) An attempt to silence an accuser, by pointing out that the accusation is hypocritical. However, whether a claim is hypocritical or not, or the other person or party is guilty or not, says nothing about whether a particular claim or statement is valid or not. See also: Whataboutism
- Motte-and-bailey: The arguer conflates two similar positions, one modest and easy to defend (the “motte”) and one controversial (the “bailey”). The arguer advances the controversial position, but when challenged, they insist that they are only advancing the more modest position
- PRATT’s (Point Refuted a Thousand Times) Deliberately making arguments that have been refuted ad nauseam to persuade the uneducated and uninformed
- Denial of commitment: Making a claim, and then when it’s attacked or criticized, you try to avoid taking responsibility for it e.g. You: “Flat earthers are either stupid or trolling” Her: “Kyrie thinks the Earth is flat, he says there’s lots of evidence for it, and he seems pretty smart” You: “What evidence is there for a flat earth? What about the mountains of evidence that proves the earth is round/spheroid?” Her: “I’m just telling you what Kyrie said”. This is disingenuous. If someone quotes someone to make a point in an argument, or shares a quote or meme, it’s clear that they agree with it on some level. In an argument take responsibility for your words and actions, what you say and what you share, instead of pointing the finger at other people
- Definist fallacy: Insisting on defining a word in a way that is favorable to one’s own side of an argument. e.g. “Abortion should be defined as murder”, “taxation should be defined as theft by the state”, “Black people can’t be racist! Racism is prejudice plus power!”
- Definitional retreat: Attempting to change the meaning of a word or a phrase mid-argument to deal with a counterargument or an objection, in order to save face, and to prevent you from admitting you were wrong e.g. “When I said “poor” “rich” “sexual relations” etc. what I really meant was…”
- Equivocation: Deliberately switching the meaning of a word with more than one meaning mid-argument, when it expresses one concept in one premise, and another concept in another premise or in the conclusion e.g “Evolution is just a theory”
- Doublespeak: Instead of speaking plainly so people can actually understand you, you use ambiguous language, or highly specialized or technical language e.g. “legalese” to confuse, deceive, mislead or intimidate the listener
“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” – George Orwell, 1984
- Muddying the waters: Any attempt to confuse the issue or obfuscate by introducing irrelevant arguments and information, talking around the point without touching on it directly, or using a lot of big words or technical jargon unlikely to be understood by the listener in order to confuse and deceive them
- Negative pregnant statements: In response to the question: “Do you owe this person money?” You might reply: “I don’t owe this person $1, 000” (implying that you might owe them $500, $1500 or some other amount. You’re changing the question so that you can avoid the question being asked, and answer in such a way that it makes you seem less guilty)
- Deliberately misquoting your opponent or taking a quote out of context in order to give a misleading impression e.g. quoting someone who was joking or being sarcastic and portraying their quote as if they were being sincere, or quoting someone on something incorrect they’ve said in the past, after they’ve already acknowledged the mistake and changed their mind, as if they still held that view
- Making statements on behalf of false premises as if:
- Something was a scientific fact when it isn’t “Science has proven…”
- Something had unanimous backing from the scientific community when it doesn’t
- Something was unanimously accepted and believed by everyone when it isn’t “Everyone knows that!”
- Pretending that something happens all the time when it doesn’t, or that it almost never happens when it happens all the time
- Putting words in someone’s mouth, or trying to get them to commit to a promise they never made, or using peer pressure against them to get them to commit to something they don’t want to
- Putting words in someone’s mouth or restating what they’ve said to make it sound absurd, hostile, illogical, ridiculous, stupid etc. as Cathy Newman did to Jordan Peterson in her hostile interview with him, where she twisted his words, restated/summarized what he’d said in a negative light, purposely misquoted and strawmanned him etc.
The entire interview from Cathy Newman was an exercise in intellectual dishonesty:
- Weasel words: When someone tries to introduce anonymous authorities into a conversation in order to make their arguments or claims sound more persuasive and valid than they really are e.g. “Studies show…” “Statistics show…” “Scientists say…”
- Attempting to silence those who disagree with you by:
- Accusing them of engaging in “hate speech”, “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining”
- Acting aggressive, erratic, hostile, or unpredictable
- Giving dirty, evil, shitty looks and death stares in order to intimidate
- Interrupting, talking over them, swearing, threatening, yelling
- Attempting to silence those who disagree with you by labeling them:
- Traitorous critic fallacy: Attacking someone when they make a valid complaint to shut them up e.g. “Why is there so much crime, corruption and violence in this country?” You: “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to your own country!”
- Emotional manipulation: Instead of trying to persuade someone with logic, facts and evidence, you try to emotionally manipulate them by crying, playing the victim, or if you’re an advertiser showing them videos of cute puppies, starving children etc.
- Fake facial expressions designed to mock and ridicule your opponent (a common debating tactic of politicians) or to give the misleading impression that you know something you don’t, instead of actually addressing the points in their argument:
- Eye rolling
- Fake laughter
- Raised eyebrows
- Shaking your head
- Sly smile
- Smirking/winking/grinning with a condescending smug look of superiority
- False analogies: You deliberately make false analogies to make your point
- False authorities: You deliberately quote a false authority not qualified as an expert on the topic in order to persuade the uninformed e.g. Bill Nye on quantum physics
- False dichotomy: Presenting the listener with a false dilemma as if there were only two choices or options when in reality there are more
- Fear mongering: Trying to scare someone into thinking/believing/doing what you want by threatening them with undesirable consequences. No time to think or to examine the evidence – we need to act and act now – or else you won’t like the consequences! e.g. If we don’t immediately bail out the banks and give them $700 Billion the worldwide economy will fall into a depression!
- Asking leading, loaded or “gotcha” questions designed to trap the other person
- Asking a complex question and then demanding a direct yes or no answer “Are you with us or against us?” This tactic can be intellectually dishonest however, as you might be in agreement on points a) b) and c) but not on points d) and e)
- Asking sleazy sales/self-help seminar type questions e.g. “Do you want to be rich or poor?” “A winner or a loser?”, “A success or a failure?”, “Do you care about your health?”, “Do you care about your family?”, “Do you care about children?”
- Just asking questions: Asking negative questions/making wild accusations to associate someone with something negative e.g. “Are you a racist?” and then when the answerer complains responding with “I’m just asking questions!” This is disingenuous.
- Refusing to answer questions directly, and instead:
- Acting as if you were above the question: “I’m not going to answer that”, “I haven’t got time for this” (eye roll, sigh, condescending tone)
- Answering the question with another question: “Why don’t you tell me?”
- Answering a different question that wasn’t asked that better suits your agenda (a favorite trick of politicians) “The real question is…”
- Challenging/questioning the question: “Are you sure that’s relevant?”
- Challenging the source of the question: “Who said I said that?”, “When did I say that?”
- Expanding the parameters of the question, and then asking a different question: “What you’re really asking is…” (a favorite trick of politicians, religious apologists and salespeople)
- Refusing to answer the question: “I’ve already answered that question”, “I’m not going to talk about that right now”, “I’ll answer that question at a later date”
- Reversing the question: “I might ask you the same question…”
- Sticking to talking points (A common trick of politicians)
- Telling long-winded stories and talking around in circles saying a whole bunch of nothing, instead of answering the question and stating your point simply and directly. If someone interrupts you and asks you to get to the point, complain that you’re unfairly being interrupted and not being given a chance to speak
- Acting dumb, pretending not to get it, pretending to know less than you do, in order to deceive
- Deliberately concealing/omitting/withholding evidence and information that would go against your argument
- Telling half-truths that deliberately minimize or omit key important key details in order to deceive or mislead instead of telling only “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” (I’m not saying you have to be an open book and tell everyone everything about your personal or private matters, but don’t knowingly lie, deceive or mislead people)
- Staying silent when you should be speaking up e.g. if someone says “Does anyone know what happened to my money?” even if you’re not put on the spot and asked that question directly, if you know what happened to the money but you stay silent instead of speaking up you’re being intellectually dishonest
- Exaggerating the strength of your argument or your evidence, or trying to spin the facts that support your argument to make them sound more impressive than they really are, or minimising counterarguments and disconfirming evidence in order to give the listener a misleading impression. The level of confidence in your argument or your claims, should be proportionate to the strength of the evidence of those claims
- Double standards for evidence: You require a much higher standard of evidence to convince you of the things you don’t want to believe e.g. for the things you do want to believe such as claims of a miracle, a single eye witness testimony is accepted as evidence, but for the things you don’t want to believe such as climate change, a 97% consensus of the scientific community just isn’t enough evidence to convince you. Or as one Reddit user put it: “Conspiracy Theorists will believe low quality footage of UFOs but not HD footage of a rocket landing.”
- Shifting the goal posts for evidence: If you said (insert evidence) would change your mind and convince you of something, once (insert evidence) is provided, not only do you refuse to change your mind, but you immediately shift the goalposts and require an even higher standard of evidence in order to be convinced
- Demanding impossible evidence: Sometimes people will demand impossible evidence when they’re determined to never change their mind no matter what (often religious believers who are emotionally attached to their beliefs and/or are afraid of hell)
“I’ll stop believing in Christianity when God and Jesus comes down here and tells me to stop believing in it!”
- Mental gymnastics: Unjustified leaps of logic, often in the form of ridiculous far-fetched explanations and scenarios, that often occur when someone is emotionally attached to a belief or outcome, but has been presented with powerful counterarguments and/or disconfirming evidence against it
- Ad Hoc rescue fallacy: Coming up with excuses and rationalizations on the fly as to why your belief could still be true, despite a lack of evidence/evidence to the contrary
- Acting belligerent and/or dismissive when inconvenient facts are brought to your attention (this is also a sign of intellectual laziness and of willful ignorance)
- Failing to acknowledge when someone makes a good point, provides evidence in support of their claims, destroys your argument etc. and instead quickly trying to change topics, or quickly asking another question “But what about…” or “Let’s talk about…” Journalists, lawyers and politicians – easily three of the most intellectually dishonest professions – do this all the time
- Dismissing perfectly reasonable points and valid arguments as “bullshit”, “crap”, “drivel”, “psychobabble”, “rubbish” etc.
- Playing dumb and pretending not to get it when inconvenient facts are brought up in an argument that go against your preferred conclusion
- Playing the victim instead of admitting you were wrong: “I’m sorry I made a mistake”, “I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you”
- Rejecting evidence/facts/logic as “That’s just your opinion”. No. There is a difference between a fact and an opinion
- Slothful induction: Refusing to change your mind or to admit you’re wrong when:
- Someone destroys your argument
- Someone debunks your claim or proves their point
- Disconfirming evidence is presented refuting your beliefs
- New or previously withheld information or evidence presents itself
- The evidence you used to support your argument is debunked
- Political correctness at the expense of truth in any way, shape or form
- False advertising in any way, shape or form e.g. Coca-Cola claiming that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage”
- Fine print with hidden unfair terms and conditions
- Propaganda in any way, shape or form
- Sophistry: The use of clever but fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving
- Gaslighting: A form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity
- Meaningless slogans “Support our troops” or “Vote for freedom” etc. Slogans like these are impossible to disagree with but also worthless because they don’t say anything and they don’t mean anything
“The point of public relations slogans like “Support our troops” is that they don’t mean anything. That’s the whole point of good propaganda.You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.” – Noam Chomsky
- Thought terminating clichés: Lazy statements that are used to shut down a discussion or a debate, and to get you to stop thinking and stop asking questions. They’re commonly used by intellectually lazy and/or intellectually dishonest people, especially in cults, new-age, religious and spiritual circles when they don’t have a good answer to your question, or a valid counterargument to your point e.g. “That’s just your ego talking” “That’s just your opinion” “You think too much” “Who hurt you?
In the news media:
- Fake news
- Paid advertising disguised as news
- Hatchet jobs
- Puff pieces
- Headlines that don’t match the story
- Photos that don’t match the story
- Negative anchoring through photo selection. The dishonest news media posts unflattering photos of celebrities/politicians/people they disagree with ideologically e.g. Trump with a bizarre expression on his face, so that the reader or viewer will anchor a negative image of that person in their mind. At the same time they’ll post flattering photos of the celebrities/politicians/people they do agree with ideologically e.g. Obama smiling and happy, in order to anchor a positive image in the reader or viewers mind. The careful handpicking of these photos is a conscious and deliberate strategy to deceive and persuade, rather than simply presenting the information in an unbiased way. It’s dishonest journalism. Propaganda. Unfortunately it’s also the norm.
- Quotes taken out of context
- Trying to push a narrative e.g. “Diversity”, “Gender pay gap” etc.
Unfortunately, intellectual dishonesty is incredibly common as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Almost everyone is intellectually dishonest and won’t hesitate to lie/deceive/mislead etc. the second it suits them.
Most people care more about the approval of others, winning arguments, and saving face, than they do about honesty, integrity, or the truth, and for that reason, you need to be aware of the above tactics – and make sure you don’t use them yourself.
Throughout this series I’ll be exploring intellectual honesty/dishonesty in depth, but first, let’s talk about something equally problematic…
“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” – Soren Kierkegaard
It’s one thing to be intellectually lazy – it’s another to be willfully ignorant.
An intellectually lazy person (the vast majority of people) is someone who is too lazy to think for themselves, and can’t be bothered putting in the time and effort it takes to learn something they don’t know.
A willfully ignorant person however is even worse, because they’ve made a conscious choice not only to be intellectually lazy and ignorant – but to turn a blind eye to reality.
Not only do they not know – they don’t want to know – and they don’t want you to tell them:
“I’m not interested”
“I don’t want to know”
“I don’t want to hear it”
“It’s none of my business”
Willful ignorance in a nutshell:
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know”
The biggest problems with willful ignorance is:
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley
And what you don’t know can kill you.
See, you can choose to turn a blind eye to reality, but ignoring your problems/reality won’t make them go away any more than turning a blind eye to crime, debt, disease, poverty, rape, or terrorism will make it go away.
Are you willfully ignorant?
Here are some signs you might be:
- Your attitude to most things is: “I don’t know and I don’t want to know”
- You’re quick to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to something the second it suits you to do so
- You have a habit of dismissing/ignoring/rejecting any inconvenient facts that conflict with your beliefs and of looking the other way
Why are so many people willfully ignorant?
Why would anyone consciously choose to be willfully ignorant?
- A desire to escape responsibility – “If I don’t know any better I’m not responsible”
- A desire to avoid information that may contradict/disprove their favorite beliefs
- A feeling that you “can’t handle the truth” – and therefore, it’s better not to know (If my husband/wife/partner is cheating on me – I’d rather not know because it would kill me)
- A feeling that there isn’t enough time to know everything – and this information probably isn’t worth knowing
- An ignorance is bliss mentality “It’s better not to know”
- If you’re doing something immoral that makes you a lot of money (like selling cocaine or scamming people) you probably don’t want to know how it’s affecting your customers negatively and ruining their lives
- Not wanting to know inconvenient facts about your friends, family, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, favorite celebrity etc.
- Intellectually laziness – “I don’t need to know that” “It’s none of my business”
- If you’re falling in love/in love with someone you may choose to turn a blind eye to their faults, so you can continue to see only the best in them
- If you’re pursuing your dreams/starting your own business you may want to remain willfully ignorant to the high probabilities of failure in order to keep your spirits up and stay positive
Most people are willfully ignorant about the ugly sides of protected groups:
- Black people
However if you want to get smarter you cannot be willfully ignorant.
You need to face facts and align your beliefs with reality. No matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it might be. It’s as simple as that.
“The sin which is unpardonable is knowingly and willfully to reject truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices.” – Aleister Crowley
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception” – Plato
Self-deception is a special kind of intellectual dishonesty that deserves it’s own mention.
Whilst a willfully ignorant person has consciously chosen to be ignorant of the facts, someone practicing self-deception is lying to themselves about what the facts are, and then actively trying to fool themselves into believing their own lies.
What is self-deception?
Self-deception is about:
- Lying to yourself and believing whatever you want to believe in order to make yourself feel better
- Believing things that aren’t true, whilst simultaneously believing refusing to believe the things that are true
- Seeing yourself the way you want to see yourself, instead of the way you are
Why do we lie to ourselves and practice self-deception?
- As a defense mechanism because we don’t want to face an uncomfortable fact, or unpleasant reality
- To avoid feeling negative emotions of anger, fear, insecurity, worry, regret, guilt, shame etc.
- To avoid taking action/responsibility for things we need to change about our lives but can’t be bothered: addictions to alcohol/coffee/sugar/porn/weed, a bad diet, a crappy job, credit card debt, toxic relationships etc. “It’s not a big deal that I drink/smoke weed every day” “My job sucks but it’ll get better” “My diet sucks and I’m massively overweight but I’ll go on a diet next week”
- To convince ourselves that our addictions, bad behavior, bad habits, problems, weaknesses etc. aren’t really that bad “Nobody’s perfect”
- To convince ourselves that we don’t really want something we can’t have, or that we’re too afraid to go for “I don’t really want it anyway”
- To make ourselves feel better about something we can’t control, feel powerless to change, or feel insecure about “It’s meant to be this that way”
- To make ourselves feel better when things aren’t going our way “It’s just temporary” “He didn’t really mean that” “There’s always next time”
- Because it’s incredibly tempting to believe whatever you want to believe “I’m a winner” “I’m smart” “I’m beautiful/handsome/sexy” etc. whereas telling yourself the truth might be horrifying “I’m broke” “I’m a loser” “I have no friends”
Ultimately people lie to themselves for the same reason they do anything: To avoid pain and to feel better in the moment.
Common lies we tell ourselves
Here are some common lies we tell ourselves:
- I’m fine
- I don’t care what anyone thinks
- I’m not hurt – I’m just angry
- I’m over it, I don’t even think about it anymore
- I’ll do it tomorrow/next week
- I’ve got time, this can wait
- I’ve done my best
- I’ve done everything I could have
- I don’t need anyone else
- I won’t do that again
- I’l start my diet next week
- I’m not addicted
- I don’t have a problem
- If I ignore it – it’ll go away
- I’m not insecure/nervous/scared/worried
- It’s not about the money
- I make decisions logically based on the evidence, not emotionally based on habit
- It’s not my fault – it’s theirs, it’s them – not me
- I had nothing to do with this
- This person will change
What lies do you tell yourself?
What are you pretending not to know? What are you turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to?
Advantages of self-deception
I’d be lying to you (and intellectually dishonest!) if I pretended that self-deception didn’t sometimes have it’s advantages.
Obviously it does or no one would ever lie to themselves.
- It can help you. Often people that believe they’re blessed, ‘gifted’, ‘lucky’, special, ‘destined for greatness’ etc. – act like it and go on to achieve great things
- If you believe your own bullshit it’s easier to convince others of it, because you’ll be congruent in the lie, and not see it as a lie e.g. If you want others to believe you’re the best man/woman for the job – you better believe it first. If you don’t believe it, no one else will believe it either
Why you should avoid self-deception and stop lying to yourself
What’s wrong with self-deception? What’s wrong with lying to yourself?
Despite the advantages of self-deception, there are a lot of disadvantages to it:
- The biggest problem with lying to yourself and pretending you’re not addicted, angry, hurt, upset etc. when you are, is that it masks your problem and removes your incentive to solve it. e.g. If you pretend to be skinny when you’re fat, there’s no incentive to lose weight. If you pretend not to be addicted to alcohol/cigarettes/coffee/sugar/porn/weed there’s not incentive to do anything about your addiction. Why would you? You’re not addicted!
- Self-deception/lying to yourself doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t improve anything. It doesn’t make anything better. It just wastes valuable time that could actually be spent improving the thing you’re lying to yourself about.
- Self-deception makes you delusional. It puts you out of touch with reality and makes you believe things that aren’t true, whilst simultaneously refusing to believe things that are true
How to avoid self-deception
Avoiding self-deception is NOT easy.
“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman
It’s tempting to believe whatever you want to believe. That’s why everyone does it.
But if you want to get smarter, you must make a commitment to be brutally honest and to tell yourself the truth always. Even if you don’t like it. Even if it hurts. Even if it makes you feel embarrassed, insecure, less than etc.
How to avoid self-deception:
- Make a commitment to intellectually honesty
- Refuse to be intellectually dishonest
- Refuse to be willfully ignorant
- Stop lying to yourself. Don’t lie to yourself about your addictions, insecurities, weaknesses or anything else. Acknowledge them. Accept them. Then work hard to change them.
- Don’t avoid, deny, ignore, or try to suppress negative emotions and/or memories. Instead acknowledge and accept them, and if you can do something to change or improve the situation – do so. Otherwise accept it.
I’ll go into self-awareness in more depth throughout this series, but for now I’ll just say that you don’t get there by lying to yourself, or by believing whatever you want to believe and living in fantasy land.
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Intellectual laziness
- Intellectual dishonesty
- Willful ignorance
To be four of the biggest hindrances to higher intelligence.
Let’s do a quick recap of this weeks points:
Intellectual laziness: Having an attitude of mental laziness, and being too lazy to learn, study, or think
Intellectual honesty: A commitment to honesty in your thinking and reasoning, even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, and doesn’t suit you or your argument
Intellectual dishonesty: “I refuse to be honest in my thinking and reasoning or to follow the evidence where it leads, and I don’t care if I’m being illogical or irrational”
Willful ignorance: Consciously choosing to be ignorant of the facts. Being unwilling to listen and learn. Having the attitude: “I don’t know and I don’t want to know”
Self-deception: “I’ll lie to myself and believe whatever I want to believe – regardless of whether it’s true or not because it makes me feel good”