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

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Welcome to part 10 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:

Let’s begin…

5. Question everything

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire

If you want to get smarter you must be willing to question everything:

  • The ‘authorities’
  • The ‘experts’
  • The ‘news’
  • The books, magazines, and newspapers you read
  • The audiobooks and podcasts you listen to
  • The gossip, rumors, and stories you hear

You must also be willing to question your political and religious views, and all of your most deeply held beliefs, and everything you ‘know’ to be true.

Critical Thinking Questions 

Here are some good critical thinking questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this article/podcast/news story? Why was it created?
  • What does the author or speaker want you to think/believe/do?
  • Is the information from a trusted source? (I don’t think any source is completely trustworthy, but some sources are clearly more trustworthy than others)

According to this survey (which you shouldn’t trust) these are some of the most trusted news sources in America (which is only public opinion – and therefore means nothing). I’m not saying I endorse or trust any of these news sites personally:

  1. Associated Press News
  2. BBC News
  3. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  4. C-Span
  5. The Economist
  6. NPR
  7. PBS
  8. Politico
  9. Pro Publica
  10. Reuters

PS: Just because a news station is popular or number one in the ratings, that doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy, or that you should automatically believe the information presented to you as if it were fact.

Nor does it mean you should automatically dismiss it if it isn’t.

Remember: Examine the statement – not the speaker

  • What is the bias of the author, magazine, newspaper, news station etc.? Are they conservative or liberal? Religious or secular? Feminist or MGTOW? (Unfortunately no author, journalist, presenter, or news media organisation, is completely neutral, unbiased, and objective)
  • Why is this important? What does it mean? What are the implications of this information? How does it affect me? Why do I need to know this?
  • Is it really newsworthy, or is it just gossip, or someone’s opinion, or propaganda, or paid advertising?
  • Are you being presented with facts or opinions?
    • If ‘facts’ – on what basis are they facts? (The internet and the ‘news’ is full of gossip, speculation, and opinion, masquerading as fact)
    • What evidence does the author or speaker have to support these claims?
    • Does the author or speaker provide sources for each of their claims? I.e. When they say “everyone knows” – says who? When they say “people are saying” – which people? When they say “experts say” – which experts?
    • What are the best arguments and evidence in support of these claims?
    • What are the best counter-arguments and evidence against these claims?
  • Does the headline follow logically from the data or is it just clickbait?
    • Does the author or news station have a history of clickbait journalism?
    • Do the authors/speakers/news stations conclusions logically follow from the data? Or are they making massive assumptions and wildly speculating?
    • How has this information in this story been framed or spun?
    • Are there any fallacies in the reasoning of the article or news story? If so, what?
    • Is the author or speaker attacking or presenting you with a straw man argument?
    • Is this story really just a hatchet job? (“A severe criticism or malicious written or verbal attack meant to ruin someone’s reputation.” – The Free Dictionary)
  • Are you being presented with both sides of the story? (The answer is no)
    • Whose perspective is this presented from? America’s or someone else’s? Conservative or liberal? Religious or secular? Men or Women? Black or White?
    • What other points of view might be equally valid or worth looking into?
  • Does everyone agree with the author or speaker? If not, why not?
  • What’s the consensus? What do the majority think? (You definitely shouldn’t believe something just because everyone else does – that would be ridiculous – but it’s still good to be aware of it)
  • What do the other news stations say? (If you read or watch the news you should pay attention to multiple sources instead of getting all of your news and information from just one station)
  • Is the information presented to you by the media something you can easily identify with because it reflects your daily life experiences, or does it contradict it? (In other words: Does the medias version of ‘reality’ reflect your own?)
  • Do you like the speaker?
    • If yes: beware because you’re more likely to agree with them regardless of whether they’re right or not
    • If no: beware because you’re more likely to dismiss what they have to say regardless of whether it’s true or not
  • Do you trust the author/speaker/news station? Why/why not?
    • If yes: Be careful you’re not automatically believing everything they have to say and letting them do your thinking for you
  • Do you like the message you’re being told? Yes or no?
    • Beware because the easily lie to convince someone of, is the one they want to believe: “We’re the good guys! They’re the bad guys!”
  • Can you look at this information objectively without attachment or emotion? Or are you emotionally invested in the outcome? Does it trigger you?
  • If you’re watching a group/panel discussion, is there an equal distribution of liberal and conservative pundits, or is it 80-90% majority liberal and a token conservative? (The usual scenario)
  • If there is a discussion or a debate on a contentious topic e.g. abortion or gun control:
    • Is the host/interviewer showing any kind of favoritism or an obvious bias towards one side or the other?
    • Is the host/interviewer picking sides or ganging up on one of the guests?
    • Is the host/interviewer giving more airtime, credibility, or respect to one of the guests?
  • Are you judging the information in a black and white way, as if ALL of it, or NONE of it were true? Or are you judging the validity of the information claim by claim, line by line, sentence by sentence?

These are all great questions to ask whenever you’re reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching the news etc.

If you’re speaking with someone face to face however, one of the best methods of questioning is the Socratic method…

The Socratic Method

The Socratic method (named after Socrates) is a method of asking questions in order to stimulate critical thinking, unpack beliefs, and to examine the validity of the logic and reasoning used to support them.

This video provides a good introduction and overview to the Socratic method:

The Socratic Method

  1. State a belief
  2. Ask questions to unpack the belief, and to examine the validity of the logic and reasoning used to support it
  3. If the logic and reasoning used to support the belief seems unreliable or weak, ask the person if they would reconsider the belief, or restate it with greater accuracy
  4. If the belief is restated with greater accuracy, continue to ask follow up questions to unpack the belief, and to examine the validity of the logic and reasoning used to support it, until it is stated in such a way that it cannot be contradicted or an exception found – or until the person stating the belief admits that they don’t know

Here is an example of the Socratic method in action:

The Socratic method is a great way to unpack someone’s belief, and to examine the logic and reasoning used to support it, in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental way.

Most people don’t know why they believe what they believe, and even when they do, they often don’t have very good or reliable reasons to support their beliefs.

Socratic Questions

Here are some good Socratic questions to unpack someone’s belief/s (or your own), and to examine the validity of the logic and reasoning used to support the belief:

  • What do you believe?
  • Why do you believe it?
  • How do you know for sure (insert belief) is true?
  • How certain are you on a scale from 1-10?
  • If 10 – would you bet your life on it?
  • What led you to that belief? How did you come to that conclusion? What evidence convinced you of this? Can you explain your reasoning?
  • Why do you think other people aren’t convinced by the same evidence and reasons you are?
  • Why do you think skeptics and unbelievers might say that this evidence isn’t convincing enough?
  • Would this evidence stand up in court?
  • What would you say to someone who said (insert counter-argument)?
  • What do you think are the best counter-arguments and evidence against this belief?
  • Are there any exceptions to this? Is this always the case? 100% of the time?
  • Have you ever experienced anything that would be an exception to the rule?
  • How can I be sure of what you’re saying?
  • How do you know you’re not wrong?
  • What would change your mind?
  • What would prove you wrong?
  • What would have to happen in order for you to change your mind?
  • What do you know that I don’t?

Question Suggestions 

Finally, here are some good general guidelines whenever you’re interviewing someone or asking them questions:

Don’t

Don’t assume the answer before you’ve even asked the question.

“Beware of the man who knows the answer before he understands the question.” – Anonymous

Don’t ask leading questions that assume the answer within the question, and then assume that the only ‘correct’ or ‘right’ answer, is the one that confirms your assumptions.

Don’t ask closed questions that encourage one word yes/no type answers.

Don’t ask boring or superficial questions that encourage banal answers.

Make sure you’re asking the right question, otherwise you won’t get the right answer.

Or to put it another way: Even if you get the right answer to the wrong question, you still won’t get the information you’re looking for.

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” – W. Edwards Deming

“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer.” – Edward Hodnett

Do

Ask specific questions that are difficult to wriggle out of.

Ask intelligent and thoughtful questions that demand intelligent answers.

Ask open ended questions that encourage detailed answers.

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” – Tony Robbins

“A wise man’s question contains half the answer.” – Solomon Ibn Gabirol

“A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.” – Elon Musk

Question everything.

“The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.” – Confucius

PS: If someone asks you a leading or loaded question, you can simply ignore it and answer a different question. You don’t have to answer every question asked of you. You can simply reject the premise of the question.

“I reject the premise in your question.” – West Wing

“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.” – Voltaire 

4. Follow the evidence wherever it leads 

“Follow the evidence where it leads, even if the conclusion is uncomfortable.” – Steven James 

There are 2 ways to form beliefs:

  1. You can believe whatever you want to believe (what most people do)
  2. You can base your beliefs upon the evidence (what scientists and truth seekers do)

In other words: Your beliefs will be based on either evidence or preference.

I suggest option 2) Follow the evidence wherever it leads – no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it might be – and base your beliefs upon what you find (So your beliefs are based in reality instead of fantasy)

My thoughts are: If you’re going to believe something – why not believe what’s true?

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” – David Hume

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” – Albert Einstein

Unfortunately most people aren’t truth seekers and do not follow the evidence where it leads. They simply believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of the evidence, regardless of how illogical or irrational it might be, simply because it makes them feel good, or it suits them.

Even the few that call themselves “truth seekers”, generally only follow the evidence until the moment it starts going somewhere they don’t like, and then they dig their heels in, and refuse to go any further.

How many people do you know that will follow the evidence where it leads, even if that means going against their political or religious beliefs?

Not many.

“People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” – Blaise Pascal

A couple of points on following the evidence where it leads:

Don’t cherry pick

Instead of basing their beliefs upon ALL of the available evidence and information, most people simply cherry pick only the evidence and information that supports their beliefs, whilst simultaneously ignoring and rejecting any evidence that contradicts them.

As a Truth Seeker however, you must be willing to look at ALL of the available evidence and information, not just the evidence and information that supports your beliefs.

Don’t have double standards for evidence

Too many people have double standards for evidence:

  • One extremely low standard for the things they DO want to believe
  • One impossibly high standard for the things they DON’T want to believe

For example: For the things they do want to believe such as God, Heaven, the afterlife etc. they’re willing to believe on almost any evidence – no matter how unreliable (gossip, rumors, stories etc.) and they’ll even believe on NO evidence at all.

But for the things they don’t want to believe such as climate change, evolution, or that their political or religious beliefs might be false, they have impossibly high standards for evidence that cannot reasonably be met, or they’ll continually shift the goal posts.

As a critical thinker and a Truth Seeker you should have equally high standards for evidence, both for the things you do want to believe, and for the things you don’t want to believe. Not one extremely low standard of evidence for the things you want to believe, and one impossibly high standard for the things you don’t want to believe.

Don’t shift the goal posts

If you said (insert evidence) would change your mind and convince you of something, once (insert evidence) is provided, don’t refuse to change your mind and immediately shift the goal posts and require an even higher standard of evidence in order to be convinced. This is intellectually dishonest.

Don’t be afraid of going down a slippery slope

Some people are afraid of following the evidence where it leads in case it leads them somewhere they don’t like.

For example: When presented with contradictions or errors in the Bible, a Christian might be afraid to admit the obvious and reason as follows:

“I can’t admit that there might be contradictions or errors in the Bible, because if I did that would mean the Bible wasn’t the word of God, and if the Bible wasn’t the word of God, Christianity wouldn’t be true, and if Christianity wasn’t true, my life would have no meaning… therefore I’m not going to admit anything because I don’t like where this is leading…”

However you shouldn’t deny the obvious or dismiss evidence just because it’s inconvenient, or because you don’t like where the evidence is leading.

Follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Quality > Quantity of evidence 

When it comes to evidence: Quality > Quantity.

I could show you a thousand pieces of photographic and video evidence for aliens, Bigfoot, the lochness monster etc. and include interviews and testimonials with dozens of eye witnesses that have supposedly seen them, but all of that ‘evidence’ doesn’t make it true.

It’s the quality, not the quantity, of evidence you should be paying attention to.

Summary

As a Truth Seeker you must be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

You must also be willing to change your beliefs every single day without resistance or hesitation if the evidence demands it. Anything else is intellectually dishonest

3. Motivated reasoning

There are two ways to reason:

a) Like a Lawyer

b) Like a Scientist

I suggest reasoning like a scientist…

Scientists aren’t interested in winning arguments, as much as they want to find out what’s actually true. They also want access to all of the available evidence and information, not just the evidence and information that confirms their beliefs. They’re also willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads – even if it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. And they’re happy to be proven wrong if they are wrong.

Most people however reason like lawyers, and only argue to win, not to discover the actual truth and facts of the matter. They’re not interested in all of the available evidence and information, only the evidence and information that supports their beliefs. Nor are they interested in following the evidence where it leads, unless it leads to their preferred conclusion.

This is known as motivated reasoning.

Motivated reasoning is when you argue strategically towards a preferred conclusion, with an obvious attachment to one particular belief or outcome.

When a salesperson tries to persuade you to buy – that’s motivated reasoning.

When a job seeker tries to persuade a company to hire them – that’s motivated reasoning.

When a politician tries to persuade you to vote for them – that’s motivated reasoning.

“Motivated reasoning: Trying to make some ideas win and others lose.” – Julia Galef 

Motivated reasoning is closely related to confirmation bias, because instead of being interested in all of the facts (like a scientist), you’re only interested in the facts that support your argument (like a lawyer).

Signs of Motivated Reasoning 

  • Arguing with a goal in mind, with an obvious attachment to one particular belief or conclusion
  • A tendency to be dismissive of any evidence or information that threatens your beliefs or your argument
  • An unwillingness to follow the evidence where it leads – unless it supports your beliefs or your argument
  • Double standards for evidence
    • One extremely low standard for the things you DO want to believe
    • One extremely high standard for the things you DON’T want to believe
  • A tendency towards mental gymnastics and ridiculous far fetched scenarios in an attempt to justify and rationalize your beliefs, and to reach your preferred conclusion
  • A tendency to interpret information in a biased way that supports your beliefs
    • Supporting evidence is considered ‘proof’ and is perceived as stronger than it is
    • Disconfirming evidence is dismissed and/or perceived as weaker than it is
    • Neutral evidence is also perceived as being supportive of your argument
  • A tendency to twist any evidence or information presented to suit your argument and to see it as supportive of your argument Evolution Proves God’s Existence – William Lane Craig

The bottom line: If you’re arguing or reasoning strategically towards a preferred conclusion with a goal in mind, or if you’re only interested in the evidence and information that supports your beliefs or your argument, then you’re motivated reasoning.

2. Confirmation Bias

“The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.” – George Bernard Shaw

Confirmation bias causes us to:

  • Seek out evidence and information to support our beliefs
  • Avoid/ignore/reject any evidence or information that might challenge or threaten our beliefs
  • Interpret and recall even ambiguous and neutral information as being supportive of our beliefs

“Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” – Wikipedia

“Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” – Steven Hoffman

Confirmation bias affects every area of your life:

  • The type of information you seek out and accept as true
  • The people you choose to listen to and pay attention to
  • How you interpret ambiguous information
  • How you recall information. Not only are you more likely to recall information that supports your beliefs, but you’re also more likely to recall even ambiguous and neutral information as being supportive of your beliefs
  • The questions you ask and how you ask them (interviewers and journalists often show their confirmation bias by asking leading questions in an attempt to get the answers they’re looking for “don’t you think…?” or “Isn’t it true that…?”) 
  • If you think someone is an asshole, dishonest, untrustworthy etc. you’ll seek out evidence to confirm it, and you’ll ignore any evidence that suggests they’re not
  • If you think negatively towards a certain race, religion, or sex, you’ll seek out evidence to confirm it, and you’ll ignore any evidence that points to the opposite

Confirmation bias can be caused by other people too. If someone plants a negative idea in your head about someone else “I definitely wouldn’t trust that guy if I were you” (this is known as poisoning the well), or if the media does a hatchet job on someone, it’s common for your mind to seek out – and even to create – reasons to support that belief too.

The Dangers of Confirmation Bias 

Confirmation bias is a problem because it causes us to seek out evidence and information to support our beliefs – even when they’re wrong. It also causes us to avoid/ignore/reject information which disagrees with us – even when it’s right.

Confirmation bias also causes us to get stuck in echo chambers listening to the same people, thinking the same thoughts, coming to the same conclusions etc.

Most of us don’t expose ourselves to counterarguments and evidence from the other side that might challenge what we believe – and even if we do – it’s often only to argue, mock, ridicule, and fault find, instead of really listening and seeking to understand and contemplate with an open mind.

Confirmation bias also makes us overconfident in our beliefs, and it makes it hard for us to change our minds. Because we’ve accumulated so much information over the years to support our beliefs – whilst simultaneously avoiding/ignoring/rejecting any information that might challenge or contradict them, it’s given us the false impression that all of the facts are on our side and anyone who disagrees with us is an idiot.

How to overcome Confirmation Bias 

  • 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 beliefs (what conspiracy theorists/religions/most people do) look for evidence and information to try to contradict and disprove them
  • Invite others to try to prove you wrong too
  • Ask others who think differently than you what they think
  • Research and list all of the reasons you might be wrong
  • Seek out and surround yourself with smart people who think differently than you
  • Be equally suspicious (or even more so) of the answers you do like, as you are of answers you don’t like

“When you’re presented with questions or answers about any problem, you should ask yourself: Do I like this answer? And if you do you should be suspicious, because you’re much more likely to accept something that appeals to you whether it’s right or not.” – Lawrence Krauss

1. Think for yourself

In an interview with Marilyn Mach Vos Savant the Guinness World Record holder for the highest IQ ever recorded at 228 (average is 100 and genius is 160), she was asked what she credited her high IQ to:

Marilyn Mach Vos Savant: “I see that people who are extremely motivated, hardworking, and persevering, often come out with superior IQs.”  

Interviewer: “Why do you think so many people have difficulty allowing the intellect to blossom?”

Marilyn Mach Vos Savant: “I think one of the problems is compulsory schooling. Children are sitting there and they are taught, and told, what to believe. They are passive from the very beginning. One must be very, very, aggressive intellectually to have a high IQ. That is one thing I think I do have. I think I’m VERY aggressive intellectually.”  

Interviewer: “What did you mean intellectually aggressive?”

Marilyn Mach Vos Savant: “The child is taught right from the beginning it’s a passive process (learning). He or she sits there, and they simply try to believe everything they’re told. So right from the beginning people begin to believe what they’re told, what they read in the newspapers, what they hear on the radio, what they hear on television, and they’re prone to just be counting on someone else telling them what to think, and they never learn to think independently.”  

I agree with Marilyn 100%.

If you want to get smarter, you must be intellectually aggressive, you must think for yourself, and you must be willing to question everything.

You cannot be intellectually lazy or passive, you cannot have blind faith in authorities, and you cannot allow anyone to do your thinking for you no matter who they are.

Don’t let anyone tell you:

  • What to think
  • What to believe
  • What to like/want/value
  • What the ‘facts’ are
  • What the ‘truth’ is
  • What things mean
  • What’s important
  • What matters
  • How to act
  • What to do
  • Who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are
  • Who your heroes and role models should be

“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too” – Voltaire

You need to start questioning everyone and everything:

  • The ‘authorities’
  • The ‘experts’
  • The ‘facts’
  • The media
  • The ‘news’
  • The ‘official’ story
  • The status quo
  • Conspiracy theories
  • All Politicians/Presidents
  • All Gurus/Holy books/Religions

Unfortunately most people are intellectually lazy and don’t want to think. They’d much rather sit back passively and simply believe whatever the experts or the media tells them to believe. Most people have never had an original thought in their entire lives.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford

“Five percent of people think, ten percent of people think they think, and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” – Thomas Edison

“Human beings never think for themselves; they find it too uncomfortable. For the most part, members of our species simply repeat what they are told – and become upset if they are exposed to any different view.” – Michael Crichton

Don’t just believe something because everyone else does.

I know that believing whatever the experts tell you to believe might seem like a smart idea, because it seems to save time and shortcut the process.

Why go through all the hard work of thinking, studying, researching etc. when it’s all been done for you?

But the problem with allowing others to do your thinking for you, is that you end up becoming intellectually lazy and gullible, and you end up getting brainwashed with a bunch of bullshit.

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

“No man was ever wise by chance.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Summary

This is part 10 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:

5. Critical thinking questions & the Socratic Method

4. Follow the evidence wherever it leads

3. Motivated reasoning

2. Confirmation bias

1. Thinking for yourself

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and it’s seriously helped you to improve your critical thinking skills and your bullshit meter.

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

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