Critical thinking and logic have radically changed my life for the better. Unfortunately, when I bring up ‘critical thinking’ I notice that some people’s eyes seem to glaze over. People seem to think these are immensely philosophical and deep subjects which only college-educated intellectuals want to have anything to do with.
I’d like to break through that, so let’s talk about something really practical and useful, which also just happens to be the very heart and soul of critical thinking.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all fallen for some nonsense in our lives. I dare say, most everyone probably has some part of their life where they are being taken advantage of and they don’t have a clue it’s going on. Their friends or family sadly shake their heads when they aren’t looking, hoping that somehow they will “wake up” and stop being idiots. It could be anything from politics to religion to relationships to diet to…whatever. And trying to “talk sense” into them goes nowhere, right? It just makes them hold on to the nonsense even harder. It’s almost as though they are held captive in a prison of belief.
Ever since I got out of Scientology I’ve been wondering about this. How did I get duped? How did I fall for that nonsense for so long?
Why do people just flatly refuse to look at facts or evidence? It seems that the more ridiculous the beliefs, the more viciously they will fight to hold on to them.
Believe me, the irony is not lost on me that here I am now trying to figure out how to reach the same kinds of True Believers that I once was.
I was talking to a friend about this and we were deep into the meanings of ultimate truth and comparing notes on subjective reality when it suddenly hit me that none of what we were talking was actually relevant to this problem, at least not in any practical sense. I think the way to handle this is a lot simpler than figuring out ‘ultimate truths’ and the nature of what is or is not knowable.
Science, Man, Science!
Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist and author of so many wonderful books, wrote, “Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions.”
When I talk about science and reason and logic, I’m not talking about facts and figures and periodic charts. I’m talking about a way of looking at life and dealing with it.
Sagan’s daughter wrote this about him in an essay entitled “How Carl Sagan Described Death to his Young Daughter”:
“Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.”
How do we keep ourselves from being taken advantage of? How do we keep our friends and family safe?
It all comes down to one word: science.
Forget the white lab coats and the slide rules and hours peering into microscopes or writing really hard math equations on blackboards. I’m not talking about any of that. Besides, those are all just tools and trappings. A lab coat doesn’t make someone a scientist any more than a stethoscope makes someone a doctor.
I’m talking about much more basic science. You know, the word science comes from Latin and means “knowledge”. So what do scientists – the people who are basically the closest things to knowledge experts that we have in the world – what do they do?
They question everything.
Not just once. Not just twice. All the time.
It may sound easy but it’s not. It actually goes against our very nature to do this. Yet from this questioning approach to life comes everything else.
Every great or fundamental discovery in science began by asking questions, by realizing that there is something out there that we do not know. The smarter or more experienced the scientist becomes, the only thing they become more sure of is how much they don’t know.
When we stop questioning, we stop learning and we stop all possibility of knowing.
People like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard utter “words of wisdom” like “knowledge is certainty.” No it’s not! Like so many of the fundamental principles in Scientology, he got it totally backwards. And don’t think that this is by accident. Creating a mindset of utter certainty and total belief is part of the package of being in a cult. It’s a way of keeping people from thinking.
It’s actually called thought-stopping. Why? Because a person who thinks he knows all about it is the person is who not going to ask any more questions or do any more looking. I can’t think of a more miserable existence than to imagine that you know it all. I’ve been there and it was not fun.
The one thing a scientist never stops doing is wondering about things and asking questions to find out more.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know something. There is nothing wrong with not having all the answers. Maybe because it’s in our cultural fabric or it’s part of human nature, we feel compelled to always have answers for everything. We even make stuff up if we don’t know it. But my point is that if you want to keep from getting conned, if you want to really succeed out there in the world, it’s all about learning to be a very curious person.
Geniuses Don’t Know Much
If you look to the great thinkers and truly great leaders of history, you find an almost universal agreement amongst them that great wisdom and great happiness come from great humility. There is nothing whatsoever wrong in knowing that you do NOT know.
“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.” – Albert Einstein
“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” – Alexander Pope
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell
How Every Con Works
Con artists, religionists, mentalists and all the like take advantage of this simple flaw in our thinking: our craving to simply believe what people tell us so we don’t have to think about it anymore.
Look at your own life. Are there areas of your life where you are absolutely sure you have it all taped? You are so sure of the truth of your beliefs that you don’t even need to think about it anymore? That if anyone questions you about it, you get this impatient sort of knot in your stomach and want to tell them to just shut the hell up? Is there anything you are so sure of that you wouldn’t even bother to look at anything someone else might want to show you which contradicts it?
People become locked into a close-minded prison of belief because they forget to question what is right in front of their noses. They accept the authority of someone else to tell them how things are, how things work, what is right and what is wrong.
That is how we get taken for a ride. We accept that we know everything there is to know about something. We refuse to even look at anything that might challenge those beliefs. We forget to question everything.
It takes practice to do this, because it’s not necessarily in our nature. We somehow like it when we don’t have to think too much. We like having people tell us what to think or how to vote or who to pray to or why the world works the way it does. Let me please remind you that down that path there be dragons. The kind that eat you up.
The other factor behind any con is trust.
It may seem that what I’m proposing is to never trust anyone about anything. No, there comes a point where you have to decide to trust. My point is that doesn’t mean you should shut down your thinking. Trusting someone does not mean handing over your brain to them.
I trust lots of people. That doesn’t mean I’m going to buy everything they tell me just because they said it’s true.
In science, there are no “authorities”. No one follows Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion just because it was Newton who said it. They follow it because his theories stood up to more rigorous testing and development than any other proposition on the relationship of space and matter and their interaction. That is why these are now called Newton’s Laws of Motion.
Newton didn’t get to be called a genius because people believed in him. He’s a genius because what he formulated works and has been proven over and over and over again. There is not one person anywhere in this world who has not benefited from Newton’s discoveries.
Con men work very hard to gain your trust by feeding you false or colored information to sway your judgment or opinion. They ask you to trust them, to take what they say on faith or because they have it on the very best of authority. Some of them even claim that what they are saying is based in science and has been absolutely proven to be true.
I’m not saying that you should assume everyone is a con artist, but accepting anything on blind faith is ill advised. By asking lots of questions, by continuing to probe, you can either prove someone’s story is true or you can bust it apart.
Most of the time, if you just keep asking some con man about this or that or the other thing, they’ll go away just so they can find an easier mark. They don’t like people who ask questions. Scientists on the other hand, are trained to expect to be hit with about a thousand questions and to ask a thousand more themselves.
A Better World
If you still think that this all sounds too simple and obvious, then maybe you can explain to me why is it not practiced more often. It only sounds simple because it’s easy to say, not because any of this is easy to do.
I invite you to adopt this questioning frame of mind as a conscious effort and to practice it often. Maybe suggest to others that they do the same.
If we could do this and teach our children to do it too, I think we’d see a very different world very quickly. One in which crooked politicians, pseudo-scientific con artists and religious fundamentalists would not be able to take advantage of the gullible masses.
I think that would be a world that would be actually be going in the right direction. I think that would be a world worth living in.