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Are You A Critical Thinker?

2015 Jan Improving the world in thoughtful ways

Here's a simple test to see if you are indeed a critical thinker. Can you answer "yes" to the following questions:

1. First and foremost are you willing to change your mind if presented with better evidence?

2. Are you willing to seek out what constitutes reliable evidence?

3. Finally, are you willing to recognize that knowledge comes in degrees of certainty? We know some things with extraordinary certainty and other things with less certainty until we get down to educated guesses. Murder investigations are an example of how historical knowledge comes in degrees of certainty. There's good evidence and there's weak evidence with everything in between.

If you can answer yes to these things, we have a common basis to discuss things, to deal with problems from our machines, our processes, our understandings, our society and anything else that we can act on. You are someone who will help solve problems in a realistic, effective manner.

Evidence

Being a critical thinker means trying to gain the most reliable knowledge possible. That requires logic and the weighing of evidence which comes in vastly different degrees of certainty. Empirical evidence is, by far, best for building block in our structure of understanding how reality works.

Strong evidence comes from well controlled experiments or well documented observations. It's stronger if it's repeatable. If you assert that oil brand x makes your motor run better how did you verify that? Did you just notice higher RPM's during climb? There's nothing wrong with that as evidence it's just not as strong as doing a well controlled experiment where you test the maximum RPM in controlled conditions. We notice patterns all the time, much of science is devoted to ferreting out which ones are real and which ones are not.

Stories of experiences are particularly weak evidence. Reliable knowledge rarely ever comes from stories passed down by humans.

Correlation is also weak evidence on it's own but is a good starting point. It can become very strong provided all the confounding factors are removed. For example: "every time I fly at this beach I can't get off the ground, the air must be sinking around there." Without other means of measuring, the assertion about sinking air is woefully unreliable since there could be other causes.

Belief or Knowledge?

Is it belief or is it knowledge? The moment you hold something to be absolutely true you've left the realm of critical thinking. Nothing is absolute, a fact that history has shown time and time again.

We can say some things with great certainty, and even with great accuracy, but experience has shown that many things, when examined at different scales or times, or detail are not as they seem. Look at a simple measure of speed. It's easy to think of Newtonian laws as irrefutable. We used to think, to "know" that you could accelerate forever with no limits. Then Einstein happened. Now we realize that there some really weird things that happen as we approach the speed of light and, at some point, you stop accelerating and get more massive in way that is far from intuitive. Bright people have done experiments that show this to be true and our navigation system wouldn't work without accounting for these effects.

One of the most tellers of critical thinking is the willingness to change your mind based on sound evidence. "Belief" is resistant to such change.

It can be tough to distinguish between belief or evidence-based knowledge. Critical thinkers esteem knowledge, and they know it comes in degrees of certainty--better evidence, higher certainty. For example, if a community "believes" that only brand X should be used, but there is no sound, empirical evidence, then the belief should be held with some amount of suspicion. It's not that you think the belief is wrong, it's just that you realize it doesn't carry great certainty.

Who To Trust

We can't test everything ourselves so, at many points, we must rely on others. Who? How do you pick those others? Here's how:

1. They first must be critical thinkers. That's key. It's number one for good reason. Among other things, it rules out a great many Charlatans who rely on people's ignorance of critical thinking in order to foist whatever it is they're trying to achieve. They're frequently selling something.

2. They should be trusted by their fellow critical thinking peers.

3. Claims should make make sense. It's extraordinarily and increasingly rare for someone to make a wild claim in the science realm, have it be doubted by their peers, and still have it pan out. Increasingly rare examples of that get tossed about by those who don't like this fact. Phrases like "science isn't always correct" or "science doesn't know everything" are as obviously true as they are red flags of poor thinkers. Which brings us to the next point, consensus.

How Do you Know This?

Because it works. Every successful human endeavor starts with understanding and you can trace that back to someone who followed these tenets. They may not have been critical thinkers in every realm, that's common, but the realms in which they accomplished, where they added to knowledge, followed these tenets. People can stumble upon things, a great many discoveries have been lucky accidents, but the process of building them into a body of reliable knowledge follows a process of testing and validation to establish degrees of certainty.

Consensus

When a consensus of critical thinking scientists, those whose field is based on empirical evidence, passes 90%, it's extremely likely to be true. Not always, of course, and it still depends on levels of certainty, but it's a powerful indicator of accuracy. A great example of understanding the value limitations of consensus is string theory. It is a theoretical pursuit at this point; there may be a consensus of researchers who think it's true at some level but they realize it's provisional--that it needs to be tested. Right now there's no experimental data to back it up so the consensus is weak.

But on the question of  whether the Earth orbits the sun or versa there is enormous certainty.

Bias

Everyone is biased.

For example, as a free-flyer and photographer, I like paramotors more if they have weight shift. That's a bias. I'll tend to want them to be more desirable. The key is knowing that bias exists and trying to take measures to reduce its effect on my writings.

Another powerful motive is profit. If someone is being paid by a company to review gear, or even being treated well, it can taint the review. That's why consumer reports never takes products provided by companies, rather they go out and buy them on the same market everybody else does from people who don't know they represent Consumer Reports. The company doesn't want sellers to know their product is being reviewed. I do try to review gear by borrowing it from regular pilots but that doesn't always happen. I try hard to be unbiased, even when I like the seller as a personal friend, but recognize the bias is there.

The hardest biases involve personalities. There are people whose obnoxious behavior makes it hard to recommend anything they're involved with. That's not fair, of course, and I try hard to look past it or make it clear why the bias is there. The opposite is true when it may be a good friend who's selling something that I'm not so fond of. Gotta take the good with the bad if you're gonna be credible. I'll try my darndest to be credible.

Religion

Religion invariably comes up because it's such a huge influence in the United States. It's nearly impossible, for example, to get elected to a political office without expressing belief in the prevailing God.

Once someone becomes highly educated, either formally or on their own, and explores how the world really works, they rarely embrace any type of actively-involved God type of supernatural claim, even as believers. Salon has an article on the subject of highly educated people and religion.

 

We will do better as a society to solve problems using our best knowledge. If you think we can utter magical chants to make water appear, you won't work as hard at actually finding water or controlling its use. 


© 2016 Jeff Goin & Tim Kaiser   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!