Archives for posts with tag: thinking

If you can’t see any flaws in the arguments of those you agree with, and you can’t see any merit in the arguments of those you disagree with, then chances are you are in the grip of confirmation bias.

It’s not easy to cross rivers when you are looking in the wrong direction.

I did a radio interview a few weeks ago, and in it, I discussed homeopathy, acupuncture, salt therapy and chiropractic. Needless to say, the interview was followed by a range of alternative practitioners all calling in to defend their methods. The interviewer also read out a number of texts and emails, all pretty much saying the same thing: that I was just a closed-minded begrudger who should be a bit less dismissive about things he doesn’t understand.


“Thinking” by ores2k (CC Licenced)

It’s a common belief that sceptical people are somehow lacking in imagination and empathy. According to some, when we look at the world, we moan and groan at the stupidity we see around us. Somehow, most other people are lesser beings, and while we cast doubt and criticise, they are out in the world getting on with their lives. What a miserable, negative lot we are!

The thing is, I don’t see it like that at all. As a person, I’m not terribly negative about things, and most other sceptical people I know have similar attitudes. Indeed, what I see around me, when I visit sceptical conferences and organise my own get-togethers, are wildly interesting people. Among the sceptical community, you will find writers and musicians; painters, comedians and poets. You will find fantasists, willing to consider life far into the future and worlds yet to be discovered. You will meet people with great talents, and those with huge burdens to bear. There is a passion to our discourse, some sadness, and many, many laughs. The sceptical community is just like any community on the planet, as varied and fascinating as a patchwork quilt.

So, what makes us different? If there is something that distinguishes us from others, it is this: we are driven by a curiosity about how the world really works. From this, we believe that the best way to understand it is to consider the evidence that exists for it. If you are asking us to accept something as true, we will ask how well it is supported. If it has good backup, it will be discussed, considered, explored and toyed with for the possibilities that it may offer. If it has little or no support, then acceptance will be withheld, until such time, if ever, that better evidence comes to light. Over time, you develop a sense of whether an idea is worthwhile or not: a “baloney detector kit”, as it were, helping you sort the good ideas from the bad ones.

A glance at my bookshelf reveals books about the origins of life, the story of Galileo, the scramble for Africa, Richard Feynman, the Ice Age, the Crusades, the stories of civilisation, great epidemics and the life and times of an executioner in 17th Century Nuremberg – hardly the library of a cynical begrudger. It would pain me greatly if I was ever to be parted from them. I am possessed with a desire to know and understand what I can, and yet not be fooled in the process. To me, scepticism is part of the process of gathering knowledge. Without it, knowledge is meaningless, as you cannot distinguish the worthwhile ideas from the chaff.

Scepticism is a state of mind. It doesn’t mean I get angry every time I see something I disagree with, or that I’m always writing angry letters to newspapers complaining about the latest fad. Most of the time, it simply allows me to be discriminating in what I wish to spend time on. There are only so many battles you can fight.

That doesn’t imply that there are no issues to discuss. Scepticism gives me a perspective on which to look at the world, and from this viewpoint, I see charlatans – psychics, faith healers and cancer quacks – exploiting peoples hopes and vulnerabilities with non-existent cures. I see anti-vaccination groups scaring parents, thus bringing rare diseases back amongst our children. I see cult religions warping people’s lives when they could have been doing so much else. I see political think-tanks questioning the science on climate change, thus condemning future generations to a potentially dreadful future. These are issues that affect us all. My concerns are human concerns, focused on the best of what life has to offer us, and rejecting the worst. I’m just coming at it from a slightly different angle.

Ultimately, I think scepticism is a hopeful stance. I believe that we humans have the capability to extend our survival as a species and to make all our lives better during our short stay on the planet. We can solve many of the problems that beset us, but it will require hard work, trial, error and great insight. In the end, it’s less about ideology and more about the role of science, technology, education and a good dose of common human decency, in addressing the many challenges that we face, now and in the future.

So, it’s not all about begrudgery and negativity. Quite the opposite – scepticism is about intellectual honesty, unquenchable curiosity and truly great ideas. It is accessible to all, both young and old. As a perspective, it is valuable and satisfying, both emotionally and mentally. It is a viewpoint shared by many of the world’s greatest thinkers, scientists and innovators. If only our political classes would consider it more seriously! We sceptics still have quite a job to do to convince people that our stance is important and worthwhile, but in the end I am hopeful. After all, we have an important ally on our side: reality.

Storytelling may be the most important means of verbal communication that we have. Stories were the standard form of imparting knowledge from generation to generation for millennia. To this day, some of the best forms of entertainment: movies, novels, plays; are ones that tell a story. Children learn stories at an early age by their parents. We were born to narrate, and to be narrated to.

via youngdoo (Flickr / CC Licensed)

A key aspect of good stories is their coherence. Everything in the story contributes to the message the author wishes to impart. A case is built up, line upon line, until a solid, inevitable conclusion is reached. The aim of the storyteller is to build up evidence that convinces the reader; there should be no loose ends. Incongruence is disparaged. To tell a good story is to make it flow like water from source to sea. Coherence is the power of good storytelling.

In life, we tell stories all the time. We use the tools of the narrator to make our message heard, to compete for jobs, to seek enrichment. The best storytellers find tales that contribute to their narratives. If there is a jarring note, they try to write it out of the plot. There are many techniques to do this. Our stories create coherence, direction and conviction in a otherwise chaotic world.

Via Local Studies NSW (Flickr, CC Licensed)

Stories package life into digestible bites, but we all know that life is not so simple. Stories, by their very nature, are distortions of reality. They place greater weight on some incidents, facts, people, findings and opinions; while minimising the importance of other aspects of a situation. They gloss over complexities in the interest of maintaining attention. Two people can create totally different stories from exactly the same event. If we want to understand real events, we need to treat individual stories with great caution.

Stories are often central to the world-views of people. At the heart of all great political movements, religions, fads and management theories are narratives – ways of looking at the world that emphasise certain aspects while dismissing contradictory information. The filters are so great that people go to the grave convinced of their certainty, even when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

We should be thankful that we possess narrative thinking, as it is our greatest communication tool. At the same time, we should mindful of its many weaknesses. There are occasions in life where simple narratives are not enough. There are situations where the distortion field erected by narration needs to be pulled down, so that we can understand reality as it is, faults, blemishes and all.


Fortunately, there is a mode of thinking that recognises the failures of the narrative. It accepts challenges head-on. It seeks to understand the biases that plague our patterns of thought. Through testing and experimentation, it matches our premises to reality. This type of thinking does not come naturally to us. We have only engaged with it, seriously and systematically, over the last 400 years. In that time, it has proven itself over and over again; allowing us to see things as they are, rather than how we think they should be. We have a name for this type of thinking.

We call it science.

If there is one thing that defines humanity, it is our beliefs. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about God, health, death, the government or our purpose in life, among many others. Beliefs can rule our lives. They can be shared and replicated amongst billions. They can persist for thousands of years, passing from parents to children, generation after generation. Beliefs can be sensible, such as the world being round, or certifiably insane, such as a world dominated by lizard people. People will kill, maim and die because of their beliefs.

Beliefs do not require facts. They can exist in our heads, completely separated from reality. Most beliefs are wrong, either completely or in part. Furthermore, most people accept that beliefs can be wrong. All they have to do is to read a newspaper, listen to other people, or turn on the TV. It is ironic then, how convinced so many people are that their own beliefs are perfectly right. They will often cling to them as if their lives depended on them, and no amount of evidence or argument will change their views.

Beliefs are strange. They are simultaneously fragile yet unremittingly tenacious. They are products of our psychological make-up. Where we acquired such mechanisms is hidden in the depths of time.

Why is it that beliefs are so difficult to get rid of? Why is it so rare to hear someone saying “ah, yes, I was wrong about all that”. How often have you heard someone admitting that their most strongly held beliefs were a load of baloney?

Perhaps beliefs are investments. The bigger your personal stake in your belief, the more you are likely to lose: reputation, friends, money, influence. You must, therefore, defend your beliefs at all costs. It could be that the consequences of not having closely held beliefs are too difficult to countenance. Maybe we defend our beliefs because they are held by people we respect and we cannot ever imagine them ever being wrong. Possibly we are fooled by confirmation bias, a well known psychological effect where our brains filter out contradictory our viewpoints. Or it could be that we just don’t like thinking about things so much.

Beliefs should never be sacrosanct. All beliefs should be challenged, allowing the well supported ones to thrive, while the flimsier ones are discarded. Beliefs that need threats to survive are the ones in most need of analysis and criticism. Poorly supported beliefs prevent us from learning and progressing. They can cause conflicts where no conflict should exist. If beliefs were more easily discarded perhaps this world wouldn’t have so many problems.

Have you ever had a set of beliefs that you subsequently relinquished? What caused the rethink? Why didn’t you discard them earlier? How did you feel about losing your beliefs?

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