Obstacles to Critical Thinking
I don’t really mean to, but I find myself debating people a lot. Imagine me as some sort of super geek who pushes her glasses against her nose, raises an index finger, and says “Umm, actually…” in a nasally voice. Except I don’t wear glasses. But it’s a usefully tool of illustration, so just pretend that I do. Anyway, in my many debates, I’ve found that I encounter the same stumbling blocks to critical thinking repeatedly. They’re the same ones that I dealt with during my journey from credulous Christian to skeptic, and they are as follows:
Recently I was debating Chiropractic with an intelligent person. I presented her with evidence against the efficacy of Chiropractic and evidence that neck manipulation can and does cause strokes. I tempered that by saying that Chiropractic has been found to be helpful for certain kinds of lower back injuries, but no more helpful than massage and physical therapy, which don’t put you at risk of a stroke. I could tell she was considering what I had to say, and I was hoping that maybe, if nothing else, she’d think again before she let a Chiropractor twist her neck. She didn’t argue or challenge any of my points, and even admitted they were “interesting” but she told me that she was going to continue to visit her Chiropractor. Why? Because “he’s a close friend of the family and is trusted by us.”
Now I’m sure that her Chiropractor is a good person, and I’d bet with certainty that he’s never caused a stroke, but the fact that someone is a friend doesn’t make them right, and just because a friend is a Chiropractor doesn’t lend Chiropractic any actual validity. That’s emotional thinking. The person I was talking to preferred to put aside valuable evidence and trust a friend. Friends can be mistaken, mislead, and incorrect. Even the ones that we trust. If you want to engage in critical thinking you have to put the emotions you feel toward certain people aside and focus your attention on the facts at hand.
This is a tough one, because it’s so easy to do. Even as a skeptic, I find myself granting credulity to certain opinions based on nothing but the authority of their professor. Dr. Steven Novella is one of my favorite humans alive today. He’s a great skeptic and incredibly smart. I find myself wanting to get lazy and support an argument with “Well, because Steven Novella says so.” I have to remind myself that even Steven Novella could get something wrong, and I have to encourage myself to research claims on my own, not just take his word for it, even though he is a skeptic and a personal hero.
I learned that authority doesn’t equate to truth the hard way. After spending 17+ years of my life granting my elders full confidence, I woke up to the shocking reality that I had been lied to over and over again. They weren’t necessarily deliberate lies, but it was a great demonstration of the way that those we trust, those we learn from, those who hold authoritative positions in our life can be utterly wrong.
There are a lot of crappy authority figures out there who have the respect of millions but deserve none of it. Take Oprah, for example. As much as it pains me to admit it, my sister is an Oprah devotee. She’ll try any new health cure or diet strategy that Oprah endorses on her show. Why? Because Oprah says it works! There’s a logical fallacy for that, you know.
It seems that the more people we know who do something, or the more often we see or hear about something, the more credibility we lend to it in our minds. This is kind of like that age-old allegory of lemmings running off the edge of a cliff (yeah, I know that’s a myth!), or how your mom used to say “If all of your friends jumped off of a bridge, would you do it too?” It’s called the argument ad populi in technical terms.
I hate to harp on Chiropractic again, but I think this is a great example of the phenomenon of normalization. You can find a Chiropractic office in practically every mini-mall in America. You can probably name a dozen people who you know that visit a Chiropractor regularly. Because of all of this attention, Chiropractic doesn’t seem like the strange pseudoscience that it is. Compare it to acupuncture. They operate on very similar principles (a life-force flowing through the body that can be clogged up), both with a lack of evidence for significant efficacy (i.e. beyond placebo levels), but acupuncture isn’t as normalized. Your average person would consider acupuncture too weird to try.
Always remember that just because something seems normal and popular, that doesn’t make it true.
Not Understanding Memory
Human memory is a strange thing, which most people greatly misunderstand. We like to assume that our minds work like a VCR, that we can rewind the tape and remember everything perfectly, when in reality our memories aren’t so great. We can unconsciously alter, elaborate, and even make up memories.
A really interesting example of the plastic nature of our memories is the case of John Wojtowicz, who attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank in 1972. His story was turned into the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz saw the film after it was released and said that it was only 30% true. He wrote a letter to the New York Times outlining the things the movie got wrong. After Wojtowicz was released from prison in 2000, digital artist Pierre Huyghe filmed and interviewed him watching the movie and visiting a film studio bank lobby set. He asked Wojtowicz to give his own account of the robbery, and was surprised to find that his actual memory of the events (subborted by the NYT letter and contemporary news accounts) had blended together with the fictional events of the film. Huyghe titled his video The Third Memory.
Most people trust memory to a great degree. They would be surprised to learn that, according to Wikipedia “eyewitness identification evidence is the leading cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. Of the more than 200 people exonerated by way of DNA evidence in the US, over 75% were wrongfully convicted on the basis of erroneous eyewitness identification evidence.” The rest of this article on eyewitness identification is incredibly interesting and is a great example of the fallibility of evidence based on memory.
Aside from the regular tweaking that occurs to our memories, they can be affected by certain bias. One classic example is confirmation bias, which occurs when we selectively remember what we want to, and forget what we don’t. It’s often characterized as “remembering the hits, forgetting the misses.” I recently fell victim to this bias. I had a theory that the Eastbound bus and the Westbound bus always arrived at an intersection near my house at the same time. My husband didn’t believed me, so I tried to keep track of the mornings that the buses at the same time. At the end of the day he would ask me if the buses came at the same time, and I found that I could only remember noticing if the buses came at the same time on the days when they actually did. Half of the days I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t notice.” I only took note of the event when it was confirming to my theory.
Not understanding human memory gives anecdotal evidence credibility. If you think that our memories are like cameras, that they reliably record information, then you’re very likely to accept it as truth when your neighbor says she remembers seeing a ghost with her own eyes two weeks ago. Even if you have two neighbors who claim they saw the same ghosts at the same time, the example of Wojtowicz proves to us that two memories can effect each other and blend to form a third memory. The bottom line is that anecdotal information cannot be trusted because our memories aren’t that reliable.
So as I go about the day I try to keep these things in mind:
- Don’t think with my emotions
- Don’t trust authority for the sake of authority
- Just because something is normal doesn’t make it true
- My memory sucks!
- The truth is out there! Go and find it!