• Rusty Harrison, MEd

SHARPEN YOUR THINKING SKILLS

Erica and I believe in "The Greek Ideal, " a harmonious blend of mind, body, and spirit. The spokes of a wheel must be balanced for the wheel to function best. Likewise, the life domains of aging heroes must receive balanced development for their lives to function best. Cognitive skills are as essential to enrichment as physical stamina. Critical thinking is a sorely neglected aspect of personal development. The rewards of honing these skills are mental clarity, sound judgment, and protection from being duped. The difference between the mind of an advanced critical thinker and the average mind is as profound as the difference between the physique of a bodybuilder and that of the average couch potato.

Conspiracy theories provide fertile, culturally relevant, ground for working on thinking skills. Is global warming a hoax? Are aliens being hidden at Area 51? Are pharmaceutical companies pushing vaccines that cause autism? Is the world flat? Was the COVID-19 epidemic planned? Was 9/11 an inside job? Is the Earth only 5000 years old? Was the moon landing faked?


"Because they appeal to a paranoid vein in the human psyche, conspiracy theories exploit a fundamental human thinking error: mistaking feeling true for being true."


Why is it that the conspiracy theories we believe sound reasonable and the ones we don't believe sound foolish? These theories say much more about us than they do about reality. The conspiracies to which we are attracted will be affected by our political and religious affiliations, our cultures, and our personalities. Believing a particular conspiracy theory in no way increases the chances that the theory is true. Because they appeal to a paranoid vein in the human psyche, conspiracy theories exploit a fundamental human thinking error: mistaking feeling true for being true


Historically, conspiracy theorists were small, fringe groups who were ridiculed by the public. They were the weirdos in tinfoil hats hiding in their basements. However, easy access to an avalanche of misinformation, coupled with an educational system that omits critical thinking skills, created a perfect storm for rising numbers of conspiracy theorists. Ideas that might have been recognized as ludicrous 20 years ago are given the same credence by some as exhaustively researched scientific theories. Conspiracy theorists have consequently emerged as a huge segment of mainstream society and actually exert a powerful influence over national policy!


In the 12th century, William of Ockham gave us a rule for cutting through the bs in life, "Plurality must never be posited without necessity." This strategy is called Occam's Razor. In plain language, it means that the explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. So, if leave work today and find that my tire is flat, a variety of possibilities could explain what happened. Maybe a resentful student did the flattening. Or, it could be that the government is trying to make my life difficult. Maybe space aliens have been up to mischief. Or, maybe I ran over a nail. Occam's Razor would steer us to the "ran over a nail" explanation.


"Changing positions (changing one's mind) when the evidence dictates is the foundation of a developed mind."


Critical thinkers are the opposite of conspiracy theorists. Critical thinkers weigh the quality and quantity of supporting and disputing evidence from a neutral vantage point to discern fact from fiction. The facts that arise are seldom provocative and usually do little to stroke the ego or validate the feelings of the fact seeker. Critical thinkers prize objective truth over their natural human tendencies towards paranoia and desire to be right.

Following a logical chain of evidence usually shows fantastic suppositions to be, well... silly. No one wants to have their beliefs proven foolish but critical thinkers find value in it. Replacing emotionally seductive but ultimately irrational ideas with reasonable ones supported by legitimate evidence may be uncomfortable in the short run but the process pays off big over the long haul.


"Ironically, learning is defined by moments of discovering one's wrongness."



While many critical thinkers are very smart, high IQ is not a requirement. Conversely, some intelligent people are very poor critical thinkers. Why? Because critical thinking is as much about emotional maturity as it is about intellect. Changing positions (changing one's mind) when the evidence dictates is the foundation of a developed mind. This goes against human nature. It requires fostering the wisdom to delight in being proven wrong. Ironically, learning is defined by moments of discovering one's wrongness.


Conspiracy theorists tend to uncritically accept evidence that supports their theory and automatically discredit evidence that disputes it. This is because the goal of the conspiracy theorist is not to find objective truth but to prove the theory. Conspiracy theorists often relish the thought that they possess information unknown to the general public (aka the sheeple). Demonstrating their own superior "intelligence" is frequently a primary motivator.


"As adults have an exponentially deeper understanding of life than do small children, experts have an exponentially deeper understanding of their particular domains of knowledge than do novices."




The Dunning-Kruger effect shows the relationship between competence and confidence. Research indicates that the less one knows about a topic, the more confident one is in the accuracy of his opinion on said topic. Zero competence yields maximum confidence. Bertrand Russell said, “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Charles Darwin made a similar comment, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge."


Years ago, when I earned my bachelor's degree, I remember considering myself an expert in the field of psychology. Now, with a master's degree and 30 plus years of experience as an educator and practitioner, I recognize how very little I know. Understanding the narrowness of my areas of expertise helps me accept my amateur status in nearly all other domains of knowledge. This, likewise, gives me profound regard for the views of individuals who have committed the time and effort required to becoming legitimate experts in their chosen fields.


At this point in my development, I find it difficult to muster the arrogance to dispute NASA on the topic of space travel, the World Health Organization on matters of medicine, or the World Meteorological Organization on the subject of climate. This is not to say that experts are always right, just that they are much more likely to be right than people who are not experts. As adults have an exponentially deeper understanding of life than do small children, experts have an exponentially deeper understanding of their particular domains of knowledge than do novices.








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