My title is the title of an exceptionally fine book on critical and creative thinking written by J. Steven Miller, who teaches a course on this topic at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and by his wife, Cherie K. Miller.
Having taught science at Harvard, I’m well aware of how even the brightest students can draw wrong conclusions. This book would be a great foundation for anyone beginning college, or simply beginning adult life.
Why did no one want to represent the Beatles when they first came to America? Why was the hit TV-series Lost initially denigrated by people in the industry? Does exposure to cold temperatures increase your likelihood of catching a cold? The Millers start with a few such examples to get us wondering, then examine the reasons why so many experts have gotten so much so wrong, a theme previously taken up in David Freedman’s book of a few years ago, Wrong.
Why do they go astray? Let the Millers’ chapter titles show the ways:
• They’re Over-confident:
“Humble learners trump the educated but arrogant,” which is why WalMart’s Sam Walton and and G.E.’s Jack Welch never stopped learning and why Google avoids candidates with large egos.
• They’re Under-confident:
“Passionate research trumps expert opinion.” Did deeper. Wikipedia harnesses the power of crowds and diversity, but lacks the authority of experts; use it, with caution.
• They’re Married to Brands:
Is a Lexus worth that much more than a Toyota? Are you measuring reliability or comfort or how much it impresses others? Why New Coke failed and Classic Coke prevailed, despite not tasting as good.
• They’re Blinded by Prejudices, Preconceptions and Biases:
“All writing slants the way the writer believes, and no man is born perpendicular,” Steve Miller quotes author-editor E. B. White. We often see things as we are, rather than as they are. Musician Elton John, “the guy with big glasses,” struggled mightily to get his music heard, and once it finally was, he rapidly became a mega-star.
The Nazis denigrated their great physicist, Albert Einstein, because he was Jewish, driving him from Germany. The atomic bomb was based partly on his revelation that matter could be converted to energy, a lot of energy!
Steve Miller asks his readers to examine our own prejudices, and he lists about a dozen widely held beliefs about people that are stereotypes of little or no validity, such as “preppies are snobs.“ He cites a study done of professors’ pre-conceived notions about 1200 students, many of them predicting outcomes that were quite wrong. Stereotypes are convenient shortcuts to thinking, and if a few examples seem to support them, we solidify that picture in our minds, often ignoring counter-examples. He cites a recent insurance study that showed that 80% of auto accidents are caused by men…does that fit popular preconceptions?
The antidote: diversify your experiences, your colleagues, your sources of information, and those with whom you do business.
• They Believe What They Want to Believe
“If you can only read one newspaper, read the opposition’s,” anonymous advice rarely taken, quoted by the Millers.
Steve Jobs’s brilliance and passion distorted reality for those Apple employees around him, helping them achieve what otherwise might not have been possible, but it may have killed him, as his refusal to take conventional treatments for his pancreatic cancer led to a delay that probably cost him his life prematurely.
The “power of positive thinking” can help you overcome obstacles, but can be taken too far. If you are seven feet tall, pro basketball could be a good career choice, at six feet, a dubious one, and at five feet, forget it, despite all the positive thinking you can muster.
We tend to tune out views opposed to our own, as they make us uncomfortable. When we hear them, we often supply our own rebuttal, while accepting uncritically what our allies say. The Millers recommend we identify the likely bias (e.g., conservative or liberal) in our information sources, and take that into account. They detail ways to identify which way they tend, so at the least you can choose a variety of sources. Diversify. “Recognize that desires shape beliefs.” To Socrates’ “Know thyself,” this text adds, “Doubt thyself.”
• They’re Trapped in Traditions
“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” does not apply only to poker. “We’ve always done it that way” may be words of wisdom or words of doom, depending on changes in your environment, goals, competition. Check your premises. Check your data. The Millers give an extended example of Starbucks and its slow adoption of the option of low-fat milk for its lattes. If we didn’t pay attention to past performance, we couldn’t build bridges, but if we become entranced by the past, the future will pass us by. The Shakers were true traditionalists. Remember them? Few do. Celibacy as a tradition can be overdone.
• They Fail to Identify Hidden Assumptions
The Millers start with an example of how identical twins fool a university audience. They move on to a fascinating description of how the Americans under George Washington seized and fortified strategic Dorchester in Boston under the noses of the British, who assumed it couldn’t be done, certainly not by stealth, overnight! The Redcoats soon evacuated Beantown. The Millers note that in 1998 Yahoo dominated Internet search, with 75% of the searches. You know the rest: focusing on improved techniques, Google is now the fifth largest company in the world. Yahoo…not so much. What to do? Prize honesty, candor, criticism. Think, rather than just remember. Reward innovation. Question authority and “authorities.” Google gives its employees up to 20% of their time to pursue projects they themselves initiate.
• They Underestimate the Power of the Paradigm
Steve Miller recalls that the great physicist Albert Einstein refused to believe in quantum mechanics, well established in theory and experiment, because it went against his views of determinism, “I don’t believe God plays dice with the universe.” Although his early work revolutionized physics in the 1900s, Einstein likewise would not accept the idea of an expanding universe, despite its being predictable from his basic equations. Despite the mounting evidence in its favor, the Big Bang theory of a dynamic universe was long rejected by many scientists.
In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher Thomas Kuhn convincingly demonstrated how hard it is for scientists to give up their paradigms, their ways of viewing the world. If hard for scientists, seeking what is true, how much harder for the laity, less committed to that search?
Steve Miller paraphrases physicist Max Planck’s dictum: science progresses one funeral at a time. Will this be the story of Global Warming? We see the world “through a glass, darkly,” as the New Testament says. This distortion is due largely to our preconceptions, our biases, our paradigms for understanding the world. Getting a second opinion helps, as “two heads are better than one,” and the Millers list many such successful twosomes, and give examples of small groups used to make innovations.
• They Fail to Account for Worldviews
Marxism captivated many intellectuals and activists in the twentieth century, with its “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” pursued ruthlessly, because “the ends justify the means,” including theft, lying, and murder. Soviet Russia, Maoist China, the killing fields of Cambodia were the results of the worldview put into practice. For political purity, their scientists had to deny the Big Bang and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and their historians had to worship Progress. Examples of some worldviews are listed: agnosticism, atheism, Christianity, Hinduism, materialism, nihilism, naturalism, spiritualism, theism. Each shapes how its believer views the world. Steve Miller illustrates this with Duke University Professor Alex Rosenberg’s numerous conclusions drawn from his own atheism. Miller recommends we seek out other worldviews to test against our own, modifying ours as need be, pushing to the limits, “pursuing the point of know return.” The text challenges the reader to wrestle with 26 slogans and their implications.
• INTERMISSION: DR. CACKLER CREATES
The Millers offer some mnemonic acronyms for assuring ourselves of the validity and creativity of our positions:
D – Data – based
R – Reasoned
C – Clear
A – Accurate
C – Comprehensive
K – Knowledge-based
L – Logical
E – Emotionally intelligent
R – Reviewed by others
For creative thinking,
C – Crowd-source ideas
R – Run the best ideas past a group
E – Engage your opponents
A – Assume nothing
T – Test accurately
E – Explore extremes, limits
S – Search outside your field.
• They Contradict, Leave Out Valid Options, Knock Down Straw Men
If you accept logic, an argument cannot be both true and false. Although some modern philosophers have tried to fashion arguments to maintain that there is no objective truth, such claims are themselves self-contradictory, as we need not, cannot accept them as truth if there is no truth. We move on.
Leaving out valid options from our arguments produces erroneous conclusions. The team must either win or lose, we might be told, but in fact other options exist: a tie, postponement, cancellation…. Sometimes this is referred to as “the excluded middle,” as in, “you either win big or lose all,” or “they must be stupid or insane to believe that.”
What’s a “straw man” argument? One that is easily refuted, often because it is a radical simplification or falsification of your opponent’s view. If they favor capital punishment, you accuse them of allowing no exemptions. Allowing no exemptions produces examples that few would accept as just.
The Millers recommend: take time to consider the arguments; don’t be impressed with your opponent’s credentials; don’t automatically accept what you like and reject what you dislike; try to think of counter-examples to premises being offered; try to reduce the argument to standard form, such as a syllogism; get the opinions of others, too. Steve Miller dissects the arguments against theism put forth by atheist biologist Richard Dawkins. He further suggests: broaden your range of input; ask some non-experts; use “higher levels of thinking” (Google “Bloom’s taxonomy”).
• They Fall for Common Fallacies
A diligent search led the Millers to list of 27 common fallacies. Each deserves further investigation, but I’ll only list them here: ad hominem (attacking the person not the argument), assuming the consequent, appealing to extremes, argument from authority, appeal to ignorance (true because not known to be false), band wagon (popularity as proof), begging (evading) the question by assuming the conclusion, bifurcation (the excluded middle), dogmatism (ignoring the arguments of others), emotionalism, equivocation (playing with words), fallacy of exclusion (focusing on one group’s behavior as though unique to that group), false dilemma (excluded middle, see also bifurcation), faulty analogy, glittering generality, hasty generalization, inconsistency, moral equivalency (equating issues of vastly different significance), non sequitur (‘it does not follow”, failing Occam’s razor (which prefers a simple explanation to a complex one), post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, thus because of this”), red herring (introducing an irrelevant element to distract), reductionism (over-simplifying), slippery slope (arguing that a little must lead to a lot), stacking the deck (cherry picking, selecting only evidence favoring your argument, ignoring others), straw man (countering your opponent’s argument in its weakest form), and sweeping generality. As an exercise for the reader, the 27 fallacies are listed to be matched with statements in random order that reflect the fallacies.
• They Either Fail to Recognize Fallacies, or They Misapply Ones They Know
• They Jump to Conclusions
A telling example is given of a news story that claimed a boy’s parents had tossed him out of the house because he is bisexual. Readers jumped on the parents, criticizing them harshly. Later, a very different story emerged, indicating bad behavior by a troubled teenager. Malcolm Gladwell, in his Outliers, extolled a “10,000-hour” rule, seeming to suggest that almost anyone can become expert at almost anything by putting in 10,000 hours of practice. He cited a few plausible examples, and a couple of studies, but more generally we find that talent is important and that those lacking talent probably get discouraged well before practicing for 10,000 hours. Talent and practice are intertwined. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” even in 10,000 hours. If you want to master something: get feedback on your performance, strengthen your weak areas, copy the pros, and approach improvement scientifically.
This is the first of a two-part presentation of the excellent textbook by Steve and Cherie Miller, Why Brilliant People Believe Nonsense. Part II will appear in the next issue of asiancemagazine.com.
Meanwhile, stay skeptical.
Dr. Cooper (firstname.lastname@example.org), a retired scientist, is now an author, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011. Also available from online booksellers are two memoirs he co-authored, The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and three memoirs he edited: High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost and Home is Where the Story Begins. With Adria Goldman Gross, he recently co-authored Solved! Curing Your Medical Insurance Problems. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His writing, editing, coaching site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com/blog. The book by J.S. Miller and C.K. Miller, Why Brilliant People Believe Nonsense, is available in paperback and ebook formats through Amazon and other online booksellers.