This continues my description 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 Miller.
As I wrote in Part 1, 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.
Have you heard the term “success bias”? It refers to evidence that comes from looking at the outstanding examples: Warren Buffett in finance, Mary Kay Ash in marketing, Tom Brady in football. We are led to believe that if we do what they did, we will be comparably successful. When we try and fail, we are puzzled. Evidence based on extremes, especially favorable extremes is of little real value: it shows it was done, if the story is true, but not that it can be done by you. What you would need to know to estimate your probability of similar success is the number of people who were successful with these techniques divided by the number who tried them, and you can well imagine that many tried and only the few you heard of actually made it. What fraction of the practitioners of The Secret got their visions fulfilled? Reading lots of biographies will show that sometimes contradictory approaches are equally successful.
Have you seen a cloud or an ink blot that looked like something very different? You have “found” a pattern where none really exists, a common mistake smart people tend to make. Much of scientific procedure is designed to prevent this error, and yet even scientists draw incorrect conclusions from apparent patterns in data, patterns later shown to be spurious.
Buying when the stock market seems to be going up and selling when it seems to be going down appears to make sense, but every buyer needs a seller, one who sees just the opposite tendencies, “already too high” or “already too low.” During the Tulip Craze in Holland in the 1600s, single bulbs were sold for astronomical prices, until the day the tulip bubble burst. The Millers give more recent examples of boom and bust: the housing bubble, the dot com bubble. We tend to see a pattern when two similar things happen in a row; if we are investing and this makes us money, we get an endorphin high and credit the “trend”; in retrospect, we tend to remember our wins and forget our losses.
“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Investors are always warned this way. Some of what once occurred was random, some dependent on the conditions at the time. Underlying causes are hard to decipher. Of course, we cannot ignore the past entirely, either. “Moore’s Law,” proposed in 1965, stated that the processing power of computers is doubling every two years. Back then, these devices were not impressive, but ten doublings is a thousand-fold increase, and twenty doublings is a million-fold, so in 40 years from back then, it is not surprising the computers can now do some amazing things, in packages smaller than the conventional typewriter.
Do we need to increase the number of students pursuing STEM (science, technical, engineering, math) degrees? The Millers analyze the actual data, rather than just the scary percentage figures, and conclude the crisis does not exist.
Are most 15-year-olds having sexual intercourse? The authors analyzed the data and found than 80% of 15-year-old girls had not had sex voluntarily (they excluded rapes), despite the general belief that in that age group “everybody is doing it.” Sometimes the impression was given that “sexually active” meant recurring intercourse rather than doing so rarely or participating in a variety of other sexual activities. One respondent to a survey asking about her being sexually active said that she wasn’t, “I just kind of lie there.”
“Politicians torture data until it confesses what they want it to say,” one reason why some people think we are in a recession and others think the economy is booming. A low “unemployment rate” seems good, until you learn that it does not include those who have given up looking for a job. A low “labor participation rate” is much more significant and much more of a legitimate concern. The Miller example is a ranking of the U.S. versus other countries in the performance of students on a standardized test. If all the countries in the world are used, we look pretty good. If only the highly developed countries are used, we look average. If the top 14 are listed, we come last. Ah, a crisis needing a political remedy!
What about Learning from History?
The Millers quote Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Steve Miller loves his history books. Of course, a skeptic might reply that history is the story written by the winners….a kind of success bias. Still, Miller gains much from reading about the lives and thoughts of outstanding people, and so should we. He takes notes, forming his own index in the blank pages at the book’s end. While past performance isn’t Gospel, one should pay attention to it. Investor guru Warren Buffett advocates learning from mistakes, the mistakes of others. Miller mentions the increase in STDs, something avoidable. The mistakes of the founders of Enron and of the Nobel Laureates who ran the Long Term Capital Management fund into the ground ought to be object lessons about doing due diligence in investing and not falling in love with one’s models. Buy your history books, after some investigation, and read them critically.
Create your own history by doing a bit of what it is you might like to make into your career. Why did you like or dislike it? Smarts are good, but experience is a unique teacher. By the way, try not to multitask; it lowers your working I.Q. while doing it. Ask a successful person how success was achieved. Volunteer for something. Get work someone will actually pay you to do.
History depends on evidence and interpretation. We learn that there are five extant versions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, each somewhat different, and Miller notes that speakers often adlibbed, too. A historian’s sources may be poor, so his footnoting won’t save him. The Da Vinci Code’s author claimed it was based on documented facts, but later analysis showed the sources to be of dubious value, often misused. Just because B followed A does not mean B was caused by A. Roughly half of Europeans died in the mid-14th century due to the bubonic plague, but where that came from is in dispute. What caused the recent Great recession? Depends on whether you are asking Democrats or Republicans. A dozen or so factors the Millers offer. Life presents multitudinous facts and stories from which to cherry-pick our preferred explanation. Historians have fads, like anybody else; certain types of explanations gain currency, eventually to be replaced with a new style: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Nextism?
Definitions Can Be Slippery
The Millers quote Socrates, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” Defining seems so dry! Yet, it is essential. We think we know what we mean by “genius,” but Steve Miller shows that most of our criteria would have labeled Albert Einstein as definitely non-genius. In fact, many who showed genius in some areas were rather backward in others. To improve those who are not geniuses, our schools mistakenly focus on weaknesses rather than strengths, shuffle narrowly-talented students from top schools where their talent might have been honed, ignore inter-personal skills because they are not measurable. So, the Millers undercut their own book’s use of “brilliant.” Be sure to get your terms defined clearly.
Use Analogies and Parallels Carefully
Often Americans’ performances are compared with those of people in foreign countries, to our disadvantage. But selection of topics and selection of populations being compared often make these comparisons spurious. If we don’t seem to do as well as Finland (see parentheses next) in educating our students, why is that? Their students (more native-born, fewer poor, fewer in single-parent homes), their schools (older at first enrollment, lower cost per student, less testing, more mainstreaming, free through college), their teachers (held responsible as a group, need fifth-year master’s degree), their tests, their curricula (broader, more local control, more playtime, minimal homework, less time in school, smaller classes)? Which elements are crucial?
Handle Figurative Pieces Carefully
Fiction, that is novels and short stories, can make powerful impressions. My horror at the depravity of the Nazi concentration camps was first generated by Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, The Spark of Life, and President Abraham Lincoln once called Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the powerfully moving novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “the little woman who started the Civil War.”
We have to be careful that we are not led astray by an author’s skill in arousing strong emotions, until we know more about the topic at hand. J.R.R. Tolkien took pains to tell his readers that Lord of the Rings was NOT intended as an allegory, though many of them had thought it was. Christian writer C.S. Lewis, however, did write with the intention of influencing the spirituality of his readers of, for example, Chronicles of Narnia. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was allegory, and his 1984 has to be viewed as a warning.
Which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to treat as parables produces much of the disagreement among its Jewish and Christian readers.
And, even the author does not intend or claim there to be a parallel, there still may be. For fun, Miller analyzes the song “American Pie,” showing how information and imagination can develop plausible, but not definitive, explanations for puzzling lyrics. Searching various web sites unearthed other interpretations. You may have to accept that more than one is plausible or that the author, especially if a poet, wanted more than one interpretation to be in play. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had sexual interpretations for many common objects, to which humorist Ogden Nash quipped:
Everything reminds me of sex
Because almost everything is somewhat concave or convex.
Don’t Let Emotion Overwhelm Reason and Common Sense
Miller uses the catastrophic collapse of Enron, run by what one author called “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” to illustrate how emotions like over-confidence and greed can make even brilliant people blunder badly and end up in jail, like Enron’s leader Jeff Skilling. To keep from making such big mistakes, keep humble, recognize your emotions, passions, vulnerabilities, limited perspective, temptations, and fears.
In short, 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. His latest book is Write Your Book with Me. 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.