Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Are You a Critical Thinker? Spoiler: Probably Not

It is mesmerizing to me how awful human beings are at processing and assessing information, forming conclusions and buttressing beliefs. Being a denizen of the Internet means I get to be surprised, almost daily, at the new and creative ways people come up with to be bad at reasoning.

Almost equally mesmerizing is that the people who are the worst at reasoning and logic fancy themselves to be the best at it. These people are honestly not hard to identify. They commit simply logical fallacies while congratulating themselves about how smart and logical they are. And I actually don't blame them. From their limited scope, it's abundantly clear to them they are smart, reasonable and intelligent. They do not possess the cognitive ability to recognize their lack of cognitive ability. In psychology this is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. If you don't know it by name, you are sure to know it by concept. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias of illusory superiority. People who suffer from it are incompetent, but lack the ability to recognize true competence. People who are untrained in a particular discipline tend to overestimate their ability from a position of ignorance.

This is why, for example, you have people not trained in science confidently saying things like "every scientific body in the world is wrong about subject X." Or why you have someone on the news who has no clue what it's like to grow up in poverty, expertly pontificating that people who are born into poverty just need to "pick themselves up by the bootstraps." People suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect speak with complete confidence, and utterly humiliate themselves without even knowing it.

The thing with critical thinking is, it takes practice. It's a very unnatural, intentional, and difficult process where you teach yourself not to rely on your instincts or gut-feelings, but on facts. I have found that very few people rely on facts, they rely on "facts." They rely on what their preferred source of information tells them is fact instead of seeking to know the truth of the matter.

If you don't think you suffer from Dunning-Kruger, I have some bad news for you. You probably suffer from it worse than others. So how can you tell if you're a critical thinker or just incompetently playing at one? Well here's a little impromptu test for you.

Don't cheat. If you don't know the answers, own it. It's the only way to get better.


1. A politician says, "You should vote for me because crime has gone down 30% in my state since I became governor." Can you name the logical fallacy?

2. A doctor on television encourages you to try out a new diet. Should you? Why or why not?

3. If you were told that dihydrogen monoxide kills more children every year than cancer, has been found in every serial killer in history, it contains two hydrogen atoms which are extremely explosive, and just a teaspoon of it can kill you, would you be outraged to know that it exists in every elementary school in America?

4. You see a news report about a Republican Senator involved in a prostitution scandal. Your grandfather scoffs and says, "You just can't believe anything the media says!" Can you name the fallacy?

5. Your friend thoroughly believes the Illuminati is real and is pulling all of the strings from the shadows. Do you know what cognitive bias they may be suffering from?

6. If a politician says, "You're either with me, or you're with the terrorists!" Can you name the logical fallacy?
7. A friend of yours says they don't believe seatbelts save lives because their uncle died in a car crash when he got flipped over and could not get his seatbelt loose. What fallacy are they committing?

8. Your uncle decides to drive across country for your graduation because he "doesn't do airplanes." What bias is he suffering from?

9. A co-worker says "Evolution is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I don't understand how humans could possibly have-evolved from a single-celled organism!" Can you name the fallacy?

10. A friend of yours says, "No Patriot could possibly vote Democrat." After you inform them that you are both a patriot and vote Democrat, they respond with "No TRUE patriot would ever vote Democrat." What is the fallacy?

If you had a hard time answering these, you are probably not a critical thinker. That's ok. Please don't take offense, no one was born a critical thinker. Like I stated earlier. It takes work, practice and intentional effort. But as mentioned, own it. Learn what you can do to become a critical thinker. It will only help us all in the long-run. It keeps us from falling for dubious arguments from politicians, questionable claims by the news media, and helps us to accurately second-guess people in authority when they try to push their agendas on us. A critical thinker should be able to answer all ten of these questions with no problem because they have gone through the process of learning. They're not any smarter than you, me or anyone else. They've just put the work in. So if you had trouble answering these I encourage you to start on your path to critical thinking today.

If you were able to answer all ten of these with no problem, then I know you are not congratulating yourself right now. As much as you know about flawed thought processes, getting these answers correct does not mean you're smart. Only that you're more aware then most of just how flawed the human mind is, including your own.


1. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy (After that, therefore because of that). Humans have a tendency to associate events in close proximity as causal. When in fact, establishing causality is extremely difficult. The more adept and trained that people become looking at data, generally the less confident they feel about declaring a cause for a trend. I cannot state this enough, saying X is definitely the cause of Y is a very difficult thing to do. And when someone says "X is definitely the cause of Y, it's so obvious!" That's a clue they have no idea what they're talking about.

2. Maybe! It could be that the diet is great, or it could be that the diet is bogus and meant to peddle products to people. For this kind of thing, trusting in established medical processes is generally the best and safest choice. There are many fad diets that are, in fact, harmful. Anyone claiming any new miracle solution on television is probably peddling snake oil, however.

3. All of the facts presented in question 3 are true. However you may recognize dihydrogen monoxide by it's more common designation H20, or water. This is a perfect example of how groups with an agenda can use real, actual facts to point to a very wrong conclusion.

4. The genetic fallacy. This fallacy is concludes that ANY information that comes from a particular source is wrong by default. Even if a source is untrustworthy, it is irresponsible to de facto dismiss everything they say as false. Like anything else, corroboration with multiple sources is the most reasonable course of action.

5. The Agenticity bias. Human minds have evolved to believe there is some unseen force behind the curtains, in the dark, just out of our reach pulling the strings. Again, determining causality is difficult, but there is speculation that our minds tend to cope better with reality even if there is an enemy pulling the strings, rather than believing there is nothing pulling the strings and the world is a chaotic collection of random events. It has also been suggested that this bias was a prior survival advantage. If we hear a rustling in the grass, it's advantageous for us to run whether there's a predator in the grass or not. So it may have benefitted us in the past to believe there was something there, when there was not.

6. The bifurcation fallacy. This is a fallacy that presents two options and implies to the listener that there are two options, and only two options. Humans tend to think in terms of extremes. We tend to think the world is black and white. When, generally speaking, that's almost never the case. That's why this fallacy is easy to bite into. It plays right into our tendency to think in black/white terms.

7. Appeal to anecdote. This is a human tendency to dismiss all data, statistics, and research into a particular subject because you knew a guy who once found the opposite to be true. Well here's the thing with statistics. They are all about likelihood. You are more likely to lose the lottery than win. Just because there are thousands and thousands of lottery winners does not make that any less true. Sometimes people beat the odds. That does not mean playing a losing bet is a good idea. And by the way, not wearing your seatbelt is a losing bet.

8. The Attentional bias. This is a bias that means humans tend to pay more attention to emotionally dominant stimuli than actual numbers. Humans pay attention to what frightens them. Humans are terrified of sharks, but not of coconuts. Coconuts kill more people every year than sharks. People are terrified of snakes, but more people die every year from toddlers pushing TV's on top of them than from snake bites. In fact, more people die every year from TV's falling on them, than they do from terrorism globally. This is why a few years ago, everyone in the United States freaked out when one person died from Ebola, but didn't raise an eyebrow when 500,000 people died from Heart disease. The attentional bias drives us to do things to "make the scary feeling go away" rather than focusing energy and effort on bigger problems that are actual threats to us. A lot of people don't do airplanes when it is far and away the safest form of travel. About 900 people die from plane crashes every year. About 30,000 people die from car accidents in the United States alone, annually.

9. Argument from personal incredulity. People tend to reject (or fear) what they do not understand. Just because you do not understand how something works or how it can be possible does not make it any less likely to be true.

10. No True Scotsman fallacy. This is a fallacy which is an appeal to purity and is actually a subset of the Ad Hominem fallacy. Generally, anyone who makes a No True Scotsman argument is making an appeal on behalf of their group or admonishment against another group. "No True American would ever vote for the ACA." "No True Muslim would ever be violent." "No True Christian would ever be hateful." etc. These statements tend to puff up one's own group and/or diminishes the morality or humanism of another group. Bonus points if you can name the fallacy which is the tendency to side with your group no matter what, and character assassinate the other group no matter what.