Something to add

For some time now, I’ve been playing with several ideas about introducing school kids to critical thinking, because I feel it’s a trait that’s sorely needed, and sorely lacking, in the US today. It doesn’t help that I have no educational background, no relation to schools, and no connections to anyone that does – working in a vacuum is probably not the best way to go about this, which is why I haven’t been pouring a lot of effort into it. You’re reading exactly where the majority of my efforts go.

Something I read recently caused me, just an hour ago, to realize that something else could be added. Skeptics and critical thinkers have a lot of resources, and there’s a commonality to much of it – some of this is owed to Carl Sagan, who outlined a great collection of information in Demon Haunted World. There are lists of common fallacies to thinking, and some contribution from the scientific method and its practices to eliminate bias and error. I don’t recall ever running across this one, however, but it strikes me as a good one to include.

I was reading a book about Richard Feynman’s life, who’s best known for his work on understanding quantum electrodynamics, as well as being a bit of a character and an enthusiastic science educator. He was directly involved in the Manhattan Project, the program that developed the atomic bomb, and he later reflected on the ethics of his participation in this. When he was recruited around 1942, Germany was a fierce threat to Europe and, perhaps, even America, and it was believed they were hard on the trail of their own atomic bomb. Feynman, like the majority of Americans at the time, felt obligated to do his part in halting the Nazi tide, and horrified at the thought of such a powerful device in Nazi hands.

Before the Manhattan Project reached fruition, however, Nazi Germany collapsed, and the threat from that quarter effectively vanished. This didn’t really change the project for Feynman, and apparently not for anyone else. To all appearances, by this time (several years of constant involvement in,) it was both an overriding goal and a puzzle to solve, and it did not occur to Feynman that the reason he was involved in it in the first place had vanished until long after the bombs had been used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The point I’m making isn’t about the ethics of nuclear weapons, or about what should be someone’s proper motivations. I’m more looking at how we may get involved in something for the right reasons, but once committed, we change from having an overriding goal to treating things as a challenge to our abilities. We sometimes make a decision, then put that factor entirely out of our heads as a “done deal” and proceed towards meeting this goal, without evaluating whether the goal remains, or is worth the time, effort, money, commitment, or emotion we are putting into it. Most times, I think we do this with minor projects – I suspect everyone can remember a special occasion they were trying to make “just right” and ended up getting terribly stressed over, without realizing that such occasions are usually to relieve stress. But Feynman’s words brought home that this is probably a very common trait, and one that we should be aware of.

It pays to step back, routinely, and look at what we’re trying to accomplish from a distance, to maintain perspective. It’s valuable to keep the reasons why we do things firmly in mind, and to recognize that these can both change, and may only be worth a certain investment anyway (replacing the washing machine might be expensive, but after four days and a significant amount of emotional turmoil trying to fix it, maybe it’s worth the money?) And it’s important to recognize that our minds shift gears, and small goals or advances take over the importance from larger ones, while masquerading under the rational decision that started the process. I suspect gamblers labor under this all the time, convinced that one more attempt will justify the time and money invested already. I know I’ve done it with photography projects (I just recently threw out a camera strobe project I started years ago to save some money, which I replaced with a manufactured unit just a few less years ago when it never worked as planned.)

We can be reluctant to abandon a puzzle unsolved, or a project uncompleted, but if they’re not fulfilling our larger goals reasonably, we should be able to see this for what it this. We must remind ourselves to take the time to look, though.

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