Unseen benefits

Great egret in distanceFirst off, I’m going to mention my long absence and the faintly amusing bit about it. I was traveling, one of the few chances I’ve gotten recently, which would be enough to explain the period without posts – except that, I’d prepared a bunch ahead of time and scheduled them to appear while I was away. The dry period occurred after I came back, when I wasn’t motivated by any topic to get something new up. The trip didn’t involve much postable stuff either, and you’re looking at the sum total of images I took that fit into my typical stock (well, that’s not true, since I have several variations of this, but nothing of other subjects.)

Then, before I could get this post where I wanted it, we had a friend over for a few days, resulting in going somewhere else that will be featured shortly – I’m trying to be good and finish this one. Also add a lot of rain into the mix, so photography has been very haphazard.

Getting back to regular content, however, this is going to be a follow-up to the earlier post about structured skepticism, or applied critical thinking if you like. I actually shifted approach and tone from the original draft so as to (I like to think) address the topic better.

To begin with, it’s not like anyone needs encouragement to engage in critical thinking; the alternative is, what? Ambiguous thinking? Emotional reactions? Random acts? Most people believe the majority of their cognitive processes are involved in rational, critical decision-making – the ‘thinking brain’ controls the ’emotional brain,’ and most of what we do is reasoned. Moreover, that the interpretations of the input from our senses is accurate and dependable. Unfortunately, neither of these hold true all that often. So the key question isn’t, “Should I engage in critical thinking?” but, “Am I using critical thinking often enough?” And for that matter, even asking the question is a start that it seems too few people reach.

It’s not hard to look around ourselves and see plenty of people who don’t seem to have applied enough rational thought to their actions, beliefs, or worldviews – in politics, for instance. Or relationships. The critical first step is recognizing that we are no different; such displays are not anomalies, instances of mental illness or abnormal behavior, but fundamental traits of being human. Our ‘rational’ thought processes are tied directly into our emotional reactions; they have to be, since it is the emotions that provoke us into optimal behavior anyway. Everything we do, everything we see or hear, gets tagged immediately with something along the lines of, “This is bad,” or, “I trust this person.” Often enough, however, this process occurs without much if any input from the ‘rational brain,’ providing an emotional tag to something without an appropriate reason. We all respond favorably to more attractive people; we all have prejudices. Millions of years of our species’ past history shaped us for certain things, many of which have no application to our present society.

And then there are the shortcuts, like trying to relegate decisions down to simple choices, or slotting people into distinct groups. Labels make everything easier, or so we tend to believe. And riding along for giggles is conditioning, the bias in thinking that comes from our environment, how we were raised and how our community feels about certain topics – in fact, we’re ridiculously concerned with what other people think, so much so that it often stops our own thinking. Ever wear something uncomfortable because it was ‘expected?’ Is this rational in any way?

[You may note that I have put quotes around ‘rational’ a few times above. This is not sarcasm, but recognition that there’s no firm distinction – the brain’s functions are not separate or distinguishable, and the definition of the word itself is pretty ratty, even though we’ve considered both as far more precise for a long time. See what I mean about conditioning?]

But even ignoring all the foibles of the mind, there are all the ways our senses fall short. Optical illusions demonstrate routinely that what we see and what we think we see can be two different things. Expectations count for a lot – we never see a sports ball in enough detail to positively identify it, but know what it is from the context; there’s a reason why every game contains rules against foreign objects. Motorcycles are hazardous, in part, because they’re not the automobile we expect to see, and thus are ignored (the trend for cars to have headlights on constantly, by the way, might have improved things for car drivers, but increased the risk to motorcyclists since that was the manner they could be differentiated from cars.) There’s even a noticeable trend for people to feel phantom vibrations from their cell phone, and we can feel something ‘walking on us’ for hours after finding a parasite. Our senses are not always trustworthy.

So with all that, the key facet of critical thinking isn’t whether or not we use it, but how often it goes unused without our realizing it. I said it in the earlier post: there is no such thing as a perfect skeptic, no one who is totally critical or rational in their approach. But there are certainly quite a few circumstances where it could be used a hell of a lot more. Further, it’s hard to find any detriment to this, on a personal level anyway; about the worst that might happen is being so concerned about making the right move that it hampers or outright halts the decision-making process.

Beyond the personal level, however, there are other effects, and these are factors in the next questions, which is Should I encourage and promote critical thinking? On the face of it, the answer is yes, but with a few caveats. We’ll start with, what do you expect to get out of it?

Discussions and debates, very very often, are a form of competition – one party attempting to best the other with a more convincing standpoint, more inarguable point, or more intelligent response. It’s funny how often we as a species engage in such pursuits, because they rarely ever come to the imagined outcome. Humans, quite simply, don’t like to admit we were wrong, especially not in a situation where it is synonymous with admitting defeat. If, at any point in time, we’re hoping to score a victory, we’re not really engaging in critical thinking anymore, since the point of this is to be convincing, not to improve our ranking.

This means that if we’re expecting to actually see change, forget about it – it’s not going to happen. But don’t take this to mean that we’re not actually accomplishing anything. The value of a solid argument is how well it sticks with someone, makes them think, causes them to re-examine their ideas or information. The change is never abrupt – it takes time, often enough so that the change is considered one’s own, and not provoked by anyone else, sorry to say. Bear in mind, too, that some standpoints have been built up over time, often in a reinforcing atmosphere (like a family or a church) – we won’t ever shift these in a single discussion. My go-to phrase is “plant the seed and move on.”

This does make it hard to know if we’re actually reaching anyone, and I honestly can’t offer a lot of solid advice here, since I have little evidence how often my own efforts have achieved anything at all – what follows is just my understanding of human nature. The most telling thing I’ve seen is when the topic is abruptly changed, and most especially when the other person goes on the offensive – this is potential indication that our point really did hit home, unable to be rebutted or reconciled with their previous standpoint. That’s about the largest reward we’re likely to see.

The fact that skeptical viewpoints are often unwelcome is also something to consider – if we’re in it for popularity, this is not the right approach. Especially in forums or groups which reinforce some questionable topic (such as ghost stories, UFOs, or alternative medicine,) the skeptic is unlikely to be greeted warmly. There, it’s an uphill battle, and usually not against a single person either – the phrase “thankless task” comes to mind. Just remember that in any public discussion, it’s not just the people responding that we’re engaging with, but everyone reading – this is usually far more than it appears. It’s the determined, immovable ones that so often choose to be vocal about it, while the ones who are on the fence are silent – just the opposite of what we’d like if we needed to see results, but so it goes. All we can do is lay out our best arguments in the belief that we’re reaching someone, and not count on any positive feedback in that area. At times, a little bonus is how we can sometimes show that those arguing against us are more emotional than rational, which only hurts their arguments; anyone listening in might just start to lean away from those who appear too obsessive or reactive, not wanting to associate closely with that apparent mindset.

This brings up contentiousness, and what approach works best. It’s extremely easy to rub someone the wrong way, come off as pretentious or condescending, to lecture, to get annoyed, and so on. I probably don’t have to tell anyone that this is unlikely to win others over, and can easily go just the opposite way, making them firmer in their beliefs just because they don’t like the way the argument has been presented. There are a lot of things that help here. Stating things as matter-of-factly (is that a phrase? You know what I mean) always helps, as does reminding oneself that there are no sides, just an exchange of information. Perhaps not thinking about trying to convince anyone, but only supporting our own views – a defensive, not offensive approach. This is often enough to be convincing anyway, especially without any competitive atmosphere. And the bare recognition that whoever we’re dealing with isn’t an idiot, might even be quite intelligent in many areas, with blind spot in this topic. Or maybe we’re the ones with the blind spot – this is, of course, the full immersion skepticism we’re talking about, and that includes the possibility of being wrong.

Yet, even one-on-one we can find skepticism to be unpopular. It helps to know that many of the topics that benefit the most from the critical approach fill some emotional niche in people – this is exactly why they continue to exist, and why promoting skepticism is useful. It’s not that they make sense and are so convincing, but that they provoke a desired reaction within. Counter this and we’re taking something away from someone, usually with nothing to replace it. It’s like taking away someone’s dessert. And so often in such cases, the defensive response is, “Why would you want to do that? It’s not hurting anybody!”

Well, perhaps, but this isn’t as supportable a statement as it seems on the face of it. Someone who believes in ghosts, as innocuous as it may seem, still has very distinct views on death and what happens afterward, which affects how they treat the death of a family member, and how they handle memorials and bequests. It might provide a bias over right-to-life and euthanasia legislation, and almost certainly will impinge on the lives of their children in some way. They might feel unnecessarily anxious over dark places or odd sounds, and with a deep faith in the topic, might even fork over significant amounts of money to some doofus waving around an electronic device he has no understanding of (not to mention promoting such TV programming over anything with useful content.) On a larger scale, the lack of critical thinking, and the acceptance thereof, can have serious impact on an entire society, or further. Not to go all Godwin, but the Nazi party had the support of enough people that believed in a master race and birthright to varying degrees, or that simply failed to recognize that their dissatisfaction over the post-WWI sanctions wasn’t justification for invasion. Nationalism (and its ugly close cousin, jingoism) requires the belief that a country is in some way distinctly different from others on a larger scale than economics and trivial culture – even the belief that birth on a particular plot of land provides some fundamental difference from rest of the human race. Witch hunts and genocide throughout history could only come about because too few people demanded firm evidence for their beliefs. Even now in this country, we have a ridiculous number of people who forget that politics has nothing to do with religion, by both logic and our Constitution, as well as never tumbling to how badly they’re being played by the appearance of virtue rather than the function of it – all a politician has to do is claim devotion and that’s apparently enough. And yes, sorry to say, there are a lot of people elsewhere in the world that find us complete idiots because of this.

Hopefully, this has highlighted something: we can see skepticism from a personal standpoint, or a social one. On a personal level, skepticism is rarely rewarding and often contentious, even reviled in places. Socially, however, it serves a serious purpose with the potential of preventing major hardship – I’m trying not to sound melodramatic but it’s almost impossible to overstate the benefits. The difference lies only in what we desire to see from our efforts, the feedback we hope to garner.