Type 1 and Type 2 thinking

My last essay verged on being pedestrian, if you’ll pardon the pun, and wasn’t really congruent with my new vision for this blog. I’ll still talk about gadgets and design from time-to-time because they’re passions of mine, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’d immediately regressed after declaring intent to evolve my writing. This post is an attempt to get back on track.

“Dual-process theories have dominated social and cognitive psychology since the 1970’s (Wason and Evans, 1975)” (Varga & Hamburger, 2014). That may be an unspeakably ugly citation, but it’s also the fastest way to establish rough origins for the psychological study of modal thinking. Dual process theory came to dominate psychology because of overwhelming evidence through research and experimentation from the likes of Daniel Kahneman.

Born in Tel Aviv, Kahneman’s psychology career began in the Israeli Defense Forces before attaining his PhD at Berkeley in 1961. He’s been published over 20 times in peer-reviewed journals (peer-review is the vetting process in which others try to falsify the work), and in 2002 he won the Nobel prize in economics for his work on the psychology behind economic theory. In 2007 the American Psychological Association gave him their Lifetime Achievement Award. When it comes to heuristics and dual-process theory, Dr. Kahneman and his research are as impeccable as we can hope for to establish the reality of dual-process thinking.

So what is it?

Basically, humans engage in two types of thinking. Dr. Kahneman’s terminology has become the de facto way of discussing it in psychology. “‘System 1,’ he explained, is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach. ‘System 2,’ he said, refers to the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates” (Walsh, 2014).

If we’re aware of this, we may be able to analyze our thought processes and self-diagnose whether or not we’re being reasonable more effectively. Fear of a given thing (e.g., spiders or our child crossing a busy street) are generally rooted in Type 1, emotional reactions. Type 2 thinking may be able to allay our fears when we remember we’re much larger than a spider and can roll up come newspaper to deal with it, or that our child is now old enough to safely navigate the task. Are we acting reflexively, out of fear, or have we taken the time to objectively look at the situation? Heuristics have a way of clouding our reason, blinding us to certain facts, and rarely give us the whole picture.

This isn’t to say that heuristics are always wrong or that critical thinking will always lead us to a different, or even reasonable, conclusion. Gut instincts can be right and motivated reasoning can result in rationalizations for false conclusions. However, by being both aware of our potential faults in logic and willing to address them we increase our chances of arriving at the truth of a matter.

So what is a heuristic? It’s a simple rule or mental shortcut that we use to get through day-to-day life without overanalyzing everything. Can you imagine if you had to stop and critically analyze everything throughout the day? We could never get anything done! A simple decision between two snacks or what shirt to wear would become a torturous debate. When decisions have more cost associated with a poor choice, like purchasing a car or what shirt to wear to a job interview, we rightly eschew Type 1 thinking. Likewise, in science or mathematics that have definite right and wrong answers, we cannot simply trust our gut instinct that 3 times 9 is 54 or that the earth is flat because we can’t see its curvature. Leaping to conclusions is often foolish. Heuristics have their time and place, and we all use them.

This is far from a complete list, but here are some common heuristics we often use:

  • Anchoring heuristic. This is a weird cognitive bias in which the anchor acts as the key point we estimate around, even if it is completely arbitrary. Imagine a jar full of pennies and guessing game for how many are in the container. If the proctor of the guessing game sets a base number in the guesser’s mind by asking if there are more or less than X, the guesser will anchor their answer as an adjustment around X. Two wildly disparate numbers such as 900 or 3,000 will yield guesses closer to those anchor numbers than otherwise independently guessed.
  • Authority heuristic. Also called the trust heuristic, this is the tendency to believe a perceived authority figure. We do this because most of the time, it works! E.g., parents warning a child not to touch something hot, or a teacher showing us a math problem. The problem is it can also lead to the misuse of authority logical fallacy I’ve written about before. E.g., assuming a Senator is speaking knowledgeably on science simply because they sit on that committee. Always validate your sources!
  • Availability heuristic. This is a mental shortcut that biases us toward the most recent or easily recalled examples. It can have nothing to do with the reality of a situation or it can be exact repetition, either way, we’ll convince ourselves of the applicability of our memory. For immediate issues, it generally works in the favor of our safety and welfare. “Don’t touch that hot pan!” For larger, more complicated issues, it’s important to remember that we’re not really thinking very hard or analyzing objectively, and should probably expend more effort at problem solving.
  • Illusion of control heuristic. This is the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to control or influence events. It “fosters a sense of power rather than powerlessness” (Mathieu, 2012). It is thought to influence gambling behavior and belief in the paranormal (Vyse, 1997, pp.129-130). It’s generally considered to be a positive illusion, though I would imagine that might change in hindsight if all your money is left at the casino.
  • Representativeness heuristic. Similar to availability, in that they are both comparisons, this mental short-cut relies on finding similarities between things. It’s the assumption of stereotype based on frequency, or assuming that a Birkenstocks-wearing Dave Matthews Band listener also must smoke marijuana. They might not smoke pot and could simply have terrible fashion sense.

These are just some of the heuristics I’m able to recall, as I don’t have my psych textbooks handy for this essay, but there are lots more. We use them all the time to navigate our daily lives while expending relatively little mental energy. Heuristics are a fantastically useful framework through which to view a circumstance and make snap judgments. These mental shortcuts allow us to be dramatically more productive in the real world. But they are not examples of critical thinking. They are are biases, and often emotionally rooted. They “generally get us where we need to go – and quickly – but at the cost of occasionally sending us off course” (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1996).

Type 2 thinking, or critical thinking, is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. Objective analysis requires us to view both sides of an issue and examine the arguments and evidence. It requires us to deal honestly in relevant facts, and be open to the possibility that we may be wrong. For larger, more complicated issues, critical thinking is the only way to reliably arrive at the truth.

This does not mean that critical thinkers are more intelligent or ethical than reflexive thinkers. We are all capable of and engage in both types of thinking. Both types of thinking are necessary in life. The key is recognizing which type of thought we’re applying to an issue, and determining if it is the most appropriate for the circumstance.


  1. Gilovich, Thomas; Savitsky, Kenneth (1996). “Like Goes with Like: The Role of Representativeness in Erroneous and Pseudo-Scientific Beliefs” (PDF). Skeptical Inquirer 20(2): 34–40. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511808098.036.
  2. Mathieu, I. (2012, Aug 8). The illusion of control. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-sobriety/201208/the-illusion-control
  3. Varga, A. L., & Hamburger, K. (2014). Beyond type 1 vs. type 2 processing: the tri-dimensional way. Frontiers in psychology5.
  4. Vyse, Stuart A. (1997), Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Oxford University Press US
  5. Walsh, C. (2014, Feb 5) Layers of choice. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/02/layers-of-choice/
  6. Wason P. C., Evans J. St. B. T. (1975). Dual processes in reasoning? Cognition 3, 141–154

Why accurate communication is essential

from The Economist Espresso app

from The Economist Espresso app

Safety vs. reality

“In first encounters we think in heuristics to be safe, not to be correct.”

Perina, K. (2015, Dec). First thing you read? Psychology Today, Nov/Dec, p.4

Electra Townie 7D review

I said I’d never buy a bike with an aluminum frame again. I was wrong. I really have to learn how foolish it is to make all-or-nothing statements.

180220_7

Image used without permission

Until writing this, I believe I only had one other post about bicycles which focused on steel frames. For a forward leaning, aggressive riding position I maintain that steel is better than aluminum because it absorbs harsh road conditions. It’s worth the weight penalty for a nicer ride if you can’t afford full carbon fiber. So how did I wind up buying an aluminum bike again? Commuting to work.

When I was in the Air Guard, we had lockers, showers and changing rooms that made bicycle commuting easy and free exercise. Driving to work the first and last days of the work week allowed for carrying uniforms, etc. so the rest of the week could be bicycled. Ride to work, arrive hot and sweaty, shower, freshen up, pull on uniform, go to work.

Now that I’m a civilian, cycling into work presents different challenges. I don’t wear a uniform anymore so I can’t get by with fresh undergarments alone. While I might be able to shower at work, I don’t want my clothes wrinkled from being packed in a bag. So I needed something I could ride in work attire and keep my clothes clean. I also carry my laptop, meals, and any required books for the semester back and forth from home to the office. I prefer to carry my Brooks Brothers duffel than a backpack because I’m an adult and I don’t want to wear a backpack while cycling.

WorkCycles Fr8. Image used w/o permission.

WorkCycles Fr8. Image used w/o permission.

What I really wanted was a Dutch bike like an Omafiet. Unfortunately, good imported Dutch bikes are terribly expensive. Considering my job has me living in Fargo for now, I only ride half the year, which make it difficult to justify that expense. Electra makes the Amsterdam model that copies Dutch styling, but reports on its build quality have been mixed and they don’t make a step-through frame large enough for me. For whatever reason, Americans seem to think step-throughs are for women and men should have a cross-member high enough to risk very personal injury. The high cross member makes sense for frame rigidity on a more aggressive bike, but is completely illogical for relaxed riding.

I’d played around on Electra Townies before, and they always seemed like perfectly adequate bikes. Nice, easy to ride, decent handling, etc. I hemmed and hawed for quite a while and instead kept trying to fix my single speed’s ergonomics but eventually I had to relent. Finding handlebar risers to allow an upright riding position was an impossible task, and the steel frame that was fun for short rides had no braze-ons for luggage racks to make it useful over longer distances. The local bike shop didn’t stock models with internal hubs (or even know they were available), so I bought the “bird in the hand”- a moss metallic 7D pictured above. Because if I recall correctly, it was less than $500.

IMG_4297The ideal I was chasing was something like a Dutch bike, or the bikes used by American bike-sharing programs. A comfortable, upright riding position. A good chain guard to protect my shoe laces and/or pant legs. A maintenance-free internal hub for gear changes. Fenders, to keep my clothes clean if riding through damp conditions. A dynamo hub to run lights without the need for batteries. A strong and wide front rack to carry realistic luggage. Seriously, what do people carry on those narrow rear bicycle racks? A single bottle of wine?

IMG_0740As it happens, the only thing I really needed was the comfortable riding position. Almost everything else could be fixed, adjusted, or added later. The Townie is much more comfortable than my single speed ever was and I love riding it. It’s just an easy bike to roll around on. We added fenders, a small taillight on the seat post, a Burley trailer hitch, and ordered a wide front rack like a porteur would have. The world is my oyster on this thing. Originally, the rack had a raised rim, creating the effect of a very shallow basket. I took that part off so I could carry wider or longer cargo on a more stable base. The raised rim either compromised even support by lifting oversize cargo up on its edge, or could even risk damaging the cargo with that edge’s pressure once it was strapped down. That rack and the center of gravity are a good bit forward of the axle, so it’s a little awkward to move when walking and kickstand no longer works when the rack is laden with cargo. That aside, it’s easy riding, allows for much wider cargo than a silly narrow rear rack, and because it’s in front of me I can actually see it rather than wonder if it’s coming off-balance behind me. Some ratcheting straps may work better for securing loads than the elastic net  I currently use. If my duffle is particularly full it can impede the handlebar mounted light a tad, so under-rack mounted lights may be in my future. Otherwise, I couldn’t recommend this solution highly enough. It’s the only sensible way I can see to achieve my goal.

The bike itself is pleasant and comfortable. The combination of seat, tires, and riding geometry make the aluminum frame a non-issue when it comes to harshness of ride. The relaxed position makes hills a bit of a challenge, and the gearing wouldn’t be of much use in San Francisco. Luckily, North Dakota is so flat you can watch your dog run away for days. The 7D means it has a derailleur, which requires a little advance shifting for hills, but that and some momentum make everything here easy enough to handle without leaving the saddle.

My understanding is that the high and low gear ratios of the 3i are roughly equivalent with the derailleur models; the greater number simply gives the rider more options between. The internal hubs are also much more expensive. The 3i is $100 more than the 7D, and the 8i doubles the price of the bike! While I like the clean lines and low maintenance of an internal hub, I have no regrets getting the derailleur. Price and availability worked in it’s favor, and the extra gears aren’t a necessity but they’re convenient. A brisk commute to work or a relaxing ride with my wife are two different speeds, entirely.

My top speed seems to be about 14-15 miles per hour during my commute. Taking back roads through neighborhoods lets me bypass Fargo’s overabundance of traffic lights. The bike handles well, rides nicely and brakes sufficiently. I was a little hesitant of the color. I try to avoid anything reminiscent of the military and thought it might be confused for olive green, but the metallic flake paint job looks brilliant in sunlight. My photos don’t do it justice. About the only other modification I might try is to reverse the stem, or goose neck, to bring the handlebars back a few inches and let me sit even more upright. It might further compromise the weight on the rack, though. We’ll see. In the meantime, I can tow my son effortlessly and he seems to enjoy the ride, as well.

 

Since buying my bike, Electra has added an available EQ package that includes paint-matched alloy fenders and a hub dynamo to power front and rear lights. The $60 up-charge on internal hub models is a good deal, but the $110 required for a derailleur EQ seems excessive. If money were no object, today I’d buy a Balloon 3i EQ in brown metallic. That takes care of fenders, lights and gets you kevlar tires. Add a steel front rack from CETMA and you’d have a stylish gentleman’s city bike to rival most anybody.

The pivot

from The Economist

from The Economist

One of the challenges I’ve had since starting this blog has been a lack of direction. I wanted to explore several different topics, all my interests, really, and just see what form it took or where it lead. However inadvertently, my lack of focus created a two-fold problem and both of them were a direct result of my arrogance.

  1. I thought I was so fascinating I could carry a cult of personality and people would literally hang on my every word, just waiting to hear me opine on a topic.
  2. I thought I knew more than I really did on certain topics. I offered up opinions as gospel on topics I was woefully ignorant on. That’s got to be pure hubris.

So today I’m continuing the shift in course that I wrote about yesterday and announcing the pivot. In entrepreneurship, a pivot is the recognition of a business plan that just isn’t working and changing course to find a more successful strategy.

The new focus of this site is to function as a capstone project for my Masters degree. To that end, I will endeavor to make every post factual, verifiable and beneficial to the reader. I don’t have any great works of fiction or the next great American novel burning inside me; I have a deep love of knowledge, fact, critical thinking and the Socratic method. This could wind up being a very boring blog, and I may need to pivot again. That’s fine. For now, I’m just happy to have to have some direction.

What you won’t see: click-baiting headlines, hyperbole, snark, or meaningless lists. All of these are tricks used to get traffic, but since I don’t monetize my site I don’t need to do any of that. I will also consciously restrain myself to topics I actually know about; as much as I love cars and motorcycles, I am not a motor journalist nor do I possess the driving skills that many of them do (and are required for making qualified judgments about performance vehicles). I’ve noticed in both myself and others a propensity for speaking with authority on topics in which the speaker is completely uneducated and it’s come irritate me a great deal. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where unskilled people grossly overestimate their ability, and I refuse to do it any more.

My goal is simply to provide substance and quality writing. Fair warning: the writing will probably require a lot more practice before the quality arrives. I fully expect to struggle for a while, trying to find an entertaining way to present factual information or meaningful analysis. I look at this challenge as trying to inject humor into a textbook, frankly. If I review a piece of gizmology, it will be from the layman’s point of view. I will make every effort to not sound pretentious or like I know more than I do. Anything beyond my own opinion, you can count of having credible references for. I won’t be citing unsourced documents, conspiracy nuts, or tabloids. My goal is peer-reviewed studies or sources with a reputation for journalistic integrity.

I’ve still got one or two more drafts on my “to-do” list that I’ll try to publish in the next week, but I’ve got a lot of work to do behind the scenes again. I need to review all my tags and categories and slim them down. I have literally hundreds of tags that I used only once, I can only guess in attempts to attract attention from people who otherwise wouldn’t discover the blog. But it strikes me as dishonest to do that and then never write on the topic again. So I’ll be revisiting all my old posts, rebuilding categories, editing tags, and trying to change the outdated profile picture that WordPress publishes by default when sharing to social media.

As I review old posts I’m sometimes embarrassed by what I wrote. Some of the more puerile essays have already been deleted; an attempt at humorously talking about a night out drinking just came off as a frat boy’s poor attempt to echo Tucker Max, and that’s not who I am. At the same time, I feel like I should keep some of those old posts that I’m not proud of in the hopes of seeing growth, both as a writer and as a person. It’s a tough balance to strike. I have some posts that I’m proud of, still get a fair amount of traffic, and I want to leave up for others. I have others that I’d really prefer to take down and some I have. So I’ll be wrestling with the balance between showing growth and deleting embarrassment.

This is far from the most exciting post I could write, but I want 100% transparency with my readers. If you subscribe via email, I hope the shift in writing style is subtle but appreciated. If you visit the site, you may notice some differences over the next week or so. Because my blog has always been non-fiction, I hope you will appreciate the renewed effort for factual corroboration. I won’t begin my Master’s program until the spring of 2017, so the next year of this blog is still preparatory. I’ll likely add categories for analysis and opinion. We’ll see. But more than anything, I want to be accountable to the reader and provide true and accurate information. It may take me a little while to find my niche but I’m going give this my very best effort. Because if you take the time out of your day to read what I’ve written, you deserve and I owe you my very best effort. That’s the deal I’m offering and promise I’m making from hereon out.

Adults should hold themselves accountable for failure. … I was an accomplice to a slow and repeated and unacknowledged and unamended train wreck of failures that have brought us to now. I’m a leader in an industry that miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy, and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country. From the collapse of the financial system to the truth about how strong we are to the dangers we actually face. … The reason we failed isn’t a mystery. We took a dive for the ratings.

In the infancy of mass communications, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley and David Sarnoff, went down to Washington to cut a deal with Congress. Congress would allow the fledgling networks free use of taxpayer-owned airwaves in exchange for one public service. That public service would be one hour of air time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what we now call the evening news. Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse immeasurably for the better. Congress forgot to add that under no circumstances could there be paid advertising during informational broadcasting. They forgot to say that taxpayers will give you the airwaves for free and for 23 hours a day you should make a profit, but for one hour a night you work for us.

And now those network newscasts, anchored through history by honest-to-God newsmen … now they have to compete with the likes of me. A cable anchor who’s in the exact same business as the producers of “Jersey Shore”. …

From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate. … We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole, and nonsense. We’re not waiters in a restaurant serving you the stories you asked for just the way you like them prepared. Nor are we computers dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity. I’ll make no effort to subdue my personal opinions. I will make every effort to expose you to informed opinions that are different than my own.

-Will McAvoy, The Newsroom

A mission to civilize

One of my first tweets was something mean about Olivia Munn. I’d love to blame it on being younger at the time (which is technically true), or an inflated sense of self-importance, just coming off hosting a moderately successful podcast. But the truth is I was simply being a negative, ugly person and I owe Ms. Munn an apology.

I finished watching The Newsroom in June and was absolutely captivated by it. It may just be my new favorite television series of all time. While it never seemed to be much of a critical darling, the recurrent theme of Will McAvoy’s quixotic “mission to civilize” really spoke to me. Unlike the critics, I really fell in love with unbridled sense of optimism and fast, smart dialog that is Aaron Sorkin’s hallmark. There is something compelling about dealing in reality, honestly, with facts, and simply trying to be a more positive person. Idiocy and falsehoods must be combated, but we must also make an effort to be constructive.

In “I’ll Try to Fix You”, Will is aghast that woman he’s flirting with would be so casual about writing a “takedown piece”- her job assignment is essentially to smear a woman on a reality tv show. He tries to point out the ugliness of the task and how perpetuating that attitude leads to the coarsening of society and gets a drink thrown in his face for his efforts.

Another example is in “What Kind of Day Has It Been”, when Neal returns to to work and find the ACN digital staff has devolved into writing snarky click bait articles like “the 9 most overrated movies of all time”. After noting the oldest movie on their list was The Matrix, Neal can’t help himself: “All time and 14 years are two different units of measurement. But my question is why is overrated more fun than, say, underrated? You embarrass me.”

“Snark is the idiot’s version of wit, and we’re being polluted by it.” -Will McAvoy

I can’t help but notice that most of the critical derision for the The Newsroom comes from blogs, snarky people, and those who likely view themselves as speaking truth to power.

Now, it can be said with relative certainty that Olivia Munn doesn’t read my blog, and I’m pretty sure we’re not connections on LinkedIn or Twitter. The fact that she proved I was a big ol’ jerk-face by being fantastic in the role of Sloan Sabbith on my new favorite series is just coincidental to greater lesson I’m trying to apply to my life. Would I apologize for being petty and rude, given the chance? Of course. But that’s a much smaller part of who I’m actually trying to be.

Human beings have a well-documented negativity bias [1][2][3]. “The alarm bell of your brain — the amygdala  — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative” [2]. And the size of one’s amygdala has  positive correlation with how fearful (negative) they generally are [4]. The larger your amygdala, the more fearful/negative you tend to be. So a certain amount of our negativity is simply built into us, which makes sense. Rick Hanson, PhD, wrote it best, “But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact” [2].

Except most of us no longer live in the Stone Age or have to worry about being eaten by a tiger on our way to the office. In the modern age, carrots are more plentiful, and our sticks are more like twigs. The negativity bias that functioned as a survival mechanism for thousands of years just makes us irritable jerks now if we let it go unchecked. The smell and taste of spoilt milk impacted me more than imbibing uneventful glasses, and likely spared me some gastrointestinal distress. But what does it gain a person to watch Jerry Springer instead of something edifying? Why should I be more ready to discuss things I dislike than to be positive and talk about good things?

I really should quit griping about the Star Wars prequels. People ten years younger than me seem to like them, and what’s wrong with that? Sure, I wish society as a whole was more sophisticated, but does that give me the moral high ground to insult something as stupid if it’s harmless and brings joy to others? Aren’t I just trying to make them as miserable as me?

I’m a dad now. I have a beautiful son, and I want him to grow up to be kind, and happy, and brave, and honest, and curious. And I don’t think I can do that if I’m acting like a negative, inconsiderate, myopic example. If I want my son to be better than me, than I have to be a better example.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical. I last wrote about critical thinking and being honest in our pursuit of truth, and a conscious choice to be more optimistic [5] doesn’t change that. In Think Critically, Drs. Facione and Gittens made it expressly clear that critical thinking doesn’t mean being negative. [6] Lies and ignorance must still be defeated at all times. But we can argue like civilized human beings; we can attack ideas without attacking the person (ad hominem).

My optimism is not a cavalier belief that everything is rosy, but that truth can prevail if we’re smart and brave and honest and educated. We can be better than we are, but we have to start with ourselves and it has to be conscious choice every day. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

We also probably have to have a lot more kids and out-populate the cretins, but that’s another discussion.

I want to take up the “mission to civilize” and I don’t care that it’s quixotic, because I don’t have to change the world. I just have to be good enough to inspire my son.


  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-wise-brain/201010/confronting-the-negativity-bias
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3652533/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2999759/
  5. http://lifehacker.com/5982005/rewire-your-brain-for-positivity-and-happiness-using-the-tetris-effect
  6. Think Critically, 3rd ed. 2016. Peter Facione & Carol Ann Gittens

Cross-examining our beliefs

This is one I’ve had saved as a draft in my “to do” list since June 7th. Conveniently, I just finished Psych 304: Effective Thinking this semester. The motivation and content of this essay remain essentially the same, but my hope is that my writing will now be clearer.

Introduction

Matt Dillahunty often says, “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.”

How often do we actually try to falsify our beliefs? How often do we check to see if the things we believe are actually true? Do we have the strength of character to admit when we’re wrong? Are we intellectually honest enough to change our beliefs when they are proven false by empirical facts?

“A trial seeks to ascertain the truth of the matters in issue between the parties…” [1]. Key among the steps in a trial, the steps in ascertaining the truth, are the direct examination and the cross-examination. Direct examination is the questioning of a witness by the lawyer that called them to the stand. In other words, direct examination is done to bolster one’s case. Carrying this analogy over to our thought processes, direct examination is akin to confirmation bias- choosing to see only the facts or presentation that already agree with our positions. The problem with this is that it would lead to a miscarriage of justice; the truth cannot be discovered this way. In order to test the veracity of the testimony, the opposing legal team is allowed to question the witness through cross-examination. According to the American Bar Association, “the purpose of cross-examination is to test the credibility of statements made during direct examination” and “the attorney might try to … impeach the witness or the evidence” [2].

If we really want to know that our beliefs are true, we should put them on trial and fearlessly so. If our beliefs are true, then they have nothing to fear from critical examination. Only those with something to lose should fear reasonable inquiry.

Facione & Gittens [3] outline four basic tests all arguments must pass if a claim is to be accepted as true or very probably true:

  • Truthfulness
  • Logical Strength
  • Relevance
  • Non-circularity

An argument must successfully meet all of these requirements in order to be valid. Untrue premises defeat the very foundation of an argument. Logically moving from figurative A to B should be demonstrably causal or “if, then”. An irrelevant argument does nothing to build support for a claim, even if it’s true; e.g. quoting Shakespeare in discussion about physics. Finally, “it makes no sense to give a reason as the basis for one’s claim and then to use that claim as the basis for one’s reason” (Facione & Gittens, 2016, p.142).

A critical thinker must be more concerned with what is true rather than what they want to be true. In that vein, here are some common mistakes, flaws in reasoning, and fallacies to be aware of and test one’s own arguments and beliefs against.

1. Hypothesis Testing

“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” -attributed to Albert Einstein

In the strictest sense, “proof” that something is true is limited to mathematics and proof theory. Because of this, in all other engagements what we actually do is seek to disprove a null hypothesis. All experiments, and even the legal analogy above work on the premise of two mutually exclusive hypotheses, and disproving the null in order to accept that the alternative hypothesis is probably true. A guilty verdict is the result of disproving innocence. Accepting significant results is due to disproving the null. Logically, we don’t prove the truth, but rather disprove the falsehoods around it and come to the truth by process of elimination.

Correctly identifying falsifiable null and alternative hypotheses can be difficult. It can even result in requiring a series of hypothesis testing because initial results may broadly accommodate multiple alternative hypotheses. But something true cannot be disproven; facts are necessarily true by definition. Therefore, we should “question with boldness” [4] because not only can the truth withstand it, but cannot otherwise be made to shine.

2. Motivated Reasoning

Nonscientists use an erroneous definition of science which claims it must be “observable and repeatable”. By this definition, crossing the street would qualify as science! Actual scientists describe the scientific method as testing predictions with falsifiable hypotheses [5], as discussed above. The false definition of science is the result of “motivated reasoning”, which is not actually reasoning at all but rationalizing.

The ideologue does not engage in critical thinking; it is anathema to them. Rather than follow the evidence to a conclusion (empirical or inductive reasoning), the ideologue begins with the conclusion and selectively chooses only the evidence to that supports their point of view (deductive). When confronted with contradictory facts, the ideologue will rationalize and try to bend reality to fit their preconceptions. This is intellectually dishonest and cannot lead to the truth. Because of this, the ideologue is a danger to the search for truth. Look at any closed society and you will find attempts to control information. There is nothing an ideologue fears more than reason and contradictory facts.

On page 276, Facione and Gittens write, “Ideological belief structures are socially normative – those who disagree are seen as outsiders, ignorant, mistaken, abnormal, or dangerous”. Moreover, they note on page 278 that, “…John Locke described the habit of talking and listening only to those who agreed with the beliefs and opinions one already holds as a basic type of flawed thinking”.

Ideological arguments rarely, if ever, stand up the four basic tests for a valid argument. They often not testable or falsifiable. It becomes a feedback loop of confirmation bias. It is also an extremely comfortable trap to fall into, because we like being told we’re correct and we like people that are similar to us. It’s something we all have to carefully monitor ourselves for if we’re going to be honest. We must be more interested in what is true, than what we want to be true. We have to stay open to cross-examining our own beliefs.

3. Logical Fallacies

Here are the logical fallacies I see most frequently when people debate on social media. All of these fail the test of relevance.

  • The Straw Man. This is the practice of erecting a false representation of an opponent’s argument and demolishing it, rather than what they actually say. It’s dishonest in the representation of one’s opponent, often to the point of caricature. The effect is arguing with a defenseless “straw man” that cannot fight back, but which is also not the real opponent. It can look good and maybe feel clever, but also runs the risk of of making the person doing it look foolish if they’re discovered. Being “hit back” by an actual opponent whose actual arguments you’ve failed to dismantle can be embarrassing.
  • Shifting the Burden of Proof. Also called an appeal to ignorance. This one is very simple and continues the trial analogy above. Much like a person should be thought innocent until proven guilty, an idea or a claim should not be accepted until there is supporting evidence. Lack of evidence against a claim cannot be considered evidence against for it. There is no shame in saying “I don’t know”. Suspension of judgment is far wiser than to accept a claim that could be false. It is unreasonable to accuse somebody of theft and demand proof of their innocence; rather, the accusation itself must be proven. Otherwise any person who stayed home playing video games with no alibi could unjustly be called guilty! The onus always lies with the claimant. This is indisputable. An old Latin proverb says, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negator”. That which is freely asserted can be freely dismissed.
  • Misuse of Authority. The false assumption that if a notable person makes a claim, it must be true. E.g.- citing a physicist on matters of biology, a religious leader on matters of science, or a politician on business affairs. And vice versa for all three. There are twelve criteria an expert must meet to be considered a trustworthy source and they must meet them all [3, p.123]. After all, you would never allow anyone to testify in court on your behalf who wasn’t:
    1. Learned in topic X
    2. Experienced in topic X
    3. Speaking about topic X
    4. Up-to-date about topic X
    5. Capable of explaining the basis of their claim about topic X
    6. Unbiased
    7. Truthful
    8. Free of conflicts of interest
    9. Acting in accord with our interests
    10. Unconstrained
    11. Informed about the specifics of the case at hand
    12. Mentally stable.

Conclusion

If it really is “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt” [6], then prudent behavior in our trial analogy is exercising the right to remain silent rather than incriminate ourselves by opining beyond the scope of our knowledge. It’s okay to not know everything! There’s no shame in it. Better to suspend judgment on a topic than to proclaim something false.

Putting our beliefs on trial and subjecting them to cross-examination is really the only way to know if they’re true. Do honest research. Read opposing viewpoints and give them fair-minded consideration. Analyze both sides with reason rather than emotion and see which one withstands the scrutiny. Be willing to change your mind about something if you’re wrong. If we limit ourselves to sources of confirmation bias and only deal with straw men of opposing views, we’re not being honest. That’s choosing to live in a construct of reality. That’s choosing to believe a delusion instead of the truth.

I choose to embrace reality. It’s a beautiful and wonderful thing.


  1. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/trial
  2. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/crossexam.html
  3. Think Critically, 3rd ed. by Peter Facione and Carol Ann Gittens
  4. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to to Peter Carr. 10 August 1787.
  5. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Sir Karl Popper, PhD. 1934.
  6. Attributed to both Twain and Lincoln, most likely sourced from Proverbs 17:28