By Gregory Mitchell - Copyright © 2003
Chapter 9 - Thinking Clearly
“I read it in a book” is often considered as sufficient evidence for the truth of a statement. In study we must apply more rigorous standards if we are to discern truth from falsehood. We must abandon common assumptions and subject all knowledge to scrutiny. This means abandoning such phrases as “It’s common sense.” It was once common sense to burn witches and to believe that the earth was flat. Today’s common sense stands a good chance of being tomorrow’s discarded superstition.
The aim of study is the search for more accurate knowledge. A questioning attitude is essential for those who wish to understand critically rather than by rote. Much experimental work in psychology has confirmed that people tend to ignore evidence that is contrary to their own preconceptions. The most strongly held idea holds sway against overwhelming evidence. For example, the driver who objects to safety belts because of the odd case where a life is saved through not wearing a belt, is ignoring the thousands of contrary cases which justify the wearing of safety belts. Similarly, nationalistic attitudes are reinforced by concentrating on the undesirable behavior of a few and attributing this both to their being foreign and also to everyone else of the same nationality.
In study it is essential to examine all the available evidence in order to sum it up and reach useful conclusions. In addition to looking for evidence which supports an argument you also need to consider evidence that is contrary or that is apparently contrary to the argument. Unless you can show that you considered all the evidence and explain why you rejected opposing evidence, your own argument will be unconvincing and open to the charge of bias.
Truly logical thought, starting from true premises, must lead to a true conclusion. Irrational thought, whether or not it starts from true premises, can only reach the truth by accident. The moral is that if you want to understand and master the world, learn to think clearly and start now.
Some common faults in thinking
- The causative fallacy
The mistake here is to assume that because A and B occur together, that A therefore is causally connected to B. Or that because B follows A, that A is the cause of B. Proof that A causes B is much harder to arrive at than merely finding A and B occurring together or one after the other. A wage demand may precede a strike but that doesn’t mean it is the cause of it.
- Selecting convenient examples
One naturally looks for evidence to support an argument, since without supporting evidence your argument would be pretty worthless. But equally, unless you look for and consider contrary examples, your argument may be considered uninformed. For example, you may know someone who took a university degree and remains unemployed, but that doesn’t mean that studying is a waste of time.
A tautology is basically saying the same thing twice whilst giving the appearance of an argument. “People who are clever get high marks in intelligence tests,” is simply stating the obvious. Quite often though, the two parts of a tautology are widely separated and difficult to spot.
- Exceeding the evidence
Evidence leads us to set up an hypothesis, which we then go on to test. At the end of this testing stage we hope to uphold or refute our hypothesis. We may, however, on the basis of slim evidence, go on to make some wonderful theory that has not actually been tested. For example, somebody we may see a friend driving a big, expensive car and assume he has come into a fortune, maybe won the lottery. But we have deduced too much from a single fact. He may have borrowed or even stolen the fancy car.
- Bowing to authority
The arguments of an ‘expert’ must be tested just as severely as anyone else’s. The value of what is stated should be solely based on the supporting evidence provided. Consider whether examples given hold up in the light of your own life experience, and whether alternative evidence is available.
- A biased view
Quite often we consider a view from one point of view only. Residents in the line of a motorway are only likely to see it as something that destroys the value of their property. But for clear thinking, each question must be viewed from all possible angles so as to avoid the bias of viewing from one position.
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Copyright © 2004 Gregory Mitchell - Published by Trans4mind