25 September 2009

On thinking well and the scientific method of acquiring knowledge

I have little mechanical aptitude. The extent of my skills stretch as far as putting back on a naughty bicycle chain that has taken leave of its chaperoning gear. Even then the necessary sequence of – for me, awkward – actions takes me a good five minutes. Clearly I have long ago diverged from that evolutionary branch of the hominid family tree which eventually produced the grease monkey. Still, I admire the rigour that mechanics and engineers apply to the performance of their craft, especially if it is in a high stress, high stakes context. Like aircraft construction and maintenance, for example. One misplaced part, one malfunctioning component, one small structural flaw, and the chances of catastrophe fatally increase.

If only we would apply similarly exacting standards of attention and discipline to our thought processes.

In Logic for the Millions (1947, p. vii), Alfred Mander asserts that thinking is a skill.

Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically – without learning how, or without practicing. People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge players, or pianists.

Some may be offended by Mander’s implication that not everyone is cut out to be a good thinker. Given the rampant super-egalitarianism in contemporary society, the suggestion that clear, critical thinking actually requires training, effort and experience smacks of elitism (which apparently is a Bad Thing). It is a common conceit where we rate our own powers of thought more highly than what the reality may be. We expect the efficacy of our cognition to be as guaranteed as the regularity of our breathing, the predictability of our reflexes, the dependability of our senses. We graciously accept our inadequacies in painting, dancing or bassoon-playing, but because we place the act of thinking outside the sphere of skills, we feel insulted when we are (correctly) charged with being unreasonable, irrational, ignorant – when we are told that we are talking nonsense. Our thinking is conflated with our sense of self. To cast doubt on our thinking ability is to cast doubt on our self-worth. But this is perhaps explained by the observation that while not all conscious human beings play the bassoon, all do think, so it is harder to separate the act (thinking) from the actor (ourselves).

Critical thinking is usually associated with the scientific method of discovering knowledge. Michael Shermer defines science as “a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” (Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997). Objectivity, rationalism and skepticism are essential elements of any thinking process aimed at acquiring knowledge. Without them, one has no way of differentiating between fact and fiction, between truth and lies. And we become prone to making mistakes in our thinking – fallacies – which in his book Shermer counts no less than twenty-five of such common errors in reasoning. Whether using anecdotes and rumours as evidence to support a claim, or using after-the-fact reasoning, or seeing meaningful connections in mere coincidences, or having a weak grasp of probability, or making hasty generalizations, the traps of flawed thinking are many and unless we are aware of them, we are too easily caught.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had this to say about the scientific method of knowledge acquisition:

…the scientific spirit is based on the insight into methods, and were those methods to be lost, all the results of science could not prevent a renewed triumph of superstition and nonsense. Clever people may learn the results of science as much as they like… [yet] they lack the scientific spirit. They do not have that instinctive mistrust of the wrong ways of thinking.

Nietzsche astutely makes a distinction between knowing the results of scientific discovery and actually thinking in a scientific manner. It is one thing to carry an encyclopedic store of facts and figures in your head, quite another to exercise rigorous, rational thought. And surely the latter is the font of the former. We cannot arrive at knowledge – that is, true, accurate, verified information – without a solid foundation of clear, careful thinking.

Critics of what they call ‘scientistic arrogance’ may object to any enthusiastic advocacy of the scientific method of acquiring knowledge. They feel threatened by science’s claims to absolute truth, and its implicit – and often explicit – disregard for other avenues to knowledge. Yet, as Shermer argues in Why People Believe Weird Things, science is undeniably the only method of knowledge acquisition that is progressive, defined in this context as “the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge [my emphasis]”. The last phrase is key; whereas non-scientific forms of attaining 'knowledge' (intuition, revelation, gut-instinct, received wisdom and traditions) are plagued by inertia, inconsistency and dogma, the scientific approach to truth exhibits dynamism, logical consistency and an openness to review and correction. Science is a process, not an ideological position.

Despite the attacks on reason, science and critical thinking by the forces of unreason, superstition and magical thinking, the scientific method remains defiantly robust and, crucially, effective. I leave the last word to a person whose contributions to humanity have made his very name a byword for genius coupled with humility.

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

- Albert Einstein


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