Archive for August, 2011

To Maintain the State of Doubt

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgement suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful…To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.

– John Dewey, How We Think

I spent a lot of time reading various blogs on umwblogs during my time at school. I had my finger on the pulse of conversations in various classes. Most often I lurked but sometimes I would comment. It was during my last year at Mary Washington I noticed a marked difference between how I formulated thoughts and how many freshmen on the  first-year seminar blogs formulated opinions. It is not that the incoming freshman class was stupid (although everyone always like to say kids are dumber than they used to be) I just had reached a level of thinking that most freshman had not. I was finally seeing those intangible skills that I had been told college would give me begin to surface.

It was during my last two semesters that I finally began to fall in love with doubt and skepticism. I had discovered the freedom in doubt. I found conversations that excited me and inspired me to go and do the research and learn to identify a poorly constructed argument. One of my favorite blogs to comment and challenge students on was a freshman seminar called Food Chemistry. I’m a historian by training but, that doesn’t stop me from getting in over my head in other disciplines. Most of the time my comments were simply challenging them to look at their sources, second guess their opinions, or even just provide evidence for their claim. This type of skill doesn’t require any special training in chemistry, mostly it is just critical thinking.

I had a professor who likened the ability to hold multiple ideas at once to a golden retriever’s ability to hold multiple tennis balls in its mouth. At first it can only hold one but, it can figure out how to hold two or three or more. Besides giving us all a good laugh the analogy made the point that learning how to hold multiple views and hold them equally without judging is a skill that is learned. We give a lot of lip service to critical thinking. I can’t think of many people who think it is a bad thing but, surprisingly most of us are terrible at it. Now most of us aren’t terrible at in ever aspect of our lives but, from what I’ve seen of this world so far (and its not much) most people go with convenient and shallow over difficult and deep. It is true we don’t have enough time to weigh heavily on all matters in our lives, we’d never get anything done. But I hope I don’t forget that many of the opinions I hold now that I assume true are not necessarily true. And I continually hope I have the humility to admit that just because I believe something doesn’t mean its true. This is why I’ve come to love doubt and skepticism. It puts me in a position where I don’t have to cling to ideologies or defend ideas just because it is the idea I’ve always believed. I go with what evidence and logic points to and hope that it leads me to being a better, more rational person.

Richard Feynman when talking about scientific integrity said this:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I could go on in detail about all the ways work against our critical thinking abilities. Go ahead and take a look at the wikipedia page on the list of cognitive biases. We have a lot to overcome. I spend a fair amount of my free time working on my critical thinking skills and challenging my thinking (where was this when I needed it in college?) because I enjoy it. I almost get a geeky kind of excited when I catch myself making assumptions I shouldn’t and correcting myself. The freedom to doubt is a beautiful thing.


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