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Thinking by Example

By Stu Tanquist
contributing author, Parenting Beyond Belief

(This column also appears in the current (Jan 4, 2008) issue of Humanist Network News.)

We want our children to make wise choices. We hope they will follow our example and use good “common sense.” But when it comes to our own mental faculties, are we really as competent as we presume? And more importantly, what kind of example are we really setting for our kids?

Most people have just one way of enhancing their reasoning skills – the school of hard knocks. We make good choices and bad choices, learn from our decisions and move on. Though vital to our success and survival, this hit-and-miss approach is fraught with peril. Can you really afford to be wrong when considering an alternative cancer therapy or a belief system that compels you to sacrifice countless hours and thousands of dollars? Clearly the school of hard knocks is not a reliable solution, for we could invest a good portion of our lives making one giant mistake, or even bring about our untimely demise.

Strangely, few people make a serious intentional effort to improve their own reasoning skills, and are therefore less capable of helping their children do the same. For many, the solution is to seek a good education and embrace lifelong learning, but is that a trustworthy choice?

You can earn graduate degrees from accredited and respected universities in disciplines that are grounded in nonsense. They appear impressively scientific, yet rely on magical thinking rather than legitimate scientific method and strong credible evidence. If the material you learn is not true, have you really gained knowledge? Philosophers overwhelmingly say no, and for good reason. But even so, increasing your knowledge is only part of the equation. Rather than blindly believing whatever we are told, we need good reasoning skills to determine how much confidence to place in any given truth claim.

How then does one improve his or her ability to reason? The first step is to get grounded by understanding where we are prone to error. If we appreciate our innate fallibility we are less prone to accept and maintain beliefs with unfounded confidence. Let’s try a quick assessment. On a blank sheet of paper, write your answers to the following questions:

    • Why do scientists consider anecdotes (personal experience such as seeing, hearing, etc.) to be mostly useless as a form of evidence?
    • What biases do all humans possess that make us prone to believing false claims as true?
    • What logical fallacies (common errors in reasoning) can you name and effectively explain to others?

If you are like most people, there is still a lot of white space on that sheet of paper indicating that there is room for additional understanding.

Consider the following analogy. Imagine that a computer has been designed to give you advice that could have an enormous positive or negative impact on the quality of your life. How confident would you be in its answers if you knew that it had serious flaws and was frequently prone to error? Most of us would have strong reservations, yet we implicitly trust our own flawed minds.

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Simply stated, we are much more fallible than we intuitively presume
ourselves to be – a time tested recipe for error. It’s called being human.

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Cognitive scientists seem endlessly entertained by exposing the myriad of ways in which our thoughts and actions are misguided. Simply stated, we are much more fallible than we intuitively presume ourselves to be – a time tested recipe for error. It’s called being human.

Though humbling, this simple reality need not be depressing. Yes we are prone to error, but with intentional effort we can significantly enhance our reasoning skills. While we may not ever match wits with the wisest of the wise, we can all improve the hand that was dealt to us by our genetics, environment and experience. For greater understanding, the following books offer a great start.

    How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich
    How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn
    Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments by T. Edward Damer

If our goal is to help our children make wise choices, then let’s start by setting a good example. Anyone can model the school of hard knocks. It takes humility and integrity to seriously consider and strive to overcome our own limitations, but the process can be deeply rewarding. Your kids are not the only ones who will benefit.
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Stu Tanquist is a self-employed trainer, seminar leader and instructional designer with over 20 years of experience in the learning and development industry. His employment history ranges from working as an emergency paramedic to serving as a strategic-level director for learning and development. A long time student of logic and reasoning, Stu holds three degrees. He authored the essay “Choosing Your Battles” in Parenting Beyond Belief.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.