& Thales' Press: February 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012

Figuring Out the Truth - Rules of Thumb to Live By

One of the great benefits of empowered social networking these days is the opportunity to meet (virtually, of course) fantastic people.  While Facebook has been great for keeping up with friends from high school, college, and more non-vocational social circles, and Twitter has been fun for following the latest snarky comments from people I never meet but might like to, LinkedIn has been great for actually expanding the circle of people I meet with more vocational interests.  Recently, Mary Ritenour and I met in a discussion forum as we both detected that someone on the interwebs was wrong (I tell you, they were totally wrong!).  A sort of emergent tag team arose between us in which we attempted to help bring a few entrenched mindsets to, at least, the realization of the existence of an alternate viewpoint.  No one yelled, "Uncle!" in the end, but the exchange proved largely exciting and challenging while maintaing a sense of reasoned decorum and respect.  On the internet!  I know!  I'm speechless, too.

In our sidebar conversation, Mary and I got into a discussion about reasoning, persistence of belief systems in the face of disconfirming evidence, and bias - not just of others, but our own.  It was through the thread of this conversation that Mary told me about an exchange she had with a friend who confided that she was having difficulty making sense of the claims from experts in important complex issues.  Mary's friend's complaint went something like this: "This underscores my frustration with science/technology and politics. As a non-scientist, I can and do follow the debate, but how can I understand the problem when both sides produce different sets of facts and thus generate conflicting theories and computer generated futures?"  Obviously there seems to be a true desire here to understand and yet a frustration and lack of tools to sort through "competing facts."

Mary then suggested the following to me, which I thought was pretty good. "It occurred to me that perhaps the greatest need is...demonstrations of HOW to think through issues, without advocating a position."  I think she's on to something here.  "If we truly practice what we preach (of freedom of thought, of individual’s right to self determination) then we should demonstrate HOW to think, rather than just provide more facts. It changes the game. It provides respect to the searchers, and tools for them to use in their search for the truth. If the logic and truth of our beliefs are not discoverable by those means then what hope is there?"

The following are what Mary eventually suggested to her friend.  I loved its crunchy goodness so much I wanted to share it with you.  While you read it, I'm going to refill my coffee.  I'll be right back.

Mary Ritenour's "Figuring Out the Truth" Ten Rules of Thumb:
  • Work to strip out the emotional reactions; try to be as factual and data driven as possible.  Go to original sources for data whenever possible.
  • Expect complexity.  Don’t settle for simplistic solutions or claims. Life and life’s issues are, for the most part, not one-dimensional. That does not mean that you should avoid decisions, but recognize that nearly all of life’s choices come with not insignificant trade-offs.
  • Credible experts are the ones that are transparent about their information, acknowledge when their opinions change, willingly share their thinking processes, and invite debate as a way to improve EVERYONE’s understanding of an issue.
  • Never let anyone tell you what to think or how to feel about an issue. You have the right to form your own opinion, to do your own fact gathering, consult your own experts (and hold those experts to your "Rules of Thumb" standards!).
  • You have the right to change your opinion as you become aware of additional information. Indeed, learning and developing more depth of understanding is part of my definition of maturity.
  • The behavior of those advocating a position can tell you something about their own commitment/belief in what they are advocating. Someone who tells me that fast food is toxic, but eats at McDonald’s every day has no credibility with me. 
  • Be wary of "emergency" or "crisis" claims." The sky is rarely truly falling, and those who insist on immediate action usually want you to act before thinking for a reason. ("Experts" have been predicting awful calamities since the first hominid saw the first meteor – the accuracy rate of these predictions nears zero.) Reserve the right to take your time to think through your options.
  • Learn enough about statistics, logic (especially fallacies of reasoning), basic research, and risk analysis to be BS inoculated. This includes learning to ask questions like "How did you arrive at that conclusion?" "Where did you get your data?" "What assumptions did you use in gathering/analyzing that data?"  "What is your ultimate objective/goal?"  "How do you know that?"
  • People act in ways that they perceive are in their best interest. That "best interest" includes being socially acceptable in their circle of friends, feeling as though they are part of some larger good (recycling, etc) or simply the pleasure of "doing good."  To more clearly understand someone's choices, you need to understand the options they had to choose from (or that they thought they had to choose from) – the context of their decision is important to understand. Without understanding that context, their decisions may not make any sense to you.  Your reaction to them may appear hostile, which just impedes the process toward understanding each other.
  • Those who insist you be either "for" or "against" their position are not advocating a position on an issue so much as asserting a dogma. If they don’t have enough respect for you to hear your opinions and questions, or searching for some alternate "none of the above" solution, it speaks poorly of their own reasoning skills and quality of their proposed solutions.

Pretty good, huh?  I knew you would enjoy it.  Now, let's go live it.

In the meantime, there are two books within this vein that I would like to recommend to you.  Go check them out.
  1. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
  2. Thinking, Fast and Slow