Skepticism: Why critical thinking makes you smarter
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: I like to keep an open mind but not so open that my brains fall out. And that's the key point. We have to skeptically assess the information we receive. We can't be gullible because when we get a lot of information, it's absolutely certain that some of that information is wrong. And so we have to always filter what we get. And we have to ask ourselves the following question: "How open does my brain have to be to accept that information? Does it have to fall out?" And by that, I mean when someone tells you something you have to ask "Is this consistent with my experience? Is it consistent with the experience of other people around me?" And if it isn't, then probably there's a good reason to be skeptical about it; it's probably wrong. If it makes predictions that also appear to be in disagreement with things that you observe around you, you should question it.
And so we should never take anything on faith. That's really the mantra of science, if you want, that faith is the enemy of science. We often talk about a loss of faith in the world today. You don't lose anything by losing faith. What you gain is reality. And so skepticism plays a key role in science simply because we also are hard-wired to want to believe. We're hard-wired to want to find reasons for things. In the savanna in Africa, the trees could be rustling and you could choose to say, "Well, there's no reason for that." Or, "Maybe it's due to a lion." And those individuals who thought there might be no reason, never lived long enough to survive to procreate. And so it's not too surprising, we want to find explanations for everything. And we create them if we need to, to satisfy ourselves, because we need to make sense of the world around us. And what we have to understand is that what makes sense to the universe, is not the same as what makes sense to us. And we can't impose our beliefs on the universe. And the way we get around that inherent bias is by constantly questioning both ourselves and all the information we receive from others. That's what we do in science and it works beautifully in the real world as well.
MICHAEL SHERMER: The problem is this. None of us has the truth. The only way to find out if you're deceiving yourself or not, if you've gone off the rails, if you're wrong in some way, is to listen to other people who disagree with you. I started encountering other people that disagreed with me. You know, we-never-went-to-the-moon people, conspiracy people, whatever. And I thought, "Okay, so how do we know, if I don't know what's coming down the pike say in 10 years from now, if I was gonna teach my students how to think critically, what are the key points, like just basic questions they could ask?" So, it begins with one: How reliable is the source of the claim? Here's the claim, how reliable is it? What's the evidence for it? What's the quality of the evidence? Where does it come from? Who said that? Is this some fake news, alternative site thing, or is it The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times? The source really matters. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim? This is super important because everybody thinks they're right and every website has testimonials about this product or that idea. The question is not "What do your supporters think?" but "What do the people who don't agree with you think?" Because that's what I wanna know. Has anyone run an experiment to try to disprove your theory? And so in science, this is as basic as it gets. Karl Popper called this the Principle of Falsification. That is, we can't ever prove a theory correct, but we can disprove it by having an experiment that shows it's wrong.
So, if you can't falsify it, what are you really doing? And my favorite story on this, by the way, let me just have a little sidetrack here from Karl. He's got this great little section in his book "Demon-Haunted World." There's a dragon in my garage. I have a dragon in my garage, do you want to see it? Come here, let me show you. I pull up the garage door. I go, "Look, can you see the dragon?" And you look in and you go, "Well, no, I don't see anything." "Oh, oh, oh, sorry. This is an invisible dragon." "An invisible dragon?" "Yeah, yeah, yeah, he's invisible." "Well, what if we put some flour on the ground and then we'll get the footprints of the dragon?" "Well, no, see, this is a special dragon that hovers above the ground; it floats. It's an invisible floating dragon." "An invisible floating dragon, okay. Oh, wait, I have some infrared cameras here. We can detect the heat from the dragon." "No, see, this is a cold-blooded dragon. It doesn't give off any heat." "What about the fire? We can detect the fire that the dragon spits out." "Nah, it spits out cold fire." You see the problem? If there's no way for me to falsify that there's a dragon there, what's the difference between an invisible floating heatless dragon and no dragon at all? None. And of course we can apply this to God or any other supernatural paranormal type. If I can't debunk it, if I can't falsify it, if there's no way to test it, then how will we ever know it's true? This is the core of the baloney-detection kit. We have to be able to get to whether it's true or not, in some way so it's not just my opinion versus your opinion and we shout at each other.
Then we want to know, does the claimant's personal beliefs somehow enter in? Because of course, we all have personal opinions and beliefs about things. My politics, my religion, my ideology can influence me. It doesn't make it wrong but it's good to know if somebody has an agenda. So, when you watch Fox News, you know that they have an agenda, for sure. Or there's other sources on the left that have a liberal agenda, maybe NPR, who knows. But you see, it's good to know that, just in case, so when you hear the facts, you go, "Well, maybe, but I know this guy has an agenda." So, that's the kinda thing. Does the new idea being proposed account for the same amount of information that the old idea does and some of the new anomalies that the old idea can't explain? So, people offer theories, so-called alternative theories of physics, for example, and they always send them to me going, "Hey, listen, I'm not good at math but if you help me with the math I'll share the Nobel Prize with you." Right. I don't do math and physics so you might take it to the local high school physics teacher before you announce that you've made the greatest discovery since Newton and Einstein. The problem with that is the current theories do pretty well at explaining almost everything. Not everything, so there's always anomalies we can't explain. So maybe there's some new theory coming down the pike that might account for all the old theories, explanations and the new anomalies, the anomalies that the old theory can't explain. Maybe. But again, we gotta be able to test it first.
So, those are the kind of things. Does the claimant play by the rules of science, the rules of the field that you're in, for example. Again, these alternative physics guys come to me. Don't come to me, I'm not a physicist. Did you at least ask the local high school physics teacher if this makes any sense? Because if you have no training, you don't know all the mistakes that people in the past have already made to get to where they are now. And if you're starting here without the background, you're gonna make lots of mistakes. So, these are the sorts of things that any good baloney-detector should know.
BILL NYE: I've been messing around with this idea of cognitive dissonance. This is to say, you have a worldview, you're presented with evidence that conflicts with the world view, so you either have to change your worldview, which is hard because you've lived your whole life with it, or you just dismiss the evidence so that you don't have this discomfort, this conflict in your mind, this dissonance. And that's what I'm working with right now. And apparently the way to overcome that, is to say, "We're all in this together. Let's learn about this together." Present the conspiracy theorist with the idea that he or she may be rejecting evidence because it's just so uncomfortable, and you're in it together, we're in it together. I'm uncomfortable too. And just understand it's a process. Somebody who has a worldview that's inconsistent with evidence, and I may have some, it takes a while for you to turn around. Like the example of palm reading or astrology, it's not something people reverse their ideas about immediately. It takes, in my experience, it takes about two years for somebody to sort of look at palm reading, look at cold reading, or tarot card reading, for a while and then realize that these tarot card readers, palm readers, are just taking information that you've given them, the client's giving them, and feeding it back to you.
We all tend to go, "Well, look at the facts, change your mind," but it takes people a couple years to change their mind. So, my recommendation, stick with it. You'll get frustrated, the person will get frustrated, but present the idea of cognitive dissonance. This is my latest idea about a way to work together to a scientific understanding.
KRAUSS: Science doesn't prove what's absolutely true. What it does, is prove what's absolutely false. What doesn't satisfy the test of experiment, we throw out. What remains may not be true, but we shrink it down, as Sherlock Holmes would say, "And what remains after all of that is done, is likely to be true." So, many sources, question what you see, and whether it's consistent with what you already know, and be suspicious of your own likes and dislikes when you accept information. That's probably the reason we shouldn't, when we turn to the internet, go to echo chambers and just read the sources that we like. Now, having said that, if you look at many sources, you could also quickly decide which ones are not reliable and throw them out. If they're not reliable in one case then you should be highly suspicious of them in the future. So, we all turn to different sources that we think are more or less reliable based on our past experience. Try that, and I think it's one great way to filter out a lot of the nonsense on the internet.
When I talk about being skeptical, it is important to recognize that you can be surprised. And something that you don't think is sensible, can end up being sensible. That's the way we learn things in physics. So, when someone presents you with an idea that may seem strange, it's reasonable to be skeptical of it but it's worth pursuing long enough to see if it might make sense and to listen to arguments that might be convincing, that might cause you to change your mind. In fact, there's a great school of pedagogy that says, "The only way we actually learn anything is by confronting our own misconceptions." So, once again, while it's reasonable to be skeptical of external information, if you're always skeptical of your response to information, and what your misconceptions are and what your prejudices are, then you will both guard yourself not to accept nonsense but also you will be willing to realize that sometimes what you think is skepticism, is really myopia.
DERREN BROWN: Where I think skepticism, in its broad, modern, popular sense, "I just don't believe in God, don't believe in this don't believe in that," where I think it has its limits—and I speak very much as a skeptic myself and as an atheist, as I said—where it is important to realize the edges of its usefulness, is where those things that may not be objectively true but can be psychologically true, in inverted commas. In other words, psychologically resonant to the path of living, and what we take in life, and what's important to us and what's helpful. So, that's what you don't wanna throw out. You don't wanna throw out that baby with the bath water. So, in religion, for example, those things that are easily knocked down, if you're an atheist, they're easy to kind of make fun of and disprove, those things are also, they kind of often are straw men to knock down, but they can often be pointers back to something that is psychologically useful. They're signifiers of something. If you take what happens with religion, is that you have something that happens, an experience of transcendence or a kind of a thing that happened historically. Nothing magical or supernatural, but just for people at that time, a connection to the sense of the transcendent, whatever that was, a message or something. And then as that moves out of living memory, to re-create it, a bunch of practices, and dogmas and things are formed to try and recreate that feeling. And that becomes now a thing of belief rather than a sort of knowledge that it was at the time. And then to sustain and protect that belief, an institution is sort of created, and developed, and becomes politicized, and powerful, and monetized and all of those things. And then it moves into a world where we are nowadays, where things have to be sort of proved with evidence. So, it starts to try and come up with evidential arguments that somehow never quite really sort of work. So, you do end up with a thing that's easy to knock down but that can miss the fact that there's something at the heart of it, which maybe is useful. Maybe those narratives around religion are useful to us psychologically. Maybe they have an archetypal, or a mythological use, that it would be a shame to dismiss because we feel the absence of those things. It's the very fact we turn to psychics, and fortune tellers, and become terrified and lonely around death. Those things happen because we've lost touch with some of those myths and some of those more resonant narratives. So, I think being a little skeptical about skepticism itself and the easy narratives that it forms, is also, I think, very useful.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
- 7 more board games to teach kids thinking skills - Big Think ›
- Psychology toolbox: How to use skepticism | Derren Brown - Big Think ›
- How to think effectively: Six stages of critical thinking - Big Think ›
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Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
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