MetaCognitions | Cynicism: Just Another Bias

There, I said it. Cynics who view their cynicism as an asset, of course, will disagree, self-assured in believing themselves perfectly realistic and objective, completely missing the fact of their own self-deception. I will be accused of crippling naiveté. Of bias.

But that doesn’t even pass a basic prima facie, “On first face,” relevance test.

So I’m biased? So my views are skewed? So what? Who cares?

I’m biased. You’re biased. We’re all biased. Everyone is biased. To be human is to be biased. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. I’ll be up front with my biases: I’m pro-science, pro-rationality, pro-reality, pro-humanity, and anti-anything that dehumanizes or needlessly harms people.

We all view the world through a subjective lens, evaluating and passing judgment to everything and anything we come across without even knowing we’re doing it. Much of it is below the level of our conscious awareness. And there’s no way we know to step outside of our own individual brains save for the methods of science.

Complete certain knowledge about the world and perfect objectivity are impossible. Our brains and senses just don’t work that way. And to see the world and everyone and everything in it as fundamentally hopeless, ultimately futile, and irredeemably rotten is simply applying another set of value judgments, though destructively negative ones. 

I’m reasonably sure that if I had all of the same genetic contributions to my personality, all of the same upbringing, all of the same environment and life experiences of a staunch cynic, I would very likely be one now.

But I have not. Yet, I myself struggle daily with the temptation to cynicism to which our 24-7 news cycle culture subjects us. Clearly, that struggle is part of being human also. Some lose that struggle, and these deserve empathy and understanding, not the contempt they offer others, and not the loathing they often offer themselves.

If that sounds condescending or offensive, then consider this: Anything ever written or said will offend someone, and I don’t have the right to infringe on anyone’s freedom of thought to even try dictating for them what that might be. It’s out of my hands what any given person finds offensive. My point is, though, that I’m not condescending anyone. 

I’ll make the presumption here that most reading this are adults, or young and almost-adults, and should have thick skins in proportion to their own level of personal maturity. To treat others as functionally children by pandering to their feelings seems to me the epitome of condescension.

So, here’s why I’m throwing shade on cynicism as an alleged asset, virtue, or worldview: 

Cynicism means you’ve given up. Cynicism is surrender to bitterness, to an attitude of feigned superiority, and to contemptuousness. Cynicism is a cheap excuse for inaction, for fatalism, and for moral cowardice. In what universe are those anything but destructive?

All things pass, even the terrible things people sometimes do to each other. I do not have any use for a worldview that tells me that everyone by default is lying to or manipulating me and everyone else. Just because the world seems like an awful place doesn’t mean it ought to be, or that it’s useless to do something, anything, to make it less awful. Trying to make the world a better place is not a mere easily dismissed utopian faerie tale. Human effort applied unwisely causes our woes, human effort applied wisely can fix them.

I do not believe that human beings are fundamentally depraved. I view most of us as a mix of both good and evil, both right and wrong, both moral angels and devils at various times. We are all people, and people are complicated. 

I see people as having some worth, and the ability for some measure of good, skeptical thinking, a healthy blend of scientific literacy and critical thinking, though not as innately talented. It’s more of a capacity, a potentiality, and something we must learn as a skillset to do well in order to come to a more accurate, better, more useful view of the world and of ourselves. 

Good thinking ought in my view to be for everyone. It’s empowering. It’s illuminating. Good thinking is almost a kind of super-power. It’s even better than being able to throw silly comic book energy-bolts at people’s heads. It can be used for nearly everything in life. To me, it opens the gates to reality, the gates to wonder, and it’s also great fun.

Why say this? 

Because I can. Because I believe I should. To do something more useful than to merely shake my fist and simply rail and curse the night. Because I see people, even those I know and care for, fall prey some kind of pseudoscience, specious political claim, or fallacious health scare. And it’s not because they are somehow gullible, or stupid, or weak. 

Oh, no, it’s just not that simple!

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m gullible. There are times when I’m far too trusting, far too easily swayed by spurious argumentation, and I believe many things that I cannot possibly prove objectively. I have to watch myself daily, hourly, and despite this, I sometimes fail.

To blame the deceived for their own deception is to ignore the fact that we can all be fooled at a vulnerable moment by anyone who knows how to push our buttons. We are best of all at pushing our own buttons. To be human is to be vulnerable, no matter how smart we may think we are. To think ourselves immune to that is to ignore our own vulnerability, and we cannot be vigilant against a foe that we ignore. 

To blame the victim is cynical, and with the sense of false superiority that comes with it, that cynicism makes us lower our guard. Ironically, even con artists can be conned, especially by other con artists who know what hooks them. Cynicism easily leads to being used and manipulated, despite its frequently implied justification of defending the cynic from being used and manipulated.

I think that good thinking is a much better defense against the dark arts of scam artists, pandering politicians, and fraudsters than cynical thinking, which only makes you more vulnerable, not less.

And those, I think, are reasons enough.

(This post has been updated on 8/1/2019, 14:50)

Course Review | The Philosopher’s Toolkit, by Prof. Patrick Grim


Think (Photo credit: aftab.)

I’ve recently finished viewing and taking notes from this course, taught by Professor Patrick Grim of State University of New York(SUNY) at Stony Brook, who does a good job of conveying the lessons in this 24 lecture series from the Teaching Company.

The course is about both how we do think, and how we can do it better, more clearly, smarter, not harder, though there will be work involved in getting there. It involves both the descriptive and the normative dimensions of human thought.

The toolkit is a set of techniques for using logical thinking, quick rules of thumb for thinking that can work well and reliably in the right context, and methods for easier problem-solving that are remarkably effective when put into practice.

The lessons of cognitive psychology, philosophy, and the methods of the great thinkers throughout history, those who made thinking their very life’s business, are reviewed, described, explained, and put to use in a series of entertaining and enlightening presentations.

This course uses scientific data to ground the lessons, and takes a largely philosophical approach to rigorous thinking, hardly an inconsistency, as the instructor does a good job of blending the two together.

The first lecture, ‘How We Think and How To Think Better,’ lays the groundwork for the course, “to develop a set of conceptual skills that is useful in all kinds of thinking.”

‘Cool Rationality and Hot Thought,’ discusses the balance that is needed in thinking, not pure logic and not blind emotion, but a mix of the two working together, with logic working best for long-term decisions, and emotions acting as a quick method for immediate, short-term decisions when logic would be too slow to be of use.

Lecture 3, ‘The Strategy of Visualization,’ is just what it says, a series of techniques for better harnessing something that many of us are already good at, imagination, as a tool for solving puzzles, paradoxes, and problems. A completely non-mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem is demonstrated.

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pytha...

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pythagoras theorem, for reference to proof see Pythagorean Theorem at Cut the Knot Deutsch: Ein animierter, geometrische Beweis für den Satz des Pythagoras Esperanto: Movbilda pruvo de la teoremo de Pitagoro Français : Animation présentant une démonstration géométrique du théorème de Pythagore Português: Prova geométrica animada do Teorema de Pitágoras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Visualizing Concepts and Propositions,’ deals with the atoms of thought — concepts we have of things — and the propositions, the joining together of concepts into statements. The uses and dangers of categorizing concepts of things are discussed, as is the use of diagrams as a tool to make easier use of logical statements.

‘The Power of Thought Experiments,’ illustrates the use of the ideas in the previous two lectures for using the imagination as a tool for effective, real-world problem solving.

Lecture 6, ‘Thinking Like Aristotle,’ discusses the brilliant idea of seeing patterns in human thought, and the concept of making the whole messy process better, more accurate, quicker, even easier. Aristotle’s classical Square of Opposition is explained, making conceptualizing his logic even easier in this graphic layout.

‘Ironclad, Airtight Validity,’ is about just that, the notion that the conclusion of a set of statements must be true if the logic is valid in the strongest sense and the premises are true. Diagrams are used to explain the workings of syllogisms, arguments with two premises and a conclusion, as well as the limits of deductive arguments.

Particularly useful is lecture no.8, ‘Thinking Outside the Box,’ which is less a of lecture and more of a hands-on workshop for creative thinking, and one is loads of fun as well.

Next, ‘The Flow of Argument,’ makes use of a more complex, less rigorously certain form of argument using everyday reasoning, but which is nonetheless useful for telling us things we can be confident in knowing even without airtight validity. The flow diagram is introduced, and how the argument moves from statement to statement can be followed and understood.

‘Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart,’ deals with quick rules of thumb for thinking, limited, not infallible, but useful and in a pinch better than complete calculations in many situations. Caveats are given for these occasions when the heuristics may not reliably apply. The pros and cons of rational calculation and ‘going with your gut’ are discussed in detail.

The humorously titled lecture,‘Why We Make Misteaks’ deals with systematic error in human thinking and perception, bias and and better means of dealing with the different sorts of bias by making ourselves more aware of and looking out for them.

‘Rational Discussion in a Polarized Context,’ lecture 12, discusses the process of polarization and the phenomenon of Kripkean dogmatism on issues even the most otherwise rational individuals may feel strongly on, as well as suggestions for dealing with it.

Note that the effectiveness of those suggestions is not guaranteed — unfortunately, this is a philosophy course dealing with rationality in the real world, not wizardry lessons at Hogwarts!

‘Rhetoric versus Rationality,’ deals with the history of rhetoric, its dark side, the ethics of argument, rhetoric’s positive aspects, and an opportunity to graph the flow of argument with an example of a discussion between two people using techniques from lesson 9.

‘Bogus Arguments and How to Defuse Them,’ defines and describes the use of logical fallacies — errors in reasoning which undermine arguments — and how to immunize oneself against them by noting them in use and calling them out when they are.

Lecture 15, ‘The Great Debate’ is an opportunity to use the two previous lessons to graph the arguments in a live mock debate on democracy between a Mr. McFirst and a Ms. O’Second, to determine what is being argued, how, how effectively, and what logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks are in play.

The 16th lecture, ‘Outwitting the Advertiser,’ discusses deceptive advertising, and the psychological tricks advertisers use to sell their stuff, the ways they push our buttons and exploit our thinking to their advantage, and how to recognize when this is happening.

No. 17 & 18 ‘Putting a Spin on Statistics’ and ‘Poker, Probability, and Everyday Life,’ deals with the various tricks often used to mislead with statistics, the latter a good primer for the beginner on statistical math — very easy to understand.

No. 19 is about Decision Theory, the study of how we as individuals make rational choices and how we may make them better and more reliably. Interestingly, the origin of decision theory in the formulation of Pascal’s wager is discussed, and both the pros and a few of the cons of the argument are noted.

The next, ‘Thinking Scientifically,’ deals with the process of scientific thinking, the nature of science and its relation to pseudo-science, the need for falsification when testing ideas against the real world as general claims. Methods are given for distinguishing good science from bad, and merely bad science from pseudo-science.

‘Put It to the Test — Beautiful Experiments,’ is a talk about backing our own factual claims and evaluating those of others though experimentation. It deals with the structure of the processes we use in testing claims, such things as blinding, double-blinding, randomization of samples in controlled experiments, and the limits of experimentation.

‘Game Theory and Beyond’ is about the study of social rationality as a mathematical model, it’s advantages, benefits, and limits on it, on what both is and what should be rational behavior of groups. Dating from the beginning of the Cold War, and developed by John von Neumann, this field was uses simulated games to assess different strategies for personal, and national, interactions.

Lecture 23, ‘Thinking with Models’ is about the combination of visualization, simplifying, and thought experiments using rules to determine an outcome from a beginning input, and how especially with computers this is a powerful method for predicting, explaining, and simulating the past — retrodiction.

In no. 24 ‘Lessons from the Great Thinkers,’ the series concludes with those who used, conceived, or added to the techniques described and explained in earlier lectures, sort of a wrap-up of what has come before, and hints of what may come in future to clever thinkers yet unknown.

I almost felt regret at reaching the final lecture, but as in any good course, it spurs looking and learning still further. Then again, that’s why I take these courses.

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[Review] Think: Why You Should Question Everything; by Guy P. Harrison

I’ve just read this book, the newest release by one of my favorite authors, and it played a major role in my latest milestone as a skeptic, the third one thus far. The first two were the collapse of my early religious indoctrination as a teen and my personal ‘genesis’ as a self-identified skeptic in 2006. I hope it doesn’t seem too much like I’m uncritically gushing over the book, but I’ll point out here that I’ve no financial vested interest in this — I don’t get any financial compensation for posting this. It is merely to set the stage for this blog’s upcoming 5th anniversary giveaway. I’ll also point out that the book discussed here has only very recently been released, and I’ve noticed a few typos, in common with other early-edition books I’ve read, though this does not detract from its readability, as these are easily noted, accounted for, and may be ignored. ~Troythulu

In Think, Why You Should Question Everything, Guy puts forth a compelling case for skepticism over credulity, scientific thinking over superstition.

In Chapter 1, Standing Tall on a Fantasy-Prone Planet, Harrison sets the groundwork for the book, on the value of scientific thinking, what skepticism is, why it matters, the need for taking responsibility for one’s own mind, and the wonders to be found in the real world even while still enjoying fantasy and fiction, and just as crucially, the use of a healthy approach to belief and believers, with a non-adversarial attitude toward the latter. He notes in this chapter that even the smartest of us can be prone to conviction in the most questionable claims, and the importance of vigilance in skeptical thinking.

Chapter 2, Pay A Visit to the Strange Thing That Lives Inside Your Head, discusses the biases and flaws in the everyday workings of even the most normal and healthy brains, in such things as the notorious fallibility of human memory, biases in our thinking, and perceptual quirks that can so easilly mislead even the best, sanest, and most intelligent of us, with a cautionary story of weak skepticism, The Tale of Little Gretchen Greengums, showing how even seemingly harmless credulity can vastly impact our lives in less than favorable ways.

Chapter 3, A Thinker’s Guide to Unusual Claims and Weird Beliefs, surveys a variety of extraordinary claims, such things as conspiracy theories, astrology, psychics, the Roswell UFO crash, miracles, Area 51, the Bermuda Triangle and other assorted oddities.

Chapter 4, The Proper Care and Feeding of a Thinking Machine, deals with ordinary means of maintaining good brain health, including healthy sleep habits, eating well, the most consistently reliable favor for your brain, regular exercise, and my favorite: reading as much as one can during the waking hours. The upshot? It’s your brain, and yours only — use it or lose it!

Chapter 5, So Little to Lose and a Universe to Gain, discusses the upside of all this fuss over one’s thinking; the wonders of reality to be gained, the benefits of clear, reliable thinking, and the things possible with thinking rooted in a firm grasp of what can really be known. Skepticism doesn’t have to be scary, and can indeed be empowering and liberating to those who embrace it.

Think is in my view one of the best guides to clear, reliable thinking that I’ve read in a while, and I’ve seen a few. Like some of Harrison’s earlier books, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True, and 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian, this is a very user-friendly book, in the dual sense of being easy to read without its being dumbed down and its non-antagonistic approach to readers who may not be familiar with scientific skepticism both as a method for thinking and system of  intellectual values.

I’d recommend this book for both good skeptics seeking to be better skeptics, and for current believers in the paranormal or supernatural curious about and interested in sharpening their ability to inquire into unusual and important claims without being bamboozled and parted from their money, political enfranchisement, or their health by con artists.

Skeptical thinking here is shown not as a destination, not a certain conclusion, but as a journey toward something ever closer to how things really can be known, as close as we can rightly say we do know without absolute or timeless Truths™. It’s a journey lasting a lifetime for each of us in a limited human timeframe, and throughout the whole of human inquiry over the centuries.

It’s something, both as a way of thinking, and as method of seeking answers, I find more useful and more satisfying than a need for false certainty, a need that too easily leads to mistaken conclusions, a sometimes dangerous need fostered by the media, popular culture, and charlatans or ideologues of all persuasions.

Think shows how to do so more reliably using methods tested by collective human experience over history.

Why a stronger, more consistent skepticism rather than the weak sort?

Weak skepticism can do more than just part the hapless victim from their money or their vote, it can also prolong grief over the loss of a loved one, and in the case of medical quackery, even kill. Weak skepticism is heavily promoted by despots, ideologues of all stripes, clergy, and people promising the latest magic snake-oil panacea for whatever ails you.

Even having identified as a skeptic these past seven years, I’ve found things here that I hadn’t considered, things new to me, and I recommend this book as something to come back to time and again.

(Last Update: 2013/12/10, 01:28 AM — Text Correction)