The Value of a Skeptical Mind

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This is part 1 of Thinking Slowly – a series about using deep thinking to make life decisions.
length ~7 min

We are living in the age of lazy thinking. Not only are we biologically programmed to think lazily to conserve energy, but now naked tribalism has been empowered by social media newsfeed algorithms, and misinformation can appear just as legitimate as information. At a time like this, it pays to be a skeptic.

A good, skeptical mind is the engine behind being a true contrarian. And just like being a contrarian, being skeptical doesn’t mean just disagreeing with everything that’s “mainstream.” Most “mainstream” ideas are correct. Skepticism is simply about how we arrive at the conclusion, and it’s OK if that conclusion happens to be the same as people who arrived there by following the crowd.

The following are four behaviors that differentiate a skeptical mind from the rest.

1. Be Skeptical of Yourself

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a paper titled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments1. Since publication, it has been cited over 3,000 times by other academic papers, and every single day people prove it to be true.

Here’s a one line summary: the less you know about a subject, the more certitude you have about your own expertise in said subject.

Now here’s a graphical representation:


This means most people believe they know more about climate change than climate scientists believe they know about climate change. More people believe they know about nutrition than nutritionists think they know about nutrition; people who have never researched GMO vs Organic will surely have a stronger opinion than a food biologist, people who have no knowledge of medicine will be more deeply entrenched in their position against vaccines, and so forth.

If you’re like me, at this point you must be thinking “Yah, I hate idiots like that,” at which point we are now proving the Dunning-Kruger effect again, this time in regards to knowing ourselves.

So the first thing is to be skeptical of ourselves. Start with the ideas you hold with the most certitude. Ask yourself the following:

  • Why do you believe that?
  • What evidence have you gathered?
  • Are you fitting evidence to a preconceived notion or do you really know the subject?
  • If you really know the subject, can you name all the assumptions that are embedded in your conclusion?
  • Would you be willing to change your opinion if those assumptions turn out to be false?

If  you answered no to either of the last two questions, I can guarantee that the graph above defines your belief.

After you start to tear down your own beliefs for a while, you’ll be much less prone to errors in thinking in the future. And you’ll have gained valuable insight into how to start moving farther to the right along the Dunning-Kruger curve, so you can have certitude for the right reasons.

Charlie Munger – half of brains supplied to to the $421 billion dollar Berkshire Hathaway company – once said, “Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”

2. Be Skeptical of Narratives

As hard as it is to absorb, our universe and our world is not simple, not elegant, not black and white. Einstein thought the universe was simple, elegant, and predictable, but he was proven wrong.

So when there’s a powerful narrative that makes all evidence and observations fit perfectly, there are only two options: either it’s a fundamental truth of reality, or it’s wrong. And it’s our job to be a skeptic and investigate the truth.

Our brain is preprogrammed to bias, and one of its biggest susceptibilities is to a powerful narrative. That’s why one of the keys of Thinking Unbiased is to be wary of coherent narratives.

When a powerful narrative comes along, it would behoove us to think especially critically. Ask the following:

  • What if the opposite was true, what observations should we expect then? Do I see any of those observations?
  • Could the evidence fitting to the narrative be explained by unrelated ideas?
  • Powerful narratives generally present themselves as mutually exclusive to other ideas – are they?

3. Give Way to Evidence

Contrarianism and skepticism is only good if you’re right.

In order to be frequently right, always give way to evidence. Hold your opinions and positions loosely. Be willing to defend them vigorously with evidence, but if evidence or underlying assumptions prove false, be just as vigorous in letting them go.

Why would you want to hold opinions that are false? Imagine that you owned a fake Ferrari. Someone points this out to you. Would you rather keep your fake Ferrari to avoid the feeling of embarrassment, or trade it for a real one – for free? There is absolutely no cost to switching opinions. Don’t impose those costs on yourself by feeling embarrassed or stupid.

There is nothing wrong with “flip-flopping” if you are flip-flopping from wrong to right. What good is your reputation if you end up with a reputation of being wrong and holding on? Much better to have a reputation of always being right, even if you always start out being wrong.

4. Research

You won’t always be lucky enough to have someone proving you wrong and changing your mind for free. In most cases, you have to do your own research, and try to prove yourself wrong.

Research involves a lot of reading.

Research involves identifying trustworthy sources.

Good research involves finding contradictory sources and figuring out the arguments and counter-arguments laid out by each side.

A good researcher should conduct research while being dispassionate, unemotional, and objective.

Research is seeking evidence, challenging narratives, getting to know both sides of the argument, and then forming or reforming an opinion.

Another time, Charlie Munger said, “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

Here are a few questions to ask when conducting your research:

  • Is this a peer reviewed paper? If so, which peer reviews contradict the conclusion, or challenge the methodology?
  • Even if the subject being studied did absolutely nothing, there will still be some level of positive effect. This is called the placebo effect2. Does the research take this into account?
  • How has the researchers controlled for allocation biases of its subjects? For example, in studying the effects of diet sodas, did they make sure that the lifestyle habits of the control group and the test group are otherwise the same?
  • Is the sample size large enough? Is the article or paper you’re reading just anecdotal evidence and things that sound plausible but has no data to back it up?

Practice Makes Skeptics

So what are some opinions that you hold very firmly? Do they pass the test of skepticism?

Below is a quick list of topics. If you feel especially strongly about any of them, then you are either an expert or possibly suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. So best to examine your positions with vigor. Pick whatever you feel the strongest about, and ask yourself the “why” questions, and research where you came up empty.

  1. Are organic foods superior to GMOs?
  2. Are humans causing climate change?
  3. What do you think about 0 calorie sugar replacements like aspartame?
  4. Do vaccines cause autism?

Becoming a skeptic is a lifelong pursuit, but a worthy one for anyone who values being right over saving face.

For the third and final time this post, here’s a Charlie Munger quote that is the very definition of a skeptical mind:

We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.

It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents. This is a great mental discipline.

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1Kruger and Dunning – Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own. Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (pdf)
2WebMD – What is the Placebo Effect?

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