Joseph Ratliff Writer, Researcher, Thinker

Category Archives: Life

The Infinity of Critical Thinking

I loved the “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” recently posted to Medium by Buster Benson. You should go read that, over and over again.

Maybe even get the poster he organized for the biases he addressed.

It’s a great start to a very deep phenomenon known as critical thinking. It organizes our “thinking kryptonite” (which also acts as our “thinking sunlight” when naturally applied to the correct situation) into more manageable categories.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The only critique I will offer is the number of variables that exist inside the semantic description of “critical thinking” (both discovered and undiscovered) being a challenge that we might not solve. The problem these variables are a part of is the attainment of “total knowledge” with the faulty (yet completely amazing) system of human cognition.

My point is we may not be aware of the total number of biases we have within the category of critical thinking. We know a good number of them, but when dealing with a complex (and again, amazing) system like human cognition … we could not claim to know all of them.

So I hope this poster sells 100 million copies, because it’s a great start to further examination of biases … a feature and bug of human cognition.

To me, biases are paradoxical … they allow us to explore our world in a way that makes progress in the blink of a cosmic timescale…

… while at the same time preventing us from exploring that world completely, and to an infinite degree (I’m afraid).

But then again, I suffer from the same biases that Buster presented in such an eloquent way. 🙂

NOTE:  The above portion also posted on Medium.

EDIT:  In response to a good question “What about the scientific method?” (NOT posed as a question on Medium, I rephrased a comment into that question)…

If “scientific method + peer review” were computer code that had no viruses (as an analogy), then I might start agreeing with this statement.

But still, you have biased humans inside this process (especially in peer review) plus the interlocking financial and political pressures and influence outside of this process. These are the “viruses” that help to guide some (not all) of the outcomes of “The Scientific Method.”

So no, it isn’t our best way to account for cognitive biases, because of the interlocked bias you cannot account for.

Does that mean the method isn’t good? No, it does not … for this method has allowed for our greatest human discoveries (in sum total, not just the big ones publicized in the media from cosmology and physics).

But when you think from a probabilistic standpoint, and from a complexity standpoint … the influence of other interlocking systems (grants, politics, biases, etc…) will have a certain percentage of impact on any “method” we might come up with to account for our biases.

So yes, the scientific method is well-developed and can even eliminate some biases, but I don’t think it replaces what Buster put together here.

Making Progress On Climate Policy

So, I had a little “Twitter chat” this morning with the infamous “Fabius Maximus” about the subject of taking sides in “war” on important public policy topics, in this case the topic is climate change (I highly recommend you subscribe to this multi-contributor blog).

The Storify of our chat is embedded below, but I wanted to add a fuller comment here on my blog (because, as I should have known better, Twitter absolutely sucks for complex topic discussion).

In the Storify chat, I attempted to put the Tweets in the order of our conversation.

Please understand it isn’t important that I am “right” and Fabius is “wrong.” (or vice-versa) on this topic of taking sides in a public policy issue like climate change.

What is important is we (as a society) move closer to policies that will benefit all of us.

To begin with…

Binary thinking (e.g. deniers versus alarmists) is not enough.  “Taking sides” in a binary fashion, like the issue of a changing climate represents some sort of “war” between us … is completely wrong on multiple fronts:

  •  It divides us into cultural “factions” and clouds our judgment of each other by adding emotional baggage (sometimes artificial) that automatically attaches itself to a person, depending on which side they are on.
  • A complex issue like climate change isn’t going to magically be “resolved” triumphantly in some politically and media-charged socio-cultural war between two “sides.”  Even if one side were to “win” this “war,” the climate will keep changing with or without our influence.  So, who really “wins”?  Then, what is “lost”?  Over what, differences of opinion that are influenced by money, politics, and petty name-calling?  Let’s grow up people.
  • Binary thinking makes it too easy to use media-charged words that contain pre-determined baggage, like “hot public issue” (see Fabius’ tweet below) instead of “important public issue” as one example.  Emotionally charging what should be a rational search for adaptation to a complex and eternally changing climate (and survival of conditions) is becoming a circus of sorts, with carnival barkers on both sides (so, should there really be sides?).

Complex issues like the climate need to move beyond ideas like a “consensus” to actual testing of the validity of climate models by observation.  Fabius and I agree on the testing part, as you’ll see in our Twitter chat.

If those models fail to predict what is actually happening now, in our climate today, they should be discarded and replaced with models that duplicate what is actually happening in the climate now.  Yes, the climate is chaotic and has tons of variables, and I won’t claim to be a climate scientist … but come on.

Plus, we seem to be over-relying on prediction models instead of charting observations against those models and constantly adjusting course based on those observations.  See where binary (consensus versus skeptical) thinking gets us?

Who cares if there is a consensus (i.e. some group of people are “right”) if that consensus leads us down a path that is not correct 30 years from now?

But I digress…

Why can’t we (obviously including the scientific community in climate science) just collaborate instead of dividing ourselves into some gladiatorial “us versus them” war over who is correct (with all the childish name-calling and stigma to boot)?

Isn’t that what the scientific process is all about?

Why does there have to be “deniers” versus “alarmists” and only “one” correct solution (which there can’t be, because our climate is chaotic and not static)?

In the example Fabius pointed to in his first Tweet, where he pointed out that one “side” might have been pointing to “an early victory” (via a media article at Loyola) … he uses some choice words and “reporting” tactics (he claims he was reporting in this instance):

  • Polish cavalry
  • delusion-ally confident
  • lumps the article together with #climateskeptics as a group (e.g. I’m skeptical, to some degree, but I happened to disagree with the article … yet Fabius would lump me in with the ideology of a climate skeptic like I’m delusional?).

And our Tweet chat continued from there (see below, administrative tweets left out).

But where does this “reporting” (based on observable facts, as Fabius alluded to) get us?

Where does lumping people into categories get us (calling people deniers, alarmists etc…, like it’s some sort of religion)?

How does using media and politically charged language help move anything forward, when the proper course of action is what we should all be striving toward?  (a course of action that, mind you, will likely be multi-layered and not just one simple solution)

But here’s what I think is the most-important part:

Fabius also called my willingness to see collaboration “Utopian” … as though we must “fight” or take sides in order to reach resolution on important topics like our changing climate.

In fact, Fabius was also a bit dismissive, using language like “Unlike kindergarten…” before assuming we must have “coalitions” and take “sides.”

But he also made a valid point that the idea of collaboration might allow collusion among “elites” in our society.

To which I reply (and conclude):

If we live in a society where it’s Utopian to think we might work together (even with differences of opinion) to solve problems that are important to the survival of our species, that is a serious problem that must be solved.

Don’t take me as an alarmist either, because I’m not.  Alarm-ism comes with its own corruption and baggage too … and part of the reason I wrote this.

My understanding of the scientific process is that it demands that ideas (models, hypothesis etc…) get discarded in favor of what is proven to work through experimentation and accurate predictive ability.

We must look past our differences, the money being paid for scientific research (which seems to be corrupting the outcome on both “sides”), blog hits, media bias, politics, etc…

The climate isn’t going to care about consensus (or non-consensus), squabbles, elitism, corruption, or even whether we’re “right” or “wrong”.

Taking “sides” against each other in some media charged (and politically) fabricated “climate war” … with all of the baggage and political / corporate / media corruption heaped on top … that will make NO difference.

The planet Earth (our only planet, by the way) and its climate will continue to hum right along whether or not we’re here.

Since we’re here … we might as well look past our differences and adapt to the changing climate instead of trying to “win” and taking “sides” against each other.

Because all of the media-spectacle, corruption, collusion, “skepticism,” “alarmism,” consensus, denial, bickering, etc… that won’t matter much if we aren’t here.

And if we are still here, because perhaps the climate isn’t changing in some “inconvenient” way … well … then where did all of this “climate war” get us?

Divided, declaring some insignificant “victory” over one-another, and isolated.

What kind of a world is that?

Blind Brain Theory is Blind to its Biggest Test

A very short version of a much longer critique of the “blind brain theory” posed by R. Scott Bakker (link at the end).

Science is just that, science (like neuroscience, for example) … but it isn’t “everything.” It can aim to reduce “everything” it encounters about our world to something that goes through the “scientific process” in attempts to fit that “thing” on a tee-shirt, but science isn’t ever going to replace philosophy or our exploration of our world (I’m using some heuristics here to avoid writing a book).

Where would science (and it’s scientific process) start if philosophy didn’t exist, for example? There wouldn’t be a philosophy of science … so are we to just start experimenting? About what?

We don’t have (as a species) enough of a knowledge base to be completely “eliminativistic.” Why? We don’t know (nor ever know) all of the “states” that must be eliminated, and therefor will always have a need to explore our world (Universe / Cosmos / cognition etc…) in some non-scientific way.

There will eternally be some need for some type of philosophical exploration, especially for Homo sapiens. To make any assumption that our heuristics could always be 100% correct, and that we could ever be 100% eliminativistic of all that is “not real”… would be asinine.

We aren’t that special. But because we are conscious, some members of our species sure think we are.

So why this competition between philosophy and science? Who cares if some philosophical exploration doesn’t pass some test of “scientific rigor” or doesn’t reduce down to what “is”?

It’s quite simple actually … Our species is eternally curious about the world we live in, and that curiosity combined with our evolutionary gift of what we call consciousness (not the “woo-woo” kind) puts all of the overly reductionist, eliminatavist “blind brain” theories to the very same philosophical AND (eventually) scientific tests those theories will never pass.

EDIT:  I’m going to be posing in the longer version that if BBT were true, it would invoke a “Blind Brain Paradox” of increasing introspection and philosophical exploration … not eliminate or reduce it.