Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Good Thinking Goes Bad (Interview)

by Jamie Hale

The following interview was conducted with Todd Riniolo the author of When Good Thinking Goes Bad. Be sure to check out the podcast mentioned at the end of the interview. Good stuff.

Let’s talk about your book When Good Thinking Goes Bad. According to Michael Shermer it’s the perfect primer on critical thinking. What makes it the perfect primer on critical thinking?

I believe it’s a good primer for several reasons. First, the book emphasizes some of the hallmarks of critically evaluating claims in a reader friendly format that should be particularly useful for those who are being exposed to the process of skepticism for the first time. Second, the book also demonstrates how all of us, even when we know how to think critically, will in some instances abandon our skepticism making us more likely to accept foolish beliefs. Lastly, the book was written with students in mind. In fact, I use the book as one of several when teaching a course on skeptical thinking as it relates to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

Why is critical thinking so demphasized in our society?

Perhaps because critical thinking takes work. It is much easier in some instances to simply accept information for a variety of reasons. For example, we often do not have the time or motivation to question many claims; especially those that we already believe are true.

Do you feel that formal education programs generally do a good job of teaching critical thinking?

The best teachers are those that teach students the process of critical evaluation, which then allows the student to make up their own mind. Unfortunately, in many instances students are simply told what they should think. Critical thinking is a process, and often times this important element is overlooked.

What is the typical systematic progression in evaluating a claim? Let’s say we want to investigate the global warning crisis. At least some would have us believe crisis.

For any claim, whether it is global warming or psychic claims, the hallmarks of skepticism should be followed. Thus, we must demand evidence and rigorously evaluate the provided evidence. We must seek out expert opinion and employ the proper research methods when appropriate (i.e., double-blind procedures). We must interpret findings with the law of parsimony, and be wary of second hand sources, and so forth. Unfortunately, all of us do not apply the standards of skepticism consistently across claims (we are much more likely to apply the methods of skepticism to claims that we do not believe, while not giving those things we already believe a “free pass”). I point this out in my book by attempting to make a comparison between psychic claims and claims for global warming. This chapter seems to have upset some readers, but the intent was to demonstrate that we are all inconsistent with our skepticism.

Do you think critical thinking comes more naturally to some than others? Or is critical thinking more influenced by nurture?

The old nature versus nurture debate is one in which I can only offer my opinion, so take it for what it is worth. I assume that both nature and nurture play a role. Think about Tiger Woods for a moment. He was born with a predisposition towards a specific skill (i.e., golf). Yet, in order to maximize his potential, he needed to practice, practice, practice. It likely is the same with thinking skills. You have genetic range, which is then influenced by the environmental input.

I heard an interview with you on Point of Inquiry and you pointed out that Santa Claus was a good subject to use when exploring the critical thinking process. Please explain?

Many skeptics over the years have made a variation of the following argument: It’s no wonder that so many people are gullible since we teach our kids about Santa. I find this argument, linking Santa to widespread noncritical thinking in our society problematic on many levels (you’ll have to read the book for more details). Perhaps most disappointing from the skeptics who make this argument is that they provide no evidence (i.e., a peer-reviewed article) and appear to be misinformed about magical thinking in children (yes, there is a literature on this topic!). However, back to the specific question. Many skeptics, such as Carl Sagan, have recommended applied exercises to teach critical thinking. Allowing children to skeptically evaluate the Santa claim on their own, which most eventually do accomplishes that goal. Thus, a long-standing, highly cherished belief (as a kid, who doesn’t want Santa to be real?) starts to become questioned. In fact, most children start to ask critical questions, gather evidence, and develop alternative hypotheses prior to discovering the truth. Isn’t that what critical thinking is all about? I believe that Santa is a useful event for children to practice critical thinking on a widespread, culturally perpetuated myth, in a user-friendly format. For those that disagree, that’s ok. However, there still exists no evidence that Santa is linked with widespread noncritical thinking…

Who will benefit from reading When Good Thinking Goes Bad?

I think two groups. First, the novice, who is looking for an introduction to skeptical thinking. Second, the elite critical thinker. I attempt to demonstrate that even the best critical thinkers are prone to believe in some nonsense. This likely occurs because of the biases that humans possess, which likely provided us with an evolutionary advantage at one point in time, but makes it impossible for any individual to be a consistent skeptic. Thus, labeling ourselves as a skeptic does not guarantee that we will behave like skeptics in all situations, and my book attempts to illustrate this point.

Suppose someone reads this interview and they decide they need to become more skeptical about the world. They want to understand how to apply critical thinking to their everyday life. Where do they start?

There are many excellent resources (Michael Shermer’s work, James Randi’s work, Richard Wiseman’s work, Skeptic Magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, and so forth). I thought I would provide a resource that is not typically given in an interview like this. I would recommend Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, Applied Economics, and Economic Facts and Fallacies. So many of us have such strong opinions about economics issues based upon nothing more than personal experience or what we would like to be true. These books provide a critical look at a topic that is important for all of us, but so few people have taken the time to learn even the basics of the subject.

Some people seem to be very rational most of the time but when it comes to discussing religion their rationality goes out the window. I think sometimes people proclaim beliefs that they really don’t believe. They try to tell themselves they should belief whatever but deep down in they don’t and this creates guilt. Usually because everyone who surrounds them holds this belief (or so they say) they feel social pressures to believe the same. Would you agree? Why are some people rational most of the time but in this particular issue so irrational?

This is a great question, but I would not confine it to religion. If you substitute in “the environment,” “politics,” “dieting,” “multiculturalism,” “male-female differences,” and so forth, the same would apply. In part 2 of my book, I attempt to answer the question of why can a rational person most of the time be irrational on a particular issue. In fact, I would argue that this occurs with all of us, but we are unaware of when we ourselves are the irrational one.

Any other projects you are currently working on?

Glad you asked. I have just finished a rough draft of a book which attempts to answer the question of exactly how did Sigmund Freud first become a household name in America. I believe the parsimonious answer has been overlooked, but do not want to give away the answer. The book is also intended to be a supplemental book when teaching a history of psychology course, as it stresses the important of historical research and that history can be quite exciting!

Can you recommend any sources to help create a more intellectual environment?

When Good Thinking Goes Bad”!!!!!!!!!

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Todd Riniolo discusses his book When Good Thinking Goes Bad www.pointofinquiry.org/todd_c_riniolo_when_good_thinking_goes_bad/

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