Rules of Thought

12 February 2010

We are innately intuitive thinkers inclined toward making all sorts of cognitive errors as we muddle through our lives. The consequences in many cases are benign enough; however, I dare say that many an interpersonal conflict stems from such thinking. However, the consequences of this type of thinking can be huge in some circumstances. For example when these biases are carried out by those who, from a position of power (or vulnerability), deny anthropogenic climate change, we all suffer. Other deleterious errors play out in political debates over such issues as health care reform and the privatization of social security, as well as in the struggles between creationists and science minded folk in the discussions over whether to teach intelligent design as part of the science curriculum.


It really doesn’t matter on which side of the issue you stand – we are all subject to errors and biases that ultimately widen the gap between the antagonists rather than bring them closer to resolution. There is little debate about the relative impact of these biases and errors as they play out in the conversations about such complicated and contentious issues. All you have to do is listen to the soundbites and spin – regardless of the side you are on, it is plainly evident that the opposing pundits and/or “experts” come from completely different realities. Sometimes it is evident that there can be no resolution because of the lack of a foundational agreement as to the terms or rules of the discussion.


My quest for some rules of thought to serve as an inoculation, of sorts, for these pervasive and seemingly instinctual erroneous inclinations has proven difficult. Instincts it seems are hard to resist. Virtually all of the errors I have discussed have their origins in the intuitive brain, away from the higher order thinking areas of the cerebral cortex. Millions of years of evolution have honed these processes conferring a survival advantage to those who attend closely to things that go bump in the night. In the arms race for survival faced by our ancestors, quick decisions were absolutely essential. Arduous skepticism was likely lethal if not by means of predation certainly by means of ostracization. It takes an additional cognitive step – involving higher order thinking to bypass these inclinations. And as Spinoza suggested, we as a species are not inclined to take this additional step. Skepticism is difficult and perhaps even viscerally unpalatable. We must make the extra effort to employ critical thinking – particularly when the stakes are high!


It is crucially important to note that the following guidelines will only be fruitful if both sides agree to them. If not, the parties will go round and round – never really accomplishing anything.


First, we have to acknowledge the following:

A. Our default thoughts are likely intuitive thoughts and they are thus likely biased by cognitive errors. Gut-level thinking just doesn’t cut it for complex issues.

B. Things that make immediate intuitive sense are likely to be uncritically accepted. Agreeable data should not escape scrutiny.

C. Jumping to conclusions about the internal attributes of others (individuals or groups) as an explanation of behavior or circumstances is likely short sighted. We should always seek a greater understanding of the true circumstances.


As such, we must:
1. Give equal time and scrutiny to the pursuit of disconfirming information; particularly regarding agreeable facts because we are inclined toward finding data to support preconceptions.

2. No matter how much you like your hypothesis – you must always be willing to abandon it.

3. Use substantive – observable – measurable – data – always being wary of the expectancy and placebo effects. For evaluation of treatment efficacy – double blind, randomized, placebo controlled studies are the gold standard. And one study is rarely conclusive. Multiple confirming replications are necessary.

4. Universal application of these rules is absolutely essential. It is imprudent to apply these guidelines only as they serve your purpose(s).

5. In order to use scientific methods to investigate any concept, the concept itself must be falsifiable.

6. Be parsimonious. The simplest among equally plausible explanations is usually the best explanation.


Some issues cannot be rationally discussed particularly due to guidelines 2, 4, and 5. Issues that necessitate violation of these tenants are often ideologically driven and thus preclude rational or scientific debate. Some really big issues, such as the existence of God, or the merit of creationism most often cannot be reasonably debated following these guidelines, again because it is unlikely that both parties will agree to these guidelines. A big sticking point is that God’s existence, in particular, is not falsifiable. It therefore, is not the domain of science to either prove or disprove God’s existence. But, other big issues such as anthropogenic global climate change or the merits of health care reform can, and should be, subjected to these guidelines.


In a recent article at, titled Five Habits of the Skeptical Mind Nicholas Covington wisely detailed his suggestions for good skeptical hygiene. He included: (1) Your belief will not change reality; (2) Look for the best overall explanation of the facts; (3) Use authorities carefully; (4) Don’t confuse a possibility with a probability; and (5) Dissect your thoughts. R. C. Moore in a comment to Covington’s article added some additional strong points – including: (1) objective evidence results when all observers who follow the same protocol achieve the same results, regardless of their personal beliefs; (2) statistical error never improves with the repetition of independent samples; (3) uncalibrated experimentation is useless; and (4) while logic is very useful for modeling the behaviour of the universe, in no way does it control its behaviour. Both of these lists are helpful and wise (although I have not done them justice here). Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit is another great list.


I ask you, my readers, to add to this list. What are your rules of thought?