Critical Thinking

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

I John 4:1 RSV

I am a reader, so many of the shifts in my life have begun when I read a book that caused me to think about something in a new way. For example, my journey out of the Bible-based cult that I was in was helped along immeasurably when Wendy and I both read Toxic Faith, by Jack Felton and Stephen Arterburn. Later, we would go on to read much more of the cult literature, and I now look back at Toxic Faith as being pretty tame, but I continue to appreciate that book for opening me up to some of the problems in my group and helping me to begin to step outside of my cult perspective and think critically about what was happening. Even after reading Toxic Faith I did not recognize my group as a cult—that came a little later when I read Combating Cult Mind Control, by Steven Hassan—but at least I began to at least see the group was toxic, and that there were real problems there. 

Several years after exiting the cult, I began to explore my need to improve my critical thinking skills. As before, my thinking began to open up because of a book I read, which in this case was Counterknowledge, by Damien Thompson. As before, the original book that primed the pump for me now looks pretty tame in retrospect, but it started me on a reading binge of the skeptical literature and introduced me to new vistas which I am still exploring.

Thompson’s thesis is not terribly original, or perhaps even all that profound, but his was the voice that I heard at the time I was ready to process this information. His point is simply that, “From 9/11 conspiracy theories to Holocaust denial to the Da Vinci Code’s revision of ancient history, from the Book of Mormon’s account of settling the New World to the belief in a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, we are experiencing an epidemic of demonstrably untrue depictions of the world.”

Well, duh. I think a part of us knows all this stuff is baloney, but there is some contrarian aspect to many of us that is always looking for the truth that everybody else has missed. I do not know if this is true for anyone else, but I think this was an aspect of myself that my former cult leader was able to exploit to keep me in the group. It was easy for me to believe that our little group had the purest version of Christianity and everyone else had missed it, because the notion that the crowd is always wrong comes pretty naturally to me. Sometimes, however, the mainstream view is right, and by always looking for the hidden knowledge we tend to miss the truths that are out there in plain view.

 After Countnerknowledge I read How We Believe, by Michael Shermer. He explores some themes in that book that he comes back to quite often, such as our tendencies to ascribe agency to events with random causes, and to superimpose patterns on sets of random data. For example, a reflection of a palm tree appears on the side of a glass building in Clearwater, Florida, and many people think they see an image of the Virgin Mary.

This led me into a “Buberian meeting” with Shermer, where I began to devour everything he had written. I next read Why People Believe Weird Things, read several issues of his magazine, “Skeptic,” and started following his blog and reading the column he posts on the True Slant website. I also read his books Science Friction and Why Darwin Matters. I also started reading some other skeptical books like Robert M. Price’s The Reason Driven Life, and How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich.

 Wandering slightly afield, I read The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which was one of the most amazing books I have read in years and had to go back and read his earlier book, Fooled by Randomness. Still to read in this genre: The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow.

 There were several other books I read in this process, some really good and some not. I would certainly recommend On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert Burton, and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I also enjoyed Doubt, by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

 The best simple summation of the skeptical point of view and what I would recommend as a primer in skeptical thought is Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. I have also included some of the publisher’s material in this package because I found this book to be so lucid and helpful, and I have based much of my presentation on his work.

 The conclusion I have come to is that whenever anyone tells you anything, you should ask, “How do you know?” Explanations relying on miracle, mystery, and authority are suspect. Our best way of knowing is through empirical testing—i.e. the scientific method. However, one must come to terms with the fact that all of our conclusions are provisional, subject to revision in the light of new evidence. That is not to say that we cannot or should not proceed as if we know certain things, but we need to carry with us at all times the awareness that we could be wrong, and the humility to admit it when we are.

 Douglas J. Duncan, MS, LPC