I have a young relative who is severely dyslectic. Now well into his twenties, he is a top designer currently working on a major prestige project in London. That may seem an unlikely career, but I know why because he addressed it in his university dissertation. He explained that dyslexia can produce a difficulty in recognising patterns, and patterns are an important shortcut for most of us in arriving at sound conclusions from initial evidence. But for a creative designer that may be a problem because his skills rely on radical thinking – he must not be trapped into easy assumptions based on conventional experience.
I remembered this when I was reading a recent study which examined whether IQ or critical thinking was the most important in making decisions.This was measured by the positive or negative real world outcomes. It showed that, although high IQ was needed for making good decisions, critical thinking was even more important. Loosely defined, critical thinking uses relatively organised approaches to problem solving; it employs a variety of methods and attitudes which assist us in analysis and warn us of the tendencies to error built into the human system. Formal IQ tests tend to focus in a somewhat abstract way on the thinking process, while critical thinking is more closely related to the real world.
Let’s imagine a doctor (not yours of course) who listens to your symptoms. He has been trained to the eyeballs and is assisted by several years of experience. This may prejudice his critical thinking because his mind is full of pre-suppositions and likely answers from his existing patterns. We know, for instance, that doctors are susceptible to reading symptoms in the light of their own specialities, and they may, like all of us, be influenced by recent experiences, irrelevant evidence and even, if the neurologists are to be believed, by what they had for breakfast.
Of course that is likely to be true of all the learned professions whose success depends on the veil of omniscience. And by contrast it shows why critical thinking is not common. That is because the critical thinker must first aim his criticism at himself. He must constantly doubt his own views and solicit ideas from those who disagree with him. His triumph is to spot his own errors – which moves him closer to the truth, and so towards the good outcome he seeks. When I become prime minister I shall have a high level team, called “The Swines”. Their job will be to find the flaws in all my proposed policies.
Our imaginary doctor stands in for experts in general. And experts are the people we naturally go to in our uncertainties. Our doctor, like the lawyer and the investment adviser, is forecasting the outcomes of symptoms and forecasting the outcomes of potential remedies. Unfortunately the average expert is not much better at forecasting than the rest of us. When we read of a proposed political decision of consequence we hope to find an expert to forecast the outcome. We probably need not bother: we would do better to consult the professional forecasters. And the evidence broadly supports this.
What can we learn from these forecasters? They tend to work in groups. This broadens the range of mental and psychological ideas, encouraging cooperative work and welcoming challenges. They are quick to recognise, and to abandon, analyses which can never be more than guesswork. As far as possible they use hard data, distinguishing the bad from the good, and they employ a variety of statistical methods which may be used for analysing mathematical probabilities.
We would expect them to be knowledgeable about a range of disciplines. They cannot be expert in all of these but they must know enough to recognise the principles of a relevant discipline and how to get help in its application. And they must be humble in accepting that their own judgments may be skewed by their individual personalities born from genes and experience. They will be continuously aware that there is a range of tendencies leading to error which exists in the human psyche. One example of this is the confirmation bias. Once our minds have begun to form a view we start to favour evidence which supports that growing view. There are several others.
While we could not be expected to use such expertise in everyday life, it is valuable to consider how we can at least approach the principles that forecasters use: the use of good information rather than guesswork, a broad understanding of probability, awareness of our susceptibility to a variety of prejudices and, most importantly, acceptance that uncertainty is unavoidable can all improve our critical thinking.