Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking

I’m a person who likes to do research on topics that interest me, but I like to do research in general even when it isn’t a topic that interests me too much.  If I’m making specific argument in a discussion, I want to make sure that I’m not being biased and that I’m using confirmed data. 

The problem is that I find few other people are willing to do the same kind of research.  Most people just believe what they want to believe.  Many people even seem to assume that the facts would agree with their opinions if they ever bothered to look at the facts.  This kind of righteous self-certainty annoys me, but even moreso it just perplexes me.

I realize people have limited time to do research for themselves.  That is fine.  But if that is the case, then shouldn’t the person refrain from making any absolute claims.  Instead of making declarations, shouldn’t they use language such as “I think…”, “I suspect…”, “My best guess is”…, “It would seem reasonable…”, or “I could be wrong, but…”.

Often, though, it seems that the less data someone has the more certain they declare their ‘knowledge’.  What bugs me even more is that many people are willing to directly dismiss or generally act dismissive towards the data that another person presents.  They’ll ask you to cite every fact you present all the while refusing to present any facts of their own.  It’s easy to be dismissive.

In response, I’ll sometimes do the detailed research and present specific quotes from specific sources, but it usually doesn’t change anything.  If the person truly wanted to know the facts, then they could’ve done the research for themselves.  Or could they?  I sometimes think that many (most?) people lack certain intellectual skills such as how to research data and how to think critically about it.  Research takes effort and understanding it well requires much intelligence and education (which would include self-education).

I think, however, there is also a systemic failure of education in the US.  I went to public schools.  I can tell you that I learned very little of my intellectual skills from my schooling.  Most of what I learned came from my parents and from simply reading and thinking a lot.

There is also would seem to be a cultural factor, but I’m not certain as my knowledge of other cultures is limited.  What I’ve observed is that many people believe it’s more reasonable to deny something without facts than to claim something without facts.  This is obviously wrong as any denial of a claim is simply another claim stated in the negative.  To deny a belief in God is no more reasonable than to claim a belief in God.  Neither theist or atheist has objective data, and so the only reasonable conclusion is agnosticism. 

All in all, I do think atheists and scientific-minded people tend to be more reasonable than those prone to religious extremism (whether it’s Christian fundamentalism or New Age woo).  Most scientists in the world agree that Darwinian evolution and Climate Change are accurate appraisals of reality.  This is based on science from around the world funded by many different organizations.  However, religious folk and other rightwingers are willing to deny the evidence without offering any of their own counter-evidence.  To put it simply, this isn’t a rational response.

How can the rationally-minded educated class reach this large segment of society that gladly throws out all evidence without even looking at it much less trying to understand it?  Even intelligent rightwingers will deny science which is even more bewildering.  I guess it makes sense that unless you’ve been educated in science you’re less likely to understand science.  Getting a college education (in business management for example) won’t necessarily make you any better prepared for understanding science.  Most of the people who go into scientific fields are liberals (with independents being the next largest group and conservatives being a small percentage).  The question is why do conservatives mistrust science?  The only way you could mistrust science is by mistrusting objectivity altogether because science is the best method humans have in determining objective facts.

It might not be that most people are incapable of being rational.  It could be that either they have psychological reasons not to use rationality in certain contexts.  Psychological research shows two key factors: (1) People are good at compartmentalizing different cognitive functions and different parts of their lives, and (2) People are good at rationalizing their behavior and conclusions.  The unconscious mind has more influence on us than does our conscious mind.

The question, then, is why do some people become more capable of intellectual skills or at least more identified with being an intellectual.  What makes someone willing and able to question social norms and ‘commonsense’ assumptions?  What motivates someone to look critically upon all statements?  If this isn’t a ‘natural’ ability (i.e., not common), then why do a few people learn to excel at it?  And why are some people willing to admit intellectual limitations (their own and that of the human species in general) and some aren’t?  Will intellectual ability always be held by a minority?  Is it possible to teach the average person effective critical thinking skills?  If it is possible, why have we as a society chosen not to do so?

4 thoughts on “Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking

  1. I honestly don’t know what factors have influenced me, which may constitute some ability or talent (depending on the relative aesthetic values of individuals) to which I could make some level of claim. Like ALL people, I have my good days and bad days with regards to the fluid workings of my little grey cells. Nevertheless, the topic of this blog has been a constant struggle for me. Here’s how it typically plays out:

    (a) There’s something that requires dialog. It can be a problem that requires a resolution, a casual conversation or simply just an exchange of information, which requires rudimentary protocol of communication.

    (b) I wish to be as honest, truthful, intelligent, rational, accurate, efficient, convincing and insightful as possible (yes, there are many inherent contradictions in (b) and language being the clumsy, inefficient that it is often falls short in encompassing my aspirations of expression). This basically comes down to time and effort. Depending on a variety of factors, I do my best and try to make an effort and try to spend the time to say things that are relevant and meaningful. I often fail in this endeavor as much as I succeed because there are limits to the variables one can account for and anticipate.

    (c) Communication requires two parties: speaker and listener. I, on the one hand, have some knowledge and understanding of how arguments are constructed. EVERY argument has three parts: evidence, assumption and conclusion. ALL arguments have varying degrees of assumptions, which are NECESSARY to bridge the evidence to their conclusions. What is often debated are the strengths and weaknesses of those assumptions.

    To have a rational discourse, both parties require at least some basic understanding of these principles. THIS IS THE POINT OF FAILURE. I will make my argument, comments, observations, opinions, whatever. I will attempted to corroborate my statements as best as I can, given my limited knowledge (I’m only human) of things in general, based on the strengths and weaknesses of my assumptions. And in return for my time and efforts, my intellectual honesty (my willingness to admit limitations) is taken advantage of and rewarded with the other party projecting some varying combination of ignorance, insecurity, umbrage, denial, internalized criticism…basically some sort of hard-wired, reactive, defensive ad hominem. To give you a sense of how often this happens, I would have to estimate the failure rate at roughly 98% of dialog attempts given current political, economic and cultural conditions.

    (d) Some sort of compartmentalization becomes necessary. This was a nice synopsis:


    (f) As brilliantly pointed out, the dichotomy between intellect and truth has to be established with the understanding there are very few who have the capability and disposition to NOT view intellect and truth as being mutually exclusive


    (g) And then there’s reason and creativity. Only a fool would believe they are antithetical as oppose to complementary. What made Einstein, Fischer and Gandhi great? It was how creatively they used their intelligence.

    (h) Mutual understand requires more than an exchange of words. And by its nature, the Internet has made words more relevant and asynchronous when maybe it should be less so.

    And so when all is said and done and I’ve pontificated with sound and fury signifying nothing, there’s less futility in passively listen to Quentin S. Crisp on Soundcloud (thanks for making me aware of his existence) than there is in actively endure a 98% failure rate:

    I wish this was not the case but alternatives are non-existent as this point.

    • Your finding some of my older posts. It’s odd looking back at what I wrote years ago. If I were to write this now, it would be a far different kind of post. My thinking has changed in many ways, but the essence of the post remains true for me.

      Your experience sounds like my own. I was thinking about this yesterday. Then again, it is often on my mind.

      None of us can know everything about everything. No matter how much we learn, our ignorance will always be infinite because there is no end to potential knowledge—like trying to get somewhere by repeatedly halving the distance. Learning is recursive and knowledge multiples like tribbles..

      Yet being humbled by the vastness of ignorance doesn’t make ignorance any less irritating. It’s not ignorance that is the problem. Rather, it’s the all too typical human blithe attitude toward it.

      It’s the ignorance of ignorance that is the real humdinger. Ignorance upon ignorance, a convoluted web of not knowing. Dissociation makes it almost pointless in claiming it to be willful ignorance—especially when combined with the bizarre phenomenon of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. But often it’s just plain ignorance, sometimes so complete as to create epistemic closure.

      Also, the ignorance that irritates me the most can be quite mundane. There is info that I think should be basic facts that any informed person should know. But that doesn’t mean most do know it or fully know it or quite grasp what it is or its significance or whatever.

      I’m not even sure who to blame. It feels like some a mental ailment of the human condition, an ailment few of us escape. Most people simply know or think they know what they’ve been told is true, in education and the media. If they haven’t been told about it, few people are going to put much effort into digging up uncommon knowledge.

      It’s frustrating.

      In case you’re interested, Quentin S. Crisp has written a fair amount. He has written several books, although I don’t know how widely available they are. He is often considered part of the philosophical horror genre, typically coming out of the small presses (he runs his own small press). His more famous peer is Thomas Ligotti, made famous partly because of the scandal involving the True Detective show.

      My friend turned me onto Crisp’s writings. We were both reading his recent work, Blue on Blue. It’s not my favorite book by him, but I enjoyed it. His writings have a dark weird bent.

      • I’m at a loss myself. Modern human modalities of communication are very discombobulated. You may present links in a chain of thought only to realize down the conversation a vital link was missed by the receiver. When clarifying, you find out he received the link but misinterpreted it. This happened with my brother just yesterday. I became increasingly frustrated when the conversation at some point started to fail. I decided to backtrack and discovered I have not clearly emphasized an important piece of information (the information was presented but he had not understand it’s significance). It annoyed me further because I felt it behooved him to confirm that important piece of information instead of making assumptions based on what he understood it to be. He has always been very poor at confirming facts and acting upon unverified, anecdotal information.

        I hate to say it but the mental ailment is epidemic. It’s as you pointed out, the failure of education and media is part of it. I also feel like there’s also a societal contempt for intelligence, truth and reason. When you are someone who tries to communicate deliberately and thoughtfully, you would think people would try to reciprocate. Instead, it’s viewed as an opportunity for them to hide their shame, to project their ignorance, or to dismiss, belittle and patronize you with misleading/false information and faulty logic. I’m constantly amazed at how insecure, defensive, disrespectful and inconsiderate people become when presented with knowledge they’re unfamiliar with as oppose to seeing it as an opportunity to learn something new.

        I think this is when HOW something is said becomes just as important as WHAT is said. In the age of no-shame self-branding bravado, “I looked it up on the Internet so I know more than you” hubris, “OMG, you’re not funny…you’re too serious” immaturity, “I’m not going to listen to you but you’re going to listen to me” double-standards, and “f*ck-you” politics, it’s hard to communicate when the fundamentals are so dysfunctional.

        Take Quentin S. Crisp as an example. I do not comprehend the majority of what he’s saying being unfamiliar with the literature, topics and genres he discusses. But I can tell he takes the time and makes the effort to choose his words wisely, deliberately and honestly, which really makes him a pleasant and enjoyable person to listen to.

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