08 December 2020


"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist the facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
-- Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle (1892), A Scandal in Bohemia

I have studied people for half a century.

I have observed myself, my family, my friends. I have observed children and parents, high school students and university students, teachers and professors. I have observed researchers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspeople, and other professionals. I have observed public servants, politicians, and the general public.

I have observed the things we do, the things we say, and the things we say we believe. I have reached this conclusion:

Common sense is not common, and intellectual rigour is rare.

I have reached this conclusion neither quickly nor lightly.

As a child I was told that cold and wet feet will give me pneumonia and that wet hair and a draft will give me meningitis. I was told that swimming after lunch will kill me by drowning and that falling into a patch of stinging nettles will kill me by suffocation.

I was told that if I misbehave, the Krampus will take me to hell in a basket, that if I break a mirror, I will suffer from seven years of bad luck, and that if the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, it is a bad omen.

I was told that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I wondered about all the "strong" people in war zones, and famine zones, and hospitals. I was told that people use only 10% of their brain, and that this is not a metaphor. I was told that seeing a spider in morning brings sorrow, that seeing the same spider in the evening is invigorating, and I wondered what changed in the course of the day.

I was told that old elephants migrate to a secret elephant graveyard to die, that lemmings commit mass suicide by diving from a cliff, and that ostriches stick their heads into the sand to avoid detection.

When I was eight years old, I saw a U.F.O. land in an Austrian forest. When I was twelve, I believed that paranormal things happen in the Bermuda Triangle. When I was thirteen, I believed that if 1,000 people willed a door to open, it would open. When I was fourteen, I believed that human beings could spontaneously combust. When I was eighteen, I went to church and prayed to pass my driving exam.

I watched my grandmother boil tap water after the Chernobyl nuclear accident because boiling water does purify it. I watched parents pray to god to save their sick child from a disease that god must have given the child in the first place. I watched university students wear good-luck charms, and I watched their professors do the same.

As an adult, I was told that Omega−3 fatty acids are a universal cure, that people are rational, and selfish, and that their tastes do not change, and that every morning at breakfast Baron Rothschild sets the interest rates for the global banking system. And I said nothing.

What a despicable collection. I am sure you have your own list.

But isn't it true that many false beliefs do not cause much harm? Isn't it better, as Blaise Pascal speculated, to believe in a god than to find yourself being punished for not believing? Isn't it better to believe that all snakes are poisonous, than to be bitten by one that actually is?

Maybe, possibly, and yes.

Besides, shouldn't people have the right to ruin their own lives?

Unfortunately, in a democracy the beliefs that people hold have the potential to ruin not only their own lives but other people's lives as well. And there is no reason to believe that people will inform themselves more thoroughly, make better decisions, or act more wisely when the wellbeing of others is involved.

I agree with Plato's assessment of democracy:

"It's an agreeable anarchic form of society, with plenty of variety, which treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not."
-- Plato (ca. 375 B.C.E.)

But I also agree with Winston Churchill's:

"Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters."
-- Winston Churchill (11 November 1947)

One way out of this dilemma is to give the citizens the tools to render themselves better informed, less manipulated, smarter citizens. Education is the method of providing those tools, and this little book is my contribution to the education of the citizen.

In our journey towards the truth, I introduce each important idea by a simple rule and a brief description. Understanding is developed through examples. That said, these examples are not comprehensive analyses of particular situations, rather my intention is to stimulate you, the reader, to think of personal experiences.

Sections I, II, and III form the foundation of thinking, i.e. investigating a question of interest, formulating a valid argument, and guarding against the intentional distortion of reality.

Section IV looks at the limitations of the human mind and their evolutionary and psychological causes. Section V is a summary of common cognitive biases and shortcuts. Section VI takes a look at the model of reality that you carry around in your mind and at the formal process of model building.

A glossary provides definitions for terms used throughout the book.

Just as understanding the rules of chess will not make you an expert player, understanding the rules of thinking will not make you an expert thinker. But the goal is not to become an expert thinker, the goal is to become a better, more rigorous thinker. And anyone can become a better, more rigorous thinker. All that is required is a single statement: "I don't believe it." The rest flows from here.

Yes, rigorous thinking is hard work and takes plenty of practice. Just as in chess, the first thing you must learn to appreciate is your own mistakes. Exploring your own mistakes is true learning.

That said, this little book is a weapon against corruption and stupidity. Use it wisely.

Michael Baumann, December 2020