How to Think – A Primer in an Age of Unsupported Opinion

Americans do not know how to think.  It is possible Chinese and British don’t know either but I’m not writing to them.  If you do not know how to think, you will be continually upset by other people not agreeing with your opinions, frustrated over not getting your point across, and possibly not even realizing your point is pointless.

Thinking involves the following skills.

  1. You must know words. If you don’t know the meaning of words, or only think you do, you will not be able to speak or ask questions clearly.
  2. You must recognize where your information is coming from. If your sources are flawed so will be your thinking.
  3. You must have most of the information you need. No one knows everything or has access to all the parts of a problem, but if you only know one side of an issue that has 4 sides, you are still at Square One.
  4. You must recognize when you are substituting emotion for knowledge. Critical thinking is not criticism and it is not a Group Hug.
  5. You will learn that all truth is external, and that (1) you have been lied to at some point or points in life and (2) that you don’t know everything you need to know.

We will go over every one of these elements in detail and you should know if your thinking is valid and what to do about it.  No one wants to be an ineffective person; we all want to make the world a better place.  But we can’t do anything if our minds are wrapped in wrong ideas and processes.

Issue Number One: Know the Meaning of Words.

Quora is a public online venue where individuals identify their area of expertise and then answer questions, or ask them. This question came into my Quora Box.

How do we convince conservatives that the 2nd Amendment is unconstitutional?

My answer was frankly sarcastic. I told the guy to return his diploma and demand his money back. But his question got me to writing this for my blog.  Did he not know what the word constitutional meant? Or was he simply sloppy in framing the question?

The answer is yes, the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution is constitutional.  If you do not like the Amendment there is a process for changing the United States Constitution. We have done so in our history and unfortunately some of those amendments have backfired, like the 14th and the 17th.

The man’s question should have been, “How do we convince Conservatives the 2nd Amendment is wrong and should be eliminated?” To answer that question one would need to come up with a series of good reasons to change the Constitution which is a convoluted and time consuming process.  If you do not know the meaning of a word, look it up or ask.

Chinese students must know 6,000 characters which are all different before they can consider a college career. English is much easier than Chinese so we need not complain about studying vocabulary.

We are all guilty of not asking enough or the right questions.  I was in a meeting where the speaker used the word “turbidity” which I’d never heard. (Turgid I knew, but not this one.) Out of 14 listeners only one asked what it meant. If you do not have intellectual curiosity, find some because that will help you to learn to think and think accurately.

Issue Number Two: Where are you getting your information

When I was ready to come home from teaching in China, Su Ying, one of the Chinese teachers, was visibly alarmed.

“Aren’t you scared,” she said?

“Of what,” said I.

“Of all the criminals and guns,” she replied.

This is a common example of someone living and thinking in a world of assumptions.  This teacher had been told that everyone in the USA carried guns and Americans were in constant danger of being killed.  In addition, she was taught that black people now live in squalid poverty without shoes, adequate food, and near slave conditions. She believed only white people were prosperous. This is what she read in her history book about America, a portion which I was able to read, and since American consumer goods and “nice” movies were not permitted, she only knew the America of the Mafia and gang murders.  I introduced the movie Beethoven to the Chinese children, but one teacher refused to watch it because she thought the movie would show the slaughter of the dog.

Assumptions cause you to believe and act in ways that are not in line with reality.

The Greeks have a fifty dollar word for this – Epistemology – how do you know what you know. We cannot blame the Chinese teacher for not knowing. She has been taught by Communists whose purpose is to keep her from wanting anything American.  But on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Americans are just as badly informed about China.  We think the Chinese have freedom of religion and speech, the right to bear arms, the right to assemble in groups, the right to carry a gun, and a secret ballot.  They have none of these. Our government is not trying to keep us ignorant; we are just not taught about Chinese society which is a pity since they out number Americans five to one.

So examine your assumptions before you make key decisions.

This leads to an important issue – Know your Sources.

My mother would often warn me, “Put your brain in gear before you open your mouth.”

Back to the 2nd Amendment.  Our correspondent needs more information and he can look it up. It says:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Our writer wants conservatives to “infringe” this right. Define infringe act so as to limit or undermine (something); encroach on.

Now we can start thinking about this issue.  We have a definition of the elements of the question. We are nowhere near a real discussion.  We should have a profile of what the founders of our nation discussed about this amendment.  After all, the Constitution failed to ratify at the start until and unless these 10 amendments were included in our government.  For information we have the Federalist Papers, which itself is a good exercise in critical thinking and it is important to know the thinking process of those who created our democracy. We also know that there are many laws today which do infringe on this right.

Americans listen to poor and unqualified sources.  The fact that someone earns millions of dollars making movies, putting on special clothes and memorizing lines, does not qualify him or her to make comments about political issues.  Some celebrities have personal knowledge of issues, like Bono who knows about starvation and AIDS in Africa, or Clint Eastwood who was elected and served as mayor, or Gary Sinise who works with veterans.

These people have some intellectual skin in the game. The others may just need a little current publicity to shore up a failing career, or to look important to their friends. And if you are a good source on some subject, do not sit back and let someone who knows little or nothing horn in on the issue. Voters will often change their minds if they learn pertinent facts from private citizens. And not knowing what you are talking about will bring you some embarrassment.

Issue Number Three – Do Your Homework

Su Ying, the Chinese teacher, is not allowed to look up anything on international internet so she has an excuse for repeating lies.  But Americans with a phone have no such excuse. If someone quotes (maybe misquotes) the Bible, you can look it up on your phone at Bible Gateway (it’s free) and in many languages and translations, including the original Greek. I spend an hour a day verifying what I read, although I do have some sources I can trust all the time.

All of us have been told lies, deliberately or accidentally so don’t be cynical; everybody at some time is lazy and fails to check their facts.  But you and you alone are responsible for the truth.  And it is true what Jesus said, it can make you free!

The internet is stuffed with data.  That wonderful TV news guy you love so much may have only a handful of viewers.  Check out TV by the Numbers.  Four million is considered only a blip on the screen. And when you search go down a scroll because the top messages have often been paid for. Also, search on several browsers as Google will give you an entirely different list from Bing, Yahoo and all the rest.

The devil is in the details is a good rule. China is the world’s worst polluter and anti-pollution laws are routinely ignored so any climate change legislation which requires compliance is largely a mirage. Stats on this are easy to find.  But every piece of legislation and government proposal is easy to research; it just takes time.

This week someone on Facebook scolded me about two famous preachers who wanted our government to be a theocracy – that is ruled by the church or possibly a Caliphate.  But she did not accurately know the name of one of the preachers she was quoting. Since I contribute regularly to this ministry I know what they teach and preach.

It is exactly the opposite – they want a government that will keep its paws off religion!! I must assume the writer does not listen to this ministry or know what they have said first hand.  Quoting someone else is not good thinking. If you are going to quote someone, at the very least you should know his name.

Finally, “show me the money” is a good rule.  Who is paying for this information or who benefits?  The richest man in America was a big promoter of wind farms but he had a huge investment in the process and equipment.  Wind farms have not done what they promised and many bird lovers are angry over the killing fields. Legislators will back off from controversial laws if they learn that large numbers of voters are watching and angry.  Unfortunately this same situation means many important decisions are not made at all, or postponed.

Once you have learned the process of thinking two things will happen.  In addition to not joining protesters who do damage in public places and get no more than a mention of the TV nightly news, you will not talk as much about your opinions, because now you realize they may be untested and flawed.  And when you do speak you will do so with the authority of one who can be listened to and respected, which is something we all want. That will get real results in the end.

 

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