Thursday, January 14, 2010

Effortful Thinking

“But they’re so boring!’ I protested. I was talking to the professor who taught my Experimental Psychology class. We had just finished reading through samples of journal articles, and I found them entirely too dry for my taste. I could write better material, and I was all of twenty years old. These things had been written by people with Ph.D.s!

“I read journals all the time,” one of my classmates chimed in. “That’s how they are.”

I was unconvinced. It wasn’t just that the articles were boring. They were annoying. I had expected an interesting narrative about an experiment. Instead I read, in exhaustive, pedantic detail, about exactly what they were trying to determine, exactly how they conducted the experiment, the makeup of the subject sample, how the sample was chosen, how the sample was divided, how each segment of the sample was assigned various conditions, detailed descriptions of the props and equipment used, the precise details of what was done… on and on and on.

Since then I’ve read a lot of journal articles, and while I’ve found some that are well-written, for the most part they are the same sort of plodding, technical, detailed description and analysis. I’ve come to two conclusions: 1) Most scientists should have taken more writing classes in college, and 2) scientific thinking is not comfortably intuitive.

We’re used to hearing stories. People love stories so much that we’ve built huge industries around making up and presenting stories as books, movies, plays, and television. Anecdotes have a powerful effect on us, but we don’t usually analyze stories. We take away the main points and the interesting bits. If you hear a story about a boy who kicked a dog and got bitten, the take-away point is: don’t kick dogs. It’s not important how old the boy was, how old the dog was, where it happened, what breed the dog was, or what the boy had been doing before he kicked the dog.

For a scientist trying to determine under what conditions a dog is likely to bite someone who kicks him, all of those things (and many more variables) may be important. Trying to think scientifically is not natural, and more, it’s annoying. All those details to keep track of! Yet it is our best method of understanding the world. It is not enough to know that dogs may bite when kicked. By learning why they bite, in which conditions they bite, we increase our knowledge of animal behavior, knowledge which helps us to understand the world in which we live and to make better use of it.

The scientific method, critical thinking, formal logic – all of them are effortful and often counter-intuitive. These ways of thinking are not instinctive, but need to be learned. Unfortunately many people never have the opportunity to learn how to think analytically. Worse, they assume that they know how to think as well as anyone. After all, they think about things all the time! They make intelligent, rational decisions about all sorts of things.

They’re smart people, but they’re like I was that day in college. They find the fussiness of the scientific method annoying, they don’t have the training in critical thinking needed to evaluate a proposition, and they don’t know enough about logic to notice a flawed argument.

I realize this sounds elitist, and maybe it is. But it takes training to do anything well, even things we have a natural talent for. We can all run, but it takes training to run a marathon. We can all talk, but it takes training to be a polished public speaker. And we can all think, but it takes training to use effortful modes of thinking.


  1. I think I was brought up on "scientific thinking". So I suppose I do not find it annoying, nor do I think it takes sooooo much effort.

    However, it is important to leave scientific thinking in the context of science and not to apply it to, say, interpersonal relationships.

    That's where I think those who taught me scientific thinking went wrong.

    ...and I lost out on a lot of interpersonal skills.

  2. Scientific and critical thinking become easier with practice, just like anything else. A skilled public speaker can give an impromptu speech and still sound polished.

    I would think that applying critical thinking is as important in relationships as in any other part of life, though it is important to consider that relationships are based as much if not more on emotion than rational considerations.

    It sounds like there’s an interesting story there. Care to share?

  3. While I might have read much fewer journal articles, there are review articles also, which tend to be less dragging, and then there is science carried through to general public through mass media and pop-science (Discovery channel programs, for example). While experimental science relies upon a methodology that could be brought to question if a hypothesis does not work consistently. Of course, you have summarized these things in your post. I only wanted to point out the presence of pop-science (and unfortunately, the understanding brought about by them may not be entirely reliable).

    I too feel that science-like method should be applied to human emotions and interpersonal relations (e.g., I feel economics basically studies the human behavior as a collective), but it would be important to remember a few fundamental differences. First, that not may things humane can be quantified. Second, humans are heterogeneous, and while there is a "universal" law of gravitation which presupposes that all matter behaves the same way, two humans need not offer same response to an identical stimulus. Third, in studies of humans a 'value' (good/desirable v/s bad/undesirable) is always attributed to outcomes in such studies - e.g., cruelty would be considered 'bad' and compassion 'good', whereas, there is fundamentally nothing good or bad about carbon having valency of 4!