A Better Way To Think And Talk And Talk About What We Think.
I have enjoyed much of what Tim Urban has to say in his popular TED Talks and also reading his (very) long form blogs on subjects like AI, Elon Musk and procrastination are usually excellent. His cartoon depictions are excellent, though his frequent use of the ‘F’ bomb to spice things up seems a little juvenile for someone so bright.
His latest blog post (available in multiple formats, though for me audiobook would be pretty pointless without the drawings) took him six years to write so I figured reading What’s Our Problem might be worth a little of my time – and it proved to be, well at least half way then it became very US-centric and I got tired of trying to make the applications more widely as he hadn’t bothered. The principles however are well worth pondering, I’d go so far as to say this is an important book to help us understand and navigate this present age.
His ‘self help book for societies’ opens by describing how the times we live in have brought quantum leaps in technology making the world exponentially better and more scary in almost equal measure. Handling this increased knowledge requires concomitant great wisdom as we come together into the new future but just when we need it most societies have instead become more divided, tribalist and seemingly unable to have the healthy kind of thinking and discussion that leads to harmonious progress.
On an individual level we know that if we’re in fear or new territory we can operate more from the primitive and reactive part of our brain to protect ourselves (will it eat me/can I eat it?) rather than the higher mind (am I actually what I eat?).
One of Urban’s most useful concepts flows from this and if you want to save a lot of time, much of the rest of the book applies the following – first to individuals, then to groups, then specifically to political groups in America and finally to some in some of those groups he doesn’t agree with, which kind of misses the point for me as it seems he’s in danger of doing what he warns against the further you read.
Anyway, here’s the way it works:
Picture a ladder with four rungs – higher levels are higher level thinking, and we are going from the top down.
RUNG 1: THINK LIKE A SCIENTIST – “I Could Be Wrong…”
‘Thinking like a scientist’ does not mean scientists are always right! Real scientists know they are not, in fact they have a default of humility that puts forward an idea or hypothesis tentatively – ‘I don’t know if this is correct or not, let’s test it, rigorously.’
Much of the problem in my view with regard to the worldwide Covid debacle was that we were being bullied by vested interests, people of little brain and elites of few scruples to mask up, lock down, cut the bottom off school classroom doors and ‘follow the science’ in ways that were patently nothing of the sort.
True science gathers, observes and evaluates information from as many sources as possible in a complex world, then discusses creative possibilities before putting forward ideas as hypotheses to be tested in a way detached from any particular outcome.
Questions and alternative viewpoints are vital and encouraged. The best theories are not those that cannot be contested. Dissent and disagreement lead to more robust conclusions.
It’s not being a know all, it’s knowing I may well be wrong. If I’m wrong, I want to know. ‘What am I missing?’ That’s high level ‘scientist’ thinking.
2: THINK LIKE A SPORTS FAN “We Are The Champions!”
This is the next level down. Sports fan thinking is biased, but at least it knows it is. It’s what tells me Manchester United are the best football team in the world, even though there is much evidence (especially in the form of Manchester City) that seems determined to prove this is wrong.
Sports fan thinking is looking at truth, while recognising I have some form of ulterior motive. What does that lead to?
What happens in the FA cup final in June will not determine for me which is the best team. It’s already United, even if on the day they’re rubbish and City win the treble (like we did). So maybe ‘the noisy neighbours’ with get lucky, again – it proves exactly nothing.
But if we beat them in that game, we are definitely the best team not only in the city but the world.
Confirmation bias wants me to stick with what I believe because I am invested in a certain belief, it matters to me.
I’m nowhere near the biggest sports fan in most rooms, but since I was a little boy and my grandad told me I was United fan like him, that’s ‘my team.’ I know I am biased, and that’s where the hope remains here, because Sports Fan thinkers can change their minds, albeit begrudgingly.
As we move down the ladder from here though we get into dangerous territory for individuals, which has terrible consequences for relationships, society, government and culture in general because those thinking (I use the term advisedly) on the two rungs below are both in the realm of inconvincibility, where loyalty to a belief matters more than whether or not it’s actually true.
3: THINK LIKE A LAWYER. ‘The Evidence For The Defence..’
Can you imagine you’re on trial and your defense lawyer gets up and says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know there is clearly a mountain of overwhelming and apparently incontrovertible evidence that my client did this heinous, despicable, disgusting crime…’ you’d want to know who’s side they were on!
We don’t want our lawyer to be ‘fair.’ We want them on our side, presenting and arguing only the evidence that proves our case, while shooting down anything opposed to it.
It doesn’t even matter how much evidence is presented to the contrary.
We don’t want our lawyer to listen to the other side then stand up and say, ‘Fair play, great point, maybe you are right and even I am starting to wonder whether my client’s guilty.”
It’s very difficult if not impossible to convince anyone who will only listen to one side of any argument.
And if it begins to feel like in some way we are actually being threatened, we go even deeper into that primitive mind and start to
4. THINK LIKE A LOVE STRUCK NEW PARENT “Goo goo gah gah!”
The word Urban uses for this level is Zealot (his own anti-religion biases have by now become all too clear though it’s less certain how aware of them he is). But the picture he uses to describe what this looks like is not religious, it’s relational. It’s like a parent who looks at their baby and just knows, this is 100% the cutest most beautiful baby that was ever born.
The ‘Scientist,’ higher level thinking way of looking at an idea whether as an individual or as a group (an idea factory) takes the concept and puts it in the boxing ring as a hypothesis and says ‘Let’s knock this about, let’s test the tripe out of it!’
The ‘loved up new parent’ looks at their idea or viewpoint as fragile, perfect, beautiful and needing to be protected at all costs and universally adored. Everyone must agree this baby is super cute – anyone who says or even dares think differently is definitely a terrible, horrible person.
This is what happens when we think of our ideas as our babies to be tickled, not hypotheses to be tested – and this, Urban says, is where our society finds itself. And it’s getting worse.
There’s no wiggle room. There’s no, ‘Hey okay that really is a halfway average baby and I like its romper suit’ allowed. I surround myself with others who love this baby too and we, the righteous, defend at all costs against the baby-haters. You’re with us or against us. You love the baby or hate the baby – and we hate you not loving the baby. If you attack the baby, you attack me, and I get my retaliation in first.
‘I respect you, but reject your idea’
On a macro level, Urban’s only hope is that societies and sections can form more and more idea labs – where I respect you but may reject your idea. We hold our ideas lightly, not taking everything personally, open to the suggestion that I may indeed be wrong, gullible, deluded or biased. That being the case, you do me a service by pointing that possibility out and the flaws in my suppositions, so that the convictions I end up coming to have been tested, tried and are true to the best of our knowledge. This is how together we humans have always collaborated before whenever we went on to build something wonderful. It has happened before!
The fear for the future is we deteriorate further away from that to form not only an echo chamber but into what Urban calls Golems, big scary angry giants made up of little people stuck together by being ordered to conform or agreeing with the shared conviction that those who do not agree with us hate our beautiful baby and are therefore bad people.
There’s no room for questioning here, simplistic Disney World caricatures mean there are only villains and us, the heroes. Those who agree with our ideology are the only ones we listen to. There is of course a word for those toxic bigots who disagree with me about God, politics, environment, race, sex, immigration – it will either be a swear word or some form of Nazi.
The further any culture, company or country goes down this path, the more good hearted, reasonable ordinary people (Urban calls them ‘the exhausted majority’) end up being bullied and intimated into silence. It’s dangerous to speak your mind so we keep our thoughts to ourselves, while those who only allow certain small and angry thoughts to be approved and voiced get louder and more vociferous. This sleeping giant must rise up and defeat the golems. It starts with you and me.
We have to recognise when we and others are engaging in higher or lower level thinking, and resist getting dragged down. I climb higher by asking myself questions such as;
- Do I identify too closely with this idea?
- Why do I think this is the case?
- Could I be wrong?
- Am I reacting from emotion and ego?
- Am I open to hear other ideas too?
- Do I ‘block’ dissenters and ‘love’ agreement?
- Does my level of conviction on this match my level of knowledge about it?
- How much of this is tested and how much is just tribal?
- How much of a pushover am I, how much do I push back too hard or ‘play the man not the ball’?
- What am I going along with that even if I don’t have to directly oppose, I might not want to promote?
Questions for further reflection and higher level thinking
Do I tend to think of my ideas as hypotheses to be improved by debate?
How aware am I of my own biases?
How can I become more aware of them?
Do I present my ideas as a theory to be robustly tested, or my baby to be protected?
How comfortable am I at saying what I think, including the phrase “I disagree…”