Short Guide to Critical Thinking – Part 3

Confidence, ignorance, and context are three concepts that together define our perception of what we or others know.

6/8 – Confidence of intuitive inferences

By definition, the confidence level is a value in percentage that something is going to happen. It is a measure of accuracy, and thus it serves as the estimate of possible error. When we are 100% sure that tomorrow it will rain, we are giving ourselves a confidence level. And perhaps, we are being overconfident.

In statistics, we also have the confidence interval. This is a range (usually, numerical) of possible answers to a problem. In my own words, it is a measure of specificity. A smaller interval means few possible predictions.

Also in statistics, when we increase the confidence level, the confidence interval grows as well: you can be more confident that your prediction happens in a larger range of values than a smaller one. This gives a more realistic expectation of errors.

But in real life, we are rather being certain that specific events will be happening. Knowledge and experience are both very important to our “guess mechanism” that serves to abstract information or a decision from some observations.

Championing this inferential system are mentalists and deductionists. They can be surprisingly accurate in their deductions based on observations of a person’s displayed emotions, belongings, and behaviors, guessing what they did the day before, social status, and professions with nonchalance.

However amazingly, these people are so skilled because they trained their eyes and the associative machine behind them. It is a huge workload of memory and analysis that becomes more natural with repeated practice and tuning.

Should we, the common mortals, be content with a lesser trained observation, then we must keep in mind not to judge a book from its cover.

We must be aware that we continuously do inferences, too. It is what we call intuition. I define intuition as the result of the knowledge that we have but cannot recall consciously. Something that comes out without reflection.

When I actively trained for Wing Chun, my arms and legs were sometimes moved on their own to defend, even if the offense was coming from the margins of my peripheral vision.

Every day, we must take many decisions on the spot, with no time to perform a risk analysis. But as I stated at the very beginning of this article, quick thinking is more prone to biases. We don’t look at things like confidence level and confidence score. Yet, we must be confident and trust our intuition. Then, how can we make sure that our intuition isn’t flawed?

I am not sure if we really can. But while we must take a decision now, we can still think in detail about it later, and learn something new. Was it a good one? What could I have done better? What did influence my decision? These are all questions that you can answer in retrospect, to yourself, with some introspection. The goal is not to shatter your confidence, but rather to better understand how you got to a certain judgment and if you are okay with it.

7/8 – All you know is not “all”

We are profoundly ignorant of life and the universe. We managed to discover much; and yet, much more is unknown to us. Our individuality is another limit to knowing: since we can be in a given space, at a given time – we cannot really own absolute knowledge of things.

It is a lesson of humility we must never forget, firstly raised by ancient philosophers. Socrates is the first that comes to our mind, for he was the one who never could accept a straight answer to his questions. His method of inquiry was founded on looking for consistency rather than truth. Even universal laws seem to sometimes bend to unpredictable circumstances. And what is rational for an individual may be preposterous for another.

The lesson of Socrates is to remind us to be humble and admit the limits of our knowledge, by accepting our ignorance.

This is perhaps the most precious tool for critical thinking on the list because it is the rarest. Nowadays, we all have the opportunity to speak our minds with the collective, through social media. The issue is that many people came to argue and pontificate about things they know nothing about. They are not informed, or they learned from biased sources, not looking at the opposite view (we all do this – we don’t like to read what we think it’s crap unless we find it humorous).

And even if people are informed, it does not mean they aren’t opinionated. Just look at what happened during the pandemic. Pseudoscience is more interesting because is, again, sensational; real science focuses on numbers. Numbers are boring, except for outliers. Outliers can be justified as more valid than the regression to the mean.

Despite the scientific, technological and social progress, people even started a movement convinced that the Earth is flat and we have been fed with lies about it. While in the Middle Ages this conviction had some religious reasons, today it seems just for pure desire to argue.

Fun fact: the antidote to all this was already provided by Socrates, ages ago. Besides the admission of ignorance, the need for irony is one we seem to need more than ever.

8/8 – Know your context

When we speak of knowledge, we need to understand that certain facts belong and must be containerized to specific systems, environments, and circumstances.

Our reality is far from being linear. For example, there is not a single answer for the structure of light: it is waves, it is particles.

We can as well say that our knowledge is relative, and it always depends on the context where it is learned and then used. Also, knowledge is in becoming. Today we know something for true that tomorrow can be disproved. We thought that fats were the main cause of weight gain and obesity, while we know today that sugars are dominant actors. Look at the Depp-Heard trial, and how cards changed from one day to another.

Masters in the same discipline disagree on things like the approach, the fundamentals, the exceptions, and so on. Most of the knowledge we acquire is empirical: we learn by experience. Everyone can tell you that the other method is better, and the other information is more accurate.

It is up to you to take on a few tools and make your way. It is also up to you to make fine judgments and acknowledge that you can’t be always right.

There are battles that you don’t want to win, like these useless debates on Facebook. I personally abstain from them, especially when I feel my blood boiling. What’s my gain? Do I really need to convince the other person to feel better? How would it help the world?

There are then battles that you want to fight, although you do not know the end (low confidence score, he he). Like taking care of the environment and respecting others. From media to individuals, many will try to convince us of stuff. We can be mesmerized or take a step back.

Many people I respect, and I see as role models, due to the specific knowledge they provide or things they do, have also the bad habit to post their extreme opinions on Twitter. It really annoys me, but I take this in context: they are people who live their life, and their job is not to inspire me.

This concludes the third and last part of the article.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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