A generation after Kafka wrote to his best friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” 28-year-old Nin writes in December of 1931:
You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterley, for instance), or you take a trip, or you talk with [someone], and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.
With a thankful eye to D.H. Lawrence — whose writing, she believed, first awakened her in this fashion and whom, in a gesture of gratitude, she made the subject of her first book — Nin adds:
Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing.
The following excerpts are taken from Chapter 1 of Adam Grant’s book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. The title of this chapter is “A Preacher, a Prosecutor, a Politician, and a Scientist Walk into Your Mind.” Since these are all Adam’s words, I’ve omitted quotation marks. However, emphasis is my own.
We need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.
With advances in access to information and technology, knowledge isn’t just increasing. It’s increasing at an increasing rate. In 2011, you consumed about five times as much information per day as you would have just a quarter century earlier. As of 1950, it took about fifty years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every seven years, and by 2010, it was doubling in half that time.
The accelerating pace of change means that we need to question our beliefs more readily than ever before. This is not an easy task. As we sit with our beliefs, they tend to become more extreme and more entrenched. I’m still struggling to accept that Pluto may not be a planet. In education, after revelations in history and revolutions in science, it often takes years for a curriculum to be updated and textbooks to be revised. Researchers have recently discovered that we need to rethink widely accepted assumptions about such subjects as Cleopatra’s roots (her father was Greek, not Egyptian, and her mother’s identity is unknown); the appearance of dinosaurs (paleontologists now think some tyrannosaurs had colorful feathers on their backs); and what’s required for sight (blind people have actually trained themselves to “see”—sound waves can activate the visual cortex and create representations in the mind’s eye, much like how echolocation helps bats navigate in the dark).* Vintage records, classic cars, and antique clocks might be valuable collectibles, but outdated facts are mental fossils that are best abandoned.
We’re swift to recognize when other people need to think again. We question the judgment of experts whenever we seek out a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. Unfortunately, when it comes to our own knowledge and opinions, we often favor feeling right over being right. In everyday life, we make many diagnoses of our own, ranging from whom we hire to whom we marry. We need to develop the habit of forming our own second opinions.
As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three different professions: preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. In each of these modes, we take on a particular identity and use a distinct set of tools. We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.
A DIFFERENT PAIR OF GOGGLES
If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data. In the past century alone, the application of scientific principles has led to dramatic progress. Biological scientists discovered penicillin. Rocket scientists sent us to the moon. Computer scientists built the internet. But being a scientist is not just a profession. It’s a frame of mind—a mode of thinking that differs from preaching, prosecuting, and politicking.
We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge. Scientific tools aren’t reserved for people with white coats and beakers, and using them doesn’t require toiling away for years with a microscope and a petri dish. Hypotheses have as much of a place in our lives as they do in the lab. Experiments can inform our daily decisions. That makes me wonder: is it possible to train people in other fields to think more like scientists, and if so, do they end up making smarter choices?
Just as you don’t have to be a professional scientist to reason like one, being a professional scientist doesn’t guarantee that someone will use the tools of their training. Scientists morph into preachers when they present their pet theories as gospel and treat thoughtful critiques as sacrilege. They veer into politician terrain when they allow their views to be swayed by popularity rather than accuracy. They enter prosecutor mode when they’re hell-bent on debunking and discrediting rather than discovering. After upending physics with his theories of relativity, Einstein opposed the quantum revolution: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.” Sometimes even great scientists need to think more like scientists.
THE SMARTER THEY ARE, THE HARDER THEY FAIL
Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.
One study investigated whether being a math whiz makes you better at analyzing data. The answer is yes—if you’re told the data are about something bland, like a treatment for skin rashes. But what if the exact same data are labeled as focusing on an ideological issue that activates strong emotions—like gun laws in the United States? Being a quant jock makes you more accurate in interpreting the results—as long as they support your beliefs. Yet if the empirical pattern clashes with your ideology, math prowess is no longer an asset; it actually becomes a liability. The better you are at crunching numbers, the more spectacularly you fail at analyzing patterns that contradict your views. If they were liberals, math geniuses did worse than their peers at evaluating evidence that gun bans failed. If they were conservatives, they did worse at assessing evidence that gun bans worked.
In psychology there are at least two biases that drive this pattern. One is confirmation bias: seeing what we expect to see. The other is desirability bias: seeing what we want to see. These biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence. They can actually contort our intelligence into a weapon against the truth. We find reasons to preach our faith more deeply, prosecute our case more passionately, and ride the tidal wave of our political party. The tragedy is that we’re usually unaware of the resulting flaws in our thinking. My favorite bias is the “I’m not biased” bias, in which people believe they’re more objective than others. It turns out that smart people are more likely to fall into this trap. The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations. Being good at thinking can make you worse at rethinking.
When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles. We don’t preach from intuition; we teach from evidence. We don’t just have healthy skepticism about other people’s arguments; we dare to disagree with our own arguments. Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.
That rarely happens in the other mental modes. In preacher mode, changing our minds is a mark of moral weakness; in scientist mode, it’s a sign of intellectual integrity. In prosecutor mode, allowing ourselves to be persuaded is admitting defeat; in scientist mode, it’s a step toward the truth. In politician mode, we flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks; in scientist mode, we shift in the face of sharper logic and stronger data.
DON’T STOP UNBELIEVING
As I’ve studied the process of rethinking, I’ve found that it often unfolds in a cycle. It starts with intellectual humility—knowing what we don’t know. We should all be able to make a long list of areas where we’re ignorant. Mine include art, financial markets, fashion, chemistry, food, why British accents turn American in songs, and why it’s impossible to tickle yourself. Recognizing our shortcomings opens the door to doubt. As we question our current understanding, we become curious about what information we’re missing. That search leads us to new discoveries, which in turn maintain our humility by reinforcing how much we still have to learn. If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.
Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure. When we shift out of scientist mode, the rethinking cycle breaks down, giving way to an overconfidence cycle. If we’re preaching, we can’t see gaps in our knowledge: we believe we’ve already found the truth. Pride breeds conviction rather than doubt, which makes us prosecutors: we might be laser-focused on changing other people’s minds, but ours is set in stone. That launches us into confirmation bias and desirability bias. We become politicians, ignoring or dismissing whatever doesn’t win the favor of our constituents—our parents, our bosses, or the high school classmates we’re still trying to impress. We become so busy putting on a show that the truth gets relegated to a backstage seat, and the resulting validation can make us arrogant. We fall victim to the fat-cat syndrome, resting on our laurels instead of pressure-testing our beliefs.
Our convictions can lock us in prisons of our own making. The solution is not to decelerate our thinking—it’s to accelerate our rethinking.
The curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know. Good judgment depends on having the skill—and the will—to open our minds. I’m pretty confident that in life, rethinking is an increasingly important habit. Of course, I might be wrong. If I am, I’ll be quick to think again.
I encourage you to take time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s site, The Marginalian. Then, ask yourself, why ban books? And, who is, that is, which political party, is attempting to do that today?
With his wide cosmic lens, Sagan places the nascent miracle of the written word in evolutionary perspective:
For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.
Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.
Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous. They can put independent and even rebellious ideas in the heads of their subjects. The British Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia wrote in 1671:
“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have [them] these [next] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”
Considering the complex socioeconomic forces that conspire in constricting opportunity and the powerful way in which books counteract those forces — power to which James Baldwin so beautifully attested — Sagan reflects on his own experience:
Ann Druyan and I come from families that knew grinding poverty. But our parents were passionate readers. One of our grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read for the next hundred years. Our parents had personal hygiene and the germ theory of disease drummed into them by the New York public schools. They followed prescriptions on childhood nutrition recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as if they had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Our government book on children’s health had been repeatedly taped together as its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was underlined. It was consulted in every medical crisis. For a while, my parents gave up smoking — one of the few pleasures available to them in the Depression years — so their infant could have vitamin and mineral supplements. Ann and I were very lucky.
With an admiring eye to the example and legacy of the freed slaved turned pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass, Sagan concludes:
The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin…. Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a great book by the brilliant, humble, and awe-inspiring Carl Sagan.
Here’s the book abstract from Amazon:
“Ann Druyan has unearthed a treasure. It is a treasure of reason, compassion, and scientific awe. It should be the next book you read.” —Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith
“A stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being. I miss him so.” —Kurt Vonnegut
Carl Sagan’s prophetic vision of the tragic resurgence of fundamentalism and the hope-filled potential of the next great development in human spirituality
The late great astronomer and astrophysicist describes his personal search to understand the nature of the sacred in the vastness of the cosmos. Exhibiting a breadth of intellect nothing short of astounding, Sagan presents his views on a wide range of topics, including the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets, creationism and so-called intelligent design, and a new concept of science as “informed worship.” Originally presented at the centennial celebration of the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland in 1985 but never published, this book offers a unique encounter with one of the most remarkable minds of the twentieth century.
And, here’s a taste of what to expect—an extract from the Editor’s Introduction:
[Carl] avidly studied the world’s religions, both living and defunct, with the same hunger for learning that he brought to scientific subjects. He was enchanted by their poetry and history. When he debated religious leaders, he frequently surprised them with his ability to out-quote the sacred texts. Some of these debates led to longstanding friendships and alliances for the protection of life.
However, he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed.
Science’s permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe that it revealed. The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic.
The idea that the scientific method should be applied to the deepest of questions is frequently decried as “scientism.” This charge is made by those who hold that religious beliefs should be off-limits to scientific scrutiny—that beliefs (convictions without evidence that can be tested) are a sufficient way of knowing. Carl understood this feeling, but he insisted with Bertrand Russell that “what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out, which is the exact opposite.” And in all things, even when it came to facing his own cruel fate—he succumbed to pneumonia on December 20, 1996, after enduring three bone-marrow transplants—Carl didn’t want just to believe: He wanted to know.
Until about five hundred years ago, there had been no such wall separating science and religion. Back then they were one and the same. It was only when a group of religious men who wished “to read God’s mind” realized that science would be the most powerful means to do so that a wall was needed. These men—among them Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and, much later, Darwin—began to articulate and internalize the scientific method. Science took off for the stars, and institutional religion, choosing to deny the new revelations, could do little more than build a protective wall around itself.
Science has carried us to the gateway to the universe. And yet our conception of our surroundings remains the disproportionate view of the still-small child. We are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness, to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature. We batter this planet as if we had someplace else to go. That we even do science is a hopeful glimmer of mental health. However, it’s not enough merely to accept these insights intellectually while we cling to a spiritual ideology that is not only rootless in nature but also, in many ways, contemptuous of what is natural.
Carl believed that our best hope of preserving the exquisite fabric of life on our world would be to take the revelations of science to heart. And that he did. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious,” he wrote in his book Cosmos. “If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.” He lobbied NASA for years to instruct Voyager 2 to look back to Earth and take a picture of it from out by Neptune. Then he asked us to meditate on that image and see our home for what it is—just a tiny “pale blue dot” afloat in the immensity of the universe.
He dreamed that we might attain a spiritual understanding of our true circumstances. Like a prophet of old, he wanted to arouse us from our stupor so that we would take action to protect our home. Carl wanted us to see ourselves not as the failed clay of a disappointed Creator but as starstuff, made of atoms forged in the fiery hearts of distant stars. To him we were “starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of 10 billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
For him science was, in part, a kind of “informed worship.” No single step in the pursuit of enlightenment should ever be considered sacred; only the search was. This imperative was one of the reasons he was willing to get into so much trouble with his colleagues for tearing down the walls that have excluded most of us from the insights and values of science. Another was his fear that we would be unable to keep even the limited degree of democracy we have achieved.
Our society is based on science and high technology, but only a small minority among us has even a superficial understanding of how they work. How can we hope to be responsible citizens of a democratic society, informed decision makers regarding the inevitable challenges posed by these newly acquired powers?
This vision of a critically thoughtful public, awakened to science as a way of thinking, impelled him to speak at many places where scientists were not usually found: kindergartens, naturalization ceremonies, an all-black college in the segregated South of 1962, at demonstrations of nonviolent civil disobedience, on the Tonight show. And he did this while maintaining a pioneering, astonishingly productive, fearlessly interdisciplinary scientific career.
Sagan, Carl (2006-11-01T23:58:59.000). The Varieties of Scientific Experience . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The following can also be found at the About page.
Since 2015, I’ve written eleven novels. One thing I’ve learned from fiction writing experts is the importance of character development, especially for the story’s protagonist (aka, hero). A common ingredient in great stories is for the hero to have a positive character arc. This means, she (or he) will mature enough to overcome a weakness by the end of the story, and thus be prepared to live a better life. This maturing means she learns something new, which obviously means at the beginning of the story there are things she doesn’t know or her knowledge is incomplete or confused.
Novels represent a story world and its occupants. These stories often feel more real than the world you and I experience. However, one giant similarity between our world and story worlds is we, as characters, start off knowing very little. As time goes by, through formal schooling and life experiences, we learn more and more. Sometimes, often really, we grow stagnant believing we’ve learned all we need to know concerning certain subjects. Take football for example (American football that is). Don’t real zealous fans know more than the refs? You bet we do, and it’s probably okay we don’t invest time learning more.
But, when it comes to more important issues (not to denigrate football), like those involving religion, politics, and science, shouldn’t we choose a positive character arc for our lives? That is, being open to learning which portends assurance we’ll grow and mature as we age. Maybe we need to return to the drawing board and start over (tell ourselves to Think Again, as does Adam Grant in his wonderful book), like a hero does at the beginning of a new novel. For some of us, we might start with assessing our weaknesses which likely include those areas we feel so certain about.
Thus, this positive character arc in real life greatly depends on a commitment to reading. In sum, this process is what I call Reading to Death–to discover and dispel false opinions and beliefs, replacing them with the truth. On the contrary, I suspect a negative character arc will be virtually guaranteed if we fail to actively pursue reading.
So, you want to adopt and implement reading as a lifelong pursuit but have trouble reading for more than a few minutes at a time. Maybe, you could benefit from an active pursuit of mindfulness, what Sam Harris (and others) refer to as meditation. To further understand what I’m talking about, I encourage you to listen to Sam Harris describe the importance of mental training (6 minute audio). Mental Training.
I have but one question. Are you open to challenging your thinking? If so, I encourage you to read this blog. It’s all about challenging the status quo.