Becoming an Effective Skeptic: End Belief, Faith and Certainty

By | August 9, 2007
Think

“I don’t know.”

Perhaps the three hardest words to say in the English language. But perhaps they are also words we should be using more often. You don’t have to look far back into history where people believed things that we would now see as ridiculous: a flat Earth, a sun that orbits us or that blood letting was an effective medical practice.

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Similarly I don’t think you need to look far back into your personal history to find examples of where you have been wrong. Relationships you felt would last forever that didn’t make three weeks. Career paths you ignored. Beliefs you held that turned out to be false.

Benefits of Skeptical (and Critical) Thinking

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There are a lot of practical applications for using skeptical thinking. Unfortunately, with the recent popularity of programs like The Secret and positive thinking self-help, rational thinking is being subverted for a self-induced placebo effect. Here are some benefits you can get from using skepticism on practical matters:

  • Creativity – The best way to prevent new solutions is to believe you already have the answer. Allowing a gap of doubt can allow creative alternatives to flow in. If you are adamant that advertising will not work for your product, you might cut off hundreds of ideas for improving your business.
  • Planning – Assumptions are the enemy of planning. A common rule of thumb for software development is to plan to use double the amount of time you need; then add six months. Write your plans too narrowly and they may collapse under new information.
  • Quickly Integrate New Facts – When you also maintain a small margin of doubt, you can allow in new facts easily. If you are completely certain your approach is perfect, you won’t be able to adjust when evidence points that it isn’t.
  • Reveal Weaknesses – Many of the things that sabotage your efforts will be completely unknown. Thinking critically and examining the information can reveal some of these traps.

Becoming a Better Skeptic

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Here are some ways you can integrate healthy skepticism into your life:

  1. Measure – Get the numbers and use them as a basis for improvement. Avoid subjective judgements where possible. The data usually won’t provide the whole story, but it provides a solid foundation for drawing conclusions.
  2. Examine Your Scale – Data itself is worthless with a broken scale. Take steps to regularly ensure that your numbers are measuring what they need to. Getting caught in meaningless statistics is worse than having no data at all.
  3. “What if I’m wrong?” – I try to ask myself this question whenever I need to make large assumptions. Examining both potential sides leaves you an exit route if the information turns out to be false.
  4. Know the Unknowns – Figure out the unknowns in any project or endeavor. You can’t account for every missing variable, but being aware of them will help you react if new information comes in. If you are making a career decision, what unknown factors is that based on? That you will enjoy the work? That you will be challenged? Knowing these unknowns will help you if the information later changes.
  5. Cut the Arrogance – Part of healthy skepticism, is removing the arrogance that comes from a certainty you know what is right. With humility comes the ability to change your course of action as new information arrives.
  6. Develop an Escape Route – Some assumptions are pretty fundamental. I have a strong assumption that when I try to walk, gravity still works. But you should also have escape routes for what information would break your assumptions. I assume regular exercise is good for my health. But if several independent sources gave me evidence to show it wasn’t, I would stop.
  7. Fuel Curiosity – Skepticism doesn’t need to lead to cynicism. Having doubts, or uncertainties about basic assumptions should inspire curiosity, not despair. Fuel your urges to discover and you can balance out the natural urge to reject opposing information.
  8. Play the Devil’s Advocate – Spend a bit of time thinking through some of your problems if your assumptions were reversed. Not only will this keep you on your toes, it can yield creative new answers. If your business is based on the assumption that you need to work many hours to be successful, what would happen if that assumption was reversed and working more wasn’t necessary or had a negative effect?
  9. Seek Contradictory Viewpoints – Look for opinions that clash with yours. This could be in the form of people, books or classes that confront your assumptions. I know people who believe entrepreneurship and capitalism are the source of societies woes just as I know people who believe the opposite. By listening to both sides and empathizing with their perspective I can form stronger ideas.
  10. Test – Measurement is good, but active experimentation is better. It is easy to simply go with your intuition when finding an answer. But it is more useful to actually test out the ideas. Personal experimentation, whether it is with a new diet or a business plan, won’t be as perfect as a scientific study, but it can still provide better information than simply making up your mind in advance.


Avoid Turning Skepticism into Cynicism

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Healthy skepticism, questioning your underlying assumptions and introducing doubt, can be helpful. Cynicism takes it further where doubt becomes mistrust and paranoia. Avoid that trap. Become an effective skeptic and be able to take the best information available and knowing what information you need to be proven wrong.

The brain is a tangled web of information. We don’t remember single facts, but instead we interlink everything by association. Anytime we experience a new event, our brains tie the sights, smells, sounds and our own impressions together into a new relationship.

Our brain remembers things by repetition, association, visual imagery, and all five senses. By knowing a bit about how the brain works, we can become better learners, absorbing new information faster than ever.

Here are some study tips to help get you started:

1. Use Flashcards

Our brains create engrained memories through repetition. The more times we hear, see, or repeat something to ourselves, the more likely we are to remember it.

Flashcards can help you learn new subjects quickly and efficiently. Flashcards allow you to study anywhere at any time. Their portable nature lends them to quick study sessions on the bus, in traffic, at lunch, or in the doctor’s office. You can always whip out your flashcards for a quick 2 to 3 minute study session.

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To create effective flashcards, you need to put one point on each flashcard. Don’t load up the entire card with information. That’s just overload. Instead, you should dedicate one concept to each card.

One of the best ways to make flashcards is to put 1 question on the front and one answer on the back. This way, you can repeatedly quiz yourself into you have mastered any topic of your choice.

Commit to reading through your flash cards at least 3 times a day and you will be amazed at how quickly you pick up new information.

As Tony Robbins says,

“Repetition is the mother of skill”.

2. Create the Right Environment

Often times, where you study can be just as important as how you study. For an optimum learning environment, you’ll want to find a nice spot that is fairly peaceful. Some people can’t stand a deafening silence, but you certainly don’t want to study near constant distractions.

Find a spot that you can call your own, with plenty of room to spread out your stuff. Go there each time you study and you will find yourself adapting to a productive study schedule. When you study in the same place each time, you become more productive in that spot because you associate it with studying.

3. Use Acronyms to Remember Information

In your quest for knowledge, you may have once heard of an odd term called “mnemonics”. However, even if you haven’t heard of this word, you have certainly heard of its many applications. One of the most popular mnemonic examples is “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. This is an acronym used to help musicians and students to remember the notes on a treble clef stave.

An acronym is simply an abbreviation formed using the intial letters of a word. These types of memory aids can help you to learn large quantities of information in a short period of time.

4. Listen to Music

Research has long shown that certain types of music help you to recall information. Information learned while listening to a particular song can often be remembered simply by “playing” the songs mentally in your head.

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5. Rewrite Your Notes

This can be done by hand or on the computer. However, you should keep in mind that writing by hand can often stimulate more neural activity than when writing on the computer.

Everyone should study their notes at home but often times, simply re-reading them is too passive. Re-reading your notes can cause you to become disengaged and distracted.

To get the most out of your study time, make sure that it is active. Rewriting your notes turns a passive study time into an active and engaging learning tool. You can begin using this technique by buying two notebooks for each of your classes. Dedicate one of the notebooks for making notes during each class. Dedicate the other notebook to rewriting your notes outside of class.

6. Engage Your Emotions

Emotions play a very important part in your memory. Think about it. The last time you went to a party, which people did you remember? The lady who made you laugh, the man who hurt your feelings, and the kid who went screaming through the halls are the ones you will remember. They are the ones who had an emotional impact.

Fortunately, you can use the power of emotion in your own study sessions. Enhance your memory by using your five senses. Don’t just memorize facts. Don’t just see and hear the words in your mind. Create a vivid visual picture of what you are trying to learn.

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For example, if you are trying to learn the many parts of a human cell, begin physically rotating the cell in your minds eye. Imagine what each part might feel like. Begin to take the cell apart piece by piece and then reconstruct it. Paint the human cell with vivid colors. Enlarge the cell in your mind’s eye so that it is now six feet tall and putting on your own personal comedy show. This visual and emotional mind play will help deeply encode information into your memory.

7. Make Associations

One of the best ways to learn new things is to relate what you want to learn with something you already know. This is known as association, and it is the mental glue that drives your brain.

Have you ever listened to a song and been flooded by memories that were connected to it? Have you ever seen an old friend that triggered memories from childhood? This is the power of association.

To maximize our mental powers, we must constantly be looking for ways to relate new information with old ideas and concepts that we are already familiar with.

You can do this with the use of mindmapping. A mind map is used to diagram words, pictures, thoughts, and ideas into a an interconnected web of information. This simple practice will help you to connect everything you learn into a global network of knowledge that can be pulled from at any moment.

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Learn more about mindmapping here: How to Mind Map to Visualize Your Thoughts (With Mind Map Examples)