Learning How To Think | by AJ

This is a repost of the answer given by AJ to the question: ‘What lessons would you create to teach kids how to think?’.



Learning to thinking clearly is “simply” a matter of unfailingly diligent mental hygiene.

  • Don’t mix strong emotions with intellectual thinking (this is basic)
  • Keep your identity small
  • Identify all the unseen premises
  • Don’t assume (especially, never assume you can’t understand something)
  • Hard but indispensible: Avoid the myriad traps that words create through their vagueness - especially equivocation-based errors. This means always relentlessly seek out clearer and clearer definitions for all strategic terms upon which an argument rests.

The master key that unlocks all of the above is to divorce your intellectual thinking from your social signaling and the authority structure of society. This means way more than just demanding sources. Here’s a quote I liked regarding authority:

Authority is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that its effects are extremely subtle. People think they are not submitting to authority if they question what the teacher tells them, but the real trick is much more insidious: there’s an intellectual attitude the teacher has that the students fails to question, or even notice.

It’s not so much only that you believe in black holes, but that you view them as something to believe or disbelieve in the first place. Not so much that you believe a line is made of points, but that you let the constant equivocation among different definitions of “point” slide. It’s not so much that you accept E=mc^2, but that you go along with the reification of the word “energy” without batting an eye.

Even the rebel cannot escape. They rebel against the church, but they never lose the religious thinking habits.

To escape is like peeling away the layers of an onion. First you stop believing in the facts the authority figure is claiming, and you fancy yourself a rebel. Next you reject their theories or school of thought, believing yourself now truly independent. Then you reject their entire endeavor as fundamentally broken and set out on your own, thinking yourself fully free from authority. 

Eventually, if you’re lucky, you shake that lingering habit that you learned from the top intellectual charlatans, that of being loose with definitions. Finally you see the authority bound up in how society treats words themselves, realize not to ask what a word means but how it could be usefully defined, stop trying to prove definitions, and even embrace visual explanations when possible.

Though most will find the anti-mainstream physics examples bizarre, similar examples could be made regarding the errors of the statist attitudes of political scientists or mainstream economists. The key is that it is not merely wrong facts you have to watch out for, but the positive social association with careless thinking and language-usage habits that comes from listening to a revered authority figure make a bad argument that sounds very good.

For the child, then, the best way not to get them mired in the bad thinking habits of authorities is probably to not present anyone to the child as an authority; each person must rise or fall on his or her own coherence and clarity of explanation. No teacher or famous dead dude is any better than a random forum poster or a friend on the playground unless they can make a case clearly and have good mental hygiene habits.

Beyond that, all there is to do is let their natural curiosity bloom.

  1. nielsio posted this
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