How To Think
Advice for the semantically and cognitively challenged
Copyright © 2010 by Bill Becker
Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
— George Bernard Shaw
The average man would rather face death or torture rather than think.” —
Bertrand Russell (Cited in The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by James
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.
— Henry Ford
This post is an effort to help those who have trouble thinking clearly, or thinking at all. I
plead guilty to a certain hubris here, but someone has to make the effort. Let me begin with two
examples of fuzzy thinking that are neither uncommon nor harmless.
A few years ago I met a man who appeared to be quite rational. He was a serious man—as are most libertarians—and
he was clearly pleased with his intellectual powers. Toward getting to the bottom of vexing
economic and political problems, we began passing letters back and forth. Because I boasted a
modest background in linguistic philosophy, and had a respectable list of published letters-to-the-editor
to my credit, I naturally made every effort to express my thought clearly and concisely,
and to address specifically the points he mentioned in his letters to me.
It soon became clear that my correspondent and I lived in different worlds and spoke different
languages. In his responses to me, he rarely actually referred back to anything I had said
previously. The major portion of his text was usually boiler-plate, libertarian cant, long- and
well-rehearsed in anticipation of an opportunity to enlighten a benighted compatriot. To his
obvious delight, I was that benighted compatriot.
Finally, as my interest in continuing the dialogue waned, I received his last letter to me.
(It was his last because I did not respond to it.) In my previous letter he had found reason to say
that I was deeply wrong in my categorical condemnations of one thing or another—very likely
corporate behavior. “There is no such thing as always, Bill,” he
wrote with great emphasis. Then, in his very next sentence, he informed me that the liberalism
which I promoted always ended in fascism. [My emphasis.]
As I said, this syndrome is neither uncommon nor harmless. Millions of people seem not to
have the ability to remember their own words, or to understand the meanings of what they say.
And, these people vote.
The second, more recent, example caught me unawares. To make a long story short, it involves an August 2009 conversation with two conservative friends,
whom I will call Dick and Jane. As an example of the political right's penchant for saying things that are somewhat untrue, I mentioned Sarah Palin's
spurious accusation that President Obama's health care plan would
create "death panels." Now, Dick usually let Jane do the heavy lifting in our political conversations, but here he felt that he had to confront me directly.
"She didn't say that, Bill," he said emphatically. "Listen to what she said."
Now, I had never heard Palin say those words myself, and because there was a non-zero probablilty that I had been duped by a progressive conspiracy of lies
against Palin, I could not unreservedly contradict Dick here. So, I said that I would check it out and get back to them. Which I did.
And, I learned that I was indeed mistaken: Palin did not "say" "death panels"; instead, she wrote "death panels" on her Facebook page:
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents
or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their
"level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."
I copied the page and sent it to Jane by e-mail. Because I knew that Dick and Jane were avid consumers of TV news—mostly CNN and Fox, to hear them tell it—I then asked Jane if perhaps they had contradicted me
because they had not actually heard Palin say those words in any of her several television appearances they had undoubtedly seen on one channel or another.
I also asked if the fact that I myself had mistakeny accused her of "saying" the words instead of "writing" them discredited me as a source of information.
I expected an honest answer, and Jane did not disappoint me:
You are right in figuring Dick and myself, for that matter, were referring to "hearing" Palin say verbally "death panels".
Because the media shows her in favorable light or unfavorable light, depending on the station and their agenda and we did
not see/hear it for ourselves, we believed she didn't say [it]. Obviously we were wrong after reading her Facebook page. She
wrote it rather than said it and did in fact refer to "death panels" within the Obama plan. ... So, you did say "said"
instead of "wrote" BUT that does not negate her poor choice of words. I think she was wrong. As for where we were coming
from, we obviously focused on the verbal because seeing and hearing for ourselves is how we believe and we had not "heard"
it, so your conclusion in your e-mail is correct.
Jane's openness about their own information processing "process" is admirable, but it is breathtaking in it's weakness. Here they have made
a strategic decision that if they do not hear—or, we can assume, read—something themselves, it is highly likely
to be false. Especially if the statement is made by a liberal, of course. Dick's challenge to me left no room for error: "She didn't say that, Bill; listen to what she said."
First, it did not compute for them that they might have missed the program on which Palin made her statement, or, like me, they were not familiar with the
medium in which she made it—here, Facebook.
Second, it did not occur to them that liberals might actually tell
the truth, and that certain assertions by liberals are important enough to be checked out. It was clear that Dick had been deeply offended by liberals' accusation
that Palin lied about "death panels", and, like my libertarian correspondent above, was eager for the opportunity to set a benighted liberal straight.
I am not of course recommending here that whenever we hear a statement about someone, we should automatically believe it. The real issue is the meaning of the
information if it is indeed true, and whether the news consumer is curious enough to do some research to learn if it is true or not. The blanket dismissal of
any allegation one does not have personal experience with is as intellectually weak as the blanket acceptance of the wildest rumor.
The above examples are of a different genre than the problem I want to address now, however: how do we think about ordinary
sentences of ordinary complexity, if you will. I will use myself as the example of how one should
think, or at least try to think, when one comes upon such an ordinary sentence, but one which also
imparts, or implies, profoundly important information.
Sometime after the Iranian students took American Embassy staffers hostage in Tehran on
November 4, 1979—the event that would bring down president Jimmy Carter—I was reading the
Letters section of the Los Angeles Times. One letter about the hostage crisis contained the
following assertion—or one so close as to be its equivalent:
"If America had not overthrown the democratically elected Iranian Prime
Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iran today would be a happy, healthy democracy, and a
good friend of the United States."
Now, the national mood at the time was outrage—at the Iranian students, at the ayatollahs
who gave their blessing to the hostage-taking, and at Muslims in general. The letter-writer was
clearly trying to plant a seed of objectivity in the minds of thousands of angry greater-Los Angeles
residents. Maybe, he or she suggested, the Iranian students had, if not good, at least
understandable reasons to be so angry as to flout accepted international law by kidnapping the
American diplomatic corps—reasons that could be understood even while not condoning youthful
This letter-writer's purpose would of course be obvious to those who are used to thinking.
For those who are not used to thinking, let us now parse the statement into its significant parts, so
as to make even clearer ideas that are not particularly abstruse in the first place.
First, we have the lead phrase: "If America had not overthrown the democratically elected
Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953". Those who think recognize this phrase
as containing important information. "America overthrew a democratically elected Prime Minister???" should be the immediate
question asked by the thinking reader. It is of course the question I myself asked. Such questions, for
thinking persons, naturally trigger a cascade of other, logically and semantically related questions.
And so it was with me. "But, isn't America all about democracy? Doesn't America criticize the
Soviet Union just because it is not a democracy? Why would
America do such a thing? Can it be that America is not as moral
as she is made out to be?" As a patriot who loves his country, I could draw only
one conclusion: "I need to learn more about this." Thus began my education on U.S. foreign
policy, which remains my primary interest today.
The second significant phrase in the letter-writer's assertion suggests other questions and
conclusions for the thinking reader: "Iran today would be a happy, healthy democracy, and a good
friend of the United States." The thinking reader understands this to mean that actions have
consequences, and that the American overthrow of a democratically elected Prime Minister 26
years earlier resulted in Iran not being a good friend of the United
(Duh!! as Homer Simpson might say. Contrary to the
mind-set of many non-thinking American patriots, thinking American patriots do not take pride in
the fact that America has been thoroughly disliked by millions of poor people around the world.
We do not attribute this dislike to envy and “hatred of our freedoms.” We know
Implied also are 26 years of non-democratic governance in Iran, and a suggestion of poor physical
health of the majority of the Iranian people for that same period. The thinking reader will infer
that had America not overthrown Mossadegh, there might well not have been a revolution in
which fundamentalist ayatollahs took control of the country, and the rest of the unhappy history
This is a lot of information packed into one sentence of ordinary complexity. This
information, however, is immediately apparent to the thinking reader, and those thinking readers
with enough time on their hands, and who have a penchant for investigation and research, will
follow up on the information so as to learn more. Such readers will then pass along what they
learn to thinking compatriots who do not have such time to delve deeper into such issues. As I
Now, what about the non-thinking reader who comes across the assertion referred to above?
First, he or she—I'll posit a man here—is almost certainly a conservative patriot who has serious
difficulty in even imagining that America can do any wrong. Thus, were he even to be reading the
Letters section of the Los Angeles Times, the sentence might well as invisible to him as an ad for
a subscription to the New York Review of Books would be invisible. This reader will continue in his fantasy
that the United States is always good; that only bad or stupid people—pretty much the rest of the
world, in his opinion—do not understand this. This reader will continue to believe that simply
living his own life—planning next weekend's barbecue, for example—is a better demonstration of
patriotic citizenship than thinking about issues with life-and-death implications.
(Ironically, it is a virtual certainty that this same non-thinking reader believes in
“personal responsibility” with almost religious fervor. That his own lack of insight and curiosity about issues beyond his own
personal ones might contribute to the launching of unneccessary war and destruction does not even occur to him.
When things go wrong, it is always the liberals' fault.
It is not clear what might break through this American's insularity and inspire him to think more deeply about
the world and its peoples, and especially to inspire in him a healthy skepticism regarding
America's purported global benevolence. It is my hope that perhaps a few such patriots whose
complacency has been shaken by events might come upon this page, and take to heart the
guidelines I outline above on how to read ordinary prose containing important information on these