Sunday, August 14, 2011

Clear Thinking: An Introduction

When a difficult problem is solved deliberately, it is generally because the right expertise was applied to good information through the right tools as part of a reliable process. These are the essential elements of effective human problem solving. The rest is in the details. We often do less than this because we are also very good at guessing well.

The human nervous system is not a logic engine, it evolved to serve human biology. This has profound implications for the way we think and what we must do to improve our thinking. Our explanations are guided by powerful intuitions that often seem to defy the theoretical ideal of rationality.

Expertise refers to the way a mind with natural learning abilities organizes its experience purposefully for action. This is where our guessing ability comes from. Expertise provides our built-in guidance for effective thinking in particular areas.

Information is the fuel for thinking, without which expertise would be an engine with a dry tank.

Tools and processes are the way we leverage our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.

Exceptional problem solvers make better use of available resources than the rest of us and also gather more of the right resources around themselves. This isn’t magic and it isn’t something we’re born with. Nearly anyone can learn to do these things better. Nearly anyone can learn to make better guesses and also to leverage good guesses into more powerful reasoning.

This book introduces an approach which I call Clear Thinking. The basis of this approach is strategic. Through a realistic and accurate ongoing understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our own mind, we learn to make best use of our ever changing strengths and minimize or compensate for our ever changing weaknesses. In this way we make increasingly better use of our resources and approach the ideal of clear thinking.

You should understand from the start that this is a lifetime learning process. You can’t learn to radically improve your thinking in a weekend seminar, a critical thinking course you can complete in a semester, or even a degree you can earn in a few years. To become smarter you have to learn the mindset, strategies, processes, skills, tactics, and habits of becoming smarter, and this learning is difficult, rewarding, and lifelong.

Clear Thinking is an approach that you incorporate into your daily decision making and problem solving by learning the associated tools and principles and by coming to embody the intellectual virtues shared by the best problem solvers.

Key Points:

--> Useful human knowledge, skills, and attitudes tend to break down into domains. Among other reasons, this is possibly because the human brain is organized into somewhat discrete learning systems for dealing with different kinds of biological needs.

--> Different subjects we learn have their own domain with their own domain-specific rules and methods of study. Our practical abilities tend to be organized into domains for the most part. The domain-specific elements of thinking are critical to Clear Thinking and also to education in general.

--> Most problem solving is relatively routine and involves dealing with particulars of a situation relevant to a specific domain of activity rather than dealing with abstract principles.

--> Since problem solving so often involves dealing with particulars, individual differences in problem solving ability are largely a result of specialized expertise in particular domains rather than a more generalized reasoning ability.

--> Speciallized domain expertise is the result of systematically acquired experience in which we structure our mind in a way that lets us think efficiently about a specific kind of activity in a particular way.

--> We also have important abilities that apply to multiple domains of knowledge at once or which cross domains. These domain-general elements are the ones emphasized when we try to improve problem solving and decision making through “critical thinking” and similar approaches. I have adopted the term Clear Thinking rather than “critical thinking” only because I think the emphasis on criticism can be misleading.

--> Some people are better individual problem solvers than others because they have learned to make use of their cognitive talents, domain-specific expertise, and domain-specific knowledge, by means of domain-general problem solving knowledge, skills, strategies, and attitudes.

--> One of the most critical things we can do in order to improve our thinking is to distinguish domain-specific from domain-general elements. We acquire and apply these different kinds of elements in very different ways and they have different kinds of influence on our thinking.

--> A great significance of domain-general vs. domain-specific elements is partly that more intelligent and more expert problem solvers often make even worse mistakes than less intelligent and less expert problem solvers due to negative artifacts of their abilities such as overconfidence, overspecialization, and the amplification of natural biases.

--> One way we can avoid the worst mistakes is by learning realistically about the strengths and weaknesses of human abilities in general. This becomes an important aspect of our domain-general problem solving knowledge, skills, strategies, and attitudes.

--> The domain-general emphasis of Clear Thinking is mostly intended to make the thinking process more explicit in order to make better use of our guesses. Making the thought process more explicit is the essence of the ideal of rationality.

--> The domain-general elements are also significant because they help us learn how to shift between different perspectives. Importantly, this is not because different perspectives are somehow all equally valid. It is because a perspective is much like a lens which makes some things easier to see than others. Useful bits of knowledge are sometimes obscured by our current perspective, and shifting perspectives can help additional alternatives become more visible.

--> Some groups are better collective problem solvers than others due to differences in the patterns of their interactions in making use of their individual expertise, knowledge, skills, strategies, and attitudes. This becomes another important domain-general element of human thinking.

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