/ Life

On thinking critically and skepticism.

It really clicked for me sophomore year of high school. I had gained an interest in eating healthy and was doing a lot of research online to figure out the optimal healthy lifestyle. Now, the area of health can be quite a confusing one seeing as almost every food in existence has an article talking about why it's good for you and another one talking about why it's bad for you. This made it quite difficult to sift through the garbage and figure out what I should really be doing in order to live a healthy lifestyle. It was two simple words that caused a paradigm shift in the way I looked at things - Chris Kresser's self-referential description of a "healthy skeptic."

It's a simple phrase, but it reminded me to think critically of everything I was reading. It brought an awareness to how I was consuming and internalizing information. I learned to consider the author's motivations, funding sources, and other implicit biases. I learned how facts can be presented in deceptive ways. Those articles which seemed to oppose each other with one saying a food is good for you and the other saying the same food is bad for you? I realized that no food is entirely good nor bad, but rather there are parts of a food that good for you and parts of food that aren't as great for you. Some people focus on the good, some people focus on the bad. From this, I learned to look at the facts and make my own conclusions, rather than automatically following the conclusion of the author.

I began to not only consume information, but to develop a system for internalizing what I was reading. I formed a mental model of what I believed health to be, and evaluated ideas against this model. When an idea conflicted with my mental model, I was forced to dig deeper and evaluate which of the two was incorrect. Moreover, I became more selective of the sources in which I chose to consume information from - tending to read only from places which could cite studies from credible journals. Further, I was inherently motivated to search for the truth, not just what I wanted to hear. If my goal was to live a healthy lifestyle, choosing to believe an article talking about "Cookies: the new health superfood" might make me happy because I could eat more cookies, but it certainly won't benefit my health. Thus, I was inherently motivated to set aside any implicit bias in order to figure out what constitutes a healthy lifestyle.

However, it is important to note that skepticism is not a habit reserved for external ideas - there were times when my internal mental model was incorrect, and I had to be willing to challenge my own ideas of what a healthy lifestyle included. Jumping forward to college, a couple of other experiences have deeply engrained in me the habit of challenging my ideas.

One of my mentors told me a story about his time at $\lbrack$company$\rbrack$ that stood out in his memory:

One day I was walking through the cafeteria of $\lbrack$company$\rbrack$'s research headquarters and saw the head of research sitting at a table talking. While he spoke, all of the five other people sitting at the table nodded in unison, appearing to be blindly following the leader without question. When I saw this, I told myself I never wanted to be in that position where everyone follows along without thinking critically and challenging each other.
He then went on to explain the importance of surrounding yourself with people that will challenge you. I *really* adopted this mindset after spending a summer interning at Red Hat, whose culture is based on a meritocracy. At Red Hat, the best ideas won no matter who proposed it. They've been able to cultivate a culture with a fluid exchange of ideas, where every idea is challenged, and the best ideas float to the top. I grew to _**love**_ when people would challenge my ideas in conversation because it provided me with the chance to strengthen my thoughts. *(Shoutout to Mark DeMaria for our numerous conversations where I'd throw out a half-baked thought, and you'd challenge it and help me form a more complete idea.)*

Fake news

There's been a lot of talk about fake news lately with some claiming we've entered the "post-truth" era and studies showing that students are often unable to separate fact from fiction.

This "post-truth era" title sounds alarmist until you consider its merit.

Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof. - John Kenneth Galbraith

Everyone keeps talking about how fake news is a problem. But why is it a problem? It's a problem not because the information is false or misleading, it's a problem because people believe it and share it with their friends. If everybody were to critically examine fake news and properly label it as trash, no one would share it and the incentive to create fake news would vanish. However, this is clearly not what has happened.

Why is that so? In her talk, "Why you think you're right -- even if you're wrong," Julia Galef presents this notion of "motivated reasoning." This concept acknowledges that certain ideas which are aligned with our beliefs are "allies," and we want them to win, while other ideas which contradict our beliefs are "enemies," and we tend to shoot these ideas down. If you're watching a sports game and the referee makes a call against your team, you're motivated to find a reason why this call was poor judgment, but if the referee makes a call against the other team, you're much less motivated to find fault in his decision.

In order to successfully advance society in a benign direction, we must consistently examine ourselves, our ideas, and our social norms in a critical light. We must remember that knowledge is what we know, what we consider to be true, but it is not inherently truth. Our collective knowledge evolves over time as we continue to learn about the world.

We must recognize that progress in the world results from seeking the truth, not self-affirmation of one's beliefs. And above all, we must take the time and intent to apply these habits of thinking critically and skeptically in search of the truth in our daily lives.