Category Mind

Question Templates

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Posted by on December 23, 2011

I have been told, in a variety of cultural contexts, that it is important to ask “Why?” about things. Ask it often, ask it of everything. But there is a virtually unlimited space of possible questions to ask. I could ask “what’s your name?” or “what’s the meaning of life?” or “how do I make sandwiches?” The short answer is that asking Why is likely to lead to valuable information than most other questions are. To understand why that is, we’ll need a model of Why questions, and what their answers are, and why those answers are valuable.

But first, I’d like to clarify our goal here. It’s good to ask why things are; there’s no need to belabor the point. It frequently leads to valuable information.

But that information runs out.

You can ask “Why’s that?” about almost anything. In other words, Why is not so much a question as a question template, with a blank to fill in; you don’t just ask Why, you ask it of something that you want to learn more about. But if you fill in the template, ask why something is, and find an answer, there is little point in asking it of that same thing again – you’ll just get the same answer back again. If you ask Why, but you don’t find an answer, or you find an answer that’s unilluminating, you’ve reached a dead end, and again, there’s little point in repeating the question.

If you encounter something new, which doesn’t relate back to your existing knowledge, then asking Why gives you one chance to relate it back to what you know. If that fails, you’re stuck, and your mind will probably not retain the disconnected knowledge. Or maybe you’re using Why to explore, by asking Why about many different things. After awhile, you’ll hit diminishing returns; the answers start to look familiar, you’ve asked it of the things that were most important to ask about, and the frontier of your knowledge grow in such a way that “why?” leads mostly to dead ends, because those will be the places where you could not push it.

But what if “Why?” is only one of many good, widely-applicable question templates, which will also frequently lead to valuable information? Well, then we’d want to know what those templates were, be able to fill them in and answer them effectively, and have some idea of when they’re likely to lead to insight, and when they aren’t.

Question templates are like directions; you can start from any fact or concept, apply different templates, and find other concepts nearby. From a given starting point, some directions will be blocked (the question template is inapplicable or unanswerable), and others passable. The fact that a template leads you from one concept to the other creates a relation between them (and conversely, a relation suggests a template.) Apply the same template repeatedly, and you’ll end up far away, in unrelated concept space; but templates often come in opposing pairs, so if you ask Why followed by WhatIf you get something more closely related to your starting point than if you had asked Why followed by Why. Some facts and concepts turn up unusually frequently as destinations; these are important. Others are dead ends; applying question templates to them fails, and they never turn up as answers either.

Over the course of my life, I picked up question templates, I got better at predicting which directions would be passable and where they would lead, and I learned my way around central concepts. As I did, the world got clearer; less mysterious, less confusing. In my next articles, I will share some of the templates I have collected. But first I’m going to wait a bit, to let you think and share yours first, in the hope that there are more which I have missed.

Two Definitions for Critical Thinking

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Posted by on December 15, 2011

Critical thinking is a very important set of skills that every adult should have, and if everyone learned critical thinking, then the world would be a better place. Or would it? What does “critical thinking” even mean? It turns out that the phrase “critical thinking” has two different meanings.

Stop for a moment and try to figure out what those meanings are. They correspond to different meanings for the word “critical”.

A critical1 step is a step which you can’t skip, or else something bad would happen. Under this definition, a critical1 thinking skill is any mental skill that’s important, because you’ll make mistakes if you don’t have it or don’t use it. For example, if someone can’t recognize when they’re confused, they’ll have a hard time fixing errors and gaps in their knowledge. Under this definition, critical1 thinking literally means “important thinking skills”, and saying “critical thinking is important” actually means “there are thinking skills which it is important to have and to use”. This turns out to be true – very true – but people have historically done a bad job at figuring out what those skills are and how to teach them. Fortunately, major progress has been made in the past few years, and so, while the curricula are still a bit rough around the edges, it’s now possible to set out to develop critical thinking, and actually do it.

On the other hand, a critical2 response means a response that’s negative, that focuses on flaws. So critical2 thinking would mean challenging ideas as they’re presented – looking hard for inconsistencies, demanding strong evidence, etc. – to see if they hold up. In other words, skepticism. There is a narrative in which critical2 thinking is important, which goes like this:

People hear some true things, which are right and good and cause people to succeed, and they hear some false things, which are wrong and tricky and cause people to give money to villains. When ideas are challenged, they will hold up if they are right/good and fall down if they are wrong/tricky. Therefore, we can make people right and good by encouraging them to challenge more things, and challenge them more effectively.

Unfortunately, this narrative falls down on several points. First, it turns out that people end up only challenging the things they disagree with. Critical2 thinking skills help people resist changing their minds. That’s bad. It’s especially bad because beliefs start as first impressions, before the evidence comes in – which means not changing your mind means that evidence has less effect on your beliefs. Second, it’s entirely negative. If you successfully challenge the idea that rain is caused by crying spirits, you still haven’t learned anything about what does cause rain (I hear it’s something to do with meteorology). And finally, critical2 thinking tends to negatively affect peoples’ personalities – it encourages the bad habit of being critical towards people, not just ideas.

So there you have it: critical thinking1 is good, but vague, while critical thinking2 is bad, or at least easy to take too far. To keep these concepts straight, we need to give them distinct names. Critical2 thinking already has one – it’s skepticism. Critical thinking1 doesn’t have its own name – but the word “critical” in it is superfluous, so we can just call it thinking.

Now let’s all build our thinking skills. After all, they are critical.