Scott H Young

Don’t Think For Yourself


If you care about being correct more often, here’s a handy rule of thumb:

Figure out which groups of people have spent their lives studying the issue you want an answer to. If there is a significant majority who believe conclusion X, then make conclusion X your default answer unless you have very strong evidence to believe otherwise.

Put even more simply: “When you want the right answer, find out who the experts are and believe what they believe.”

People already do this with topics they have no emotional investment in. When physicists say they discovered the Higgs’ Boson, I take it at face value. However, when it comes to accepted theories global warming, economics, evolution, nutrition and psychology people are full of skepticism and pet theories.

When it Hurts to Think for Yourself

We strive to teach people to think for themselves and mock people who accept answers simply because of authority. While this policy has good intentions, it has some serious problems.

First, many subjects are enormously complicated and time consuming to fully understand. Yes, we can chastise people for not making themselves fully informed, but this is a wasted effort. The amount of knowledge in the world greatly exceeds what the average person can or is willing to consume. Advising people to “think for themselves” on every topic is a recipe for shallow observations.

Second, this is the kind of advice that is applied selectively. We all, subconsciously, accept the value of expertise. I cede to Stephen Hawking when he tells me something about black holes. However, we tend to use the “think for yourself” justification to ignore equally informed opinions in sensitive topics. Selective skepticism can be more dangerous than outright gullibility, because at least the latter won’t get biased results.

My advice isn’t to cede your thinking ability, merely that the default position for all beliefs should be the majority view of experts of that field. Only once you’ve done a comparable amount of research and study on the question as those experts, does skepticism bear fruits.

Who are the Experts?

People have varying answers to this question. Some people would argue that only scientists fit that bill, and within them, only the hard sciences where millions of repeated experiments have proved theorems to incredible accuracy.

This kind of thinking is too strict. While it’s true that physics has more rigorous standards for evidence than economics, that doesn’t mean your opinion about economics is equally valid as the body of work of thousands of people spending, collectively, millions of hours investigating such problems.

What we really want is a group of people who (a) have studied the topic in question more than most other groups and (b) don’t have significant biases or incentives to distort information.

Academia fits this bill pretty well for most topics. The problem with other sources of information, is that they often study the issues in question less or they have larger incentives to distort. Writers like me are a weaker source of expertise for that very reason: I’m paid by how many books and courses I can sell, and how many people want to read my work, not directly on how truthful it is. While I still trust and listen to other writers, if they make a claim that is obviously out of line with more authoritative sources, I side with professional researchers.

There are domains of knowledge which academia doesn’t cover, or doesn’t treat as an important concern. In those cases, I’d look at people who have studied the topic for considerable time and don’t have considerable incentives to distort. Writers, professionals and role models can fill these gaps.

What if the Experts are Wrong?

The experts are often wrong. However, they’re wrong a lot less than the average person. And, unless you’ve studied the topic for a comparable length of time as the typical expert, they’re wrong about it less often than you are.

The justification for trusting a group of experts needn’t be based on their infallibility. It only needs to assume that they are, on average, more reliable in their judgement than you are.

Some people might suggest that this would have compelled trusting alchemists for their model of chemistry in the middle ages. To which I would say yes. The alchemists were definitely mistaken. However, the point isn’t that they were wrong, but that had you lived along side them, your pet theory of chemistry would probably have been even worse.

Fallibility of a source of information doesn’t logically permit you to believe whatever you feel like.

Majority, Not Outlier Viewpoints

When I say that you should believe what experts believe, I don’t mean you should believe what one expert happens believes. With millions of PhDs, it’s never very hard to find one person who has non-standard views. What you should be looking for are areas where most people within that field agree. If 99 people with PhDs in math believe 2+2=4, you can safely ignore the one guy who thinks it equals five.

A big problem with reading articles and books on topics, is that they tend to come from a single author. However, because popularity and controversy are positively correlated, this tends to overrepresent quacks in the space of easily accessible ideas.

A better place to start is to look at more neutral sources to get your ideas. Textbooks, classes and even Wikipedia pages, are all more likely to tell you what the majority of a profession think, instead of the one random outlier.

Don’t Teach the Controversy

If a debate exists between sizeable fractions of a group of experts, it is worth understanding both sides of the debate. However, more often the case is that a debate consists of a handful of outlier experts against a more or less consensus viewpoint.

Like the “think for yourself” heuristic, people are quick to point out the controversy if they dislike the majority viewpoint. Don’t like what biology has to say about evolution? Well it’s only a theory. Don’t like what climatologists have to say about global warming? Well the jury’s still out. Don’t like what economists have to say about price controls? Hey, there’s some people who disagree!

If a viewpoint is uncontroversial within the selected class of experts who study the problem full-time, but controversial outside of it, you can trust it’s the people on the outside who are wrong.

How to Figure Out What Experts Think

Unfortunately, this is often the more difficult part. Expert opinions tend to come to us filtered through journalists, television personalities and authors. Some of these people do a good job at translating, but there is a considerably higher incentive to distort than within academia.

Sometimes this incentive to distort comes from creating false controversy. Making a subject seem more controversial is an easy way to grab more news coverage for an idea.

Sometimes the incentive is to simplify needlessly. A quick, recitable slogan may be easier to pitch than reality even if it doesn’t fit the facts.

Sometimes the incentive is to lean on the expertise of others for credibility, but then to say whatever you feel like. You can trust that any self-help book that uses the word “quantum” is of this sort.

Finding out what experts actually think about issues can be tricky. My advice:

  • Read more textbooks and take more courses
  • Read the Wikipedia articles on a topic (or on a book, if it’s famous) to see whether the book/ideas you’re reading are biased in any way.
  • Read what other experts have to say about the books you read
  • When you can, look at surveys like this to get better statistical analysis of what are indeed the majority viewpoints.

Lining Up Your Beliefs With Other Experts

Thinking what experts think sounds like a cop-out. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a lot of work to line up your beliefs with what experts think. You have to go out and read what they say about different topics, and if you want to have more robust opinions, you have to study a little bit about why they say it.

Thinking for yourself, by contrast, is the easy way out. It gives you the freedom to selectively apply skepticism to any answer that makes you feel uncomfortable, all with the easy justification that you’re an intelligent, rational person.

Thinking for yourself certainly beats thinking by popularity, but that’s hardly the only alternative. For almost any possible question, there’s probably a group of people who have thought deeply about all the possibilities and tried to determine which fares the best on the balance of evidence. Making these your default answers goes a long way to making you smarter and more effective.


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23 Responses to “Don’t Think For Yourself”

  1. Christina says:

    Great article! I’ve always taken the “think for yourself” mantra to mean don’t trust the media/pundits/conspiracy-theory-chain-emails. But it does leave you wide open to confirmation bias.

    I’ve found that Google Scholar is a great resource for cutting through media sensationalism. Usually, just reading the abstract can tell you if it’s been interpreted reasonably.

  2. Leo says:

    Hey Scott, interesting article. I like how you phrase it as the default position.

    From your research, what do you believe is the majority opinion of the experts about the best way to learn a language? I’m guessing what you’re doing? Forcing yourself to use the language as much as possible in a practicle way?

  3. Luis says:

    Interesting point, I guess its good advice when making decisions in complex environments.

    However certain decisions related to creativity and new product development I´m not that sure its better to ask or trusting your own instincts.

  4. Christian Kleineidam says:

    If you criteria for expertise is whether someone spent their whole lives studying an issue priest have a bunch of expertise. The religous crowd did beat the atheists in a ideological turing test contest (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/ideological-turing-test-contest) . The person who organised the contest converted to catholicism which was the religion of the person who scored best.

    Do you really advocate to go down that road?

    As far as comparing yourself to academics, if the courses on learning that you sell don’t work that’s bad for your business. If the advice that a academic gives on learning doesn’t work, he doesn’t have any problem.
    The academic get’s “payed” for publishing papers in journals that publish big claims. Not much different than being payed for how many books are sold.

    I once tried to learn what academics know about reading to learn something applicable to speed reading. The academic went on about Heidegger notion of meaning. He was moving within the academic discourse instead of trying to produce useful knowledge.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >the point isn’t that [the alchemists] were wrong, but that had you lived along side them, your pet theory of chemistry would probably have been even worse
    I’m not so sure about that. I think you’re making the mistake of trying to account for all counter arguments, instead of just accepting the example of alchemists as very weak evidence against your main point.

  6. Max says:

    Scott, great article! The majority’s opinion (among randomly sampled people) is often wrong when it comes to science and psychology (I don’t know enough about economics or politics). But the majority’s opinion among a group of advanced researchers in their fields will more often be right than that of the population.

    And I agree, unless someone has studied a field extensively, there’s really no point of bringing controversy without a substantial amount of experiments backing it up.

    Christian, in his article Scott did not say that it is the opinion of “someone” with considerable expertise that matters, but the opinion of a “group of someones” with considerable expertise.

    Priests have a lot of expertise on Catholic faith (for example). And if someone wants to know more about the Catholic faith then they should definitely talk to a number of priests (not just one). But I would never trust a priest to tell me how the biology of the human mind and body works, or how planets move through the universe. They have no replicable experiments in those areas.

  7. Mike says:

    Why is there a need to have an opinion on things one knows nothing about? The default answer to something you know nothing about should be “I don’t know.” You will very quickly be made to look a fool when claiming things you don’t understand. Knowing the limits of your knowledge is more useful than being correct in public forum.

  8. Tavi says:

    OT, but why have you stopped doing Daily Logs for the Portuguese mission?

  9. Martin says:

    Wow! What a great reflexion on the subject! I always valued my own opinion so much, especially for the topics that I have researched extensively! (I did my Master’s degree in International Relations) It’s very interesting to get a different perspective on that!

  10. Scott Young says:

    Tavi,

    We have been doing them semi-regularly, I’ve just been lazy about uploading them. Will upload a bunch right now!

    Mike,

    This isn’t about subjects one knows nothing about, but the ones where one knows a bit. There’s plenty of subjects where people have an opinion, which disagrees from the majority viewpoint of experts, and when confronted with that conflict haphazardly point at weak counterarguments to defend their view. This heuristic short-circuits that entire process, saying basically a much larger burden of evidence is needed to have a contrarian viewpoint.

    Christian,

    I would say priests are conditional experts. Meaning “IFF god exists (and in particular, the way that Christianity roughly suggests) THEN priests are experts in that domain”. However, as with all logical statements, if the first part is false, that means that the whole proposition is false and therefore they aren’t experts.

    I would, instead, move one level up the chain. What do philosophers (who aren’t bound by particular assumptions in their thinking) believe about theism/atheism? In this case, a survey of professional philosophers found overwhelming support for atheism. So, sorry, I’m afraid the priests opinions don’t count.

    http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

    Ability to convert audiences and passing ITTs are great, but unfortunately, also not related to any of the argument I made in the previous article.

    As for comparing journalists/academics, I’d say that all sides face bias, but my feeling is that the biases are stronger in journalism than academia (particularly once you start ignoring particular studies/results, and focus on what topics have strong consenses).

    Leo,

    Immersion and input seem to be two roughly equally popular methods, although the philosophy seems to run along personality types as well, which makes me think neither is a strictly universal approach.

    Luis,

    It’s good advice mostly for big, foundational ideas. Extrapolating to specific situations can often be difficult, so I think there’s more flexibility in running your daily life.

    -Scott

  11. Julia says:

    An interesting topic Scott. I think that we naturally tend to believe and follow information from whatever we may feel to be a ‘trusted’ source. However with the ever surrounding presence of Internet, media and televison, it can be difficult to know how diluted information is that we’re receiving and to what extent our beliefs and education arell inherently influenced by our environmental, social and cultural bias.

    Being a free thinker is fine, but to truly talk with conviction on a subject we have to understand it inside out (impartially), which clearly takes time and research too. Many people prefer to speak on a subject as if they were an expert, when in fact they know little about it or are just regurgitating what they’ve heard from an ‘expert’. Maybe a strong minded person should think for themselves and then conclude that they don’t know the subject well enough to have formed an well educated opinion yet!

  12. Tony Khuon says:

    Scott, interesting post. This reminds me of Bayesian probability. Take the base rate as your default position, adjust probability according to particulars.

    I think most of the action is in who you choose as your “experts.” Scientists are great, of course, but economists have as many university degrees and appear to know diddly about how the macro-economy actually works (see 2008 financial crisis). It would be dangerous to credit their opinions as much as a physicist.

    Thanks for the article! I’ll have to chew on this one :-)

  13. Scott Young says:

    Tony,

    Agreed. Hard science trumps social science in terms of the strength of the prior, but the inability for a group of experts to predict an event doesn’t discredit them under this heuristic, unless there is another group who systematically offers better predictions on the same subject.

    My sense is that economists know micro better than macro, but I’d still side with broad consensus opinions from macroeconomics over non-experts.

    -Scott

  14. Fabiana says:

    Hi Scott, I’m not sure my comment was sent?! Anyway, I think a good example of this is “medicine based on evidence”, so you act according to what’s been most effective with extensive research, like guidelines from the American Heart Association, or meta- analysis. I wrote a bit more about this, but those are the basics. You then have to adapt it a bit to where you are/ different diseases prevalent or different limitations… And have develop an eye for certain things.

  15. Adrienne says:

    I don’t understand the praise with this post, as I think the approach it purports to learning is dangerous. If you actually want to learn something, you should think about it for yourself before deciding to adopt the view of an expert’s. Searching for answers is like being asked to be spoon-fed the solution instead of thoughtfully and independently examining the problem.

    Montaigne remarks:
    “We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbour’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home. — [Plutarch, How a Man should Listen.] — What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?”

    Feynman remarks something similar, he never liked taking the concepts of physics for granted, rather, he would spend hours breaking a problem down and working it out for himself before accepting it as a truth. I think this is one of the qualities that made him such a strong scientist — not only his deep curiosity for how things work, but also his stubbornness in accepting what experts had apparently already discovered.

  16. kaerber says:

    Not thinking for myself, and contacting Wikipedia about alchemy, here’s what I see about alchemy:

    “It is recognized as a protoscience that contributed to the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Alchemists developed a structure of basic laboratory techniques, theory, terminology, and experimental method, some of which are still in use today.”

    So, some quack ideas aside, it was pretty good for its time.

  17. Scott Young says:

    Adrienne,

    You’re unfairly equating the process of learning (which involves a lot of thinking through the rationale’s deeply and not simply accepting them as facts to be memorized) with the process of forming default beliefs.

    My rally isn’t against people learning more, or that they should learn unthinkingly. My rally is against selectively being “skeptical” of a body of expert consensus that you happen to dislike.

    Scientifically-minded people who decry when people reject evolution for being “just a theory” or global-warming deniers, but then ignore majority viewpoints in economics as being from the “dismal science” are guilty of this kind of selective adherence to expertise when it doesn’t suit their worldview.

    -Scott

  18. Every age suffers from the fact that its contemporaries can look back at the follies of yesterday but vision into the future escapes every generation. We cannot know now, how silly the opinions of today’s scientific experts will look to the scientists of a thousand years from now.

    Fortunately, for many things it really does not matter to the average bloke what the experts think. This old world has seen a lot of expert consensus come and go and it will keep on spinning long after many of the opinions of today’s experts have joined the dust bin of laughable ideas like bloodletting. The scientific experts agreed it was the best way to save Lincoln. The outcome for him was not laughable.

    Now if you are suffering from something that is threatening to take your life, I’m not saying that before you go under the knife you should not consult as many experts on what ails you as possible. Certainly that is when knowing what the experts think could make a huge difference. But knowing what the expert consensus is does not guarantee that following their advice will save your life, following their advice is just your best bet.

    There are just too many things this present age does not know. I suspect it will remain that way for many more generations to come. I’m not trying to diminish what science has accomplished; on the contrary I’m astounded by the progress made just in my lifetime.

    What I’m suggesting is that we as a species could benefit from becoming more comfortable with not knowing everything. It’s the realistic approach to life because; like Scott said we cannot know it all.

    Experts are human, humans can be wrong, but the truth of something does not depend upon what the experts or any of us think. I believe there are absolute truths, but I accept that what I believe may not be absolutely the whole truth.

    By the way, if anyone ever tells you there are no absolute truths, ask him if he is absolutely sure of that (pause here if you don’t immediately get that one).

    Take the existence of a creator. Let’s suppose for a moment that a supreme being actually does exist and has always existed. If there were such a being, even if all the experts and all the people in the world agreed that such a notion is preposterous that consensus would not threaten in any way the existence of an actual supreme being. The existence of an actual all powerful, all knowing God does not depend on anyone accepting the reality of his existence.

    On the other hand, let’s suppose for a moment there is no God, no creator, then even if everyone in the world believed in a creator that would not in fact bring him into existence. The simple truth: what is is, what ain’t ain’t.

    Just to set the record straight, after being a devoted atheist for twenty-eight years I underwent a spiritual experience that was of such a profound nature that, for me there was no choice other than to mark it up as having been touched by an unseen power outside myself. From that day forward my belief in God has never wavered.

    Now of course, that belief did not mean I had to check my brain at the door leading into the church. I did then and still do accept that the operant word is “belief”. I’m human; therefore I accept that I could be wrong.

    So suppose again that I am in fact wrong, that there is no God, no life hereafter. Suppose this is the only life we have. When you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s it. When I die, I who believed in a life hereafter will not know I was wrong. And the atheist who dies will not know he was right.

    Let’s flip the coin, suppose I was right, that there is a God, a life hereafter, a heaven and a hell. When I die I’ll certainly know that I was right to believe in God and of course the atheist will know he made the wrong bet (thanks Pascal).

  19. Duncan says:

    Adrienne,
    I can see where you’re coming from and greatly respect Montaigne’s wisdom (as well as your appropriate quotation). I don’t see how this article suggests an approach to learning per se.

    One of the earlier paragraphs pre-empts your contention.

    “… many subjects are enormously complicated and time consuming to fully understand. Yes, we can chastise people for not making themselves fully informed, but this is a wasted effort. The amount of knowledge in the world greatly exceeds what the average person can or is willing to consume. Advising people to “think for themselves” on every topic is a recipe for shallow observations.”

    Of course you should learn what you can about the world and nurture educated beliefs, but that is wholly impractical when it comes to /everything/ that exists.

  20. George Mason says:

    Your rule of thumb indeed is handy, we often forget that our own opinions are only valuable to us for the simple reason because we came up with them, not because it’s a relevant statement of pure reason and objectivity, so it’s fairly easy to get clogged in our egos’ operations and overlook the fact that things have a certain way of being without our viewpoint, even without our knowledge of them.
    Thank you for writing this thorough post, I sure enjoyed reading it.

  21. Eric Duprey says:

    Scott,

    I found this post very interesting, because I’m exactly the kind of person who takes expert opinion as default “correct” except in a few areas, and economics and climate science are the main areas where I differ with the majority of “experts” and side with the minority of experts. In economics, Austrian economics provides an inductive / axiomatic solution which seems to me to be more scientific and is better at predicting and explaining the business cycle. In climate science, I feel we lack evidence to make the broad sweeping claims ascribed to the majority of experts. On digging deeper, it seems that actually only 1.6% of the experts support the idea that people are responsible for the majority of warming.

    In all cases, I examine the biases of the majority group. For example, large centralized governments desire inflation and so are motivated to support Keynesian economics, and they desire more regulatory authority and power over businesses and global warming / climate change advocates giving them what they want there as well. Not surprisingly, government supports both groups financially.

    You don’t see the same issues in most hard sciences. There’s no powerful political interests who have a vested interest in supporting or opposing string theory or the existence of a certain species of dinosaur, and in those cases you don’t have to adjust for biases and incentives.

  22. Scott Young says:

    Eric,

    Do they though? Do only 1.9% of climatologists believe in AGW? I too read David Henderson, but I feel he embarrasses himself when he trusts his fellow economists to have more informed opinions of a field they aren’t trained to study. The fact that only some papers directly cited AGW is hardly evidence against it in the same way that if only 1.9% of economics papers said anything affirmative about the minimum wage doesn’t mean that the orthodox opinion is that price controls are bad.

    If you want to argue that climatologists are correct in their predictions of AGW but that we should trust economists to provide us the feasible solutions, that’s a perfectly rational response, but outright denial of AGW, regardless of it’s actual truth value, is simply not a rational stance to take, in the Bayesian sense of the word.

    As for Austrian economics, I never studied them beyond some of their key figures, so I can’t comment. But any axiomatic system which doesn’t use empiricism to defend such laws is philosophy, not science.

    -Scott

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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