Learning to think more rationally

Wouldn't it be nice?

Thinking rationally means not being led astray by misleading information, false assumptions and bad arguments. As Daniel Willingham writes for the Scientific American Blog:

[R]ational thinking encompasses our ability to draw justifiable conclusions from data, rules and logic.

It's not always easy:

In general, our brain did not evolve to think in this logical fashion, and some types of reasoning are simply a bad fit for what our brain can do.

And there are things that get in the way — cognitive biases

We tend to fear a loss more than we relish an equivalent or greater gain. For example, most people would turn down a favorable gamble in which they could earn $22 if a coin lands on heads but lose $20 if it settles on tails. Although most recognize that taking such a bet makes sense, people often choose not to because the potential pain of losing often outweighs the pleasure of winning. These types of reasoning problems are widespread and interfere with our ability to cultivate rational skills.

What I found surprising is that when we train ourselves to think more rationally (through that pesky process called education) that training typically does not cross into other domains of life: 

But decades of research have also consistently found that students improve only in the type of reasoning skills emphasized in the course, not in other tasks.

That is, if students work on logic puzzles, they get better at logic puzzles but not at other things, such as forming coherent arguments or winning debates.

This pattern makes sense. Rational thinking requires different skill sets in different situations. The logic we use when interpreting a science experiment is not the same logic we need when buying a car or following a new recipe.

That goes a long way towards explaining how someone can be extremely well educated, but still fall victim to believing silly things outside their own sphere of expertise. I'm reminded of a recent US presidential candidate and acclaimed neurosurgeon who didn't know enough about biology to understand the theory of evolution. 

The full article is available at the Scientific American blog