I like to portray myself as a wholly rational kind of person, one who takes in all the available evidence before making a conclusion. It’s actually rather inhibiting when I’m writing something as there are a lot of times when I have an opinion on something (and feel it would make a good post) but the amount of research required to either confirm or deny my point of view is prohibitive. Despite this though I’m still riddled with many internal biases towards certain subjects and no matter how good the evidence is on one side I’ll still get some horrible cognitive dissonance when I think about them.
The best example I can think of was my previous (mostly unknown and unspoken) stance on global warming. Up until around 2 years ago I had this deep rooted feeling that whilst climate change was happening the notion that we had anything to do with it, or even that it was that big of a threat to us, was just some form of hyperbole from the environmentalists. This wasn’t helped by my favourite pair of magicians, Penn and Teller, running with the idea that man-made global warming was bullshit on their show. Indeed even up until a year ago whilst my conscious self would take the evidence based approach I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that I was wrong on some level.
One notion I’m still wrestling with is the idea of free will in a deterministic universe. I took the idea of free will as a given and much of society is based around the idea that we’re directly responsible for the actions we undertake. On the other side of the coin however we have a universe which, as far as we can tell, is almost wholly deterministic. This means that everything, from the motion of the stars to my motivation for writing this very blog post, arise from a strict set of rules that don’t change. The notion of the universe being deterministic then is devastating to the idea of free will, unless you rationalize it out in some way.
For now that’s the part I’m still struggling with, figuring out whether I rationalize it away or if I take the hard determinism route and just straight up say free will doesn’t exist. Eventually I’ll find something that convinces me or some key argument will wear away at me until I come to a conclusion. Strangely though it probably won’t be a conscious “yes this is my opinion now” moments, more one day I’ll no longer feel the cognitive dissonance that I usually feel when the subject comes up and then I’ll know that I’ve changed one of my subconscious beliefs. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon though as I’ve been wrestling with this idea for the better part of a year now.
I find this interesting as even though I try my darnedest to be a fully rational actor I still can’t escape the rule of beliefs that I hold for no reason in particular. The key then is understanding when you have a belief like that and then working to either fully accept it (if you agree with it that is) or working to convince yourself otherwise. For me the effort of maintaining the right belief consciously eventually won out but it’s definitely one of the more mentally exhausting processes I’ve undertaken. Once I was aware of this process though it became a lot easier, well at least for all the smaller issues anyway…
I was never a big fan of writing. I’m a very stereotypical nerd/engineer in that respect as I always struggled to get my thoughts down on paper, especially when I was told I wasn’t elaborating enough. I became frustrated with the arbitrary word counts as everything I needed to say could be summed up in a couple paragraphs and struggled with gathering supporting arguments. It got easier when I started writing documentation professionally, since all you really need there are the facts, but I only really started to enjoy writing about 6 months after I started this blog when I started to force myself to punch out at least 1 post per weekday.
I’ll be honest with you though, I still struggled with the basics for quite a while. Back then inspiration was a lot easier to come across than it was today (thanks to me not having a massive back catalogue of stuff I’ve already written about) but writing anything more than 500 words was a complete chore as the engineer in me yelled continually that anything more was just me waffling on. Over time however I came to realise just how to trigger that part of my brain that knows how to break down a subject into several key points that I can then turn into a paragraph each and now I routinely find myself writing 1000~2000 word posts on things that I’m passionate about.
Of course the small bit of recognition I get amongst my friends and peers for my various musings here go a long way to keeping me coming back to continue writing. It’s why whenever I hear about a friend starting up a blog I’ll link to them, subscribe to their blog and comment on their posts as I know how hard it is when you’re first starting out. I was shouting into the darkness for a good year before I got anything above what I’d classify Internet background noise so I know exactly what it can feel like to do something with seemingly no return. Of course most of the benefits don’t come from page views, but they certainly help to keep you on track to improving your writing (and hopefully other aspects of your life too).
Now I don’t necessarily recommend doing what I do exactly as whilst it’s been immensely helpful for me it’s also had the rather undesirable side effect of giving me a crazy OCD for getting a post out every day. Whilst some of my most complimented bits of writing come from the days when I have to drag inspiration kicking and screaming out of the dark reaches of my brain it would probably be a whole lot better, at least creatively, if I only wrote when the inspiration hit me. Indeed some of the best blogs I read come from those who only write when they really have to. That’s not to say that all my posts are forced out (the majority, thankfully, aren’t) but unless your goal is SEO and page views blogging or writing whenever suits you is probably the best option.
I’d also go out on a limb and say that any sort of online creative expression (whether blogging, vlogging, tweeting or whatever) will help you better yourself in some way. Of course I think some mediums are better for certain things (blogging is best for writing, of course) but giving yourself some sort of creative outlet, even if you think you aren’t that good, will do wonders for you. Sure many people already have these, especially those who make a living off their creativity, but having your own place of expression where only you are in control is definitely something worth having.
I’m not going to say that everyone in the world should blog, more that if you’re looking for a sure fire way to improve your writing and being able focus your thoughts then starting a blog might be the way to go. Plus there’s always the possibility that what you jot down will gain you an audience that will keep coming back for your musings, something that’s extremely gratifying (even the trolls, to a point). Hell if you’re worried about what people might think then just open up notepad every time you want to write something down and save the files off in some random location. Even doing that I think you’d be surprised of the improvements after a while, I know I certainly have.
I make no secret of the topics that I have absolutely no idea in. Sure I’m able to make an educated guess about most things but I will usually seek an expert or experienced person in a field if I want to know something about it. This is why I always find it strange when people start bashing doctors or lawyers when they themselves have little to no experience in their field. Whilst I thought that this was probably the right way to rationally think about things it turns out I might actually be following my natural instincts closer than I thought:
Financial advice can make us take leave of our senses, according to research that shows how the brain sets aside rationality when it gets the benefit of supposedly expert opinion.
When a bank manager or investment adviser recommends a financial decision, the brain tends to abdicate responsibility and defer to their authority with little independent thought, a study has suggested.
Such expert advice suppresses activity in a neural circuit that is critical to sound decision-making and value judgments, scientists in the US have found.
Their results may explain why people are so apt to follow experts’ recommendations blindly, when a little reflection might be sufficient to suggest an alternative course of action.
This also brought up a good point about leadership in the workplace. Working as a contractor I’m often asked my opinion on matters to see what someone from outside the organisation thinks. However whilst I may bring a different opinion to the table I’ve noticed that people do tend to switch off the critical thinking whilst they’re talking to me, and become far too agreeable to some of the things that I propose. I’ve seen this happen with big projects as well, once an external agency wins a contract they will usually do work their way and the client will usually adapt themselves to agency rather than the other way around.
So thinking back to my distrustful friends it became clear that the best way to deal with a subject that you have no experience in is to first educate yourself about it. Wikipedia is great for this as it provides a good overview of a topic with links to further reading should you wish to pursue the topic any further. Once you know a little bit about the subject you can then ask the right questions of the experts, and get a feeling for when an answer is out of line.
I think the main problem with naively trusting the experts is that whilst they might be very well versed in their particular field of study they probably aren’t the definitive source on that topic. I know when people ask me about certain topics (virtualization is a great one) I’ll be able to answer 95% of questions off the top of my head. After that my answers start to get peppered with “I think” and “should be” but most people don’t hear this and will take that 5% of answers as expert opinion. Having a little knowledge in that area would hopefully give them enough scepticism to see when I started to walk outside my expert boundaries and trigger them to do their own research.
Overall developing a base level of knowledge and treating experts with a small dose of scepticism will ultimately leave your more informed and will keep your brain from switching off it’s critical thinking when someone floods you with facts. Wikipedia and Google are your friends here, but remember to treat them just as you would any other expert.