Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”
If we ever undertake a much-needed overhaul of the way people are taught in schools, we might want to add a fourth R to reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic: rationality. Rationality has the benefit of being a very useful skill that will make you better at nearly any job, while also expanding your range as a person in a way that, say, touch-typing will not. It fits into both a vocational and a liberal arts curriculum. And, to some degree, it can be taught. Organizations such as ClearerThinking.org and the Center for Applied Rationality offer lessons and workshops in exercising good sense.
Rationality, mind you, is more than pure logic. It employs a heavy dose of meta-cognition: thinking about how your mind works and the errors it tends to make. It’s more psychology than mathematics and thus helps solve interpersonal disputes (what assumptions am I making about this guy?) as astutely as it does scientific conundrums (what other explanations fit these findings?). One key element of rationality is knowing how much you don’t know and how much more you ought to know before drawing a conclusion. A new book focuses on those gaps in our knowledge and the power therein.
“Nonsense,” by Jamie Holmes, a fellow at the public-policy think tank New America, explores ambiguity and uncertainty, arguing that in many cases we too quickly run for the safety of certitude. Holmes is a fine writer and a clear thinker who leads us through the uses of confusion in art, business, medicine, engineering, police work and family life, using academic studies and narratives. In the process, he offers several useful takeaways.
The first type of lesson addresses when to induce uncertainty. For instance, ambiguity is good when seeking creative insight. One method for straying into the wild is what the researcher Tony McCaffrey calls the “generic parts technique.” Looking at a set of ingredients, we tend to fixate on their intended function: A candle is for creating light. Instead, list all components with no assumptions about their purpose, and you might find, say, that the string in a candle can tie two objects together. This technique is how Alexander Graham Bell came to see the telegraph as a tool that could transmit voices.
You might also encourage uncertainty after getting feedback — win or lose. Failure typically does that for us, as it upsets our expectations of what works. But sometimes we don’t win for the reasons we think, so if you want to extend the streak, a debriefing is de rigueur. Query what you think you know. Holmes illustrates this principle with a Ducati motorcycle racing team that rested on its laurels and tumbled off the podium, so to speak. Pixar, on the other hand, makes a habit of deconstructing even its blockbusters.
Holmes also touches on formal education. “We need graduates who can tackle problems without obvious solutions,” he writes, and so teachers should offer unfamiliar challenges and sometimes let students wallow in confusion before offering guidance. One researcher suggests “designing for productive failure.” Even just pausing before answering your own question while lecturing, in order to highlight for your audience their ignorance, can help. One study found that professors thought they waited on answers for 10 seconds when in reality they waited for two.
In addition to pointing out the uses of uncertainty, Holmes notes the necessity of merely recognizing its effects on us. Feeling off-kilter in one realm of life can lead us to prematurely seek closure in others, eliciting rash actions or judgments. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, when ways of life were upended figuratively and literally, marriages spiked: People sought security. The researcher Travis Proulx has found that subconsciously disrupting people’s sense of stability — for instance by presenting playing cards with red diamonds and black hearts — can make them compensate by more fully committing to their political beliefs. Research shows that a momentary need for closure also increases stereotyping. Holmes doesn’t mention this, but it spurs superstition and other forms of magical thinking, too. Biased thinking can be counteracted, however, by warnings that you’ll need to defend your assessments to others. Teaching to politicians and the electorate the meta-cognitive skills of rationality might just strengthen our union.
Of course, another whole book could be filled with examples of the destructiveness of obscurity and the benefits of leaping to conclusions. There’s a reason we evolved to make calls before all the facts are in: The facts are rarely all in. Holmes might have mentioned, say, the documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” which explored the strategy of questioning the facts on climate change in order to delay action. Here is a case where increasing uncertainty may have a catastrophic downside — preventing us from saving the planet. Similarly, we don’t want ambiguity in an airplane flight manual.
“In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know,” Holmes writes. “It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.” That’s a broad, unfalsifiable statement (the kind required on a book’s back cover), but it’s hard to deny that, in addition to smarts and stamina, self-awareness also enables success. If we want people prepared for the work of life and of living together, we should encourage lessons in the art of skepticism. When searching for solid answers, the best place to start is with solid questions.
By Jamie Holmes
Crown. 322 pp. $27