Dennett’s Tips for Better Thinking

Daniel Dennett has a how-to list on better thinking in The Guardian. One thing about advice lists: they may be interesting to peruse, but I doubt they actually prompt sustained changes in how one behaves. In any case, here are some of Dennett’s tips that I found particularly interesting:

Try to acquire the weird practice of savouring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray.

It is hard to admit mistakes, so I am not sure this advice is ever going to be widely followed.

When criticizing others, do it charitably.

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

This I think may be possible. But I would also like to see the art of polemical critique hang on.

Don’t waste your time on the mediocre

Sturgeon’s law is usually expressed thus: 90% of everything is crap. … A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone.

Sturgeon’s law should be better expressed statistically: most of everything is not crap: it is average (the bulge of the bell curve); a bit is crap (the left tail); and a bit is very good (the right tail). So, focus on the right tail.

Dennett also recommends using Occam’s Razor (parsimony), being wary of “deepities” (they sound deep but mean nothing), answering rhetorical questions, and more.


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