The art of thinking

Nathan Smith
Insights Newsletter
21 August, 2020

“They” say a conspiracy theorist is someone who is correct ten years too early. What’s funny is this is the same definition of an economic forecaster.

In fact, master Keynesian Paul Samuelson once joked that Wall Street has predicted nine of the last five recessions. An “economist” and “conspiracy theorist” are just names for groups of people. But if they are correct at the same rate on really big things, how are stupid people like me supposed to know what’s going on?

Unfortunately, the skills needed to do parse this are exactly the skills schools don’t teach anymore. The internet is full of information, but there’s very little learning going on.

Fighting online conspiracy theories is like playing whack-a-mole. Journalists could spend the rest of their careers bashing them down and achieve nothing. They are trying to tell people what to think, but the better approach is to teach them how to think.

Let’s use a non-Covid conspiracy theory: flat earth. Everybody agrees the earth is flat if they only use their eyes. The horizon is straight, duh.

But with a bit more data, like the angle of shadows at different locations, it appears the world is curved. Basic maths says if you follow that curve, you get a circle. And in the six axes of movement (roll, pitch, yaw, surge, heave, sway) that maths works out to be a sphere.

However, recent data shows the world isn’t a sphere. It’s actually an oblate spheroid, which is another way of saying the earth looks more like a pear than a ball. And even this shape changes over time as the oceans move and earthquakes disrupt the plates.

So, while the earth isn’t flat, it’s not round either. The key is that the scientific method expects to change as more data arrives and measurements improve. At no point was science proved wrong about the shape of the earth. The truth was refined.

What makes an economist or scientist different from a conspiracy theorist is that the former is comfortable saying: “given the data we have today, it appears the world is this way.” Whereas the conspiracy theorist says, “today’s data is correct, so the world must be this way.”

It’s a subtle difference, but the two positions are not the same. One looks at the data and decides what to think, while the other knows how to look at the data. Wouldn’t it be a better world if more were trained in the arts of thinking?

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