Tag Archives: thinking

The Path from Belief to Knowledge: 5 Levels of Certainty

how to think like a scientist

An old friend of mine recently told me that video games are harmful for my kids’ brain. When I asked him why he thought that, he didn’t bring up some scientific data or research. Instead, he pointed to an acquaintance of ours whose kids are gifted and guess what? They never play video games.

I was flabbergasted.

How can a university-educated man show so little critical thinking and make such unbridled inference? Of course, I quickly made him admit that a ton of other variables could play a role here. And even if a correlation existed, as any college freshman knows, it wouldn’t imply causation.

This story highlights one important fact about belief and knowledge.

As Gary Marcus shows in Kluge, humans often believe first and think later, rather than the other way around. In other words, once we decide that something is true (for whatever reason), we’ll look for reasons to support that belief. The conclusion comes before the premises.

This is a fascinating topic, which I’ll explore in a future post, but today I want to talk about the truth. No less.

How can we make sure that A causes B? How do I know if video games will really damage my kids?

Here are 5 degrees of certainty.

  1. Anecdotes. People just love anecdotal evidence (ex: this cured my brother-in-law), because it’s vivid and personal. But understand this, it’s the weakest kind of proof you can offer.
  2. Experts’ opinion. Experts’ knowledge is more comprehensive, but it often suffers from biases.
  3. Empirical research. This is where beliefs start becoming knowledge, but its reliability level greatly varies due to the presence or not of controls (variables and groups) and peer review.
  4. Meta-analysis. When findings of several independent studies point in the same direction, your claim rests on a solid foundation.
  5. Mega-analysis. When meta-analyses say the same thing, this is as good as it gets. A good example is Hattie’s Visible Learning, which is a synthesis of 800 meta-analyses including 80 million students.

As a peak learner, assessing the validity of new data and current beliefs should become a reflex. Using the 5 levels of certainty presented here can be an excellent start.

Why I Send My Kids to A Traditional School (Old vs New School)

old school teaching

My two daughters attend a good old traditional school. They wear a uniform, learn respect, and have to memorize things. A lot of things. Sentences, formulas, dates, and many other facts.

Is this focus on raw knowledge justified? Is there a case to be made for rote learning? The answer is yes. If you want to become a peak learner, you first need to prioritize memory over thinking.

The supporters of the modern curriculum like to quote Montaigne, who famously preferred a well-made rather than well-filled head. They also argue that facts quickly become obsolete, are easily forgotten, and memorizing them is often a waste of time since so much info now lies at our fingertips. So learners should instead hone their reasoning, creativity and critical thinking.

No doubt, such skills lie at the core of what peak learning is. Relying on rote learning alone would restrict you to solving past problems.

But developing your thinking without a solid mental database is like starting a building without having all the necessary material. It’s counterproductive, and the best planning and building skills can’t make up for the lack of material.

As Hirsch notes in his famous essay “You Can Always Look It Up”, a simple definition can only be understood if you already know a large part of what you read. Ironically, you learn what you already know. That’s why experts are peak learners. They learn more, better and faster, precisely because they have access to a rich repertoire of knowledge.

Like in all things, balance is key. Learning without thinking leads nowhere, but reasoning and analyzing without having a good grasp of the facts will often prove as sterile.

Do you want to be a peak learner? Do like my kids. First master the fundamentals; then the higher levels of thinking will come naturally.

Why I Turned Off Talk Radio and Tuned In to Music

music vs talk radio

Until recently, I looked down on people who listened to music while commuting.

What a waste of time. Why not make the most of this downtime by getting fresh news and opinions. Don’t you want to be the most informed person in the room? It’s enticing, but no thanks. As I’ve come to realize, such input gets you nowhere.

Yes, you guessed it. I’m a new convert of the low information diet. Here’s why.

Whenever you commute or operate on autopilot, your brain is on one of the three following modes. You either focus on what is in your head (deep thinking), on your environment (info receiving), or have no focus at all (mind wandering).

There’s no way you can become a peak learner if you don’t develop your thinking power, and that means making more room for the first mode.

No doubt, the acquisition of new information is crucial. As Benjamin Bloom showed, higher-order thinking skills feed on it. But a peak learner must filter and limit incoming information.

Tim Ferris nailed it when he said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And guess what? Attention is the fuel of deep, clear and creative thinking. So any new information that doesn’t make you think should be sorted out as entertainment. 

Finally, our third mode of thinking, mind wandering, shouldn’t be dismissed as totally worthless. For starters, it’s our brain’s default mode of operation (we typically spend almost half our time there). But more importantly, this mode is highly conducive to creative insights, as it fosters idea associations.

During downtimes, try to reduce information input and daydreaming, and engage in effective thinking (i.e. leading to an outcome), such as problem solving, problem finding and planning (for your next blog post for instance).

So next time you’re driving, do like me. Tune in to music (or turn off all noise) and start thinking.

Happiness Is An Empty Head

thinking optimization

One of my colleagues lives in perpetual bliss. Do you know his secret? He keeps his mind in the present and won’t let his pre-frontal cortex interfere with his life. Of course, such a strategy has the downside of severely limiting your growth, doesn’t it?

But recently, I’ve found a way to reach his level of happiness without sacrificing my future.

You first need to understand that our brain was originally programmed to live in the present. Our memory basically works as an adaptive mechanism, and our planning skills seem to be quite recent. But if you try to follow nature and don’t have tenure, our result-oriented world will eat you alive.

So how can you reconcile your psychological makeup with the demands of your environment? The key is to regularly empty your head into a bucket (i.e. your system). As David Allen brilliantly puts it, your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.

Next, you need to schedule time to think; otherwise, you won’t ever think. Seriously. Thinking doesn’t feel natural; it requires time and energy. Most people regurgitate and play back stuff in their mind and call this thinking.

Once you do regular brain dumps and develop effective thinking habits, you’ll be able to afford to walk around with an empty head like my colleague. Such peace of mind will increase not only your happiness, but also your thinking power.

After freeing up some psychic space, get ready to receive your best ideas.

3 Reasons Why You Should Stop Reading And Start Writing

why write

I love the fields of learning and cognitive science, and I’ve read plenty of books on these topics. But now I need to stop the information input and start producing some output.

Here’s why.

First, Tim Ferris is right. Reading too much and using your brain too little make you fall into lazy habits of thinking. As a knowledge worker, your first job is to think and create new knowledge. Integrating information is only the first part of the equation. At some point, you need to achieve your full potential.

Second, as Cal Newport points out, when it comes to learning, nothing beats active recall. Do you want to make new information stick in your long-term memory? Describe and organize that information in your own words. And, as any creator knows, this strategy is best achieved when you decide to put digital pen to paper.

Finally, what defines an expert isn’t the size of his/her knowledge, but rather the way it’s organized. Here again, writing is key, because it forces you to structure your thoughts. Eventually, you’ll find the core concepts or big ideas to base your expertise on.

As a knowledge worker, you need to invest in your main capital, that is knowledge. Writing will enable you to reach a level of thinking where new knowledge is created.

So even if nobody reads your blog, feed it regularly; it’s the surest road to becoming a peak learner.