Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Why Teach Thinking by Jonathan Baron

I learned about J. Baron from reading Superforecasters, where he was cited in the context of his notion of "active open mindedness". I got so excited that I emailed him, and was very happy (squee) to receive a response within a day. My favorite part of his response (I indicated that I was a Haidt fan):

I have small disagreements with almost everyone, even myself.

First half: focus on systematic thinking mistakes people make. Two broad categories: "myside" bias (very similar to confirmation bias) and over-reliance on broken heuristics. Not really new but definitely insightful and quite early (written in 1992).

Interesting studies cited: - Thinking of reasons on the other side reduced inappropriate extreme confidence in answers to objective questions (Koriat, Lichtenstein and Fischoff, 1980)

  • Being provided with evidence against your point of view can make you more convinced of your position (Batson, 1975).

    • (eg. Striking example involving a group of girls who were convinced of the divinity of Christ became more convinced as a result of the dead sea scrolls which counter the virgin birth and resurrection.)
  • Some people are convinced that one-sided thinking is actually better than two sided thinking (Baron, 1989), even when the one-sided thinker favors the position opposite of their own.

Overall interesting combination of prescience and datedness. For example:

The impetus for teaching thinking in the USA comes from many desires: beating the Japanese in commerce; having demagogue-proof citizens; having more creativity in the popular arts; etc.

Second half: much more focused on expert opinions, and how to evaluate them. A lot more focus on education. Cites Piaget, etc. He sort of lost me and I didn't really see how the first half related.


Update (Dec 2016): After another exchange with Baron, I indicated that I wasn't sold on the expert part of his essay. His response: I missed the point! Quoting Jon:

That last part is the important part. It argues that UNDERSTANDING AOT is just as important as being able to do it. We need to depend on others, so we need to know who we can trust. The basic idea was stated by J.S. Mill in "On Liberty":

The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious.


Update (Jan 2017): I read a fragment of a book on thinking that he sent me. Two chapters are relevant: the first, where he attempts to formalize what thinking is as a process, and then the ninth, on actively open minded thinking.