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Ya Think?

Human beings are pretty smart critters, and we are quite impressed with ourselves, particularly when it comes to our ability to think. We even named our species “Homo sapiens,” which translates as “wise man.” That’s a lot to live up to: Sometimes we do a good job of it, other times, not so much.

A veterinarian thinks for a living, so I make a habit of examining how I think and watching out for mistakes. Look at it this way: Let’s say you’re Albert Einstein. No, let’s say you’re so smart that you make Einstein look like Bozo. Let’s say that every day you take ten super-difficult final exams, and every day you score of 99% on every test. Your performance is super-human! You’re amazing! Take a bow! You’re a genius!

But hold on just one cotton pickin’ minute there, Einstein. You made 50 mistakes this week! If you’re a veterinarian, any one of those mistakes could be fatal. Mere super-human performance isn’t good enough when life-or-death decisions are being made.

It behooves us to consider the things we think about – particularly the things we think are true – with an appropriate degree of humility. Every “fact” I accept has embedded within it a long series of assumptions that I take for granted. When I measure a patient’s temperature – a simple test using simple equipment and providing a simple data point – I start with the assumption that my thermometer is accurate. When I make a conclusion regarding a patient’s condition, I integrate a long series of “facts,” including the pet owner’s description of the history of the problem, my own examinations, and test results that often include lists of data points or interpretations of complex images – any of which might be erroneous or out of context. Taken together, these things yield a diagnosis – a true fact – or so we’d all like to believe.

But that diagnostic “fact” is just a construction of my all-too-human mind. It must never be mistaken for something that is actually true. The ‘fact’ of the matter is that any diagnosis, like every product of human thought, is only a theory. Like all theories, a diagnosis implies a certain set of predictions. A good theory makes predictions that come true. When a theory’s predictions fail, it’s time to make a new, better theory.

We humans have a difficult time with this. We like to think that we are right. We suffer from a mental state called “certainty” that blinds us and prevents us from considering new information (such as the failure of our current theory to produce reliable predictions). We cling to our conclusions. It’s as if we’d rather BE wrong than CONSIDER that we might be wrong. Weird, huh? I work to cultivate a healthy distrust of certainty. Experience teaches that I am never so likely to be wrong, as when I am certain that I am right.

I am not suggesting that true knowledge is unobtainable. Rather, I remind myself to be vigilant in my thinking. I am not infallible. Mine is the business of making reliable interpretations of complex and often conflicting or incomplete evidence. I seek to obtain trustworthy knowledge in spite of uncertainty. This cannot be done if I am unable or unwilling to reconsider my past conclusions – no matter how sensible and accurate they might seem. It’s better to see the truth late than not at all.

Certainty is a sham. Even the best-proven theories must be constantly reconsidered in the light of new evidence. Perfectly reasonable assumptions have an amazing way of turning out to be false. What is true inside one animal’s body may not be true inside the next. Tomorrow’s assumptions have yet to be discovered. Shakespeare knew it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Human minds are strange things. We have built within us certain cognitive illusions that have direct effects on our ability to reason. Look up “cognitive biases” on Wikipedia for a mind-bogglingly long list of circumstances that interfere with our human ability to draw reliable conclusions. Contemplating this list is a worthwhile exercise for anyone who seeks to see truth in this complex and confusing world.

None of us can escape our nature: Human beings can only think as human beings do, but by being aware of the way our own minds function, we may someday earn the title “Homo sapiens.”

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