In writing this article, I don’t want to come across as a pompous know-it-all; I’ll freely admit that I’m no genius. But I have taken several college courses and read many books on philosophy, the scientific method, and critical thinking. It has taken me to the point where I now visibly wince at some of the shoddy thinking I often witness. I’ve been guilty of my share of shoddiness in the past as well, so I just want to share what I’ve learned, and some of the things that would be good for all of us to avoid.
The dirty dozen
Here, then, are a dozen ways not to think, with some great examples (mostly provided by our good friends at the Watchtower.)
1. Make up your mind to avoid thinking.
First of all, if we’re not going to think, then let’s be forthright and determined and make no qualms about it. Here’s a good example of the sort of thing we should explicitly tell ourselves:
Avoid independent thinking…questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization.
(Watchtower, Jan. 15, 1983 pg. 22)
That’s right: don’t think! Let someone else worry about thinking. The notion of “Group Think” is a great substitute for thinking yourself. If you decide to let a group think for you (as the Watchtower recommends, above) be sure to never question their counsel — as questioning involves thinking.
Instead of thinking, latch onto this group as the ultimate authority on every subject, and believe everything from that source no matter how absurd or how many times it contradicts itself or is proven wrong.
2. Fully embrace confirmation bias.
This just means that you should only pay attention to the things which tend to confirm your beliefs, and ignore those which might lead you to question your conclusions.
For instance, many people believe that crazy things happen during a full moon. I’m sure they’re right, but they’re ignoring the crazy things that happen when the moon is not full. If they took them into consideration they would realize that the craziness is not caused by the moon being full.
Here’s another example: At one point in my life–many a decade ago–I thought I was having precognitive dreams. I was astounded when something I dreamed actually happened the next day. But I was forgetting about the thousands of dreams I had that never came true. When I factored them in, the small percentage of “hits” was easily explained by coincidence.
But let’s turn to our favorite source for some examples:
The Watchtower dutifully reports on the complications that can sometimes occur with blood transfusions. But they don’t report on the other millions of units of blood successfully and safely transfused each year–a statistic which renders blood transfusion one of the safest of all routine medical procedures. This confirmation bias assists Witnesses in the belief that they are not missing out on anything worthwhile when denying their dying children this life-saving medical procedure.
It’s easy to use this beneficial tactic to avoid thinking, especially when you have a group that will do the work for you of sifting through the data and picking out just the fragments that agree with your preconceived notions and actively suppressing the rest. Witnesses are truly blessed in this regard!
The Watchtower takes confirmation bias to a whole new level: Instead of just relying on our human tendency to only pay attention to what tends to confirm our beliefs, they actually know full well that the abundance of evidence is against them, and deliberately suppress it: shielding Witnesses from ever having to even consider its existence! What a “blessing from Jehovah!”?
For a blatant example of this type of mental dishonesty, please see: Did Jesus Die on a Cross or a Stake?
3. Throw away Occam’s Razor.
“Occam’s razor” [aka “the principle of parsimony”] refers to the simple idea that you shouldn’t come up with some elaborate, convoluted explanation for something when there’s a simple explanation that fits the facts equally well or better. More precisely, it states that you should choose the explanation which makes the fewest assumptions.
For instance, let’s take two competing explanations for the lack of historical records about Jesus.
One explanation is that Jesus didn’t exist as depicted in the Gospels (i.e. as a wonder-worker.)
The other explanation is that there is an invisible malevolent spirit being (i.e. “Satan”) who prevented historians from taking note of Jesus.
Occam’s razor would cut away the second explanation since it requires an additional assumption: the existence of influential spirits.
Turning to a Watchtower example: what are the possible explanations for their prophecy regarding 1914 being the “end of the time of trouble”?
One explanation is that they are false prophets.
Another explanation is that they had the date right, but the events wrong, and then subsequently got the events right but the consequences wrong (preaching for over 50 years that the generation that witnessed the events in 1914 “would not die” before Armageddon), so they “adjusted their understanding” only to get it wrong again (thinking the generation referred to worldly people) until finally(?) deciding upon the current “overlapping generations” understanding. If this current understanding is true, then 1914 was not a “false prophecy” but just the result of the “light getting brighter.” or so the argument goes.
Occam’s razor would cut away the second explanation with its multiplying assumptions which feebly try to “save the hypothesis.” This would leave us with the former simple explanation: they are false prophets.
4. Don’t listen to Your Critics.
Critics may point out flaws in your arguments, causing you to rethink your position. We want none of that! In sticking to our goal of not thinking, it’s best to ignore critics. Or better yet: denigrate them as mentally incompetent evil “liars”– giving yourself a justification for paying their criticisms no heed. In addition–though it may not be honest–not having to consider the other side of your arguments is a great time-saver, and less anxiety producing.
Once again, the Watchtower serves as a sterling role model in this regard:
Well, apostates are “mentally diseased,” and they seek to infect others with their disloyal teachings. Jehovah, the Great Physician, tells us to avoid contact with them.
What is involved in avoiding false teachers? We do not receive them into our homes or greet them. We also refuse to read their literature, watch TV programs that feature them, examine their Web sites, or add our comments to their blogs. – Study Edition of the Watchtower, July 15th 2011, paragraphs 6-7
5. Compartmentalize your beliefs.
Just because you use a logical argument to support one of your beliefs, don’t feel duty-bound to consistently use that same logic on another of your beliefs if the logic would invalidate it.
For instance, the Watchtower uses the argument that Jesus is Michael the archangel because Michael does things Jesus is supposed to do. But Jehovah also does things Jesus is supposed to do (such as act as “our only savior.”) But they certainly don’t see that as a reason to drop the Jesus = Michael argument or draw the conclusion that Jesus = Jehovah.
But my favorite example is this: the Watchtower outlaws birthday celebrations based on the argument that in the only places in the Bible where birthdays are mentioned, the participants were “pagans” and murders occurred. Yet in the only place in the Bible where a siesta is mentioned the participants were “pagan” and a murder occurred. But the Watchtower sees no need to apply their logic consistently by either outlawing siestas or legalizing birthday celebrations.
6. Use circular “reasoning.”
Thinking often involves drawing conclusions and following a flow of logic. Circular reasoning neatly short-circuits this process by providing us with a thoughtless shortcut.
The classic example of this is proving the Bible is God’s word “because the Bible says it is.”
Another example is how we know that the Governing Body is the Faithful and Discreet Slave: “Because they say they are, and the the Faithful and Discreet Slave would never lie.”
7. Use rhetorical tricks to defend your beliefs
Lots of people don’t understand what logic is, or comprehend the principles of critical thinking. So, instead of crafting well thought-out arguments, it’s often easy to fool them with rhetorical tricks instead, such as the following:
Straw-man: Misrepresent an opposing view by either exaggerating some non-essential aspect, or by just making something up about it. Then attack that aspect as if you were disproving the view. A long time favorite is to claim that evolution says we descended from monkeys, and then ask why monkeys are still around.
Ad hominem: Instead of having to think about what a person is saying who is challenging your beliefs, just attack the person. Even though despicable and/or biased people can make perfectly valid and true points, most people don’t realize this, so you can win the argument by attacking the person instead of the argument — without ever having to think about it!
Practice fall-back strategies: These are good to use when you haven’t a clue as to how to possibly save face when your belief has been conclusively shown to be impossible. Repeat after me:
- “Anything’s possible.”
- “After all, nothing can really be proven or disproven.”
- “You have to have faith.”
- “New light is coming.”
- “Smarter people than you believe my way.”
- “You’re just twisting my words and taking them out of context.”
- “Eight million people can’t all be wrong.”
- “Let’s wait on Jehovah.”?
Tell only part of the truth: When the whole truth would reveal a fatal flaw, tell only part of it. That way you can kid yourself into thinking you’re still an honest person (since you didn’t lie outright.)
One example is when the Watchtower tells the media that “blood transfusions are a matter of personal conscience.” They neglect to mention that a transfusion is a disfellowshipping offense that carries the punishment of shunning and a threat of everlasting death.
When backed into a corner, lie your way out. The Watchtower has made it plain that some people don’t deserve to be told the truth, and that it’s okay to lie to them in order to further “the truth”(?!) So, we can avoid having to struggle to come up with a reason for our challenged belief by simply lying about it, and then forgetting all about the challenge.
Great examples of this abound in the Watchtower’s many rewrites of their history. One pearl is when the Watchtower claimed that they never said that the resurrection of the “ancient worthies” in 1925 was a certainty.
8. Practice Kripkean dogmatism.
Named after the person who defined this psychological phenomenon (Saul Kripke), Kripkean dogmatism is yet another useful tool in our thoughtless endeavors. It is as simple as can be: since we know that we are right in our beliefs, it follows that anything opposed to our beliefs must be wrong. We may not be able to figure out a reason why they’re wrong, but we needn’t bother about it: they’re wrong because we’re right and that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter a whit if we can come up with any possible reason to explain why they’re wrong. So, we can safely put our minds in neutral and smugly smile to ourselves as we pass by their arguments.
9. Devalue evidence.
- Remember not to base your beliefs on evidence: you walk “by faith, not by sight.”
- Don’t bother providing evidence to those who challenge your beliefs.
- When your own group makes a claim, don’t expect evidence to be provided.
- But, should your group happen to provide some sort of evidence, temporarily forget about point #1, and whatever you do don’t examine the evidence closely!
- Most important of all, be sure to ignore all evidence of those who disagree with your group’s beliefs.
10. Ignore context.
It’s so much easier to just take everything at face-value than to try and figure out how the context may alter the meaning.
The other day when I got home from work my wife of thirty-years announced “The divorce papers are in the mail and on their way.” Without knowing the context of that statement you would conclude that we are in the process of a divorce. But we’re not, and it would take some explaining of the context to get you to understand that and to see what she really meant. But that involves thinking, and so we’re not going to go there.
Another example is the first century Christians making the statement “abstain from blood.” It’s much easier to take that at face value (as a command for all future Christians to not use blood) than to examine the context and see that it was a temporary measure for a particular set of circumstances current at the time.
The Watchtower, true once again to its impeccable record of eschewing thought, proudly relates how Witness children have lost their lives due to the Watchtower adamantly refusing to consider context.
11. Make good use of the non sequitur.
The non sequitur [Latin for “it does not follow”] is your friend. Use it to construct seemingly good arguments without worrying about their validity. Here’s one:
- Christmas has pagan origins.
- Christians are not pagans.
- Therefore Christians should not celebrate Christ’s birth.
Here, the conclusion (#3) does not follow from the premises (#1 and #2). But, only a thinking person would care about that. It sounds like a good argument. So what if almost everything has pagan origins which Christians (including Witnesses) go along with? Yielding to that argument would not only be abandoning our love for the non sequitur, but would also be a violation of our principle: 5. Compartmentalize your beliefs. As explained above.
12. Force the issue with a false dichotomy.
False dichotomy (aka false dilemma) helps simplify our world into black and white choices rather than a plethora of shades of gray and a rainbow of colors.
When Witnesses are thinking of leaving the organization they are typically asked: “Where else would you go?” Then, to help make clear the proper answer, the wicked world with its “satanic” governments and false religions is pitted on one side against the “spiritual paradise that is Jehovah’s Organization on Earth” on the other. No mention is made, of course, of a good life lived in freedom; that would muddy the waters of the clear choice that is to be made.
Another very popular form of the false dichotomy is the argument from ignorance. Although people-who-think will rightly mention that you can’t prove anything from ignorance, that’s no reason to stop us committed non-thinkers! On one side of the argument we will place ignorance. On the other side we place our chosen belief. Then we simply pretend that these are the only choices. For instance, we can say: “Look, you don’t know exactly how life came about on Earth, therefore Genesis is correct: God created life!” [It’s best to change the subject immediately after such a statement lest someone should speak up and say that it’s therefore just as likely that Herman the giant hedgehog created life.]
Let’s make it a “baker’s dozen” and throw in this bonus point:
13. Find patterns in meaningless random data.
Humans have an evolved tendency to see patterns, even where none actually exist (technically known as apophenia). This is why people see a face in the moon or on Mars (or canals on Mars). It’s also why they see faces everywhere (including the face of Jesus and/or Mary in a taco or whatever.)
Pattern recognition can give you a sense of “truth” (or a corroboration of your “truth”) without thinking! Good examples are the stories in the Bible that the Watchtower has taken and applied its day-for-a-year formula to represent world history.
The Watchtower’s founder, Charles Taze Russell, famously used pattern recognition to bolster his prophetic chronology by faulty measurements taken of the great pyramid of Giza (where bogus “pyramid inches” were used to represent years.) Meanwhile, the patterns of bumps on his head were published in order to impress his followers that he was specially chosen by God for his “great work.”
If you faithfully adhere to the above principles of how not to think, you are entitled to the following certificate:
Note that you needn’t print out the above certificate if you already have a baptismal card; the one will serve as well as the other for certification.
On the other hand…
We could have as easily entitled these dirty [baker’s] dozen: “How not to arrive at the truth.” Yet, it is exactly how the Watchtower has arrived at what it deems “the truth.”
Falling for any one of these thirteen errors will likely lead you astray. The Watchtower has used them all at one time or another to establish or defend their beliefs. Thinking people won’t fall into the same trap. We have thought, and so we will not be Jehovah’s Witnesses.
2 thoughts on “How Not to Think”
Jaymes Payten Head Heathen • 4 years ago
Great post Steve.
I’ve personally experienced each and every one of the “Dirty Dozen” critical thinking lapses. I now suffer them when talking with Witnesses.
I think to myself “was I really that stupid?”
Yes. Yes, I was.
Stephanie H • 4 years ago
Steve. Genius. #7 reminds me of when I started having doubts…and had only vocalized them to my family… I asked my brother (a ministerial servant)… “What if we’re wrong? What then?”
His answer: “I’d rather be wrong, with a HOPE.”
WTF? You’re kidding right?
Very well thought out post. Well written and SO (sadly) TRUE.
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