Todd C. Riniolo – When Good Thinking Goes Bad

October 24, 2008

Todd C. Riniolo is an associate professor of psychology at Medaille College. He has written many peer-reviewed articles in the psychological literature.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Todd Riniolo discusses his book When Good Thinking Goes Bad: How Your Brain Can Have a Mind of Its Own, exploring ways that critical thinking should be applied to people’s cherished and most certainly felt convictions. He discusses common cognitive, social and emotional biases people have when arriving at conclusions about the supernatural and paranormal, politics and economics, and how critical thinking is often applied inconsistently in these areas. He also focuses his skepticism on issues such as global warming and multiculturalism.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 24th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe he point inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Before we get to this week’s guest, here is a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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My guest today is Todd Rooney, also an associate professor of psychology at MDI College. He’s written many peer reviewed articles on the psychological literature and he joins me to talk about his new book, When Good Thinking Goes Bad How Your Brain Can Have a Mind of its Own. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Professor Todd Renee Olo. 

Well, thanks so much for having me, D.J.. I am quite honored to be on point of inquiry. It’s a great show and I hope we have a good one today. 

I’m glad you’re on the show to talk about your book. When Good Thinking Goes Bad, it’s the perfect primer for people just getting started with skepticism and critical thinking. I notice that you divide your discussion in the book into three parts. Let’s start off by just telling me why you organized your argument the way you did in these three categories. These three sections. 

Sure. Well, I’ll start off with the first section, which is really about some of the hallmarks of critically evaluating claims. So I go through some basic things, like the evidence demanding attitude that most critical thinkers have, the importance of consulting experts, research methods that are important, such as the double-blind procedure and other things, such as being wary of second hand sources. I started with that to first emphasize the importance of a critical evaluation to evaluate claims, but to later on come back to that which I’ll get to there in a moment. The second portion of the book really is an evolutionary argument as to why we’re all inconsistent with our critical thinking skills. 

So you’re relying on arguments from evolutionary psychology or kind of our evolutionary heritage makes us sometimes messy thinkers. 

Yeah, there there’s there’s all sorts of cognitive biases that we have in our heads. For example, we have this thing called a confirmation bias, which means that we’re more likely to seek out evidence that we already believe in. Right. Think confirmatory evidence to sort of support our views. This was probably important from an evolutionary perspective. I do want to go into all the messy details of that right now. But these biases really sort of mess with our ability to objectively evaluate claims. Now, then the third part of the book, I think, is probably going to be the most controversial in the third part of the book. I attempt to take a wide variety of claims across different disciplines and then attempt to show how people may go wrong in their thinking and across party lines. 

So you’re not just skewering one kind of world view or point of view. You even apply the skepticism to some views most skeptics hold. 

Yeah, and that’s actually why I chose that. I thought, well, you know, I’m gonna be. The book is written for skeptics, also written for students. But I thought, well, let me take some some well-known sort of hot button issues that skeptics have made public statements on and see if there’s a different way to look at them. 

You repeatedly stress something in the book that I think we need Konsta reminding of that these tools you expound on in the book. These tools are critical thinking our best self apply. They’re not ammunition you use against other people. But there are ways to kind of clean up our own thinking that everyone, including me, including you, that all of us are prone to bad thinking. But, Todd, isn’t it true that some of us are less susceptible to the pitfalls of bad thinking? I’m I’m thinking of people like scientists who are trained to be objective. 

You know, I would have thought that going into this and perhaps there are some individuals that are more self-aware than others of their potential for bad thinking. But a lot of the studies and cognitive psychology actually show that people, like scientists tend to be more prone to it. Mm hmm. And I’m wondering whether it’s because scientists spend such a long period of their lives on ideas and trying to demonstrate what it is they believe. So those of us that spend our lives thinking about things may actually be more prone to it. 

More susceptible to what? Self-deception or to kind of believing that, hey, you’re a scientist. So how could you be wrong? 

Oh, I think both of those probably play a role. But if you think about it, if you’re someone that is really thinking about an idea and going in and collecting evidence, you can literally build a substantial amount of evidence to support your claim. 

But you may not be thinking out the disconfirming evidence. Mm hmm. And I think over time, you may have built such a strong case that it may be hard to see the other perspective. 

So if everyone’s thinking can go bad, even the scientists thinking share with me an example of how it went bad in your own life. I mean, you were the expert who wrote the book on good thinking. When did good thinking just fail in your own life? Well, I’ll give you an example. 

It’s actually one I use in the book, but I think it’s probably the best example. One of the hallmarks of critical thinking, I think, is most important is to be wary of second hand sources. And, you know, I sort of drive that home in the first section of the book for years I. The movie Inherit the Wind at face value. 

As to that is what actually happened during the Scopes monkey trials. If you think about that for a second, Inherit the Wind, a great film, by the way, but a Hollywood movie, I would never take The Amityville Horror as the legitimate truth about the house in upstate New York, even though a lot of fans that movie may have done just that. Sure. And I’m sure I laughed at them at the time. How could these you know, these fools take this movie at face value? 

But it didn’t occur to me that I was doing the same thing. And, you know, if you start to make your way through the Scopes monkey trials, you quickly learn that it was a lot more complicated than the film portrayed. But since the film portrayed things as I wanted them to be the evolutionists as the good guys and the sort of fundamentalists as the evil people, you know, I didn’t question it. I simply Ronald Lindsay. 

But in the real trial, you know, the good guys lost the case. Actually, they did. 

But there is an interesting part of the trial. It’s never brought up those who were on the side of Darwin. In general, we’re also on the side of eugenics and eugenics was taught in the school books that were part of the trial. And we I think most of the listeners would be familiar with what eugenics is. But if not, it was simply forced sterilizations, you know, a very, very unfortunate event in our history. But that part is often left out today, which is unfortunate. 

It was kind of a misapplication of Darwin’s theory of evolution to clean up the species by weeding out the unsavory elements. Exactly. In America, there was the grass roots kind of movement of eugenics. But in Nazi Europe, it led to the status regime that led to the horrible consequences. You can kind of draw a line between the view that evolution can be harnessed. You can draw a line from that to what, the Holocaust or eugenics? 

Oh, sure. Sure. And like I say, the inherit the wind certainly didn’t portray any of those complexities that were a legitimate part of the trial. 

You know, even even something as interesting as the the lawyers in the trial. It was funny. Williams, Jennings Bryant, who is portrayed in the movie as a fool, was the only one of the lawyers to have actually read Darwin’s theory. All the other lawyers in the case were simply ignorant of it, which is, you know, once again, not portrayed in the movie, you know, not not making the case for William Jennings Bryan. 

But, you know, just give me an example of how my thinking there simply was very uncritical because it was consistent with my preconceived notion Jim Underdown that you had your own cognitive biases that influenced your thinking on that. 

Sure. In your book, you you really rely a lot on, you know, expounding on these cognitive biases. Are there are these cognitive factors that you get into the only big influence that gets in the way of our critical thinking? 

I don’t think so, although in the book I certainly focus in on them. That was more for pragmatics. But I would have to say that certainly emotional beliefs would would interfere with our critical thinking skills. I would say as a parent, it is very difficult for me to objectively evaluate my children’s skills. Right. I probably think my kids play soccer a little bit better than they probably do. 

Right. We all think our children are geniuses or or or, you know, the cutest in the bunch, the cutest in the bunch. 

I’m a big sports fan here from Buffalo, particularly my Buffalo Sabers. 

They’re a hockey team. It’s funny, whenever I watch the Saver’s, I always think the officials are against them. 

But when I watch other hockey teams play that don’t involve mine, the officials seem to do a pretty good job. And once again, I think our emotional beliefs can play a role, but there’s probably other factors as well. 

There’s probably some motivational issues that may interfere with our ability to think critically, maybe even some social ones, and we’d, I guess, undermine our ability to be consistent with our critical thinking across situations. 

Examples of social biases might include the fact that we tend to believe, just like everyone in our mill, you know, it’s unusual for someone to buck the system and stake a claim saying, I believe unlike everyone else, generally we want to you kind of just fit in. 

Sure, sure. I mean, even in some work environments that we’ve all been in, every a particular issue may be on one side. And, you know, you don’t want to be the odd person out oftentimes, you know. So they’re there. I’m sure there’s other factors. But like I say, I tend to focus in on the cognitive ones simply because I thought that was a good place to start. 

Well, and that’s your expertize as a psychologist. Yes. 

Todd, one where your book may challenge our listeners is. When you compare the claims of global warming with psychic claims, I’m a big skeptic of psychic stuff. Something of a professional skeptic in that regard. But when it comes to global warming, there’s widespread consensus that it’s real and that it’s human caused. Even hardcore skeptics of it, like Michael Shermer and others, have changed their minds based on the evidence. Can you tell me why you Grump’s psychic claims, along with claims about global warming in your book? 

Sure. Remember that the theme of the book is that we’re all inconsistent with our skepticism. And one of the reasons why I chose global warming is I’m surprised how many people have such strong opinions on a topic when they most have not done their own critical evaluation of the evidence. 

And what I basically do is say, listen, here’s a psychic with a claim. How would we approach that? 

We would demand certain evidence. We would rigorously evaluate the studies and so forth and so on. All I then do is say, well, let’s do the same for global warming. I can give you a quick example. 

And when you do that same thing for global warming, do you arrive in in a skeptical position? 

I personally do I have some serious questions about the potential biases in the data from a data collection and analysis point of view. I think one of the big misnomers out there is collecting the data and analyzing it is a simple task that doesn’t involve subjective human judgments, and that’s simply false. Even among the best experts today, there still is no perfect method to analyze this data. 

And the data that you collect could also be a function of bias. You’re looking at this set of evidence and not that’s. 

Yes, that’s part of it. 

But even when you have the data that right there at that point still becomes subjective decisions as to how to analyze it. And even even among the banks experts, as I said, there are different methods being used that result in different final numbers. And some of the differences are substantial or substantial. 

I guess my my last thing about global warming before we move on. One of the things I currently like to point out is there’s no debate on this. The warmest year on record was 1998. At the end of this year, unless there’s a major ecological catastrophe, it’s going to be a decade of non warming. Mm hmm. How many more years then will it take before we say the warming stop? I think is at least something worth thinking about. 

Some thinkers in the field of global warming. I mean, the field of it, you know, the the people who busy themselves exploring the issue and kind of trying to rile people up about it think that the term global warming may be a misnomer, that instead we should be talking about global weirding or something of that. It’s not that the planet’s only going to get hotter, but the weather itself is just going to get weirder. The further along it gets. So people like Michael Shermer, great skeptic that he is, and others started out as skeptics of global warming, but have since changed their mind. You’re willing to change your mind. Given enough evidence? 

I certainly am. I certainly am. Although one of the things that has troubled me is global warming is actually a testable hypothesis. We can see whether or not the earth will warm leading out into the future. Changing the definition to global weirding or the latest one is climate change. Often the ME seems like an odd, testable hypothesis because the climate always changes. Mm hmm. That’s actually normal. Once again, I’m somewhat concerned about the recent changes in the language. 

Well, in defense of the changing of the language, maybe it’s changing in the light of new evidence that it’s not good enough to say, oh, it’s just global warming or global heating. That there’s a lot more going on. But your your point is taken. Todd, you’re not an economist. You’re a psychologist, as I mentioned. But in your book, you use quite a number of economic examples to illustrate inconsistent or uncritical thinking. Why do you draw so much on economics instead of perhaps sticking with just psychology, which is your field? 

Well, I hope I didn’t go too far out of my field. But one of the reasons why I tended to focus on some economic claims is so many of us have strong opinions about economics. And I would argue quite often our opinions are based upon very little evidence. 

Typically personal experience, sometimes emotional experiences or even what we would like to be true. Mm hmm. And I think even some of the best skeptics. That’s one of the areas and where sometimes they have spoken. I would say without proper expertize. 

I love that you say that this week when Alan Greenspan said for 40 years, I believed in the power of the market to regulate itself. But I made mistakes and he was kind of confessing a free market fundamentalism. Notice that he didn’t say mistakes were made. Other people did it. So he gets kudos for saying himself that he made the mistakes. Still, I think his confession almost supports what you’re saying right now, that a lot of our claims about economics that even skeptics might make, are they border on faith claims? 

I think you’re correct there. I’d like to point another thing to it’s it’s one of the things that I didn’t mention in the book, but it was a reason for focusing on some economic claims. You take a look at such great publications like Skeptical Inquirer or even Skeptic magazine. 

One of the things that always intrigued me was on the board of directors, their fellows, their research consultants. You see a wide variety of disciplines. You see psychologists. You see biologists. You see chemists. You see magicians. 

But you never see an economist. 

And I’ve often thought that was interesting, given so many of the claims that particularly nowadays skeptics are moving into, such as global warming, have economic ramifications or can be explained in terms of economic growth. 

Oh, yes, of course. Yeah. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of When Good Thinking Goes Bad, how your brain can have a mind of its own through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dork. Todd, let’s get into Santa Claus. You actually seem to defend the claim that he really exists. How’s that add up in a book on critical thinking? 

Well, once again, the underlying theme of the book is inconsistent, critical thinking. And as a I guess, a self-proclaimed skeptic, I’ve heard many skeptics give wonderful talks over the years, but I’ve often been surprised how often Santa Claus has been brought up. And just as a basic comment, a lot of speakers will say it’s no wonder so many people believe in such weird things as ghosts and psychics. We teach our own kids about Santa Claus. And I thought that’s an interesting statement. But there’s no evidence to support the statement that Santa Claus results in uncritical thinking. 

You mean the belief that we inculcate in our kids in Santa Claus makes them more gullible later on? 

Yes, exactly. 

And in fact, in the book, as I point out, in sort of tongue in cheek, I make a sort of ridiculous argument that Santa Claus actually is beneficial for scientific inventions. Right. Because if you look at the countries that actually promote Santa Claus, they are the most advanced scientific nations on Earth. 

And what do they call that in logic? Post hoc ergo propter fallacy or something? Yes. Just because they’re smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire. There’s fire. 

And I think. I think my argument is equally as ridiculous that one that many skeptic human beings. 

But as you mentioned, it’s tongue in cheek. It’s to prove a point. 

It is the other interesting issue about Santa Claus. 

If you think about I actually think that the whole Santa experience is the first great skeptical experience of many kids lives. Mm hmm. This is a culturally supported belief. Teachers, parents, the culture at large. And it is something that most kids wind up digging evidence about and discover the truth on their own. They actually act like skeptics and figuring this whole thing out, which I think is a wonderful experience. 

I was thinking about this exact question in my own life recently. And, you know, I guess I was a late bloomer when it came to critical thinking because my parents had to kind of talk me out of my belief in Santa Claus. No kidding. At some point when I was a kid, they, you know, everybody else was all my age mates were anti Santa Claus belief. And I remember getting all riled up and upset about it. And my parents, you know, kind of had to sit me down and say, come on, you’re getting too old to believe in Santa, son and man. You know, a wall of me. 

I was kind of angry at my parents for a spell, but see, it paid off later on. 

Yeah, well, who can say this? This is good work, if you could get it. The skepticism racket. 

But Todd, did you write this book to convert other people to your skeptical world view or I mean, you’re just talking to skeptics here. What’s the what’s the real point of the book other than just kind of exploring what it means to be a critical thinking? 

Oh, I think part of being a skeptic or a critical thinker is trying to convince others that this is the appropriate way to approach claims. So certainly that is that is part of the book. I’m not sure I’d go with the word convert, but I think I certainly want to persuade them that this is the best way to go. 

Mm hmm. Did you have a conversion experience? I mean, when when you got into this mind frame, this point of view, did someone write a book that you read that kind of turned on the light bulb for you? 

Actually was sort of a simultaneous experience. It was when I was an undergrad taking a course in research methods and the whole course was about critically evaluating claims. I was simultaneously taking a philosophy course and I was exposed to the writings of Milton Friedman. Now he’s an economist, right? 

Good. University of Chicago, free market, free market preacher. 

Now, whether you agree with Friedman’s viewpoint on economics, the one thing he always stresses, the importance of critically evaluating claims. 

And I thought, wow, at that point, the light bulb really did go on. 

Well, before we finish up, Todd, I want to talk about what you wrote regarding multiculturalism. Many skeptics kind of get a bad rap in their skepticism. They’re called racists or sexists. And at a very basic level, you have to admit that all the skeptics preaching their skepticism out there are white males. They’re not people of color. They’re not women. So let’s explore what you said about multiculturalism in this in the context of skepticism. 

Sure, there is. 

There’s actually a chapter in the book where we talk about the basic assumption that if you see disparate numbers, numbers that that are not consistent with the population, that this may be evidence of, you know, some sort of discrimination. I’ll give you a quick example. If the population in your area has 50 percent purple people and 50 percent green people and there’s a local company, but at the company, it’s 90 percent purple people. Well, some people have interpreted this to be evidence of, let’s say, discriminatory practices. 

And one of the things I did in the book was to point out some of the limitations of this argument. And the big limitations is from a research standpoint, there’s so many other variables that could explain why these different numbers wind up occurring. One of the simplest ones is simple self selection. I’ll give you a quick example where I live. 

The vast majority of kindergarten teachers happen to be females. 

Which is interesting. I don’t think there’s anything sexist going on there. But the vast majority of tee ball coaches who happen to work with kindergarten kid happen to be males. Now, if you look at it from a multicultural point of view, you’d have to charge discriminatory practices. But there’s a simpler variable involved here. And I would say it’s self selection. People are going into the field of education, tended to be females to work with these young kids. And the males tend to be more comfortable around tee ball. 

What’s the explanation in the context of skepticism, though, that the people who tend to go into skepticism and care about it and talk about it right about it? Why are they all white men? 

I would argue that it’s once again simple self selection Jim Underdown. 

But why is that self selection going on? Why are the white men self-selecting to be skeptics and kind of spokespeople for the scientific point of view? 

That’s a good question. That’s one I don’t have a real good answer for whether or not it is. 

It simply goes along with most scientists tend to be white men also. It is simply a byproduct because scientists tend to be drawn to the skeptical community. Could be an answer. But it is basically a guess on my part. 

So you’re skeptical of multiculturalism, so you might want to define what it is, why you’re skeptical of it. We could leave leave it at that. But you’re also skeptical of the critique that multiculturalism gives of skepticism. 

I guess my main concern with the multiculturalist argument is this. They have an assumption that there should be these sort of equal results, right? That there should be X amount of purple people. There should be X amount of green people in these groups. The problem with that assumption is it’s simply never true in most circumstances. And in fact, if you look across the globe, the rule is not that there’s going to be proportional representation. It’s disproportional representation. I would simply argue that skeptics are simply proving the rule as opposed to being some sort of exception. U.P.S. people, self-locking all sorts of things. For example, I went to a Buffalo Sabers game last week. The majority of folks down there happened to be white males. Now, there were some females in the audience, too. Very few people of color. But it simply is once again another example that there is not proportional representation. However, if I go out to the movies, you tend to see a different crowd. When I go out to dinner, depending upon the restaurant, you see different crowds. I happen to go to the mall once again. You don’t see proportional representation. 

Do you think it’s a worthwhile goal of skepticism at the grassroots to reach out to these different publics? In other words, not just to speak to the white male contingent, but to try to reach women and people of color and, you know, students and, you know, so it’s not just old white guys arguing about another reason white ghosts don’t exist. 

Absolutely. I think that is a very worthwhile goal. In fact, I’d make the argument we should be trying to reach as broadly as possible across the spectrum. 

But you’re not coming to that conclusion based on a multiculturalist kind of argument? 

No, I more or less coming to it from sort of a big tent argument, critical thinking, skepticism. The way to go. Let’s welcome as many in as possible. But in the end, if we don’t get proportional representation of numbers, I don’t see that as demonstrating that we’re somehow as a group. Keep keeping people out. We’re simply not. 

I want to finish up Todd with some homework. You’re a college professor. Give us a to do list. What’s the first thing that our listeners should do right now to keep their good thinking from going bad? 

I’ll go by the book now. Spoken like an author. I love it. 

I would say go go and learn a little bit more about a subject area in which you normally don’t take the time to do a rigorous, critical evaluation. And let me give you a quick example. A lot of people, as I previously mentioned, have strong opinions on economic matters. Do you ask them should they raise the minimum wage or not? Virtually everybody has an opinion, but I think it would be interesting or important for audience members before they have that strong opinion to go and learn a little bit more about the subject area before you construct that opinion. 

In other words, look into a subject that you already have an opinion about and look for contrary evidence to try to prove yourself wrong. 

Try to prove yourself wrong. And if your beliefs withstand your rigorous evaluation, good for you. If they don’t. It may force you to reconsider. 

I often think it’s important, at least at some time, to self evaluate beliefs. If we go back to the previous example in our talk here about my beliefs in the Scopes Monkey Trials Fight done a rigorous self-evaluation years ago. I would have been forced to abandon them many years ago as opposed to more recently. Some of my beliefs that I have, I think are based upon strong, solid evidence, but I’m sure I’ve got others in my head at this point that are based upon secondhand information. What I may have read in a magazine is very, very little evidence. So the homework is, you know, challenge yourself. Mm hmm. 

Thank you very much for this fun discussion. Todd Rooney, YOLO. 

Thanks, T.J.. I appreciate it. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.