In the democratic west it seems we are going through a political crisis. We dislike our politicians and, worse, we dislike our political systems. This is dangerous. Where political systems are held in contempt the opportunity arises for demagogues and dictators to emerge.
Political systems exist to make our lives better. If they fail to do that then we may as well do without them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be happy with the systems themselves but surely we should feel more well-disposed towards them than we currently do. People who live in countries with oppressive regimes yearn for the freedoms that democracy brings - so we should surely hope that our democratic regimes can inspire pride in the way they work.
Why, then, do we feel such contempt for the political system? I’m sure that there are a number of reasons, but one must have to do with the fact that many of us, rightly at least some of the time, view our politicians as dishonest and inauthentic. They don’t say what they really think, they don’t answer questions and they don’t keep their promises. This is true whatever party they belong to. The only politicians who are popular are those who come across as “unspun”, who say what they think and do what they do irrespective of what people think about them.
One reason for this malaise is a lack of respect by politicians, by the media who report them and by us who vote for them for the rules of good analytical thinking. The aim of analytical thinking is to get to the truth. By getting to the truth we make better decisions. This, therefore, should be vital in politics. Of course, we won’t always get those decisions right but even in cases where we go wrong, we can console ourselves that we have done our best and that our reasoning was as good as it could have been, given the knowledge we had available at the time.
However, all too often other considerations take priority over good analysis. Too often in politics the priority appears to be to beat one’s opponent rather than make the right decision. A good policy may not be implemented because it was proposed by an opponent. So the country suffers because the benefits to the politician and the benefits to the community as a whole are in conflict.
What, then, can we do about this? One thing we can all do is demand of our politicians that they respect the rules of analytical thinking and publicise each and every occasion where they do not. We must keep them honest.
The media does not help. Newspapers and other organisations have their own agendas. These agendas may well not be those of the people as a whole and for organisations supposedly devoted to reporting the truth, their commitment to that truth can often be marginal at best. We must demand better of them and until they improve, we must treat whatever they say with scepticism. For a democracy to function well, its people must be well informed. We should demand that our media organisations publish only the truth. As for our politicians, so must we require from our media the highest standards of analytical thinking.
Finally, we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility. The decisions taken by politicians affect us all, so we should all take an interest in them. The democratic experiment that was Ancient Athens required the participation of all its citizens: because any citizen might have to speak in public, it was considered necessary that they all be educated in the arts of rhetoric and critical analysis.
We should hold ourselves to the same standard. Not only should we ensure that we take an interest in the decisions that affect our lives, we should aim to ensure that our views on those decisions are underpinned by the highest quality of analysis of which we are capable. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we would hold our politicians and our media. As such, it is absolutely essential that we are familiar with the techniques of analytical thinking and that we should apply them in all aspects of our lives.
There are a number of ways in which our thinking can go wrong. One of these are mistakes due to what are known as cognitive biases. These are mistakes that the brain is hard-wired to make. It might seem odd that the brain is set up to make mistakes, but of course it evolved to solve the problems and challenges that would have confronted our distant ancestors living as groups of hunter-gatherers. These would in all likelihood have been problems concerned with immediate short-term survival such as finding food, shelter, avoiding dangerous predators as well as living long enough to find a mate and to procreate.
In the rich west, we have largely solved these kinds of problems, but we still inhabit the same brains and bodies as early humans. We are therefore not designed to solve the difficult reasoning problems that confront us now. Our brains take short cuts and arrive at quick. effective and practical solutions. Thinking through abstract problems is not really what they are designed for and we are lucky that we can do it at all.
An area where our brains let us down is thinking about risk and probability. One aspect of this is reflected in the kinds of stories that are covered by the news media. They give disproportionate coverage to one-off events that result in large numbers of deaths, such as plane crashes, while ignoring the fact that more deaths occur in car crashes because each individual car crash is responsible for only one or two deaths.
This can lead to poor decisions. After plane crashes more people drive. This actually increases risk. It is much more likely that we will be killed driving to the airport than on the plane to our destination. It also distorts government policies. Since these large accidents are more newsworthy, they garner attention and politicians, responding to what is in the news, feel pressured to act. If they acted rationally, however, they would respond to the greatest threats to life rather than the most newsworthy ones.
Another point worth noting is that accidents, terrorist atrocities, even wars, while tragedies for the individuals involved, have virtually no effect on humanity as a whole. The only day this century that the human population has not risen was the day of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which 230,000 people died. The human population is currently rising at about 75 million people a year or 205,000 a day. This means that none but the most extreme events have any noticeable effect on the number of people on the planet.
When we debate a problem one of the factors that can underpin a disagreement is a mutual failure to understand what precisely is being discussed. The person speaking may intend a word or phrase to mean one thing and the listener may understand it to mean something else.
The problem arises because it will generally be obvious to the speaker what they intend their words to mean and it will be equally obvious to the listener that their words have another meaning. We understand words in part by the web of associations they create in our minds but this web will differ from person to person. To some people picturing the word spider will bring them out in a cold sweat, while for others it will conjure up associations of an interesting and harmless animal. It is this difference in associations that can lead to misunderstandings in the meanings of words.
If you suspect that someone you are debating with might mean something different from what you understand, ask them to stipulate what precisely it is that they mean. Point out to them that simply because it is obvious to them what they mean, this does not mean that it will be obvious to everybody else.
We would all like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, but our brains can often let us down. We can reach conclusions based on our prejudices or because we are tired, hungry or emotional, or because we only see what is in front of us but fail to see what is not there but should be.
Try taking a friend or family member out for a walk with you. Walk at a slightly faster pace than normal. Then ask them to perform a not too easy but not too hard mental calculation such as 14 x 13. You will probably find that they stop talking, slow down or even stop momentarily while they try to work it out.
Even for a relatively straightforward mental problem like this our brains can easily get overloaded meaning that we cannot carry on with a straightforward task such as walking. When thinking about any problem which involves ascertaining the truth about a situation, or considering a course of action or pondering what is the right thing to do, allow your brain space to think. Go for a quiet walk where you will be undisturbed and try to think through the problem in an even-handed and unbiased way.
The answer by the way is 182.