A friend of mine recently outlined as follows his method for thinking about important issues: Look at the big picture, avoid groupthink, and remember history.
First, the big picture. People too often think only about the narrow field in which they work or the community or nation in which they live. But whatever the topic, there is always a context that includes the rest of world and the interplay of actors and forces in many locales and fields of endeavor.
Let me provide an illustration (not one provided by my friend). If I want to understand the state of renewable energy in the United States, I’d certainly want to know also the state of that industry in other countries including their regulatory regimes; the structure of their industry whether public, private or a combination; and the state of research and development. I’d also want to know how renewable energy fits into the total picture of energy use, for example, its current share of consumption compared to competing sources of energy and its growth rate. Further, I’d want to know about the emergence of electric vehicles, a major new user of electricity, and about the industry that produces them. I wouldn’t stop there, but what I’ve outlined so far conveys the scope of inquiry that I’m recommending.
Next I’d want to check into any relevant claims made in the media and by family members, friends, and co-workers in order to avoid groupthink, that is, believing something merely because I’ve heard it from others. For example, if someone claims that the dominant form of energy in human society in 2030 will be solar (and someone did), I would want to find the basis for such a claim if there is one and also see if the current trends suggest that this is likely. Just because some smart people believe that something will happen doesn’t mean that it will.
Finally, I’d want to know something about the history of the renewable energy industry in America and abroad. What does that history tell me about what is likely to happen in the future? And based on what we know about the history of energy transitions in the past from coal to oil and then to natural gas, are various claims about the speed of the current energy transition to renewable energy plausible? Of course, no one can know the future. But when people make claims about the future that have no precedent, we should be skeptical and cautious.
Of course, these steps—looking at the big picture, avoiding groupthink, and remembering history—require time, concentration and reflection. It’s simply not possible to do such research for every issue that crosses one’s path. So, humans take shortcuts much of the time. They focus on what they know from their own experience. They recall what they’ve already read in the media and heard from those they know. They dispense with any serious study of the history of a subject, assuming that current knowledge is all that they need. (For minor daily issues this process may indeed suffice.)
Beyond the difficulty of doing one’s own research, there is the difficulty of standing apart from friends, family, co-workers and others in one’s social circle. Voicing an opinion that runs counter to the prevailing view can net one ridicule, dismissal and even social exclusion. Moreover, most people don’t want to believe that the world they’ve constructed in their heads may be flawed, perhaps dangerously flawed. If you are the person telling them this, you will probably not be in line for thanks.
The greatest difficulty comes when our research produces information that challenges our own foundational beliefs. This potentially creates a crisis that could require acceptance of a whole new worldview. If accepted, this new worldview can strain relations with practically everyone close to us who may not only be surprised but possibly dismayed by our sudden change of outlook.
There are very few people who can engage in such independent inquiry on a regular basis and retain their mental balance. Being open at all times to the possibility of changing one’s worldview can be anxiety-producing and exhausting. In order to maintain peace of mind most people avoid any thorough examination of topics that could force an alteration of their worldview.
It’s no wonder then that our political, economic, and social culture encourages people to avoid the big picture, succumb to groupthink, and ignore history. It’s much easier to maintain our peace of mind if we simply conform our opinions with those around us and avoid a tedious examination of the facts.
However, the price we potentially pay is that we will get blindsided by what in retrospect seems an obvious problem. That’s when most people finally adjust their worldview to new realities. But by then, any damage is generally already done.
Image: Sherlock Holmes thinking critically. The Strand Magazine. Via Toronto Reference Library and Wikimedia Commons.