critical thinking

We talk a lot around here about words that are bullshit, so today we’re going to try something a little different. We’re going to talk about a term we really like.

Critical thinking is exactly what it sounds like: It’s thinking, but better. Critical thinkers are critical of thinking itself! They are always asking questions, always checking to see if the way they THINK something works really IS the way it works. Critical thinkers are great at learning new things because when they find out they’re wrong, they change their minds until they’re right.

Another thing critical thinkers do is adopt good ideas — and reject bad ones — no matter who thinks of them. So like if the queen of England thinks it’s a good idea to jump into a vat of boiling acid, a critical thinker is not afraid to say, “Hmm. Acid can dissolve my skin, and boiling liquid can cook me, so I should probably stay out of there. Thanks anyway, your m—Elizabeth.” On the other hand, if a guy dancing pantsless on the bus thinks everyone should brush their teeth twice a day, critical thinkers can rejoice in the knowledge that his idea will reduce their risk of tooth decay.

Here’s a short list of things we have because of critical thinking: airplanes, pianos, spoons, smartphones, buildings, shovels, computers, NASA, lamps, words, books, chocolate-chip cookies, agriculture, GPS, hammers, cheese.

And here’s a short list of things we don’t have because critical thinking helped us leave them behind: polio, smallpox, slavery, rain dances, witch burnings.

Critical thinking is definitely better than other kinds of thinking. But don’t take my word for it. Never take my word for anything.

you, we, they, them, us

Have you ever noticed how much people like being part of a group? They love it. Walk into any school or workplace or house of government and hand out a bunch of red shirts and a bunch of blue shirts and watch the magic happen.

If you listen to the words people use, you can tell a lot about which groups they think they belong to. Some good words to listen for are you, we, they, them, and us.

You are unique. We are the same. They are different. Don’t listen to them. Listen to us.

Everyone shuffles from group to group, helplessly, all the time. I’m doing it right now. Like did you notice how a few sentences ago, when I was talking about how much people like being part of a group, I said “they?” THEY like being part of a group? I could have said “we” but I didn’t. Why not? Good question. Maybe I hate being in groups. Maybe I like it but wanted you to feel like we were having a quiet conversation in the corner where they couldn’t hear us. I was letting you in on a secret, just between us. Maybe I said it without thinking.*

In this case, the reason isn’t important, but sometimes it is. Sometimes the best question you can ask is “What’s this ‘we’ stuff?” or “Who, exactly, are ‘they?'”

*Hahahahaha! That is a funny joke.


Do you watch the news? Sure you do. It usually goes something like this:

DICK: Welcome back to Cable News, where we give you balanced coverage of controversial issues. I’m Dick Host. This hour, our guests will attempt to answer the age-old, hotly debated question once and for all: Which color is the best color? With me in the studio now are Scarlet Face and Blue Windbag. Scarlett, why don’t you go first.

SCARLETT: Thanks, Dick. Red is the best color.

DICK: Bold choice! Mr. Windbag?

BLUE: With all due respect to Scarlett, the best color is actually green.

DICK: Sorry, did you say green?

BLUE: Yes.

SCARLETT: Green is the color of mold. You’re a moldy liberal.

BLUE: You know who else thought red was the best color? The Nazis.

DICK: Yes, we all have strong opinions, but I think most of our viewers will agree that red and green are extreme positions. The best color is probably somewhere in between. So, something closer to brown.

SCARLETT, BLUE (together): Shut up, Dick. Everyone hates you.

DICK: We’ll be back after this completely neutral announcement from our parent company!

“Balanced” is a strange way to describe what you see on the news — it calls to mind a see-saw or an old-timey scale with equal weight on both sides. But reality is a complicated place, and there are usually more than two ways to think about public policy, religion, the economy, and all the other stuff they argue about on the news.

Red and green are not the only two colors in the world, so putting one on each side of a scale isn’t going to bring you any closer to an informed opinion about colors. And much like brown isn’t necessarily the best color just because it’s half red and half green, the truth does not necessarily fall anywhere between the two “sides” of the story you hear.

spin cycle: decorum, vaginas

Last time on Spin Cycle, we talked about risk management and sound cannons. Today, against all odds, we have something even better: decorum and vaginas!

What can I say? Words are exciting.

Decorum is about manners and rules. If everyone minds their manners and follows the rules (in a classroom, say, or on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives, you could say they are “maintaining decorum.”

So let’s say that during a vote on a bill that would make it harder for women to get abortions, a representative makes a short speech about abortion and religious freedom. At the end, she adds, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.” Is this a violation of decorum? The speaker of the house says it is.

Is it the word “vagina” Mr. Speaker objects to? Perhaps he would have preferred “uterus” or “downstairs ladybusiness?”* Or was he offended by the suggestion that he and his conservative colleagues were actively trying to get into the rep’s pants?

These are boring questions. I’d rather know: Is there any polite way to reject a bad idea? Is it always bad manners to tell someone they’re wrong? How destructive does an idea have to be before it’s okay to speak candidly about it, to mock and deride it? When is decorum worth defending, and when is it a smokescreen?

*As many people have pointed out, it would be pretty amazing of Mr. Speaker to suggest that it’s wrong for the rep to SAY vagina, but completely acceptable for government officials to make rules regarding vaginas that don’t belong to them.

war on women

Americans love to declare war on things. We like pretend wars just as much as we like real ones. We have wars on drugs, guns, obesity, cancer, poverty, and Christmas.

Usually we declare war on stuff we don’t like, but if some jerk comes along and “attacks” something we do like, we accuse that person of starting a war with us. This is how we got the “war on women,” a term that refers to the recent/longtime/ongoing efforts of conservative politicians in several states to regulate women’s access to birth control, abortions, and other uterus-related medical interventions.

What those politicians are doing may be unconscionable, but calling their actions a “war on women” is bad for everybody.

The way we talk influences the way we think and act. If every disagreement is a war, then everyone who disagrees is the enemy, every argument a battle to the death. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can be diplomatic. We should try harder.

what is propaganda?

Hey, have you ever wondered how Adolf Hitler convinced all those people to join his army and murder their neighbors?

He used words.

Well, he hired a guy who was good with words* to write speeches and produce films and posters and radio broadcasts that encouraged people to hate and fear their neighbors, and then when the army had enough people in it, he used guns to convince everyone else. So, words AND guns. But the words did a lot of the heavy lifting.

Propaganda is a bunch of words (or images some of each) designed to get a group of people to do something they might not do on their own. Usually the words are deliberately misleading or completely false, and often they will make the people feel sad or angry or proud or hopeful or disgusted or afraid or all of those things at once.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between propaganda and other kinds of persuasive speech.

But don’t let the question of whether something is propaganda or not keep you awake at night. A much better question to ask — as long as you’re awake — is whether or not it’s true.

*Fun fact: Hitler called his words guy the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which is sort of like calling someone the Minister of Fire Safety and Flamethrowers.


Today we are going to talk about a word people use without really knowing what they mean by it. That word is “ghost.”

I don’t mean storybook ghosts — I mean the kind some people think are skulking around old houses, scaring children and knocking over expensive vases in the dark.

So: What is a ghost? It’s a floating mind with no body, right? And the mind used to belong to a person who is now dead? I think that’s a pretty fair definition, though I don’t believe in ghosts myself. As far as I’m concerned, a mind without a brain is like a skeleton without bones.

But plenty of people — you, too, maybe! — think the mind is not the brain. In fact, it’s not even a physical object. So ghosts aren’t physical either and that’s why we can’t find them when the lights are on.

If this sounds pretty convincing to you, do me a favor: Grab a helmet and some full body armor and ask a physicist what he or she thinks of non-physical objects.

I tried it once without armor because I can run pretty fast. The physicist looked at me like I had just asked him what he thought of chlamydia and said, uh, even if there is something physics can’t observe directly, it becomes physical the moment it causes something you CAN observe.

So like if there’s a ghost (whatever that means) ghosting around, completely outside of physical space (whatever that means), we wouldn’t be able to learn anything about it. But if it starts making ghostly noises, breaking mirrors, sucking all the heat out of the room, spinning compass needles, or showing up in photographs, well, it’s acting in the physical world. Sound, heat, force, glass, magnetic fields, and light are all physical.

Phew, did you catch everything that happened up there? We started with a word for a thing that might not even exist, then tried to define it by casually ignoring a few laws of physics. The human imagination and the flexibility of our language are wonderful things, aren’t they?

Oh, and those ghost-hunting shows are bullshit.

at this time

“This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing, you know, all the people who say ‘at this time’ rather than ‘now.’ Why did they just take up one third of a second of my lifetime making me parse ‘at this time’ rather than just saying ‘now’ to me? And you start being bugged. But you get to be more careful and attentive in your own writing, so you become an agent of light and goodness rather than the evil that’s all around.” — David Foster Wallace

“At this time” means “now.” It also means someone is going out of his or her way to sound smart or important, which in turn means it’s time for us to start asking questions.

If a politician doesn’t think it’s appropriate to discuss the details of the investigation at this time, it means he’s never going to tell you about it and would like you to stop asking. If a college says it is unable to accept your application at this time, it means you can’t go to school there. If your company is terminating your contract at this time, it means you’re fired.

So why don’t they just say that stuff? Well, I’m no mind reader (nobody is), but I did notice that in each of the above cases, the at-this-timers wanted to minimize something unpleasant they did: a crime/cover-up, a rejection, a firing.

Overly formal language like this is almost always defensive — a clue that the person speaking feels guilty or vulnerable but wants you to think they’re righteous or powerful.