For 2024, Risk Thinking

The past few years have been spent believing. Whether it’s believing in the tooth fairy or the reinvented version of reality that allows you to be a welcome member of your tribe, all you needed do was believe. You were entitled to your own truth if only you believed. You could be the good person and still hate as long as you believed. Problems existed or ceased to exist as long as you believed.

How’s that working out?

As Sir Joshua Reynolds said, “there is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking.” Yes, it’s hard. It can give you a headache. And the worst part is that you may end up realizing that there either is no easy answer or no answer at all. There is a reason why intransigent societal problems persist despite what you believed to be easy answers. It’s not that olds are selfish and mean, or some conspiracy is preventing us from achieving Utopia.

Thinking is not the same as regurgitating the nonsensical “facts” and arguments that receive warm welcome within your preferred echo chamber. Believing you’re a critical thinking isn’t  necessarily being a critical thinking, but just being a believer. The main stream media isn’t necessarily right, but it isn’t necessarily wrong either. That rando on twitter claiming a fact for which the only evidence is that the rando said so isn’t necessarily wrong either, but also isn’t necessarily right.

It’s hard to know what to base one’s thought on, and in 2024, it’s going to be even harder. Between the ongoing divide of news as propaganda machine for moral clarity, and the reliance on AI as a credible source of … something, anticipate that we will be fed a steady stream of dubious information that will, based upon where we look for our news, conform with our priors and reinforce our biases. Who doesn’t love news that tells us we’re right, so we can believe that we are the ones being good while the others are the evil ones?

If you want to know how to do this, I have no answer. Look hard at sources you disagree with and consider whether they might have it right this time. Consider that there will be facts that fail to back up your position as well as facts that do. Remember that the other side has good arguments just as your side does. Stop responding to every challenge with some insipid platitude just because your tribe demands you dispute every point made against your position. Sometimes there are valid arguments for both sides, and even though you will ultimately think one side more persuasive or correct, that does not make the other side wrong about everything.

There’s a trick we’re taught in law school, to take an argument to its logical extreme to determine whether its validity holds up beyond the current instance. The argument may produce the result you desire based upon the fact pattern of the case before the court, but the holding will be applied to other cases going forward. Will it still work? Will it produce the results intended? Will it produce disastrous unintended consequences because it sacrifices a greater principle to achieve a particular one-time outcome?

The biggest problem with thinking is that after all that effort, all those headaches, it may end up with a result you don’t want. It may turn out that the belief system that kept you warm and comfy was wrong, or that your desired outcomes are unachievable. Even worse, that your desired outcomes would end up being catastrophic in the long term, even if they might feel good in the moment. Unfortunately, that’s a risk you have to take if you think. You may realize that you, your friends, your comrades-in-arms and fellow-travelers, are wrong.

Is it worth the risk? Happy 2024. I wish a wonderful year for all of us.

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