4 Questions that Will Instantly Make You Smarter

by STEVE BLOOM

According to one source, the average person consumes about 34GB of information every day. That’s an interesting thought alone, but it makes me wonder just how much of the information is faulty, ill-informed or just plain wrong.

Fortunately misinformation is often faulty for similar reasons and errors in logic can be exposed by asking certain questions. Instead of accepting information at face-value, you can use questions to become smarter about what you accept as true. It can be a powerful way to turn you from a passive receiver of information and into an active user of it.

What Does It Mean To Be Smart?

I really don’t think asking questions gets the attention it deserves. Usually being smart is associated with memorization. In fact, I’m often told I’m smart because I have an odd ability to memorize and recall a vast amount of trivial information.

But I think intelligence is more of an art than that. It’s less about memorization and more about how you interact with information and process the things that come your way. Consider questions like a data-filtering process for all the information you’re exposed to.

Here are four questions to start asking.

1. Causation or correlation?

You’d think that cause and effect would be easy things to determine. For example, smoking causes lung cancer. But figuring out what causes something else to happen can actually be an extremely difficult thing to determine.

In many cases, two things are correlated, but one seems to be causing the other to happen. For example a few years ago some researchers thought eating breakfast caused children to be more successful in school. The more breakfasts children missed, the worse they did in school.

However, further research showed that eating breakfast and success at school are just correlated. In fact they don’t influence each other in any way. It just so happened that children who skipped breakfast were also more likely to be absent from school. And absenteeism was the real reason for poor performance in school.

Final Takeaway: Correlation is not causation. Just because something occurs regularly with another thing doesn’t mean one causes another to happen.

2. Is there another side?

A lot of people only take in one side of an issue or viewpoint and accept that side as true. But of course, there are often two or more sides to every issue and if you don’t take those into consideration, you’re not getting the entire story.

For example, if one person were to tell you about an argument he had with another person, you’re only getting one side of the story. Your opinion about what happened might change if you were to hear about the argument from the other person.

Final Takeaway: Has the other side had a fair representation or is it being glossed over?

3. What’s the most likely explanation?

Think about this quote from Sherlock Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Also think about the principle called Occam’s Razor which can be summed up as “when all other things are equal, the simplest solution is probably right.”

Stretching data to fit conclusions is both difficult and complex. Many conspiracy theories require you to believe in additional events or factors for which there is seldom any real proof. This makes their conclusions extremely complex and based upon too many suppositions that start with sentences like “if this happened…”

Final Takeaway: The simplest answer is most often the right answer. Don’t make things unnecessarily complex.

4. Probability or certainty?

Generally speaking, the difference between facts and truths can be summed up like this: you can be certain about facts, but truths reside in a gray area. But for some reason, a lot of people talk as if they lived in a black and white world where everything was a knowable fact.

The world is much more complex than that. In fact, I think a large part of the world operates in shades of gray. You can’t understand everything with absolute certainty.

For example, there’s the fundamental attribution error. Think of it using this scenario: What would you think about someone you saw driving a car erratically down the street nearly hitting several parked cars? Most people would yell at the person and be absolutely certain that he was an idiot or terrible driver.

However, the person could be rushing to the hospital for an emergency. He’s not really a bad driver; just in a bad situation. You can’t be completely certain that this (or something else) explains the situation.

The problem is that too few people take probability into account. They say things with absolute certainty that they really shouldn’t.

Final Takeaway: The world lives in shades of gray. Don’t be fooled by people who always say things with 100% certainty.

Using the Questions

These four questions are designed to give you a more skeptical attitude towards information. You can use them as a way to filter arguments and thoughts to make sure you aren’t misled by bad thinking. And in a world where people consume 34GB of both good and bad information every day, being able to separate the two becomes really important.

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Comments

  1. Cool invitation to thinking.
    Thanks for the reminder of some ways to process information. Enjoyed.
    Derek

  2. Some colleges require you take a course on this very topic in order to graduate. Mine was called ‘Critical Thinking’. Thinking critically would typically be thought as a no-brainer, but after considering all the hogwash that is thrown in our direction on a daily basis one does really need to be aware of how to separate what actually makes sense from the static.

    • I never had to take a course specifically about critical thinking when I got my undergrad. Although I did pick up some critical thinking skills in my English classes and philosophy classes. I’ve been introduced to it more while getting my masters. In fact, I took some of these points from common mistakes people make in papers.

  3. Hey Steve,

    I wrote a similar post to this recently titled ‘Ask Questions’ – more of a business coaching article but basically promoting the idea of asking questions rather than passively accepting information at face value – it also provides context, deepens understanding and builds relationships.

    So of course I agree with you.

    This article also has some relation to what’s taught a lot via NLP training – i.e. that we are bombarded with information every day most of which we have to delete for our own sanity – we do this by having our own world view constructed of a series of filters which shape our view of the world.

    superb stuff once again my friend,

    Alan

    • That’s an interesting thing to think about. There really is so much information out there that everyone would need to have some sort of filter to put it all through. Makes me wonder just how a filter is formed and if people have always had one or if it is relatively new.

      I can see how an information filter would help create and maintain a specific view of the world. As long as you’re critically thinking about the things that make it through, I think most people will be ok with having a filter. And maybe, it’s just a necessity to have one now.

  4. I recently had a very important discovery with the first question causation versus correlation. Too often I was overlooking the cause.

    Could just be human nature. Could just be me wanting to take shortcuts and default to correlations. But looking at the cause is extremely important and should not be overlooked.

    This discovery had some very real applications in my life in the form of “meaning”. Peoples actions, however I interpret them, might have a different cause and in turn mean something else then how I originally am interpreting it.

    It ties into what you were talking about with FAE, and quite frankly the rest of your post.

    Love that I always get something out of your posts Steve!

    • Hey Chris, it seems as if cause and effect are the big things people look at. Everyone wants to know what makes something else happen. People don’t realize that it can actually be a hard thing to prove.

      You’re absolutely right about people’s actions and causes. People are too often to jump to what they think is a cause when they have no evidence. People’s behavior can be complex.

  5. Steve,
    Correlation vs causation brings me back to my college days too. I graduated in Economics and this topic was always at the top of our heads when we ran regression analysis on statistics and data especially when asking questions about large sets of data.

    All of your points seem so obvious but the truth of the matter is I really need to be more of a critical thinker. Not sure if i’m getting lazy or if i just believe what i want to believe. In any case, i’m glad you reminded me with this that it’s not what you know it’s how you use what you know…

    • Hey Annie,

      I think everyone has those things they want to believe in. That’s why critical thinking is so important. If we don’t have it then we’d never question anything and figure out the truth behind things.

      I had some Economics things in my head while I wrote this so I’m glad that you mentioned it. I actually pulled some of this post together by examining some of the most common errors people make in term papers.

  6. I like to think I do these things anyway, but its nice to see them written down so I can really put some effort into them.

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