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What 3 priests can teach us about Critical Thinking

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

It seems that we’re not quite as logical as we might like to think we are and this has implications for our evidence- & risk-based decision-making.

Let’s consider how our minds work (and the limits) with the help of some priests from the ‘Fr. Ted’ series. If you’re not a fan, comparative fictional characters are suggested below, also comedic. Humour, after all, is a useful cognitive tool to de-bias our thinking by helping us deal better with ambiguity. It may highlight some of the inherent contradictions implicit in our assumptions and provides a safe place to explore rather than to dismiss these.

Fr. Jack’s 'decision rules' for life

The brain is often described as ‘lazy’ as it processes information on a ‘good enough’ principle. Yet ‘frugal’ can still be useful - as Bertrand Russell told us – “organised people are just too lazy to look for things”. However, Fr. Jack who is a bit like “the Dude” in the Big Lebowski as a character, takes his ‘satisficing’ very seriously. His exertions are calculated as precisely as 'Occam’s razor' to enable him to find the simplest solution to his most basic needs i.e. to sit in a chair, stupefied, with a beatific smile on his face for as long as possible each day. His brain applies just two basic decision rules or 'heuristics'. One helps him prioritise the stimuli he wants most when, in response to “DRINK!”, he applies whatever brute force necessary to get his paws on it. His second heuristic applies to evading what he dosn't like i.e. “GIRLS!". He simply exits automatically in his wheelchair as fast as humanly possible. Heuristic 1 - grab; Heuristic 2 - race away.

The thing is though, we can all think a bit like Jack at times. Many of our best-loved thinking tools have quite brutishly effective rules embedded in them - some that we don't even see. We too apply these nonetheless just as reflexively as Jack. It's just that they’re not always 'fit-for-purpose' e.g. adding data points to our Minitab or assuming the simplest explanation must be the best (like Occam); mainly as we're confident in their use, we can miss when our rules of thumb are inappropriate e.g. as they miss the complexity of a given situation. Some drinks Jack should actually stay away from. Do we too have 'pet' brick-type heuristics that we use like a hammer to a walnut? If so, like Fr. Jack Hackett, could we be in real danger of damaging our own health or, worse, that of others?

Fr. Ted’s bevy of biases

Cognitive biases are also handy e.g. in time-critical situations, they act as mental short-cuts that we all rely on, daily. Yet certain combinations can result in our thinking becoming seriously distorted. Unlike Jack, Fr. Ted is quite fond of the ladies. However, he's inclined to label them a bit and fall foul of confirmation bias, in assuming every girl must be equally fond of him if they are 'lovely'. On himself winning the long yearned-for “Golden Cleric” award, Ted thinks a lot like Ron Burgundy in ‘Anchorman’ i.e. that he is now ‘kind of a big deal’. During his acceptance speech, Ted quickly reveals his equally low self-esteem and a multitude of other biases. For example, he rattles off a long list of all the people who weren’t smart enough to believe he could become “a top priest”, claiming he "knew all along" that he would win -could this just be 'hindsight bias'?

When our work-lives are not going not to plan, are we too prone to a bit of ‘attribution error’ such as putting our own failures down to the negative personality traits of others (the ‘liars’ as Ted calls them)? Are we so goal-driven, like Ted can be, that we actually self-sabotage? For example, do we congratulate ourselves for getting a result, yet fail to see our decision process are flawed ('resulting fallacy')? Like Ted, do we persevere on hopeless schemes not because they will produce useful outcomes but because we don’t want to have our prior efforts go to waste i.e. ‘sunk-cost fallacy’? We're all human so just like Ted, do we need to consider whether we’re also a bit cognitively challenged. Speaking of which.......

Fr. Dougal – 'oh, for a simple life'

Fr. Dougal is the “Forrest Gump” of the series. His endearing, childlike wonder at the world is refreshingly free of dogma, albeit worryingly agnostic given his profession. Yet Dougal also gives us an insight into how overly simple beliefs work to underpin our interpretations, yet simultaneously, undermine how well we truly understand a complex world. Cognition is about what we believe and how we perceive the world) and we each inherit and adopt 'cognitive frames', that 'select' and de-'select' certain data but largely unbeknownst to ourselves. Dougals ‘frames’s’ are strikingly under-developed, lacking any of the sophistication necessary to for him to live/work independently and certainly not to grasp more ‘ecumenical matters’.

One of Dougals biggest problems is his inability to make key distinctions. For example, one day gazing out onto the green fields of Craggy Island, Ted realises that Dougal does not understand the concept of perspective. Dougal is totally confused between a toy cow in his hand and a real one in a distant field. However, our ‘bounded rationality’ can also catch us out regularly. We might distinguish ‘faraway’ from ‘small’ well but what about the distinction between 'accurate' and 'precise' or even the difference between ‘opposites’ and ‘negative’s’?

Take a second to ask yourself - ‘is hot treally the opposite of cold?’ and in answering this, you'll discover how easy it is to mistake them. Cold and hot are simply differences in degrees of temperature, not opposites.

Every day, like Dougal, we’re challenged to apply logic e.g. not to believe in false claims of‘spider babies’ or simply repeat lines that sound plausible but that we don’t fully understand. Unlike Dougal, however, we can at least engage in ‘metacognition’ i.e. become more aware of our reasoning styles in order to avoid confusion and his 'black-and-white' thinking.

A sad ending....

If you’ve read this far (and thanks for that), it may be that you’re vulnerable (like us all) to ‘narrative bias’. Stories are also tools that help us deal with complexity . They allow us to combine established facts with less well-understood) information. So strong is the draw of a good narrative, however, that it can cause us to jump to the wrong conclusion yet ones that endure as shared memory. Good critical thinking can help us avoid conflating fact with fiction.

Yet fictional characters are relatable and make training engineers in critical thinking easier. So if you want to re-watch a few episodes of 'Fr. Ted' now, shur “go on, go on, go on, go on, go on….”.


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