Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews, today I'm sitting with Spencer Greenberg, who is a mathematician and entrepreneur in social sciences and the Founder of ClearerThinking.org. Welcome to the Browser.
Spencer: Thanks for having me.
Baiqu: So Spencer, if you're ready, I'm going to ask you for a bunch of recommendations.
Spencer: Sure, sounds great.
How to practice critical thinking and rational reasoning
Baiqu: All right. Recommendation one, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about critical thinking, rationality, et cetera.
Spencer: Well, a phenomenal new book came out about this topic recently, called The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef, who's a friend of mine. It's really a wonderful book, I highly recommend it. It's all about the benefits that we get from trying to think more clearly and why some people are better at this than others and about the things you can do to become a better critical thinker.
Baiqu: What are some of the findings or learnings from the book that you think people can take away? Like how do you become a more critical thinker? And I guess, like, what does that mean in different contexts?
Spencer: Yeah. One of the things that the book emphasises is that a lot of times we're not actually even trying to figure out the truth. We have other motivations, like we're trying to impress others, or we're trying to no protect ourselves, or not look bad, these kinds of things. And so a key aspect of the book is really trying to get clear on like, when are you in truth seeking mode? Which the author calls "scout mindset," that's what it refers to. Versus when are you in what you call "soldier mindset," which is where you're trying to win an argument, you're trying to prove yourself right. So, a key aspect of it is trying to notice when you're really in "scout mindset" versus "soldier mindset." And that step of noticing is like a key aspect in becoming a better critical thinker.
Baiqu: I see. What is truth seeking then within the paradigm of this book and what are the benefits of being in "scout mindset"?
Spencer: Yeah so truth seeking is about trying to see the world as it actually is, rather than the way you want it to be, or the way that would make you look the best, and so on. And the benefits are obvious when we think about things in our life where the outcome really matters, right? If you're getting medical treatment, you want to make sure you get the best medical treatment, not just one that seems like it's going to work, but won't actually work. Where it becomes a little less obvious are in things in our social lives, like, do you really want to know the truth about how much your friends like you. Or do you really want to know the truth about how good you are at activities? Or do you want to just believe that you're better than you are? And The Scout Mindset makes the argument that a lot of times, we're not in truth seeking mode, when in fact we would benefit from being more of a truth seeker. Where by seeing the world more clearly, we can make better decisions, we can achieve our goals more accurately. We can have better outcomes, yet we tend to be too often in "soldier mindset" where we're just trying to prove a point or beat someone in an argument.
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What do your friends truly think of you
Baiqu: Hmm interesting. So if I wanted to find out if my friends actually liked me, what should I look out for? Or how should I enter a "scout mindset"?
Spencer: So one thing that I find really valuable my own life is trying to seek out criticism. Not just kind of passively accept criticism, well that's useful, but actually actively seek it out.
So for example, I have a podcast called Clearer Thinking and recently we did a listener survey where I explicitly asked our listeners to critique the show and say, what do you most dislike about it? What could I do better as a host? And I find that kind of seeking feedback really, really useful. And although a lot of people would think, oh, this is kind of scary. You can actually do a form of this in your own social life, where you can say to your friends, "hey, I'd really like to know how to be a better friend. What do you think I could do better as a friend?" You can present it in a way where people are like, oh, you know what? It would be really cool if you did this. Or, it kind of bothers me when you do that. It might sound unpleasant, it might be a little bit unpleasant. But you can actually become a better friend, and then in the longterm have better relationships, have people like you more and so on. So the short-term cost of finding out the truth may actually pay off a lot in the longterm.
In fact, if you're interested in this topic, our website clearerthinking.org, we have over 50 free interactive tools that relate to all different critical thinking topics. And we actually have one on seeking criticism, so you can find the seek criticism tool on our website along with many others.
What is Clear Thinking
Baiqu: Cool. And tell me a bit more about ClearerThinking.org. I mean the name in itself is very self-explanatory. What got you to Clearer Thinking? Why are you interested in this? And what are you doing to help people think more critically?
Spencer: Yeah so I think of it as both being about society as a whole and about our own lives. So in terms of society as a whole, as the years progressed, our technology gets more and more advanced and the world gets more and more complicated. And I believe that society has to get wiser in how it deals with these complexities. And if we don't, that one day, we're going to have extreme problems in society. You know, we already have many problems, but I think they could get worse and worse.
Just as an example, before we invented nuclear weapons, humanity literally had no way to wipe itself out. Now we've invented a way to wipe ourselves out, if we're not really careful with how we handle them, we could end our species through some stupid war. And if you look at the history of nuclear weapons, it's absolutely shocking how many times we came close to full-on nuclear war and we narrowly avoided it. Nuclear weapons are just one example.
Another example is bioterrorism. 20 years ago, nobody could have created a super-virus more deadly than COVID. Now, biologists actually know how to create more deadly viruses, in 20 years from now, they're going to know how to do it much better than they do today. So if we're not incredibly careful with how we handle this technology, one day, we could have a virus that's 20 times worse than COVID that someone purposely creates. So that's just two examples, but you can go through many, many different examples of this, that as a society, we have to get wiser. And I think critical thinking is a really important piece of that. We have to be able to understand how to see the world as it is, figure out how to solve these really important challenges.
So that's kind of the society-wide view. The second piece is individually in your own life. I think there's so many ways that we individually could benefit from being clearer thinkers. So that's really what a lot of our tools are focused on. I mentioned we have over 50 free tools, they're each interactive and each teach you a different piece of critical thinking or helping you understand yourself. That's everything from trying to help you avoid common biases, like the sunk cost fallacy or the planning fallacy, to teaching you how to think about evidence, so like bayesian thinking, and many other topics.
Baiqu: You, are a mathematician as well as an entrepreneur. Do you think of yourself as a critical thinker, is that why you became a mathematician or do you think you became more of a critical thinker through your academic and professional training?
Spencer: Well, I think the reality is math teaches one type of critical thinking, but it's a small subset of the full field. So you could be a great mathematician and not a great critical thinker broadly. What it teaches you to do really well is to think super logically and deductively like a implies b, implies c, and to find flaws in those kinds of deductive chains. Also if you study probability theory, it can teach you about probabilistic thinking, which is really useful. So those are parts of critical thinking, but critical thinking is much broader than that. And as Julia Galef points out in her book The Scout Mindset, a significant part of it is just intentionality. Like actually wanting to know the truth, being willing to deal with the short-term discomfort of realising you're wrong in order to ultimately have better long-term outcomes. So yeah, this was just kind of many pieces of that. So I think for me, I've been interested in critical thinking or rationality from a young age where I started noticing that my mind didn't always work as well as I wanted it, and noticing that I would jump to false conclusions, or be biased in different situations, and really saying how do I get better at this? How do I make my mind work more effectively at figuring out the truth.
Is rational thinking and emotional reasoning compatible?
Baiqu: For me I think what's interesting is that, at least in school systems that I've been brought up in, they seem to paint this false dichotomy of rationality versus emotional reasoning or like intuitive thinking. What are your thoughts on that?
Spencer: Yeah, that's such a great question because it really is such a false dichotomy. I have a TEDx talk I did on this thing I called the FIRE framework, which is a way of thinking about when should you use your intuition versus when should you use your kind of reflective, analytic reasoning? And one of my main points in that talk is that you really need to rely on both. They're both really powerful tools, and to say, I'm just going to use my emotional or intuitive reasoning or, I'm just gonna use my reflective reasoning, is like saying I'm just going to use my left arm or I'm just going to use my right arm. It makes no sense. Really, the way to use your mind most effectively is to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the different parts of your mind, and then fuse them together to get the best outcomes. So I think there's no contradiction at all between the intuitive and the reflective. In fact, they're just different useful tools that we can leverage to help us achieve our goals.
How to be more rational in a conversation?
Baiqu: So usually at this point, I would ask you my second question, which is how do you come across as being smart in a conversation. But given your expertise, I'm going to tailor the question slightly. So how would you come across as being more rational in a conversation?
Spencer: Well, I'd like to rephrase this. How do you actually be more rational in conversation rather than just come across? Because I think if your goal is just to come across as rational, I feel like you're starting on the wrong foot. So I think to be more rational in a conversation, a really useful framing is trying to really understand why people believe what they do. So let's say someone disagrees with you, try to get into the mode of curiosity. So instead of immediately trying to shoot down what they say, or refute them because they're disagreeing with, try to get into a curious mindset and say, oh that's interesting, let me explore why we disagree and really try to ask follow up questions to get the root of the disagreement. I think that actually is incredibly powerful tool because first of all, it helps you learn a lot more in conversations. Second of all, people actually appreciate it. They appreciate that you're interested in them, and that you want to understand their perspective, and can actually create a bond between you. Instead of, if you immediately try to shut down or defend yourself, then actually that can create distance and create a sense of animosity.
How to become a better truth seeker?
Baiqu: Very good point.
I mean, this is interesting, right in terms of the current context when it comes to having a conversation with someone that you disagree with, and in terms of this idea of truth seeking. A lot of people seem to have their own ideas of what the truth is about specific topics. We're obviously all living within our own realities and some of that is shared with our community, whether that's physical or virtual or ideological. So when it comes to having a rational conversation, when it comes to seeking truth, how do you do that when everyone's definition of truth is slightly different?
Spencer: Yeah. Well, I don't know that people's definition of truth is fundamentally different. Like I think people generally agree that truth is the way the world actually is right? It's like a correspondence between an idea and like matter, or atoms, or particles or, you know what I mean? But I think that you're totally right that people's approach to understanding the world is very, very different. So one thing that I find really useful to remember is that every simple theory of how the world is, is wrong. Every single one. And once you really internalise that, it means that to understand the world, it's useful to have these simple theories, but you can't just have one. If you're stuck in just one frame, if you think communism is the answer to everything, or capitalism is the answer to everything. If you have just one frame, then you're definitely going to be really, really wrong because the world's too complicated to understand through one simple theory.
However, if you can go and you can understand, what is right about the communist way of looking at things, what did they get right and what did they get wrong? What about the capitalist way of looking things? What did they get right? What did they get wrong? If you can put on a mindset temporarily and try to say what's good about this way of looking, and what ways is it inaccurate, then you can adopt another one and another one and another one. That's kind of how you successively approximate becoming a better and better true seeker, and actually figuring out what's true.
Baiqu: So looking at different frameworks and different theoretical approaches to the world, would that be applicable to religious frameworks as well as say conspiracy frameworks?
Spencer: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, here's the thing. If you take someone who's born in a particular religion, chances are they're going to continue being in that religion. So essentially, one way to think about what they're doing is they're making a bet for their eternal soul that they happen to have been born in the one true religion. Just by chance their parents happened to have the one true religion, and if they're unlucky and their parents don't know the one true religion, then they're just in a false religion their whole life. So now there are a lot of social costs to changing your religion. You know, if you're born in an area where everyone's religious and you decide to truly challenge that and question that, there might be a social cost. So you have to really think about, do I actually want to know the truth? If my religion is false, do I want to know it? Right? And maybe the answer is no. Maybe even if it's false, you want to keep living it. Fine.
But if in the world where it's false, you want to know that's false. Then the way to approach that is to say, okay, let me try to temporarily adopt different perspectives. Not go look at what the naysayers say to try to shoot them down. That's the wrong mindset. That's a "soldier mindset," but you want to go in with the "scout mindset" and say let me look at what the naysayers say, and let me see what the strongest arguments they make are. Let me see the good points they have, let me see what contradictions they're pointing out that actually seem like contradictions. And you want to do that, adopting a bunch of different perspectives, one by one. Then you want to try to synthesise everything you've learned, and that will give you a much more accurate perspective.
Best Amazon purchase and how to buy things rationally
Baiqu: Hmm thanks. Thank you for that.
The next question is, over the period of the pandemic, what has been your best online patches?
Spencer: Yes, so quite a different genre of question.
So one of my best online purchases is this headset I'm wearing right here. It's a wireless headset. I can move around, I'm not tethered to my computer. And I have to say in a world where you're on zoom meetings a lot, where you're at your computer a lot, this is just so great. Because if I'm in a meeting where I don't have to keep my video on, I can go make a cup of tea while I'm talking to someone, or even just pace around to get a little bit of movement while I'm stuck in my apartment. So I think getting a wireless headset for your computer, super nice. This happens to be a Jabra, but there's a whole bunch of, of different brands that make these kinds of things.
Baiqu: Okay, so here's a bit cheeky question. When you're buying things, or when you're looking for a particular product, do you also apply critical thinking to that process? Or are you just more kind of impulsive? Like, oh, I really want those and I'm going to get it.
Spencer: I do try to apply critical thinking to everything, but it doesn't mean that you sit there scrutinising the pros and cons, because I think this is one mistake when people are trying to do "naive" rationality or "naive" critical thinking. They say, oh, the rational choice to consider every single advantage, every single disadvantage. But the reality is, you have to think well, if I'm about to do a purchase for $5, if I think there's a 20% chance this could improve my life, the most rational thing might be just spend the $5, try it out, see if it helps you, and then if not give it away or what have you. Because the cost is so cheap. Now if on the other hand you're buying a $2000 purchase, let's say you're considering buying a new, really expensive mattress, because you think it might help you sleep better, then you might want to really do your due diligence and really try to understand what are the pros and cons of different mattresses. Can I try it out before I purchase it and so on. So yeah I do try to bring it to everything, but it doesn't mean that you're constantly doing pros and cons lists. You really trying to take into account how much time is it worth spend spending on this topic?
Baiqu: So in terms of critical thinking, trying to think more rationally, is it kind of like a muscle that you build up and once you get better at it, it's easier to apply it across the board and the things that you do in your life, or do you find it sometimes tiring to try and remind yourself to be a critical thinker about different aspects of your life?
Spencer: I think it's very hard to normally act one way and then just suddenly switch when you really need it to act a different way. So you could imagine in theory, someone who is irresponsible on all the little things in their life, but then on the big things they suddenly become really responsible. Like it could happen, maybe, but it seems much more plausible that you have to build up a habit of a way of being. You kind of create yourself through your habits. And so if you have a habit of being responsible on little things, I think it's more likely to make you responsible on the big things. And I think it's the same with critical thinking. If on the little things you let yourself engage a really sloppy thinking, or motivated reasoning, or you just try to prove yourself right. Then when you get to the big topics, you're like I'm going to really be a good, critical thinker, I think it's probably not gonna happen. You're not going to have the habit of doing it, and also you're just not going to have honed your skills over time. I think you should try to apply it systematically. Basically what that means is trying to adopt a mindset of caring about what's true, adopt a mindset of thinking about different ways of looking at a problem. Trying to gather evidence on both sides. Whenever you're trying to gather evidence just on one side, but that's not critical thinking, that's not rationality, that's just trying to prove yourself right
Best cure to an existential crisis
Baiqu: Okay. And then onto my next question. What would you recommend as a cure or a balm to an existential crisis?
Spencer: Yeah so one of our tools I think can be pretty good for this. It's called our Intrinsic Values Test. Basically what it does, is it asks you a whole series of questions about what you most fundamentally value. And we've done a bunch of research on this, we've looked at how do philosophers categorise values, how to psychologists do it, how to political scientists do it, how do career coaches do it and so on. And then we've also run our own study where we had people submit 3000 different things that they think they intrinsically value and we categorised it all and we ran a statistical analysis. So this tool will actually give you a customised report of your intrinsic values.
So if you just search for Clearer Thinking intrinsic values test, you can find that, and it's totally free.
Baiqu: How do you think that can be applied then when trying to think through an existential crisis? Like whether, if it's just about life in general or work or your personal relationships, how do you apply your intrinsic values to that?
Spencer: Yeah. So if you think about human decision-making. Very often what happens is we set some goals for ourselves, we make some plans to try to get to those goals, and then we have to make decisions along the way as we're executing those plans. But what people often lose sight of is there's a thing that comes even before the goal, which are your intrinsic values - your intrinsic values are the things that you fundamentally care about, not as a means to other ends, but you care about them for their own sake. And they're the things that you would care about, even if they got you nothing else.
So for most people, their own pleasure is at least one of their intrinsic values. They care about feeling good. But most people have many other intrinsic values as well. For example, you probably want the well-being of your loved ones, you may care intrinsically about longevity, like living a long life, you probably don't want to die tomorrow, even if it's painless. You probably also care about other things in the moral domain, like you probably care about being an honest person and being well thought of by others and so on. So your intrinsic values are sort of this core stuff that your goals ideally should emanate from. In other words, your goals should be chosen to reflect how to produce a lot of your intrinsic values. A lot of people kind of miss that step, and so when people have existential crises, there's a lot of different types, but a common type is when they spend a bunch of their life in pursuit of a goal and then they realise at some point that the goal doesn't get them the thing they want.
Favourite music, article, and daily habit
Baiqu: I think I'm going to go on your website right after this interview and try and find out what my intrinsic values are. I'd be very curious.
Then on to our last question, can you recommend a piece of music, an article that's stuck with you or left an impression, and a daily habit that you practice?
Spencer: Okay that's a tough one. So for a piece of music, I recommend Level Up by Vienna Teng. It's a really energising song, but one of the cool things I like about it is it has kind of the feel of religious music. It has a kind of the vibe of Christian rock and things like that, but in a secular, non-religious context. And I think it's kind of a cool song.
So one article that I think is a really interesting one, is on the blog Slate Star Codex, which has become extremely popular blog recently. And it's called The Toxoplasma of Rage. It's actually an old blog posts, but it's about the way that these cases in society can get people really upset and then cause a lot of fighting between different groups. So imagine your latest news story where something happens in the news, and the left interprets it one way and the right interprets another way, and everyone yells at each other and fights. It's about that phenomenon and kind of gives a theory about why those kinds of situations happen.
Baiqu: Hmm. Will definitely check that out. Then finally, a daily habit.
Spencer: Yeah so I think one of the best kind of meta habits you can make is that every morning, you can have a certain sequence of things you do, and it could start really small. Like a really good one to start with is just drink a tall glass of water when you wake up. Then what's cool is if you can get yourself doing that everyday, you can tack something on the end of it. So as soon as you finished your glass of water, maybe you should stretch for three minutes. And then you can tack something else under that. Okay after that, maybe I'll do a five minute meditation and so on. So, so the idea of this kind of meta habit is that once you've built a little seed of it, you can just keep adding things to it, and you can tweak it over time to make it fit your life as your life changes. So you can use it as your habit for whatever you need in your life at that moment.
Baiqu: And what's yours?
Spencer: Sure yeah. So mine is I wake up, drink a tall glass of water. I had a shoulder problem, so I do stretches for my shoulder, which after I started implementing this is like almost completely cured my shoulder problem, which was amazing. Just like a couple minutes of stretching a day. Then after I'm done with that, I do some planks for just for core strength. Then I go have a protein bar, which is like my morning breakfast. I have this healthy kind of protein bar that I actually really recommend, it's called Nocow Bar if you're into that kind of thing. And then after that, I usually just get going beginning my day.
Baiqu: Well, thank you, Spencer, for all your recommendations. All the links and things will be in the show notes so everyone can go and check out your recommendations, as well as your podcast, and your website.
Spencer: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on, if anyone found this interesting, I'd love for you to check out my podcast called Clearer Thinking.
The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef
Clearer Thinking podcast
How to trust your gut, TEDx Talk by Spencer Greenberg.
Clearer Thinking Intrinsic Values Test
Level Up by Vienna Teng
The Toxoplasma of Rage on Slatestar Codex
Nocow Bar (protein bar)
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