How to Think — Alan Jacobs

I almost always find it faintly depressing reading comment threads on social media. They so often consist of two sides vigorously attacking imaginary strawman arguments from the other side. Nobody wins; everybody just ends up looking shrill and petty. I often start typing a response, but usually think better of wasting my time adding fuel to the fire. As Alan Jacobs says in this excellent book: “We have an inbuilt and powerful disposition towards dichotomising — but one that we don’t have to obey.” I have gotten better at not doing this, partly because I find it so dispiriting when reading comments from people who have eagerly retreated far into their corner so they can poke barbs at the “other” in their corner.

Jacobs more or less recommends my approach. He cites entrepreneur Jason Fried’s advice to “give it five minutes” before responding hot-headedly to anything. Five minutes is long enough for the first wave of certainty to pass, and you end up responding in a more measured and potentially less embarrassing way. Or in my case, deciding that the best response is no response at all.

In contrast to the cesspit of social media, Jacobs describes a wonderful style of debating in which, before arguing your position, you must summarise your opponent’s position to their satisfaction. Once they agree that you have fairly and accurately summarised their views, then you can proceed with your argument. And when you’ve finished, they must fairly summarise your arguments. It sounds as if not just the audience, but the debaters too would actually learn something from such a debate. Sadly, this is not the sort of debate we often see. As an excellent Guardian article about the Death of Debate said, “modern debate has a structural bias in favour of demagoguery and disinformation. It inherently favours liars”.

This is a marvellous book. In it, Alan Jacobs offers a wealth of insight into why people think (or fail to think), disagree and argue. He cites a huge range of other writers — I could spend a long time following up all the references. But in the meantime How to Think has encouraged me to continue to be a (moderate) force for moderation on Facebook and Twitter and be the change I want to see in the world.

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