How to Get Smarter

Lee McGowan
Aug 25, 2020 · 9 min read
Image for post
Image for post

I am not intelligent. That’s not false modesty or attention seeking. It’s just a fact I learned recently.

I love to argue. I love arguing with friends, I love arguing with strangers, I could probably have an argument with a dog for at least five minutes. But no matter how much I do it, I never seem to convince anyone of anything, even when it feels like I’m winning.

I figured that being intelligent meant having the ability to convince other people that your beliefs are right, and because I was failing at that, I just wasn’t smart. But I’m not a giver-upperer. So a couple weeks ago I set out to learn how to argue effectively.

The Problem with “Facts and Logic”

Everyone loves to talk about facts and logic. Ben Shapiro makes a living out of it. Facts don’t care about your feelings, his pinned twitter post reads. So surely all I need to win arguments is valid information and the logical ability to tie it together. Right?

W R O N G.

Have you ever been in a political argument? It goes something like this.

Person 1: Hi, did you know that there are 8 planets?

Person 2: Shut the hell up, liberal.

Try it. Gather some data and attempt to convince your conservative aunt and commie uncle that Trump isn’t Jesus risen or Friedrich Hayek in disguise. Instead of being convinced, they’ll say that your source is untrusthworthy, that you’re misrepresenting the findings, or, failing that, they’ll claim the data is from a different temporal dimension and therefore does not apply. Most people will do everything in their power to deny what’s in front of their noses if it doesn’t gel with their worldview. It’s part of being human. We don’t want to be wrong, and we’ll do everything to avoid that.

So it’s not through facts and logic that you convince people. But how, then?

Enter Socrates.

The Dialogues

Socrates was a sage who lived in ancient Athens. We know what we know about him because of his student, Plato, who wrote a series of books called The Dialogues which depict Socrates in conversation with various Athenians. These conversations are interesting, enlightening and funny, but most importantly for me, they demonstrate a technique now known as the Socratic Method, which Socrates uses to lead people to examine the reasoning behind a belief.

It usually goes something like this.

There is a plane flying over Athens. The Athenians have never seen a plane, because it is 388 BC.

Socrates: Wow! What must that be?

Interlocutor: Why, my dear Socrates, it must be an angel.

Socrates: Interesting. And what makes you think it is an angel?

Interlocutor: It has wings. Angels have wings.

Socrates: Yes, good point. But are angels the only things that have wings?

Interlocutor: Hmm. No, indeed.

Socrates: What else has wings?

Interlocutor: Birds. Insects. Red bull.

Socrates: Forsooth. Then is it fair to say that that is not necessarily an angel?

Interlocutor: Why yes, Socrates, I must say it is.

This is a simplified example, but it illustrates the point. Instead of imposing upon the interlocutor or attempting to argue a specific viewpoint, Socrates simply asks questions. And you’ll even notice that he throws in a few compliments; shows respect for his conversation partner. This is the essence of the Socratic Method. You ask carefully considered questions that lead others to reflect carefully on their own reasoning. Many times, people will discover that they have knowledge gaps, or have reached a conclusion through faulty logic. The Socratic Method is a skill and as such can only ever be mastered with practice and study, but is well-worth the effort. The best way to learn it is by reading The Dialogues.

I spent a good amount of time studying the Socratic Method. It was exciting. But, it didn’t do what I was looking for. It didn’t teach me how to win an argument. It’s not about winning at all. It’s a collaborative exercise in finding truth.

But, actually, when I truly thought about it, I realised that that was what I was looking for. Because being smarter isn’t about winning arguments, it’s about finding truth.

So I decided to explore the Socratic Method more, and think about how it could help me become smarter. But whenever I tried it on people they said things like: ‘please leave me alone’, ‘I am very tired’ and ‘when did you last take a shower?’

So I had to find a way of getting smarter on my own. And that birthed what follows: the true substance of this post — a systematic method for employing the Socratic Method, on yourself, to get brain-swole.

How to Get Smarter

  1. Realise that you know nothing

Plato records Socrates as saying: ‘I know that I know nothing’. This is one of his most famous convictions and, in my opinion, the root of his wisdom. Have you ever noticed that the loudest and most passionate people are often the most stupid? I have. I just watch home videos of 15-year old me.

When you believe that you are smart, that you know so much about certain things, then you effectively close yourself off to further wisdom. You might be inclined to ignore less qualified people. You may not review your fundamentals or your assumptions. And you might spend all your time arguing with people in Twitter threads who are just as convinced as you are that they have the right answer.

Shedding your preconceptions about your own intellectual ability is the first step towards true wisdom. Accepting that there is so much out there that you don’t know, even within ideas you’ve held your entire life, will naturally open you up to stimuli that challenge your beliefs. It will be that much easier to change them, too.

This is essential for the following steps, because when you begin to explore your own mind, you have to be willing to poke at those areas that feel firm regardless of how uncomfortable it may be.

2. Identify an idea that you hold

This can be anything, but works better with dogmatic beliefs. God is real. The gender gap doesn’t exist. Cats are pointless.

The idea here isn’t to pick a belief that you think could be wrong, because your goal isn’t to prove it wrong. Your goal is to explore where you may have gaps in your knowledge, or where you may have shaky reasoning.

3. Identify some premises, and how confident you are about each

Let’s say we believe that vaccines are bad for us. The first thing we have to do is identify the premises that lead us to this conclusion. Premises are declarative statements that we believe to be true and that logically combine to form the conclusion. For example,

Premise A: All vaccines contain substances like mercury

Premise B: Mercury is poisonous

Conclusion: All vaccines are poisonous

At this point, you must ask yourself: is my argument logically valid?

Logically valid means that your conclusion must be true if both premises are true. The argument above seems logically valid (and we will assume for now that it is), because if there is mercury in all vaccines, and mercury is poisonous, then all vaccines must surely be poisonous. Being logically valid does not make an argument true, but an argument cannot be true unless it is logically valid.

If you find that your argument is not logically valid, then you have a problem. An example of a logically invalid argument is this:

Premise A: Some vaccines contain poisonous substances like mercury

Premise B: Mercury is poisonous

Conclusion: All vaccines are poisonous

This is logically invalid because the premises do not prove the conclusion. If only some vaccines have mercury, then how can you say that all vaccines are poisonous? If you find yourself in this situation, you must re-evaluate your conclusion, or your argument as a whole.

Note: At this point, you may find that you can’t identify any premises. That is one of the stopping points for this technique. It means your belief is not based on reason or research, and you must re-evaluate it.

5. Ask hard questions using the Socratic method

Having constructed a logical argument, you employ the Socratic method. You must be ruthless here. Remember, all premises have to be true for the conclusion to be true, so if you can disprove just one premise, then you disprove your whole argument. This doesn’t mean that your belief is wrong, but it does mean that you need to think more about it, or do more research.

So, if I were to do this exercise, my first question might be:

Do vaccines really contain mercury?

At this point, I have already discovered a gap in my knowledge. And even if I thought I knew that this is true, it would still be worthwhile going off and looking it up. By doing this, I can consolidate my understanding of things, know more about mercury than I may ever have known, and possibly become wiser. Now, let’s say my research reveals that some vaccines do contain mercury, but not all. I can re-evaluate my first premise to be: some vaccines contain mercury, and then my conclusion to be: some vaccines are poisonous. My knowledge has grown, and I am less likely to embarrass myself in future by making untrue claims.

The next question might be:

Is Mercury really poisonous?

Let’s say the answer is yes. At this point, I could decide that my argument is proven. Some vaccines contain mercury, and mercury is poisonous, so some vaccines are poisonous. But if I did this, I would only be tricking myself. As we’ll see in a moment, it’s much better to be more fervent with the Socratic Method at points like this.

My next question, then, would be:

So, mercury is poisonous, but how much mercury does it take to do damage to someone?

Another research point. I go off and look this up, and find out that there is a certain amount of mercury required to be hurtful. Now, I realise that my argument is actually not logically valid. This is because it doesn’t necessarily follow that all vaccines are poisonous (if they all contain mercury and mercury is poisonous) because I haven’t taken into account dosage, and I’ve just discovered that dosage matters.

Knowing this, though, I can re-evaluate my argument. I can decide that I am wrong, or that I need more evidence, or that I simply need to rephrase my argument to take dosage into account. Let’s say I do the last one. Now my argument is actually much stronger against those who might disagree, because I’ve destroyed that weak spot that they may have exploited.

So, remembering that mercury is only poisonous at certain dosages, how much mercury is found in vaccines?

Now I get to the crux of the issue. I discover only tiny traces of mercury are found in vaccines; far too small to be lethal. While my original argument did seem to be correct, I was actually missing crucial information. By employing the Socratic Method, I identified and located that gap in my knowledge and then rectified it. Probably by realising that I was being ridiculous.

So, I hope you now understand how valuable this approach to exploring reason can be. However, it is meant to be iterative and comprehensive. Although only two premises were discussed here, an argument can (and typically will) have several groups of premises supporting it. The idea is that you rigorously apply this technique to all of them. You can also use it on other types of convictions, like political, religious and educational. This technique also works well when used on others and can help them unravel their own faulty reasoning and knowledge gaps without them even knowing it is happening. It also goes without saying that it can be used, along with clever rhetoric and leading questions, to confuse people or convince them of things you believe. This is bad, and you are bad if you do it. Socrates will eat you.

Finally, this technique is susceptible to confirmation bias. That means that you can go looking for data that supports your premise and ignore everything else. It’s up to you if you do that. The intent of this method is only to help you identify faulty reasoning or where you may have knowledge gaps. How you rectify them is your issue, but you’re only hurting yourself if you aren’t honest.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium