Thinking is hard. Thinking about some problems is so hard it can make your head ache just thinking about thinking about them1.
Daniel Dennett has written a book which contains a collection of ideas about what he calls intuition pumps2. You can find some coverage of the book online. For example there is a conversation on Edge and a Google talk that is worth a look.
Here is a brief sampling of these ideas.
Scientists often ask me why philosophers devote so much of their effort to teaching and learning the history of their field. …. My answer is that the history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again.
This echoes the eloquent argument of Martin Schwartz about productive stupidity3. This is why tracing origins, going back to the beginnings of research practices, theories or educational practices is so important. If you have no idea of their origins of the ideas with which you are working, all you are doing is following a recipe.
Sturgeon’s Law is usually put a little less decorously: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics—and so forth—is crap. Is that true? Well, maybe it’s an exaggeration, but let’s agree that there is a lot of mediocre work done in every field. (Some curmudgeons say it’s more like 99 percent, but let’s not get into that game.)
In other words it is good, even essential that you ask tough questions about the papers, books, even Wiki entries like this that you are reading :).
Attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam), the fourteenth-century logician and philosopher, this thinking tool is actually a much older rule of thumb. A Latin name for it is lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony. It is usually put into English as the maxim “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” The idea is straightforward: don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well.
A lovely play on Occam's razor coined by the biologist Sidney Brenner and describes:
the process in which inconvenient facts are whisked under the rug by intellectually dishonest champions of one theory or another. This is our first boom crutch, an anti-thinking tool, and you should keep your eyes peeled for it.
It is the case the negative or inconclusive findings are often left out of reports of research. If we take the making mistakes dictum seriously, we lose access to what may have been a lot of useful information. In an era in which information storage is so inexpensive it makes no sense at all to not publish such non-findings.
We'll add more to this collection but for now it is important that you begin to add to your own collection of mind-made tools for thinking and add to your thinking repertoire.