“Think for yourself” is probably the most important advice an educated person can hear. Unfortunately, its meaning has become ambiguous.

To me, it means “instead of uncritically taking on others’ opinions as your own, be skeptical and make an effort to educate yourself so you can form good opinions.”

To some others, it seems like it means “don’t go along with the crowd,” implying that a position contrary to the consensus is somehow better by virtue of its contrariness.

Why has this happened?

Today I started reading How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler (1972), and he nailed it in the first three pages:

[Television, radio, and magazines] are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements — all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics — to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

It’s as if thinking for yourself is as simple as taking out the default cassette that “the system”, or society, put in there for you, and inserting a different one. What feels like thinking is really letting yourself be persuaded — a cheap way to feel rebellious and empowered by going against the norm, like a teenager wearing a T-shirt with a hammer and sickle on it. As long as your opinion is different from the mainstream, you’re OK. No deeper thinking necessary.

On the traditional political spectrum, people on both sides are guilty of this. Most leftists seem to think the default cassette is a selfish, misogynistic, money-grabbing, racist one; most conservatives think it’s a narcissistic, precious, victim-loving, dishonest one. Each side has its own alternative cassette, and you just pop in whichever one makes you more comfortable. No need to bother with Smith and Rousseau when you’ve got Jezebel and Glenn Beck popping up in your Twitter feed.

(The Internet, with its content-filtering and “click economy” that ensures the loudest, most controversial one-off articles pull in the cash, has made it dangerously easy to avoid the heavy lifting that thinking requires. Ryan Holiday wrote a fantastic book about this called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. I highly recommend it.)

Science now has to deal with this, too. Many people have come to view science as just another cassette, a worldview that you should simply eject if you “don’t agree with it”, as if it were a packaged political opinion.

Worse than that, because a scientific worldview is considered to be the norm, many feel an urge to rebel against it on the grounds that you should “think for yourself.” Almost nobody likes hearing the boring old voice of reason and skepticism when there are other ideas with such exciting potential. The scientific method — which has for centuries been the byword for our attempts to think for ourselves — now has all the yuck factor of a classical music CD at a 21st birthday party.

The upshot of this development is that rejecting science itself is seen as a more and more tenable position, as if the weight of each side’s arguments in the debate were balanced 50–50, like the political left and right. In reality, it’s closer to 99.999–0.001. False balance like this is why climate change conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccination movement are taken seriously, along with a host of bad political ideas based on bad science.

This is possibly the worst case of self-sabotage we have come up with as a species. We’re going to have no feet left if we keep shooting ourselves down there.

How can you guard against this in your own thinking? Consider Charlie Munger’s approach:

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

By doing your best to hear all sides of the debate in their totality and why each side believes what it does, you force yourself to think. The cognitive dissonance makes it hard for you to get away with hastily agreeing with the side you’re inclined to agree with.

But don’t be fooled into thinking each side has equal weight. Go one step further and start a habit of reading the foundations of those ideas, and now you can really think. See what the facts are. Go down the same pathways that thinkers did in centuries past. Tangle with those ideas while you’re waiting for the microwave to finish. Yes, it actually will require effort, but that’s what makes the reward so rare and valuable. Almost no one is willing to do this.

This is really thinking for yourself. It isn’t easy, but it’s the only path through the batshit. And we need to remind each other to do it more.