Slow Down – Filter and Reflect with Gordon Pennycook

Susan Gerbic

Gordon Pennycook is the assistant professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. He is on the Editorial Board for Thinking and Reasoning and a consulting editor for Judgement & Decision Marking. He researches gut feelings versus analytic reasoning, fake news and the causes and consequences of analytic thinking. He will be speaking at CSICon on Friday, October 18 at 9 a.m.


Susan Gerbic: Gordon so nice to meet you. It was a lot of fun learning who you are and all about the work you do. I have to say that I did fall into a rabbit hole when I learned you are from Carrot River, Saskatchewan; with a name like that, how can a curious person like me resist. I learned that it has coined itself the “Outback of Saskatchewan” and is the home of Big Bert, a 92-million-year-old Terminonaris robusta crocodile. Lots of outdoor sports and good fresh air, I bet it was a wonderful place to grow up in?

Gordon Pennycook: There are definitely some serious benefits to growing up in rural Canada: I knew basically everyone in town, it was extremely safe, and we had lots of freedom and open space. Of course, there were some drawbacks as well. I knew basically everyone in town, it was extremely boring, and we had lots of freedom and open space (to get into trouble). We also didn’t get quality internet until much later than most people. But maybe that, too, was a good thing. Perhaps the greatest benefit for me is that I get to brag (?) about having among the most backwoods origin story in my area of academia (although a colleague from Wisconsin has eaten squirrel—I’m fine with second place).

Gerbic: At CSICon, you will be talking to us about your research, which you use the phrase lazy thinking. You say, “It’s okay sometimes to use your phone to solve problems … it’s important to value thinking in an analytical way so don’t over rely on your phone but also care about questioning your intuition and thinking in your everyday life.”

Pennycook: Our brains have this remarkable capacity to come up with very rapid “intuitive” answers that don’t require any explicit effort. We can immediately recognize people that we haven’t seen for years, for example. This intuitive thinking serves well for many things, but there are many cases where our intuitions might lead us astray. Lazy thinking is an allusion to the idea that people need to stop and reflect on their intuitions in some important situations—and, particularly, when filtering through all of the bullshit on the internet.

Gerbic: When asked what we can do about this, you said, “Get people to slow down a bit and think about it, but ultimately there is no silver bullet. We can’t just solve the problem.”  I’ve been thinking about your research most of the day, and I have to say I’m 100 percent guilty. I shared something on Facebook the other day just because I agreed with it; it was this NYT article, Ethiopia Says It Planted Over 350 Million Trees in a Day, a Record. I shared it and then read the comments on the Skeptical Inquirer page about the problems with the scale of 350 million trees planted in a day. Because it was the NYT, I really hadn’t thought about it and how it might be more complicated than I initially thought.  Possibly if we can just get people to understand that everyone falls for “lazy thinking” and how easy it is, we might start to make progress in getting people to slow down and think first.

Pennycook: Absolutely! People need to realize that confidence is a noisy proxy for accuracy. In fact, those who are the least able to recognize their inaccuracy are the most overconfident (this is the famous “Dunning-Kruger effect”). So, it’s not just a matter of slowing down, but also about having intellectual humility. It’s about recognizing that everyone thinks they are above average in terms of intelligence, but that true intelligence is understanding that everyone makes dumb mistakes and believes some things that are probably wrong. True skepticism is self-skepticism. It’s easy to see stupidity in others—the trick is identifying the places where we’ve allowed our cognitive biases to grow in safety and question them in the same way that we would argue with someone with a different political opinion on the internet. (And if you don’t argue with people on the internet, good for you, but for the sake of my argument just pretend that you do.)

Gerbic: I’ve been having fun with this question you ask people “If you are running a race and you pass the person in second place, what place are you in?” I and two other people I asked got it wrong. One friend I texted it to got it correct; maybe because she took more time to think about it because she thought it was a trick question? But it is an eye-opening question as we just shoot off a response without really considering the answer. I used to make fun of my mother who used to do math with a pencil and paper when there was a calculator nearby. Now I realize that I barely know how to multiply anymore and wouldn’t trust myself to add up a long row of numbers. I’m also losing the ability to spell, as everything auto-corrects or at least gives me a squiggly line when it is wrong. You call our phones the “brain in your pocket.” Are these examples of us becoming lazy thinkers?

Pennycook: I’m not sure that people are becoming lazier in their thinking (although it’s possible). What is almost certainly happening, though, is that people are shifting where they offload their thinking. For example, you can think about having a smartphone as like having a brain in your pocket. When you’re at dinner and you can’t recall an actor’s name, you can use your meat brain to try to conjure other movies that they were in or to think about other similar actors (etc.). Or, you could just pull out the brain that sits in your pocket and allow Google to answer the question for you (e.g., by searching a movie that they were in). There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this (you’ll get the correct answer at least!), but the problem comes when we come across questions that we cannot simply Google. Does the existence of easy answers make us more willing to give up when we have difficult questions? I don’t think psychology has a good answer for that yet, but it’s possible. And a bit scary.

Gerbic: Okay I have to know more about the Ig Nobel Peace Prize that you and your coauthor won on an investigation of “pseudo-profound bullshit” in 2016. I read about the Ig awards, and it sounds like a blast, complete with a little girl who comes out on stage and says “I’m bored” when people run over time. I think I’m going to have to sit and binge watch these shows. Is this something you can cross off your bucket list now?

Pennycook: It is definitely a cross-off bucket list item. One can think about the Ig Nobel as the Nobel prize for being a smartass. Having said that, in addition to giving the awards to serious scientists who do work that “makes people laugh, and then think,” they also give awards to people who simply do stupid (but funny) things. Of course, they don’t tell you which ones are which. So, I’m pretty sure I’m proud.

Gerbic: I also saw in your research that about 42 percent of college students at the University of Waterloo in Ontario know who Deepak Chopra is. That alone was a very interesting number to me. I guess it just shows how His Quantumness gets around the internet. Speaking of fake news, Chopra is one of my detractors. Because of the Wikipedia team I manage, he feels that I’m one of the biggest problems with the untruths on Wikipedia; if I and my team would go away, they would be able to help more people with their health problems. He understands that people are getting medical advice from the internet and Wikipedia is biased against them. Ha!

Pennycook: I’m fairly confident that Deepak Chopra has more followers on Twitter than every psychologist in the world combined (excluding Jordan Peterson). I’m glad that sources like Wikipedia offer (however slight) a roadblock for his bullshit claims. There is a huge market for provocative claims. Unfortunately, evidence-based research just doesn’t sell all that well.

Gerbic: This will be your first CSICon; I have written an article called CSICon 101 that I hope will assure you that the community might be a bunch of analytical thinkers, but we are fun analytical thinkers and everyone will be happy to meet you. Also want to remind you that Saturday night we always have a Halloween party, this year it is themed with the 1950s. So, grease back your hair, cuff up your white t-shirt and jeans. See you soon! 

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.