Tag Archives: critical thinking

The trouble with toilets

As soon as I spotted the headline in the paper I felt a flush of vindication: I was right! I knew it all along! At the bottom of page six of the Times, the environment editor Ben Webster topped his short article with the following: ‘Water-efficient’ loos leak millions of litres every day.

File_000My prejudice against the so-called water-efficient toilets was seeded about two years ago when we moved from a one-lavatory house to a three-lavatory house – yes, that meant one lavatory per occupant. The big surprise on moving in was that the small outhouse on the back of the building contained a functioning old-style high-cistern pull-chain siphon-flush toilet, with panoramic views of the garden. This WC remains a little-used curiosity, and the outhouse is mainly used for storage now (or for posing in – see the photo on the right).

However, inside the house the other two lavatories were identical modern drop-valve dual-flush models, and both of them had the same problem: they leaked. It wasn’t really something that I noticed during the busy-ness of the moving-in process, but when I was lying in my new bedroom at night I could definitely hear the slow plink-plink-plink of dripping into the toilet bowl coming from both the upstairs and downstairs toilets. At frequent intervals this was drowned out by the sound of the partially drained cistern re-filling. Best of all the downstairs toilet featured a small sticker that said ‘Leak tested’ to which the previous tenant had added (in biro) NOT!

At what was a particularly stressful time of my life, the problem of the toilets that needed attention seemed significant and insurmountable. Of course eventually I just got to it and googled the problem, wrestled with the contents of the cisterns to determine what needed doing, ordered the replacement parts online and then spent even longer wrestling with the flush mechanisms to fix them. And through it all the thought was in my head: “These new style dual flush toilets are crap. The old siphon toilets never had this problem. I hate dual-flush toilets.

File_000 (9)That wasn’t the end of it though. When we moved in we were told by the letting agent that the house was not on a water meter – ‘Great!‘ I thought, ‘it won’t cost us if the toilets keep leaking‘. That turned out to be wrong, a letter arrived from the water company telling us that we did in fact have a water meter. Not long after that the flush mechanism in the upstairs toilet malfunctioned and I replaced it. A few months later the dripping began again and, much more quickly this time, I ordered the new washers and sorted it out. And this pattern has repeated, the toilets requiring regular minor maintenance leaving me wondering if I could bulk-order the replacement washers (see the photo on the right).

So, when this week I saw the headline in the paper I felt a sense of ‘I told you so!’ The dual-flush toilets are a false water economy! We were better off with the old siphon mechanisms! The only person nearby to tell was my son, but he didn’t care… and so this blog post started to take shape in my mind. It started with recognising the rush that accompanies Being Right (confirmation bias: I wouldn’t have paid the article much attention if I didn’t already think that dual-flush toilets were a false economy), was fed by the desire to explain the mechanics of toilet flush mechanisms (remember, I’m a physics teacher too) but ended up with me considering the complicated tangle of trying to make a difference for the better in the world.

Now that I’ve declared my interest (or prejudice) I can outline the shape of the rest of this article. In it I describe the difference between the old and new toilet flush technologies, with particular reference to their advantages and disadvantages with regards to water efficiency. I then discuss the context in which the old technology was superseded by the new, and why this supposed change for the better may have turned out to be a colossal mistake. I finish by considering where the toilet water-efficiency problem may go from here – what are the possible solutions, what are the ideologies within which the solutions will be conceived, and who is responsible for sorting this problem out?

In this article I will be assuming that improving water efficiency (by reducing wastage and demand) is a desirable thing: that it is morally good. I won’t be providing much justification for this, suffice to say that water is a renewable but finite resource and that here in the UK (where fresh water is rather abundant) we devote a lot of other finite and non-renewable resources to treating water for mains supply. I am also assuming that it is worthwhile to attempt to improve water efficiency by specifically focussing on the issue of flushing toilets – it may be in practice that any savings there are insignificant in comparison to other wastage in the system (for example, leaking supply pipes), and I’ve not investigated the figures for comparison. I do not suggest non-WC alternatives such as composting and ‘wild weeing’.

Right… are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Toilet technology
It is not completely impossible for a traditional toilet to leak, but due to their design they are very unlikely to leak. In a traditional toilet the water in the cistern must first flow upwards before it can flow downwards into the toilet bowl. Water will not flow uphill without assistance (as I’m sure you’re aware!) and your push on the handle provides the necessary lift to get the flush going. Once the flow has started the water will continue to siphon out until the cistern is empty.

This explains why siphon-based flush mechanisms are considered to be wasteful of water – every flush completely drains the cistern, whether or not that much water is actually needed to do the job. It also explains why they are so robust against developing a leak into the toilet bowl, simply because water cannot travel uphill unaided. On the rare occasions when I’ve experienced these toilets leaking it was down to a fault in the re-filling mechanism, and the dripping was from the overflow pipe on the outside of the building.

File_000 (10)In order to achieve variable-volume flushing the designers of modern ‘dual flush’ toilets have done away with the cistern-emptying siphon mechanism. Instead, in the common ‘drop valve’ design, when the flush buttons are pressed a plug is yanked out of a plughole in the bottom of the cistern and the water drains down into the toilet bowl. One of the flush buttons yanks the plug a long way out of the plug hole, so that the entire cistern drains before it falls back in to seal it up again. However, the other flush button only yanks the plug out a little way, and it drops back in when only a fraction of the water in the cistern has escaped.

The dual-flush design has the flexibility for toilet-users to choose to use an amount of water that is appropriate to the job. However, in order for the water to remain in the cistern between flushes the fit of the plug into the plughole must be perfect – if there is the slightest imperfection in this seal then the pressure from the water in the cistern will force water to leak down into the toilet bowl. Under the real-life conditions of bargain-basement manufacturing, inexpert installation and frequent flushing the flush valves rarely work perfectly for long, and as a consequence millions of litres of treated fresh water quietly leak uselessly through the toilet when it isn’t in use.

Lavatory legislation
The leak-proof design of the traditional toilet siphon was the primary reason why they were the only legally permitted style of lavatory design in the UK. However, in the early 1990s – against a backdrop of water industry privatisation, greater awareness of environmental issues and a spate of hotter, drier summers – public concern about water efficiency grew. Simple measures to reduce flush volumes were suggested, such as putting a brick into one’s toilet cistern, but this approach was limited by the fact that the siphon mechanism allowed a relatively low flow rate and so a large volumes of water was needed for a flush to shift solids into the sewers.

The law was changed in 2001 to allow non-siphon lavatories to be installed in the UK. To politicians in the late 1990s this must have seemed like a ‘no-brainer’. The dual-flush design promised huge improvements in water efficiency: they had a higher flow rate than siphon toilets, so less water was needed to shift solids from the bowl, and they also gave toilet users an obvious option of using a shorter flush when they were disposing of urine. Toilet users were able to feel environmentally virtuous every time they opted for the short flush – which would be many times per day –  and it’s not like they were doing it in order to save money, as few households at the time were on a water meter.

gabor-monori-2199So 16 years later, and the traditional siphon flush lavatory is an endangered beast. The dual-flush design is now far more popular, having been the installation of choice in new-builds since 2001. This is a long enough time for the drawbacks of this new technology to become apparent, and for not-for-profit bodies like Waterwise to investigate and report on the false economy of switching from siphon flushers to valve mechanisms. It makes for a satisfyingly ironic headline in the news: “So-called water-efficient toilets leak millions of litres every day”, but perhaps it is better seen as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of introducing what seemed like common-sense changes.

To use a particularly inappropriate metaphor, it seems as if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in the aftermath of the change of legislation in 2001. In the name of ‘water efficiency’ leak-less siphon toilets have been displaced by the leak-prone dual-flush toilets. The problem is not insignificant: Waterwise claims that 4% of UK toilets leak from the cistern, and the average one leaks 215 litres a day. Total UK toilet leakage amounts to 400 million litres per day, which accounts for 5% of clean water consumption.

What went wrong?
So, were the benefits of the siphon flush mechanism under-rated when the changes to toilet legislation were being made in the late 1990s? The leak-proof design perhaps was not fully appreciated by those who had grown up with it in the background of their lives because it was just so good at invisibly and silently doing its primary job (from a water-efficiency perspective): not wastefully leaking water between flushes. The billions of litres of water per week that were not leaked by siphon toilets over the century or so of their prevalence could not be seen, or easily appreciated.

When dual-flush toilets were first introduced they made the siphon toilets look, by comparison, poor at performing their secondary job of flushing waste into the sewer using the minimum amount of water.  The key thing to note here is that the major benefit of the siphon toilet was inobvious to toilet users, but the major drawback was completely obvious: in a more water-efficiency conscious time the toilet user potentially had to face up to their guilt about wasting water every time they flushed a siphon toilet. Switching to a dual-flush was a noticeable change for the better – the cisterns were significantly smaller, and one now had the ability to easily choose a short or long flush, appropriate to the occasion.

The problem that cancelled out the gains in water efficiency only became obvious once the change-over was well under way. Presumably the early models were of sufficiently high quality that their drop valves did maintain their integrity for the required 200 000 flushes under laboratory conditions. In real-life conditions though, the drop valve toilets did not perform as well. Poor installation of the toilet could result in leaks. Debris introduced to the cistern during installation could get stuck in the valve, resulting in leaks. In hard-water areas limescale could similarly affect the valve, resulting in leaks. And when the leaks happened at first they would have been very hard to spot, with the water quietly and continuously seeping into the toilet bowl.

Perhaps, most significantly, the nature of the free market in bathroom supplies meant that consumers would opt for the cheaper models – especially landlords of rented properties and businesses – and in the race to produce the cheapest flush mechanisms the quality of the early models was not maintained. In order to keep my own dual-flush toilets in leak-free order I have to replace the rubber washer on the drop valve every six months or so. That’s not a problem for me, but then I’ve got the money to buy the spare parts and the skills and confidence to do the maintenance myself – but I don’t think I’m particularly representative of a typical toilet-owner, and the old siphon toilets didn’t require such regular servicing.

Where do we go from here?
The conservative lament that “we should never have messed with it!” is not particularly helpful, and if rejection of innovation was absolutely applied we’d still be squatting in the bushes when nature called. “If it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it” is a slightly more refined argument, but it is only with hindsight that the siphon toilet doesn’t appear to be broken. There is some wisdom in being aware of our tendency towards neophilia, the love of new things simply for the sake of their newness: expect it, and challenge it – especially when it is coupled with the desire to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing.

Another point to be taken from this story is it that it is wise to accept the results of laboratory testing provisionally, and with caution: lab testing is unlikely to reveal the flaws that become apparent when the technology is used in the messy, complex real world. This also reminds me of the precautionary principle: when a new technology is proposed then the burden of proof that the technology will not cause more harm than good is on those proposing the change to the status quo. Simple arguments (like ‘dual-flush toilets use less water than siphon toilets, therefore we ought to replace siphons with dual-flushers’) are usually deceptively simple, masking the complexity of the issue. Our desire for straightforwardness and certainty when making decisions means that we are reluctant to think critically about what is being proposed.

In trying to improve the water-efficiency situation there is the danger of adopting an absolute scientistic view: that the sustained use of science and its application (technology) will fix the problem. I’ve already mentioned above the problem with over-reliance on the results of laboratory testing, and another aspect of this is the belief that the technological problem will be solved only by more technology – better toilets, more efficient flushing mechanisms, the integration of computer processors, sensors and actuators into the lavatorial arena. In this way we can end up overlooking simpler, more obvious, more universally applicable solutions (remember the large proportion of humans that don’t have access to even the most basic toilet technology).

school-toilet-209058_1920There are cultural factors at play here too, ones that are often difficult for us to appreciate because they are part of our own conditioning. One very simple innovation that greatly improves water-efficiency is the urinal, especially the waterless variety. However, when was the last time that you saw a urinal in a domestic setting? And, ladies, when was the last time you saw an (appropriately designed) urinal in a public lavatory? There are not really any material barriers to installing urinals in homes, or to widespread installation of female urinals in public toilets, so what’s stopping us? With the increased technology surrounding the business of urinating and defecating the subject has become closer to taboo in society – I don’t know how exaggerated the reports are, but consider the technological lengths employed in urban Japan to cover up the embarrassment that comes with the fact that humans need to urinate (musical toilets and so on).

Finally, there is the question of responsibility: who will take responsibility for improving water efficiency? We have to be careful of polarising the issue here: it is not entirely the responsibility of the government, neither is it entirely the responsibility of individual toilet-users. The government has and can play a part: regulating the manufacture and installation of lavatory technology, and legislating for increased use of water metering by the (privatised!) water supply companies – metering and creative tariffs are a way of introducing a financial incentive for end-users to improve their water efficiency. Personal responsibility could be as simple as applying this lavatorial heuristic: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Good luck discussing that with your co-habitants.

Further reading and resources

Image credits

  • Photograph of me sitting on the outhouse toilet: own work (c) Jim Champion
  • Photographs of dual flush button and drop valve washers: own work, licence CC0 Public Domain
  • Photograph of happy WC: downloaded from unsplash.com
  • Photograph of urinals: licence CC0 Public Domain, downloaded from pixabay.com

Springtime sort-outs and sunk costs

The misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments, and experiences.
The truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it.

–David McRaney
You Can Beat Your Brain

kelly-sikkema-216021 About an hour ago someone I’d never met before knocked at my front door. I gave him a pair of headphones, he said thank you, and the transaction was done. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever meet again.

We both benefited, me and the stranger: he gained a working pair of good quality hi-fi headphones, and I was rid of an object that I really didn’t need to own. This wasn’t as random an act as I’ve made it sound, and I haven’t started giving away everything I own in a fit of asceticism or altruism… it’s just that there are some possessions that I really don’t need to hang on to, and freecycle.org exists in order to rehome those things that I don’t have the energy or inclination to sell.

A familiar story?
Here’s the backstory: a long time agoprobably over ten years agoI bought a pair of headphones. At the time I was spending a lot of time listening to music through some tiny in-the-ear earphones, and it seemed sensible to treat myself for my birthday or whatever to a reasonably good-quality pair of hi-fi headphones. So I did. The sound quality was great, but however I adjusted them they were never really very comfortable to wear and after a few weeks of trying I pretty much gave up using them.

Every now and then I’d rediscover these headphones, wherever I’d stashed them, and try them again and then realise why I’d stopped using them. It got to the point where I’d accidentally find them, glare at them because they reminded of how I’d invested a reasonable amount of money by purchasing them, then ignore them. One more thing that I owned, but never used any more. One more thing that I might as well not own, but could not get rid of because (once again) I’d been taken in by the so-called ‘sunk costs’ fallacy.

sennheiser_padsActually, about six months ago I re-discovered these headphones, found that the material on the ear pads had perished, and bought some replacement ear pads over the internet. Thus investing even more money in this thing that I owned, but never used. I thought I was being rational, after all – what good were the headphones if the pads were falling to bits? Buying new pads would make the headphones great again! But that was the fallacy at work. A more objective view would have been that I was ‘throwing good money after bad’, expressed very clearly as ‘the truth’ in the quote from David McRaney’s book at the top of this article.

Anyway, conditions have changed and I think I’ve now made a better decision by freecycling the headphones rather than putting them back in a box under my bed to be ignored for another six months. There’s always going to be the nagging concern in the back of my mind that I might just need those at some future point, and I’ll regret having got rid of them. But I’ve felt that often enough before, and I seem to have survived.

The ‘sunk costs’ fallacy
The headphones story is just one aspect of a greater springtime sort-out that I’ve been engaged in over the Easter holiday. And turning up unused item after unused item I’ve been realising that I’ve been reluctant to let go mainly due to the sunk costs fallacy. This fallacy is behind a huge range of dysfunctional human behaviour, from the relatively harmless (eating a whole bag of crisps, even though you’re not very hungry, because you paid for a whole bag of crisps) to the very harmful (a head of state starting a war against another nation, even though the war will not improve things under  current conditions, because you had previously committed your country to that course of action based on the conditions back then).

967186270_4087dae835_bIn economics a ‘sunk cost’ is a cost that has been put into a project, and that cannot be recovered. In psychology the same term, by analogy, applies to emotional investments that have already been made: things that we cannot forget or un-do. The fallacy part comes in when we assume that we’re operating rationally (by not allowing the sunk costs to disproportionately influence our decision making) while actually operating irrationally (because of the strong emotional investment we have already made).

Apparently this fallacy is a consequence of the way that human minds work; the prospect of losses is a more powerful motivator on our behaviour than the promise of gainswhich is also known as ‘loss aversion’which means that we tend not to treat losses and gains in an even-handed way. In David McRaney’s highly readable book about cognitive biases and logical fallacies, ‘You can beat your brain‘ (US title: ‘You are now less dumb‘), he explains the enormous success of the Farmville game on social media in terms of the sunk costs fallacy. You can read this chapter of the book on McRaney’s own website (link).

Love people. Use things.
leather_bookmarksBefore I finish I’ll tell you about one more example from my springtime sort-out, one where the monetary value wasn’t a factor. And I’m not talking about the box of sixty leather bookmarks, although that was snapped up the same day by an enthusiastic freecycler whose mother apparently ‘loves all things books!’

For the past 25 years I’ve been hanging on to an A5-sized spiral-bound drawing pad, full of black pen landscape drawings that I’d done when I was about 15 years old. It was so long ago that I can’t quite remember what it was that made me start filling this book – I liked drawing and wanted to get better at it, I had time to spare during the school holidays. Anyway, the thing is that I’ve been hanging on to this pad for a quarter of a century: whenever I moved house, and that’s fairly often, the pad moved with me. I couldn’t get rid of this thing that was the only tangible reminder of the hundreds of hours I’d spent drawing these pictures in my mid-teens.

Looking through the pad of drawings a few days ago, with slightly more objective eyes, I realised that 90% of the drawings weren’t even original! I’d been working through a tutorial-style book called something like ‘How to draw landscapes‘. So I’ve removed the three pictures from the back of the pad that were my own creations, and recycled the rest. In fact I’ve gone one better and I’ve scanned these three pictures and they now live in ‘the cloud’ instead of my sock drawer.

Soulbury_cottagesAnd it’s not even the pictures that have value for me, it is the meaning they hold for me and others, and this meaning doesn’t depend on the continued physical existence of the object. For example, one of the drawings was of the row of cottages where my grandparents lived for most of their lives (shown in the picture here). I know that my grandfather, in his 90s now, will find this fascinating, it’ll be something we can talk about. We can laugh together about the sheds where he accumulated about five duplicates of every kind of gardening tool – that was quite an effort when he eventually moved out and down-sized, to help him let go of 60 years worth of well-hoarded stuff.

Let it go, let it go…
To conclude then, I’m not going to tell you that you might as well get rid of that material clutter in your life – you probably already know that! I’m not about to give you any advice about how to let go of the stuff that you’re needlessly hoarding either, there are enough minimalism blogs and progs which can help you with that. My point is this: remember the sunk costs fallacy, which lies behind your irrational reluctance to get rid of stuff that is of no value to you. And in remembering it, you’re no longer beholden to its underhand influence. If you can remember this with the more trivial issues of day-to-day living, there’s hope that you might also avoid the unethical actions that we are driven towards by loss aversion.

Looking to the near future, it will soon enough be time for the great summer sort-out, which means tackling the dreaded shed. Wish me luck.

How I nearly succumbed to apophenia: the case of the The Good Friday conspiracy

What psychologists call apophenia—the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there—gives rise to conspiracy theories.

–George Johnson

Maître_de_la_Légende_de_sainte_Ursule_-_Crucifixion_avec_CalvaireToday I learned a new term: apophenia, the tendency for humans to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things. I was already familiar with this particular cognitive bias from reading the work of Taleb and a number of different popular psychology books, but I didn’t know that there was a specific term for it. The neologism was coined in the 1950s by the psychologist Klaus Conrad, who considered this aberration in cognition to be a symptom of the onset of psychosis, but more recently apophenia has been recognised as a universal human tendency. In this blog post I will take you on the journey that led me to encounter this term, and I will also grapple with what I’ve learned from the experience, and what it might have to do with the Middle Way.

The background story
So, yesterday the UK (and many other Western countries) observed the Good Friday bank holiday, which traditionally is a Christian holiday commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Accordingly the day has—for those who adhere to traditional Christian religious beliefs—a rather solemn nature. On the day before Good Friday the largest supermarket chain in the UK, Tesco, ran an advertisement in some of the print versions of the national newspapers that featured the text “Great offers on beer and cider. Good Friday just got better.” Amusing or offensive? Or something else entirely? Of course it depends very much on your personal perspective.

C9RiKbcXgAAz-PSBy lunch-time on Thursday this advert, unlike most other newspaper adverts, had become a national news story in its own right. The BBC website published a story entitled “Tesco sorry for Good Friday beer advert“, featuring a quote from a Tesco spokesperson who said “We know that Easter is an important time of year for our customers. It is never our intention to offend and we are sorry if any has been caused by this advert.[sic]” This story was then widely shared and commented on in the usual social media channels, and it was on my Facebook feed that this story popped up after a friend had ‘reacted’ it. If you’ve got this far and are still not sure why anyone might have taken offence, follow the above link to the BBC news story and read it.

Or course, I had to see what all the fuss was about and clicked on the link myself in order to read the details. It took no time at all for the following idea to take shape in my mind:  this isn’t an issue of Tesco employees with a poor grasp of religious sensibilities in the UK making a goofy gaffe, this is a deliberate conspiracy from within Tesco to grab free publicity by pushing the ‘controversy’ button in the run up to Easter! [Note that we’ve also recently had a media “storm in an egg-cup” involving the Prime Minister, the National Trust and accusations of manufactured controversy.]

A conspiracy built up, and knocked down again
It all seemed so obvious. This is how the conspiracy stacked up in my mind: Someone deep within the Tesco advertising machine had struck upon a fiendishly clever plan. (1) Run a weakly controversial advert in the Holy Week national newspapers where only a minority of the nation will see it. (2) The initial reaction to the ad on social media is picked up by the BBC and other national news agencies, who report it through their own channels. (3) The story goes viral on social media, fueled by parties on both sides of the conventionally religious/secular split making comments like “I’m outraged by Tesco’s insensitivity!” and “Get over yourself, its supposed to be funny!” (4) Issue an official apology, saying that no offense was ever intended (and it wasn’t… it was the public expression of that offense that was intended) (5) Sit back and watch the extra customers pile into Tesco stores to take advantage of the beer and cider offers that they’d seen mentioned on Facebook and Twitter.

Thankfully, after the few seconds that it took me to concoct this conspiracy story I paused to think things through before blurting it out in any public forum.  During that pause I could tell that I felt quite pleased with myself for ‘seeing through’ this particular story, that I had taken it a step beyond the knee-jerk reactions of the commentators on social media. Noticing that feeling produced the suspicion that I had fallen for the classic move of fooling myself. I told myself I’d come back to it in the morning, even if it wasn’t such a hot news item then.

This morning, then, I did return to my Good Friday conspiracy. And having let it lie overnight, I felt less possessed by the idea. In fact I outlined my conspiracy privately to a friend, one who I respect deeply for his ability to think critically… although honestly I think I’d chosen to communicate with him because I thought he would agree with me, and be amused at our mutual cleverness and superiority. His point of view was measured, reasonable, and stopped just short of being in total disagreement with me.

My friend made some good points that I’d swept away in my excitement to nail a conspiracy: it is unlikely that Tesco could predict human behaviour that well, so it would be too much of a gamble for them in case it back-fired. And for it to be a corporate strategy it would have to be sustained for a number of instances, without being leaked to the public, and without causing considerable damage to the company’s reputation. Remember Occam’s razor! He also opined that the same people who come up with these conspiracies (which require extraordinary competence from the alleged perpetrators) simultaneously criticise the alleged perpetrators for being incompetent in most other aspects of their business.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes…
So what have I learned from this (largely inconsequential) affair? With hindsight there shouldn’t be any surprise that it’s the perennial moral of the story: It’s Not All About Me. It seems to be a very very hard lesson for me to learn, and I presume I will never be able to entirely avoid it as it’s something deeply built into the way that we self-aware humans operate.

Firstly, as I’ve already confessed above, there was a sense of self-satisfaction of being clever enough to concoct this conspiracy. In short: aren’t I special? Secondly, I saw myself as being above all the bickering fools reacting to the news story. Again, in short: aren’t I a superior specimen amongst my peers? Thirdly, I saw this as vindication of my pre-existing belief that Tesco was an amoral corporation, willing to deceive the public for their own profit. In short: what I believe is correct, and aren’t I an altogether more ethical entity? In summary, the episode confirms to myself that I’m the super-great guy that I already thought that I was. And this feeling persists, even though day after day I recognise that I was a fool yesterday – but never today!

Critical thinking is crucial
How, then, might all this be connected to the Middle Way? Primarily, I think it is a good illustration of the practice of critical thinking in a low-stakes ethical situation. Consider this quote from Robert M Ellis’s “Migglism: A beginner’s guide to Middle Way Philosophy“:

The development of critical thinking is crucial to the practice of the Middle Way. The Middle Way enables us to address conditions by avoiding the interpretation of our experience through metaphysical preconceptions. Very often those preconceptions become apparent through critical thinking as unjustified assumptions. We need a certain amount of awareness to become aware of a critical problem and apply thought to it, but critical thinking skills are then needed to identify what the unhelpful and unjustified assumptions are.

The major metaphysical preconception in my story is that “I must be right because I feel so right.” It’s a position that’s untenable upon closer inspection, but so often that closer inspection never gets a chance to happen! In this instance it was the fact that I paid attention to the tiny end of the wedge of doubt that my conspiracy story might have no justification whatsoever apart from the fact that it felt so right to me. And notice how I drove the wedge in deeper between the foolishness of my thoughts and the eventual outcome of my actions: I noticed the ‘alarm bells’ that come along with a sense of smug self-satisfaction, I counted to ten (actually, I slept on it), and—perhaps most importantly of all—I offered up the justification for my beliefs to be criticised by an honest friend, one that I could be sure of getting an honest appraisal from, and I was open to the possibility that he may change my mind. And he did.

I can only hope that by practicing and reflecting on this kind of examination of my assumptions in a low-risk situation, that I would be more likely to take a similar approach when the stakes are higher.

My brain’s left hemisphere loves a conspiracy
So, to finish, now that I’ve successfully avoided making a fool of myself on social media with regards to this Good Friday story, I’ve become intrigued as to what might lie behind my desire to concoct a conspiracy. And that’s where apophenia comes in, and I suggest it might be understood in terms of the psychological model of brain lateralisation expounded by Iain McGilchrist. This is how he summarises the nature of the attention of the left hemisphere in the 2016 Blake Lecture:

The attention of the left hemisphere is narrow, targeted, piecemeal, isolative, producing a world of tiny discrete fragments, each appearing certain, static and unchanging. Particles which could, so it seems, be put together like bricks building a wall or cogs making a machine to produce something of use. It has designs on the world.

So, when I read that news story on the BBC website, my left hemisphere analysed it into pieces, compared those pieces with the so-called facts I already knew (which perhaps were really prejudices in the form of absolute concepts such as ‘Tesco is an unethical profit-motivated corporation’) and concocted a satisfying, specific, self-consistent theory that fitted with my pre-existing beliefs. The down-side being that, despite its certainty and logical splendour, it had no degree of objectivity whatsoever. Its assumptions had little justification from wider experience.

Contrast this with the attention of the right hemisphere, as described by McGilchrist:

The right hemisphere meanwhile sees the whole breadth of the picture in a sustained and continuous way. This is an entirely different experiential world, one in which we are involved with, affect and are affected by everything through the sheer fact of our relationship with it. It is indeed a world primarily of relationships, in which the things themselves are never wholly separable from the context in which they lie, and the interconnections which exist between everything that is. It is a world that is never fixed, unchanging, certain, but constantly evolving and creating new wholes.

So, in order to avoid being trapped within the delusions of the left hemisphere, I had to find a way of bringing in the right hemisphere to play its role. Simply appealing to rationality would not work, as that would just be more left-hemisphere action. I had to be sensitive to the ambiguity in the situation, to seek out another person’s point of view, to consider the story in its wider context where that context included my own left-hemisphere’s tendency to prefer simple, certain, rational judgments no matter how inaccurate those judgments are. In other words: apophenia may be appealing, but not justified in the messy muddle and complexity of existence.

Now, I must wrap this up now as all this typing has made me rather thirsty, and I hear that they’ve got some good deals on at my local supermarket…

The MWS Podcast: Episode 22, Viryanaya on critical thinking as part of spiritual practice

In this episode Viryanaya talks to us about teaching critical thinking as a part of spiritual practice as opposed to a more academic focus. She also gives her thoughts on the perception that critical thinking is somewhat cerebral and a male dominated skill, the value of teaching it to children from an early age and her understanding of the Middle Way in relation to all this.

MWS Podcast 22: Viryanaya as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_22_Viryanaya

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The MWS Podcast: Episode 1, The skill of critical thinking with Robert M. Ellis

Robert M Ellis1In this inaugural episode of the Middle Way Society podcast, the philosopher and chair of the Middle Way Society talks to Barry Daniel about the skill of critical thinking and how it relates to Middle Way Philosophy. Robert was asked a variety of questions about the subject, including what critical thinking is and what are its origins, its practical applications, its relationship with the Middle Way and the psychological benefits it can bring, and how you can go about acquiring such a skill.

There is also a slide show version of the podcast available on Youtube.