Thinking Like a Scientist The Humanist Interview with Congressman Rush Holt

Constituents of Rush Holt, the popular congressman representing central New Jersey, like to flaunt bumper stickers that declare: “My congressman IS a rocket scientist.” As it happens, Representative Holt is the only physicist in Congress (he’s also the only Quaker). Since his election as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1998, Holt’s advocated for math and science education, children’s health, and biomedical research as well as human rights and women’s freedom of choice. A past teacher, Congressional Science Fellow, arms control expert at the State Department, and inventor (he holds a patent to a solar energy device), Holt served for nearly a decade as assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Even better, from a bragging rights’ standpoint, Holt is a five-time winner of the game show “Jeopardy!” In 2011 he beat Watson, IBM’s super computer, in a simulated round of the game.

To spend time with this smart, modest, and thoroughly likable man is to wish Congress were made up entirely of Holt-like thinkers. Here, he talks about the ways in which non-scientists can—must, in fact—learn to examine, assess, and verify any judgments we make or opinions we form.

The Humanist: How do you define critical thinking?

Rush Holt:  Let me define instead what I like to call “thinking like a scientist.” It’s asking questions that can be answered based on evidence; it’s expressing questions in a way that allows someone to check your work. If you don’t have both of those elements, it’s too easy to fool yourself or to get lazy in your thinking. I wouldn’t say that critical thinking is hard thinking, because I don’t want to discourage people from doing it, but like anything else, it’s easier if you practice.

Third graders, for example, are often very good at thinking like scientists. Like scientists, they know that if you ask how something works, what something means, or how something happens, you should do it in a way that allows for more than just pure thinking. There should be some evidence, something empirical. You should form your question so that it allows someone else to ask that same question and observe the evidence to see if they get the same answer as you do. And that’s the essential part of critical thinking. If you say, “I’ve been thinking about this deeply and, by golly, now I understand it,” but then you try to explain it to someone else and can’t, then you probably don’t understand it … or it’s not very reliable knowledge.

I keep trying to get science taught in a way that, even if you can’t remember a single Latin term or are a klutz at solving equations, you’ve learned how to frame questions and sift evidence. I talk about verification but another way of putting it is: be ready for the cross-examination. Prepare to explain yourself.

The Humanist: How valuable is critical thinking to everyday life?

Holt: It’s invaluable, whether you’re making a consumer decision like which laundry detergent to buy or whether you’re trying to decide what career you want to pursue. There are ways to ask yourself both what you’re trying to accomplish and how to measure whether you’ve accomplished it. If you’re able to express it that way, then you’re thinking critically.

This is important on every level, not just on a personal level, not just in regards to consumer decisions or life choices. I think it’s quite likely we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq if more people in the CIA or in Congress had been thinking critically and asking, “What’s the evidence? You say Saddam Hussein is doing things that will hurt our national interests. Now tell me exactly: what is he doing? Does he have chemical weapons, nuclear weapons? Where’s the evidence?” Of course, there wasn’t any.

The Humanist: Recent neurological studies confirm that we humans have problems recognizing our own biases, and that we have faulty memories. How can we persuade people to spot-check their thinking by questioning their own positions?

Holt: You’ve got to keep from fooling yourself. When I’m talking to kids, I always say, remember: the easiest person in the world to fool is you. That’s why replication or the ability of someone else to check your work is so important. You have to express your thoughts and conclusions in a way someone else can follow.

The Humanist: That’s so logical. Why aren’t we teaching more scientific thinking in the schools? How do we promote it?

Holt: By pointing out that you don’t need to wear a lab coat to think like a scientist. Most school children can do it. Instead we start dividing kids, sending them down one track or another: you’re going to be a scientist; you’re not.

The Humanist: You talk about third-graders thinking more scientifically before we track them, which makes me wonder: can we teach adults?

Holt: Daniel Kahneman is professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing how irrational markets are by putting together a catalogue of biases. When he taught at Princeton he would test his students to show them how their brains worked—or didn’t work—and the biases to which they fell victim. You have to be aware of such biases. Then there are specific steps you can take to help you frame your questions. Don’t tell yourself, “I’m not a scientist, so I can’t do this” or “It’s too hard.”

Also ask yourself: Am I forming a question in a manner that will yield the most precise, least vague answer? Am I recording my thoughts in a way that others can look at them? In science, publication is critical. You must publish if you want to be considered a scientist. You must express yourself in a way that can be reviewed and that would mean something to other people who look at it.

The Humanist: Is politics incompatible with critical thinking, with the embrace of a careful, rational process?

Holt: Each politician’s thinking can be critical, but part of that thinking has to recognize individual and communal irrationality. You can actually get irrational behavior even if each person in a group acts rationally. This is something Kahneman showed: groups have minds of their own, so to speak. In voting, it’s possible to get a result that’s not in everyone’s best interest. Even if each person thinks that he or she is voting in his or her best interest, you can get irrational results. If you give three points to your top choice, two points to your second choice, and one point to your third choice, and everyone does that, you can still get screwy outcomes. Each politician can think critically but should be alert to the irrational aspects of individual and societal behavior.

Still, I don’t want to over-emphasize the irrationality; it’s present but not usually dominant. Sooner or later, people tend to act in their own best interest. It’s why the United States has done so well for so long. There have been many times, not unlike today, when we just wanted to tear our hair out. As Churchill said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing … after they’ve tried everything else.” Lately, everyone’s been complaining about the United States and our government and I want to say, “Well, if it’s so bad, why have we done so well?” It’s the same country, it’s the same government; it’s the same irrationality we’ve always had and it’s worked pretty well—pretty well.

The Humanist: But we could do better; our politicians could do a lot better.

Holt: Each politician should be thinking critically. Just because politics is a non-linear system in which you can’t always know what the outcome will be, or even if you might not have enough information, it doesn’t mean you should therefore be irrational. It doesn’t mean that all bets are off. It doesn’t mean that just because you can’t quite predict the future, you can act capriciously all the time.

The Humanist: But what happens when politicians and others feel they’re acting with conviction and refuse to be interrupted by the introduction of evidence? What if they aren’t willing to subject their beliefs to critical review?

Holt: There was a wonderful phrase in a New York Times op-ed by James Shapiro about the premise of the recent movie, Anonymous. [Author’s note: the film suggests that William Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the work attributed to him and that a deliberate effort was made to hide the identity of the real writer, a contention dismissed by critics as being without merit.] Shapiro writes that it is “a film for our time, in which claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence.” For some of the new Tea Party members in Congress, ideology trumps evidence. Of course there are people for whom ideology will always trump evidence, but many fall victim to that tendency and don’t realize it; you have to correct them.

Regarding the film’s premise, some may say, “Well, who cares if it wasn’t Shakespeare who wrote the plays because the writing is still great.” I have a problem with the premise because I have a problem with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy thinking is among the most delusional kind of thinking there is. Of course there is such a thing as a conspiracy; but there aren’t nearly as many conspiracies as there are imagined conspiracies. Even so, it doesn’t take much to get people sucked into that kind of thinking. The op-ed’s point was that questioning who wrote the plays and poems of Shakespeare isn’t a simple academic venture. It’s an attempt to overturn common understanding, and if someone is going to do that they’d better have a good reason and good evidence. That’s important for moving forward, for our thinking, regardless of what the issue is.

The Humanist: I worry that people are backing away from thinking like a scientist (to use your phrase) and taking certain words with them and redefining them, like the word “theory.” When people say, “it’s just a theory,” you wonder if they know what a theory really is.

Holt: Sure, like when people say evolution is “just a theory.” My response is: “so is gravitation.” We can argue about gravity all day long but no, a theory is not simply a hunch.

The Humanist: What do you think is the proper place of religion in politics?

Holt: Religion is the social expression of many people’s most important values. You’re dealing with the meaning of life, and you would hope that everybody cares about what that might be. We should welcome, but not insist on, the expression of values; they are protected so that anyone can get together with other like-minded people to sing uplifting hymns or speak a catechism or whatever it might be.

Politics is the means by which we balance competing interests. When these deeply held values and beliefs that may or may not be socially expressed conflict with each other, politics has to be involved. Our Constitution and backup documents (such as Jefferson’s “Declaration of Religious Freedom”) are political documents, ingenious documents, because they talk about freedom of religion and freedom from religion. A lot of people forget that religious expression is freer when restraints are in place on where it can be expressed. If there is no state-sponsored religion, it means no state can impose a religion on you, which gives you more freedom to practice your religion or not practice any religion. The separation of church and state doesn’t actually restrict the practice of religion; it makes it more possible.

The Humanist: Yet there are politicians who say that we must take steps to acknowledge that we are a nation under God; that we are a Christian nation.

Holt: A few years ago, I got into some political hot water because I voted against a resolution recognizing Christmas. But it didn’t just recognize Christmas—it said something about Christians believing that Jesus was Christ the Savior, and I thought, “No, no. This doesn’t belong in legislative language; we shouldn’t do this.” So I voted “present,” which is a vote I save for legislation that never should have come to the floor. It’s not “yes” or “no”: It just says the legislation doesn’t belong there.

A month or so later, during Ramadan, there was a resolution recognizing Islam’s peaceful elements and practitioners. I voted “yes” because it was about the social expression of a religion and whether it was constructive or destructive, whereas the other aimed to legislate in the area of people’s deeply held beliefs. The resolutions were completely different. I received numerous irate e-mails and, to this day, I’m sure there are people out there who think I’m the Antichrist because I voted against Christianity and for Islam.

The Humanist: This is the kind of thing that makes secular humanists, agnostics, atheists, and nontheists nervous—really nervous. There are people here in the United States afraid to express their doubts about the existence of any deity because of how they’ll be treated.

Holt: Well, I’m not too surprised. Speaking for myself, I am more a questioner than a member of a faithful flock. I take my religion seriously and look for the best expression of it. But I can’t bring myself to finish a speech with “God bless America.” I have trouble with that.

I’d like to see “America the Beautiful” replace our national anthem, but there is the phrase “God shed His grace on thee,” and in the second verse, “God mend thine every flaw.” The latter phrase is nice in that it asks for help in correcting the errors of our ways but I’m not quite sure I can reconcile my overall discomfort with my desire to replace “The Star Spangled Banner”—a military hymn—as the national anthem. Certainly either of those is preferable to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which is becoming the de facto anthem. I might even prefer God shedding his grace to God blessing America.

The Humanist: Some do seem to make assumptions about the divine source of American exceptionalism. Madeleine Albright says in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, that while Americans may hope that God blesses America, we should never expect it.

Holt: Nor should we declare it as if it’s a foregone conclusion or God’s ongoing practice.