- Beware exaggeration of a kernel of truth. For instance: indeed, many of us don’t realize our full intellectual potential; but that doesn’t give credence to the notion that most people use only 10% of their brainpower. Besides, beware of overstatements of small differences. Sure, men and women tend to differ somewhat in their communication styles, but declaring that “men are from Mars” and “women are from Venus” is taking a kernel of reality to an extreme, not to mention coercing psychology into stereotypes.
- Don’t infer causation from correlation. Don’t be tempted to conclude that if two things co-occur statistically, they must be causally related to each other. (Rabbi Harold Kushner once asserted that circumcision seems to increase men’s chances of winning a Nobel Prize.) Seek contending explanation.
- Beware biased sampling and extrapolation. Inferences from a biased sample are not as trustworthy as conclusions from a truly random sample—e.g., don’t ask people coming out of Sunday Mass if they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and infer that Americans are turning to God. Don’t ascribe to the whole any attribute of the part.
- Don’t let stress impair your problem-solving capabilities. As many airline disasters confirm (example, example, example,) speed can narrow your cognitive map—small errors can quickly become linked up and amplified into disastrous outcomes. When you feel rushed, you’re likely to miss details. You’re not present enough in the moment to notice what’s important and make the most beneficial choices.
- Beware argumentum ad nauseam. Don’t confuse a statement’s familiarity (such as urban legends) with its accuracy. The fact that you’ve heard a claim repeated over and over again (think of President Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud,) sometimes with rearranged phrasing and substitute terms, doesn’t make it correct.
Bonus: Be suspicious of any claim that doesn’t come with counterarguments or disconfirming evidence.