top of page

Choose your practice: "Is that true?: Critical Thinking for Sociologists"

Was on Dr. Jerry Hiller’s 1,034th free webinar Today, we talked about how different thinking can bring back the peace of forgiveness. He has rightly mention, we choose how to think about things, and one of the HOW, takes years of practice. I thought that is what we are discussing today in a book called “Is that True?: Critical Thinking for Sociologists”. The subtitle of the book’s translation is quite interesting: "How to Avoid Becoming the Ignorant Masses." There was once a best-selling book called "The Crowd," which told us that people are prone to making irrational mistakes in groups. That book only listed some phenomena but didn't elaborate much on how to develop profound critical thinking skills and reduce the risk of becoming part of the ignorant masses. "Is That True?" makes this point very clear.

The English subtitle of this book is "Critical Thinking for Sociologists," so there are two benefits to reading this book: the first is learning to use critical thinking, and the second is gaining an understanding of what sociologists actually do. We have discussed many books on psychology, economics, history, and philosophy before, but we rarely talk about books on sociology. Therefore, through this book, we can understand what sociology is all about and how to view the work of sociologists.

First, what is critical thinking? What would a person be like without critical thinking? The author summarizes it quite succinctly: first, they are easily swayed; second, they are prone to getting hurt. What does being easily swayed mean? For example, the elderly in our family like to buy things from TV shopping channels, and we find it strange. We tell them not to trust everything they see on TV shopping. But there's no way around it; the elderly see the TV shopping channels playing those videos every day, like which shoes are comfortable to wear and good for the elderly, and they buy them. After trying them on, they realize they've been deceived, and it's useless. This is what it means to be easily swayed. The problem that comes with being easily swayed is that you are prone to getting hurt or hurting others, and sometimes this harm comes from your own anger. For example, you are provoked by an article, your emotions explode, and then you feel you should do something about it, like join in the criticism and hurt others together. This is the result of lacking critical thinking.

So, what is critical thinking? In the simplest terms, it's the skill of evaluating assertion based on evidence. There is an important term called "assertion." What is an assertion? For example, when someone tells you “Smoking is bad for your health," that's an assertion, or "going to college will increase your income," these are called assertions. An assertion is a conclusion. When someone tells you such a conclusion, how do you judge its correctness? You need to evaluate it using evidence, not intuition, feelings, or the person's expression and skills. For instance, to determine if there is a relationship between education level and income, you need to look at the relevant statistical data. The conclusion is indeed that the higher the education level, the higher the income. So, what is the reason? The author says the main influencing factor in the correlation between education level and income is not professional skills, but the ability of critical thinking. As we say, "Why do we read the classics?" We read so many books to learn to discern right from wrong and to evaluate statements based on evidence, not to judge simply by our emotions.

The book explains that there are several basic elements of critical thinking, including premises, reasons, and conclusions. What is a premise? A premise is a fact, like "it's raining outside." That's a fact, and it's called a premise. So, what is a reason? A reason is a principle or argument, like "we don't want to get wet." Reasons are actually value-based concepts. It's raining outside, and we don't like getting wet, so what's the conclusion? We shouldn't go out. This is a typical process of argumentation. Many people, when arguing, directly ignore the reason part. Why? It's because people consider reasons as common knowledge. For example, "it's raining, let's not go out," we ignore the intermediate step, the reason "we don't want to get wet," because we assume everyone doesn't want to get wet. But in reality, do we all really not want to get wet? If you possess critical thinking, you can question from the perspective of reason. For example, there is an old movie called "Singin' in the Rain," where the protagonist dances in the rain after a downpour. No one has ruled that you cannot get wet in the rain. These are the three parts of argumentation: premises, reasons, and conclusions. All three parts can be evaluated.

Critical thinking has varying degrees of difficulty. The easiest is to think critically about people you dislike. You are not on the same side as these people, and you don't like them, so your first reaction to what they say may be to question it, either questioning their premise or their reason, ultimately to question their conclusion. A slightly more challenging task is to question those you approve of. For example, some book club members might say, "Teacher Fan, I love all the books you talk about; as long as you talk about them, I believe." I say, "You must not say that, that's not my purpose in talking about books. My goal is for you to learn critical thinking, and if I'm wrong, you must point it out and say it's not right to say that." This is when you find it hard to think critically about people you approve of, like your family, favorite teachers, or friends. The most difficult task is to think critically about your own thoughts. Most people's biggest losses in life come from deceiving themselves, having a firm idea and constantly believing it's flawless, unquestionable, and even getting angry when questioned by others. Therefore, the highest realm of critical thinking is learning to criticize one's own thoughts.

So, what is the opposite of this? The opposite is called flawed everyday reasoning. In our daily lives, we often accept assertions based on the simplest shortcuts.

The first one is called rumors, such as "Today, I saw someone driving straight through a red light; traffic is really dangerous nowadays." Please note, is this assertion accurate? You indeed saw someone running a red light today, which is a fact. But the question is, is the current traffic situation really more chaotic than a few years ago? Is it more dangerous? In fact, you don't know.

In rumors, the use of narrative techniques and the arrangement of event elements can lead people to draw wrong conclusions based on facts. The rumor-monger does not necessarily have to lie, which is interesting. A skilled rumor-monger does not need to lie; they only need to reverse the order of events, change the order of your words, or cut out a part of what you said or delete a few words, and the rumor is formed. I can relate to this part of the content, and it moved me to talk about this book. Many people often see me saying unreliable things on the Internet and think, "How can Fan Deng say anything?" In fact, there is often a sentence in front of these clips, such as "Some people think" or "Some say." When people cut these clips, they cut off "Some say," and it becomes what I said, it's that simple. Did the person who cut the clip lie? They didn't; they just cut out some parts of your original words. So, rumors are especially prone to error.

The second one is called ad hominem arguments. In our daily lives, debates are often not about the right and wrong of the issue; we directly judge, "This person is a bad person." We only need to label him, and we can ignore his speech. As long as you label this person, what he says becomes unimportant. Why is attacking the morality and character of the opponent an effective way to argue? Because it allows us to look down on our opponents. When a person's words are accompanied by an incident, such as doing something immoral or having a bad social label, we don't need to listen to them anymore. We only need to give them a negative label, and we don't have to listen to people like them anymore. I believe many people have used this tactic, such as "Don't bother with him, he's a lunatic." Just like that, with one label, this person's words are no longer important. Or, "That person opposes everything; he always opposes, so don't listen to him." You see, it ends with just one label.

The third one is myths and misconceptions. We often arbitrarily deny many assertions, such as global warming. Our current common sense is that the Earth is warming and the globe is warming, but if you search the internet for "global warming misconception," you will find many people who think global warming is a myth, a misconception, and nonsense. There are also claims that cows are ruminant animals, and ruminant animals emit a large amount of greenhouse gases, leading to rising temperatures. Many people think this is nonsense and impossible; raising cows for so many years, how could cows cause the greenhouse effect? In fact, the impact of cows on the greenhouse effect is even more severe than the impact of car emissions on the greenhouse effect. The gas emitted by cows is mainly methane, a potent greenhouse gas. If we arbitrarily say it is a misconception, the issue might be overlooked.

"The fourth aspect is folk wisdom and metaphors. The most persuasive power of folk wisdom comes from rhyming, as we discussed in the book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow.' When people hear a rhyming phrase, they are likely to think it makes sense. For example, when you need to make a decision, and someone tells you 'indecision brings chaos,' you might think it's reasonable and you should make a decision quickly. However, if someone else tells you 'Confucius said 'think thrice before you act,'' you might also think it's reasonable. And if another person says 'building a plan takes three years,' you may think you should stop consulting others and make a decision. Therefore, our judgments are entirely based on whether the phrases rhyme. So, when we hear these rhyming proverbs or sayings from the elderly, like 'disregard the elderly's advice, and you'll suffer,' 'ginger gets spicier as it ages,' and 'blue comes from indigo but is better than indigo' (the rationale in these sayings is completely chaotic, with various perspectives, but as long as they rhyme, you think they make sense), we should think critically.

There is also something very powerful but easily overlooked called metaphors. If I use a metaphor to persuade you, you are likely to be influenced, but in fact, it is just a metaphor. For example, I tell you, 'Today, you saw that John in your department made such a mistake, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.' When I say this, you would definitely be frightened, thinking 'This is just the tip of the iceberg, oh my, how much more is hidden beneath.' We naturally assume there's a massive iceberg underneath. But what is the reality? It's likely an exaggeration, and the person saying this may not even know the truth. However, using a metaphor like 'the tip of the iceberg' can instantly make the listener feel anxious. We have many metaphors in our daily lives; for instance, when a child does something wrong, we should discuss the matter at hand, but we often say 'if this slippery slope continues…,' and when you think of the slippery slope, you feel that some severe measures must be taken to address the situation because people are easily influenced by metaphors.

The fifth aspect is facts. People might think, aren't facts just facts? We often say things like 'this is a fact' and 'this is an undeniable fact.' The author of this book is a sociology professor, and he tells us that in the field of sociology, all facts are social. What does it mean that facts are social? It means which fact you choose to believe, which stage of the fact you choose, and which side of the fact you choose; all of these are called facts. But, as I mentioned earlier, were those words spoken by me? Yes, they were. However, some people take things out of context, and that part can also be considered a fact. So when someone brings out a trump card and says, 'This is an indisputable fact,' others will think, 'Oh, right.' But you should know that facts are social, and facts are the result of people's choices.

Lastly, there is something called everyday reasoning. The typical characteristic of everyday reasoning is that people are unwilling to put in the effort, and they tend to think along the easiest lines of reasoning. What is the easiest line of reasoning for people? It's stereotyping, just like a play. As soon as a “rich kid” appears here, we reason that they must be a bad person. This kind of reasoning is easier and more understandable for people. People don't quite understand accidents, coincidences, situations where things just happen to come together, and the combination of multiple factors. They think these lines of reasoning are too complicated, and we prefer to make stereotype-based deductions because of a simple matter. So the typical characteristic of everyday reasoning is that people are too lazy to put in the effort.

Having said so much, you might already feel that drawing a conclusion from everyday life is quite unreliable, but we often use such conclusions to explain the world and even hurt ourselves and others.

Next, let's learn how to critically view sociology. What does sociology study? Sociology studies the patterns of society. For example, in college, there is a very typical sociological topic: Are male students better at academics, or are female students better? This requires research; we cannot just guess randomly. We need statistical data to see who performs well and who does not in different subjects, etc. This research seems relatively easy because it's straightforward to distinguish between males and females. If we are stricter and study whether students sitting in the front row have better academic performance than those sitting in the back row, this becomes a more complex issue. You need to count seats, pay attention to seat arrangement, and then figure out whether it's because they sit in the front row that their academic performance is good, or if those with good academic performance are more willing to sit in the front row. These conclusions are entirely different, and they are two distinct propositions.

The purpose of sociology is to discover patterns, study various patterns in society, and find their causal relationships. What is a causal relationship? A causal relationship must meet at least four criteria: first, the cause precedes the effect; second, the cause leads to the effect's change; third, there is evidence for the cause and effect; fourth, the causal relationship is clear.

For example, I can accurately tell you now that this light is on because I turned on the switch. If you ask me again, why is the light on because the switch is turned on? I can explain to you that there is a breaker inside, and as soon as the breaker closes, the circuit will connect and the light will come on. This is an argument that meets the four criteria. However, suppose someone comes forward and says, "No, that's wrong, that's your idea. I think the light can come on because there is a little elf inside the switch. The elf is tiny, and as soon as you press the switch, the elf will turn on the light. It's the one that turns on the light." How can you refute him? That is, how can you prove that the little elf does not exist, that it's nonsense and superstition, and that the light is on because of the electrical current? The author says that in fact, you can never be sure that there is no little elf. From an argumentative point of view, there is never a way to be sure that the little elf does not exist; this is unfalsifiable. You can't confidently say, "There is no little elf, I didn't see it," because the other party might say, "You just didn't see it, it's so small you can't see it, you think it's the electrical current, but actually, it's the little elf connecting the current." You can't refute him. That's why Descartes says, "I think, therefore I am." He can only judge that he is thinking, and we can't overturn that.

But why do the vast majority of people not accept the little elf theory? This is because there is a very important principle in the history of science called Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor tells us that when explaining something, if there is a simpler explanation, we should adopt the simpler or falsifiable explanation. If you want to arbitrarily add something like a little elf to this simplest explanation, making it more complex by adding a strange thing like a little elf, it does not conform to Occam's Razor. So when I can find a single explanation, such as circuits, currents, and electrons, we should adopt this explanation. Therefore, most of us can only accept that the light is on due to the circuit and not the little elf's theory, but you cannot definitively say, "I can be sure there is no little elf," because it is difficult to do so from an argumentative standpoint. Those who think there are little elves can think so, and it is their right.

Evaluating social science claims requires evidence-based judgment. Conducting sociological research requires doing this, not simply making a social claim, but presenting standard evidence. There is a problem here, which is the issue of the balance between respecting authority and challenging authority. For example, if you can accept even the little elf, you can question the views of almost all authorities, disbelieve them, and consider them non-existent. In this way, critical thinking is taken to the extreme, and you don't accept what others say, so society cannot develop because the research results of predecessors are not accepted by later generations. So, we definitely need to accept some of the conclusions left by our predecessors, such as accepting the Pythagorean theorem, current, voltage, Ohm's law, etc., that our teachers teach us. But if you accept everything that has been said by predecessors, then Newton would not have been able to overthrow Aristotle. So, in the process of social research, from individuals to the entire world, we must strike a balance, being able to accept the research results left by our predecessors while also critically thinking and discovering new findings on our own. This is not an easy task, as there is no clear dividing line.

For example, I have classmates who stayed in the university to study austenite, martensite, and pearlite (we studied metallography and materials). Later at a class reunion, I heard about a classmate who was trying hard to overthrow the most basic theory about austenite that we learned in college. That theory was seen as a fundamental, irrefutable theory in our field, but some classmates were actually researching to overthrow it. It's hard to say if they were doing something very cutting-edge.

First of all, we need to distinguish between the many different camps in sociology. How are these camps differentiated? They can be divided based on different research subjects or research methods. For example, some people do quantitative research, while others do qualitative research. Quantitative researchers like to use data and statistics, while qualitative researchers like to look for patterns, which are two completely different camps.

There are also different research orientations in sociology. We can see there are optimistic and pessimistic ones, which is a basic classification. For example, Malthus's population theory is quite a pessimistic argument. In the 1980s and 1990s, many people may have heard of an international club called the Club of Rome. They always publish research reports telling us that the Earth is doomed, there is not enough food and energy, and we should wait for the collapse, as we have reached the limit of development. This is a pessimistic view. On the other hand, there are optimists who believe that innovation can always solve these problems. For example, Yuan Longping developed hybrid rice to feed so many people, and now we are all well-fed; there is also solar energy, with the sun's energy shining on the Earth every hour being enough for us to use for a year, so there is no need to worry about energy problems. This is the difference between optimism and pessimism.

Another distinction is the difference between the cultural camp and the structural camp. Some sociologists study issues from a cultural perspective. They believe that an event or phenomenon is caused by cultural transmission, cultural differences, etc. Another group of sociologists likes to study issues from a structural perspective, believing that many problems are caused by social structure.

"Although culture and social structure influence everyone, and both are basic concepts in sociology, sociologists often emphasize one concept and downplay the other. ... We often hear debates about whether the chicken or the egg came first, i.e., who is the cause and who is the effect - is culture driving the development of social structure, or is social structure shaping culture? This question has led to debates on some specific topics in sociology. ... What causes poverty? The answers from the cultural and structural camps are quite different."

This also includes the difference between insiders and outsiders. Many friends often ask me, "Fan Deng, you talk about so many history books, why are many of them written by foreigners?" The history books we talk about are written by both Chinese and foreigners. Why do I talk about so many books written by foreigners? Because foreigners are outsiders, and the perspective of outsiders looking at our history is different from that of insiders, so it may have a different flavor. The difference between insiders and outsiders is also a research orientation.

There is also the difference between tragedy and comedy. Tragedy and comedy are different narrative styles chosen by different sociologists.

Next, let's talk about the wording in social science. The wording (i.e., the way of expression) in social science research is very important. First, let's talk about terminology. Sociology likes to create many terms, such as socialization, modernism, postmodernism, postmodernity, and nihilism. Some people are puzzled by the emergence of many terms, thinking that sociologists are deliberately making things academic, making it difficult for ordinary people to participate. In fact, after "translating," they are talking about very simple things. For example, O2O (Online to Offline), community marketing, is just buying groceries in a group and picking them up downstairs. Some places insist on giving it a strange name.

There are also many popular academic terms that evolve, which, to us laypeople, seem like a farce. But strangely enough, that's how academia works. For example, in the United States, there is a very sensitive word, which is "black people." How should this word be used? Initially, black people were called Colored People, which was the official term at the time; later, people protested, saying that Colored People were disrespectful and Negro was better, so for a time, the official term was changed to Negro; later on, people said Negro was not acceptable, Negro was a derogatory term, and Black should be used instead; later, it was found that saying Black People in the United States was also disrespectful, and now they should be called African Americans. The evolution of these terms is a particularly interesting phenomenon in sociology, and researchers in sociology are constantly exploring these words.

In addition to the definition of many things, defining things in sociology is very difficult, and it is challenging to clearly define an accurate definition. For example, there is a self-employed person who employs himself. What is the definition of self-employment? How much income does one need to be considered self-employed? Or how much tax do they need to pay to be considered self-employed? What is the difference between self-employed and entrepreneurs? If this self-employed person has an employee, are they considered self-employed? These are things that need to be clearly defined. Moreover, many concepts undergo creep (gradual change), and many concepts gradually change as you listen to them. Recently, many words have changed very quickly. For example, when people heard the term "involution" more than a year ago, how did they understand involution? People would say that involution is competition within a closed system that does not bring any growth. For instance, everyone does a lot of problem-solving, but in the end, the exam results are still the same students at the top, and everyone is exhausted. This was our earliest understanding of involution. But now, have you noticed that everyone calls more diligent people "involution kings," saying "you're so involved"? If someone works harder than others or provides a better product to a customer or has an innovation, we now call this effort "involution," and the concept of "involution" is expanding more and more. This is the process of conceptual creep. There are many difficult-to-define things in sociology.

Next, sociology faces another issue, which is the question and measurement. What problems does sociology study? We mentioned earlier that sociology is about finding patterns, but what patterns in which problems? For example, fairness, justice, morality, freedom, rights, these are typical research topics in sociology. For example, there is a famous sociology professor at Harvard University named Sandel. Sandel's two most famous books are "Justice" and "What Money Can't Buy," both of which discuss issues of fairness and justice.

Additionally, many sociologists will say "this is an empirical issue." When we say "this is an empirical issue," what does it mean? It means that it can be solved by using statistics, by selecting and analyzing large amounts of data to solve this empirical issue, meaning you just need to conduct a survey to find out. But this involves measurement, which is essential for empirical issues since you definitely need to measure and gather data. However, the book says "all measurements involve compromise," which is also the reason why data in sociological research is often criticized. There will always be people questioning why you chose certain people and not others, or why you chose one segment and not another. The objects and methods of measurement vary, so "all measurements involve compromise."

Then we need to understand the issues of variables and comparisons. I think it's necessary to let everyone know about this, as many people often come across such terms when reading books, because sociology often deals with comparisons, such as between males and females, married and unmarried, educated and uneducated, etc., all of which involve comparison. "Sociologists believe that the most basic comparison is between different types of people: males and females, young and old, rich and poor, or people of different races. They can also compare different types of social arrangements, such as family structures, institutional organizations, or religions. Some sociologists focus on differences in location, comparing social life in different communities, different cities, or even different countries, while others focus on differences in time, from comparing people's behavior at different times of the day to tracking social changes over several centuries. To understand the logic of this comparison, we first need to consider the connotations of variables."

What is a variable? "A variable refers to a concept with multiple values (meaning the value will change and have several values). The specific value setting depends on the researcher's choice." For example, a person's height is a variable, as the height of different children will be different. "Causal arguments involve at least two variables: the cause is called the independent variable because its value is unrelated to the outcome's value. Changes in the independent variable lead to a certain outcome, and this outcome caused by the independent variable is called the dependent variable because its value depends on the independent variable, and the dependent variable is also the measured variable." For example, is there a relationship between how much a child eats and how tall they grow? What is the independent variable in this case? If we want to conduct such a research, the independent variable is the amount of food consumed, and the dependent variable is the final height data.

However, there is a third type of variable: intervening variable. Intervening variables change the effect of the cause on the outcome. For example, I studied that children who eat more grow taller, but what if I also include the influence of sleep time? This is an intervening variable. The example given by the author in this book is the relationship between a student's study time and their academic performance. They divided students who studied for more than an hour and those who studied for less than an hour into two groups, and finally looked at these students' academic performance. What conclusion did they reach? They conducted this small study and came to a conclusion. The conclusion of this study is that the longer the study time, the better the students' spelling test results. However, listening to music while studying will lead to a decrease in performance regardless of the study time. In this case, "listening to music" is the intervening variable. During this study, they first looked at the relationship between study time and performance, and then after adding the factor of listening to music, they found that the performance of students who listened to music decreased regardless of the length of their study time. This is the conclusion of this small study.

Let's apply some critical thinking and see if we can question this study and identify the points that need to be questioned. If I share this research result, people might think that they should make their children study more because increasing study time will improve their performance. So, they might make their children study for ten hours every night. However, this is not correct. The study only compared study durations of more than one hour and less than one hour; it didn't investigate study durations of more than three hours. What would happen if the study time was much longer? So, we must consider the complexity of the conclusions of sociological research and not simply get excited upon hearing a conclusion or assertion. Further research is needed to reach a conclusion.

Sociological conclusions are very complex, and the complexity of social research lies in several aspects. First, it is difficult to replicate and verify. We know that natural science requires repeated verification; the results obtained in a laboratory in London should also be obtained in a laboratory in Beijing to represent a law. However, sociological experiments are difficult to verify. Also, all comparisons reflect the researcher's choices, so they are usually questioned. For example, in the study about study duration, why compare only one hour and not a longer time? What type of music was included as a variable? Rock music or Mozart? These two types of music are different, and you cannot simply say that listening to music will definitely decrease children's performance. Therefore, we often hear contradictory conclusions in sociological research. If you only listen to the assertions, you may get confused by these different conclusions. But if you understand the research process, you will discover why these conclusions are different.

How should we view sociological research? An essential point is to know that sociological research only reveals trends. For example, smoking is harmful to health; currently, most people accept this assertion as true. However, it describes a trend; what does this trend represent? The trend of the law is probabilistic thinking. That is, you may not be so lucky, and there is a higher probability that smoking will make your health worse, which is the consensus among doctors. But many people often commit ecological fallacies when viewing sociological conclusions, thinking that the trend should apply to every individual. Therefore, if an individual does not fit the trend, we question whether the conclusion is correct.

Furthermore, we often think that putting two trends together can create a new trend. For example, a U.S. scholar once conducted a survey in which a city had a high proportion of college students ranking high among American cities. Another data point showed that the city had a high number of reported hate crimes. When you look at these two pieces of data together, it is easy to draw a conclusion: the more educated people are, the more hate crimes they commit. In fact, these two research conclusions are unrelated, as they are the results of two completely different studies. However, people commit ecological fallacies, believing that they can see new trends from the trends. The author states that sociologists' conclusions can often explain only about 10% of the variation, which is already quite good. If a research conclusion can explain 10% of the differences, it is already a very significant trend; one or two exceptions cannot prove that the trend does not exist.

When we question a claim, the most important thing to consider is the evidence. Evidence can be divided into two categories: effective evidence and less effective evidence. What are the criteria for effective evidence? First, it should be directly applicable. For example, doctors have directly applicable evidence for the relationship between smoking and health, which they can find. Second, multiple measurements have been used, not just one, but results from various angles and measurement methods. Third, there is prior consistency in multiple cases or evidence. The book cites an example: dinosaur extinction. I remember when I was young, the cause of dinosaur extinction was a mystery, and people had various guesses, about seven or eight different ones. But now, virtually all academic books and popular science books for children clearly state that dinosaurs went extinct due to an asteroid impact. Why has there been such a huge change in the last two or three decades? It's because evidence from multiple perspectives has emerged, not just an impact crater, but also radiation levels in the surrounding area, and traces of biological evolution, all of which prove that the asteroid impact caused the extinction of dinosaurs. That is to say, multiple cases or evidence from multiple perspectives are needed. Fourth, the evidence should be convincing.

What is less effective evidence? For example, indirect and obscure evidence, such as hearsay or evidence heard from others; evidence with only a single measurement or a single case; evidence that conflicts significantly with previous theories. When questioning evidence, you need to distinguish the reasons why the evidence is less effective. Because there are different types of errors in evidence, some are called academic scandals, and some are called research flaws. For example, if someone's thinking or research method is problematic, and the results are incorrect due to an unrigorous research process, this is called a research flaw, which is inevitable and acceptable. But if someone deliberately fabricates, bribes witnesses, or forges evidence, engages in academic fraud, or uses fake data to support their theories just for awards or professional titles, then this is called an academic scandal. The severity of these two errors is different.

Finally, the author states that all sociological researchers, including sociology enthusiasts, must be careful of the "echo chamber effect." If you choose to stay only with people you like and agree with, and everyone's published papers confirm each other, then everyone will increasingly believe that they are right. Although we are not sociologists, we often participate in social discussions and comment on many social news stories. Nowadays, it is easy for everyone to express their opinions, but we must think carefully before doing so, be cautious, and avoid being influenced by the "echo chamber effect," otherwise, you will continually justify your own opinions. People are particularly prone to prejudice, so we must recognize and deal with our own biases.

A typical example of bias is the "experimenter effect." For example, take two mice and tell the experimenter that one mouse has been genetically modified, while the other has not. Then have the two mice run a maze to see which one is faster. Very few experimenters can see the truth; most will observe that the genetically modified mouse runs faster. But what is the reality? The reality is that both mice are the same, with no genetic modifications; someone just told you that one mouse's genes had been modified. This is very similar to the "Pygmalion effect" in human society and the well-known "placebo effect." If we do not make the evidence more solid and convincing through scientific methods, we are all likely to be influenced by our own biases.

Additionally, be cautious of a term called "plot drama." When we watch the news, we often are not just watching a piece of news, but a drama with a plot in our minds, featuring good people, bad people, and the righteous side punishing the bad ones. So, when such a plot drama appears in our minds, it becomes difficult to avoid the problem of stereotyping when watching social news, which means we have already determined the nature of the matter. We often unquestioningly assume that someone is the bad character, which can become quite problematic.

The so-called research camps are basically "echo chambers," which can lead to collective delusion. If affected and controlled by the echo chamber effect, the predictability of sociology will increase. What does it mean for predictability to increase? It means that you know what the conclusion will probably look like even before you conduct the research, and no novel conclusions will be drawn in the end. Therefore, the author emphasizes that self-criticism is always important. Everyone must critically examine themselves when drawing their research conclusions, constantly questioning their evidence, whether they've found the evidence after drawing the conclusion, and whether they are too eager for the paper to be valid.

When writing a paper, there are generally two assumptions. The first is that something will happen, and the second is that it won't happen. The results of the paper may be that it indeed happened, or it indeed did not happen. This forms four quadrants, ABCD. The easiest papers to publish are those that assume it will happen, and then the experiment proves it did happen because these papers are the most valuable and are particularly easy to publish. As a result, researchers secretly hope for, "I made a bold assumption, I went to verify it, and in the end, it succeeded," and they will be very happy. We subconsciously hope for success, and gradually, you may not be as careful when verifying. Conversely, if you think something will happen, and after the experiment, it doesn't, it is actually valuable, but many journals are reluctant to publish such articles because publishing them is like telling everyone: no results were found, it just didn't happen. So, these factors can affect researchers' work.

Ultimately, what is critical thinking for? In fact, from ancient Greece or from our Spring and Autumn Period, the most important reason for humanity's rapid development over more than two thousand years is that these developments are based on critical thinking. We do not blindly accept what our predecessors have said, but we constantly evaluate, inherit, attempt, and innovate to reach where we are today. Therefore, having critical thinking represents progress. If our critical thinking is constrained, and we dare not use critical thinking in academic research, it is very likely to slow down or even stagnate human progress.

So, I hope everyone reads this small book, which can be finished in about one or two days. It's a bit difficult because it contains many academic terms, but it's still worth reading. It can help us understand what sociologists do and how we should view their work. I also hope everyone can participate more effectively in discussions on public social topics.

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page