Philosophers pride themselves on thinking clearly by seeing what follows from what, exposing sophisms, spotting fallacies, and generally policing our reasoning. Many have spent years honing their skills, often deploying them on arcane topics. But these skills are not the exclusive property of rarefied sages, accessed only with a secret handshake and insider training, as much as some philosophers wish this were so. Instead, some of these skills can be captured by generalisable, all-purpose techniques for the proper conduct of thought, whatever the topic. Many of these are easily taught and learned. As such, they can be utilised by non-philosophers too. At a time when we are bombarded more than ever with specious claims and spurious inferences, clear thinking provides a much-needed safeguard that we should all strive towards.
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Detective Guevara’s Witnesses
The retired detective sits slightly hunched, his eyes darting between the attorneys who the city of Chicago sent to defend him on one side of the table and the lawyers suing him on the other.
The law office conference room is sparse, with nothing on the walls, and cold. The detective’s black windbreaker fights the chill. His once thick sable hair is thin and gray. A fine gold chain around his neck is the only visible relic of what he once was: the strutting, bejeweled, loudmouth detective every gangbanger on Chicago’s Northwest Side knew could Fuck. Him. Up. For life.
His voice, once bellowing, registers a few decibels lower as he states his name for the record.
“Reynaldo Guevara. G-U-E-V-A-R-A.”
The opposing attorney wastes little time with pleasantries.
“Mr. Guevara, isn’t it true that you intentionally framed Jacques Rivera for a murder that he did not commit?”
Guevara barely raises his eyes as he answers: “On the advice of my attorney, I assert my Fifth Amendment rights.”
Over the next eight hours and 32 minutes, lawyers for the civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy tick through the names of the dozens of people who have accused the detective of beating them into confessions, manipulating witnesses into selecting the innocent from lineups, or just plain lying in order to frame them for murders they didn’t commit.
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Silicon Valley's Quest to Live Forever
On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear’s living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium’s first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. Understandably, then, the Moroccan phyllo chicken puffs weren’t going fast. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they’d read—and in some cases done—the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course.
When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, “I have a question about the mitochondria. I’ve been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?” Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it “the God molecule.” But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging.
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About a month ago, I took a part-time job teaching chess to middle schoolers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I am merely competent at chess and not highly experienced at teaching either. But a friend of mine who runs an after-school program had been looking for someone to fill this position for a long time. Chess has a well-documented history of attracting people with aggressive — some might say paranoid — dispositions, more often than not male. Perhaps it creates such types. Either way, as my friend discovered, these qualities don’t always make chess experts great with kids. When I asked what happened to the previous instructor, my friend made her hands into a steeple. “How can I put this in a way that’s helpful?” she said. “He was just too into chess.”
To make sure I don’t seem similarly obsessed, my students spend most of each hour-long class in unstructured play, following a very brief, very casual lesson. As they attack and rob each other’s pieces, I wander from table to table, doing my best to make sure they don’t attack each other. During this portion, I feel slightly superfluous. Should I be coaching them more, making more comments? I’m not sure. Instead of the chessboards, I watch their faces. Maybe my expectations are low, but I can’t stop being thrilled that they’re interested at all.
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The Useful Village
In the fall of 2015, Germany designated Sumte, population 102, as a sanctuary for nearly 800 refugees. What followed was a living experiment in the country’s principles.
There is no cinema in Sumte. There are no general stores, no pubs, gyms, cafés, markets, schools, doctors, florists, auto shops, or libraries. There are no playgrounds. Some roads are paved, but others scarcely distinguish themselves from the scrub grass and swampy tractor trails surrounding each house, modest plots that grade into the farmland and medieval forests of Lower Saxony. There is no meeting hall. All is private and premodern. You can’t quite hear the eddying rills of the Elbe—the river lies a few miles to the west—but in the cathedral silence of an afternoon in Sumte you might easily imagine you hear flowing water, or a pan flute, or the voice of God. You’re in the great European nowhere, where cows outnumber people and the darkness at night is as unalloyed and mysterious as a silent undersea trench.
One day in October, after a thousand years of evening gloom, a work crew arrives and lines the main avenue with LED streetlamps, which cast a spearmint glow over the chicken coops and the alien corn. The lights are a concession to the villagers—all 102 of them—from their political masters in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, who manage Sumte’s affairs and must report to their own masters in Hannover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, who in turn must report to their masters in Berlin, who send emissaries to Brussels, which might as well be Bolivia, so impossibly distant do the villagers find that black hole of tax dollars and goodwill. It’s this vague chain of command that most alienates the people of Sumte. They are pensioners and housepainters. They are farmers, subsistence and commercial. They are carpenters, clerks, and commuters who cross the Elbe by ferry every morning, driving to jobs in Lüneberg or Hamburg, ninety minutes away. More than a few are out of work. Nobody tells them anything.
Which is not to suggest anyone here is unaware of what’s going on in the world in 2015. The people of Sumte are not hicks (or hinterwälder, as the Germans say). Word has reached Dirk Hammer, the bicycle repairman, and Walter Luck, the apiarist, about the capsizing trawlers, the panic in Lampedusa. Sumte’s mayor, Christian Fabel, has read in the Lüneburger Landeszeitung about the bivouacs at Austrian border towns. They watch the nightly news. They’ve heard of this crisis, the so-called Flüchtlingskrise. And they wonder where these people—more than a million migrants, displaced from the world’s bomb-cratered imbroglios and forsaken urban wastelands—are headed. The streetlights, a long-standing request now mysteriously granted, make them suspicious.
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