Straight and crooked thinking | Sunday Observer

Straight and crooked thinking

Some of us are smarter than we think on two levels: Smarter than we suppose ourselves to be, and smarter than we habitually allow ourselves to function. We do not know why this is so, but we know that straight thinking is better than crooked thinking. The million-dollar question is how to get over crooked thinking in a world full of crooked men and women. However, as life is precious, we have been forced to live the way we live. We need to think of some ways of thinking straight.

One roadblock to straight thinking is that we are under the illusion that we have no time for certain important tasks. If you have to complete a job of work today, you cannot afford to postpone it for tomorrow. Time will wait for no man. Therefore, if you have to do a job today, do it today itself. A young school leaver who wanted to be a journalist approached an editor for advice. He was told that if he wanted to be a journalist, he should write something daily to gain practice in writing.

The young man took the advice seriously and started writing down his thoughts in an old diary. At first he wrote a few sentences about himself. After some time, he was able to write a paragraph on a particular subject. When he managed to write a full length article he sent it to the editor. The editor who noted the young man’s enthusiasm assigned him to cover an important event. Soon the young man was seen writing articles on various topics and before long he was recruited as a full-time journalist. All this happened because of his ability to think straight.


Life has been defined as a series of problems and solutions. A well-trained mind will generate all kinds of ideas throughout the day. Some ideas are merely operational: whether to have bread and dhal curry for breakfast or to eat some kind of fast food. Other ideas have potential for growth and control. May be you want a university degree or a new job. Then your mind will put forward counter arguments: Why do you want to follow a degree course as you are already employed? Your family members will disapprove your move to join another establishment. You have to weigh all such pros and cons and give the idea a chance to grow.

We do not stop eating at any age, but some of us have a starved imagination. There are many people who do not read books and newspapers. Their only job is to earn money, eat, drink and sleep. No wonder their intellect is malnourished. The simple remedy is to walk into a library and become a member. Even if you do not understand what you read, keep on reading. The day will come sooner or later that you will not be able to give up the reading habit.

I have met many people who are perpetual students. After obtaining one degree certificate, they follow another course to get more qualifications. I had a friend who had successfully followed degree courses in literature, law, psychology, economics and philosophy. But he still remained a teacher without getting any promotions as he did not have the right qualifications. Such people are labouring under the illusion that they will know enough to begin to think on their own. Storing up information is an intellectual silo. Without ever using such knowledge will only lead to fermentation. Your ability to think for yourself is far more useful than collecting so many diploma and degree certificates. Once, a journalist asked the war-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill whether he knew French. “No,” said Churchill, “I never learned French, but I know English well.”

False modesty

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said between arrogance and false modesty he would take arrogance any day. Arrogance at least will accomplish something, and false modesty never does. If you hear somebody say, “It’s nothing, anybody can go to war against the Tigers,” give them a wide margin. They are simply stifling their minds.

As Ardis Whitman says, “Most of the time we spend our lives on a treadmill, eating, sleeping, and going to the job. Like labourers born underground we live in the dark scarcely knowing what the light is like until one day a door is opened and, for a fleeting second, we catch a glimpse of the blazing sun and the eternal sky.” Yet how many of us realise that the door is always there, ready to swing wide?

While I was writing this piece, the postman started ringing the bell. He delivered the poll cards for the forthcoming General Election on August 5, 2020. I heard a candidate addressing a pocket meeting say, “I trust the country will have the sense to return a sound and sensible Government.” He stressed that the country needed a period of tranquility so that it can get back to prosperity.


If you analyse his speech, you will note that he is making free use of emotionally toned words. The words ‘sound’ and ‘sensible’ have more of emotional meaning than of any other. For that matter a government which appears ‘sound and sensible’ to its supporters will be called ‘conventional and uninspired’ by its opponents. Similarly, ‘tranquility’ has the same objective meaning as ‘stagnation’, but an opposite emotional meaning.

As Robert H. Thouless in his memorable book ‘Straight and Crooked Thinking’ says, “… political speakers are more interested in creating conviction than in promoting clear thinking, so they will go on using emotional language.” As it is, there is nothing to prevent them from expressing such emotional words.

As voters we can educate ourselves in such a way as to make us relatively immune to the influence of such language if we are aware of what is being said. Think of the factual meaning of what they say and discount the emotional meaning.

A.B.P. Santiago, our logic guru, used to quote Bertrand Russell to drive home a point. One day he said, “If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself.” The celebrated Greek philosopher Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men by the simple device of asking Mrs Aristotle to open her mouth.

He did not do so because he thought he knew it. Thinking that you know something when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which most of are prone.

The ideal of straight thinking must be the application of the scientific habit of thought to all your practical problems. Anybody interested in straight thinking should read Robert H. Thouless’s path-breaking book “Straight and Crooked Thinking.”

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