July 24, 2009
A freak solar event “sterilizes” the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?
Okay, it’s weird and bleak. But I think devoting even a few minutes of hard thought to bizarre scenarios can make you a much better thinker. It’s counterfactual cross-training.
By way of analogy: I always tell people that blogging is useful, even if nobody’s reading, because it forces you to have an opinion on things. You don’t realize how blankly you experience most of the stuff you read every day until you force yourself to say something—even something very simple—about it.
So I think regularly engaging in a bit of counterfactual thinking can provide the same benefit—and maybe on a more macro scale. The trick is to be realistic: You’re not trying to dream up a pithy one-liner, but rather a sequence of headlines that you really think might unfurl over the course of days, weeks, years.
Tyler Cowen thinks this kind of thinking is useful, too:
To some of you these mental exercises may seem silly. Indeed they are silly. But what’s wrong with silly? Such questions get at the stability of social order, the sources of that stability, and the general importance of demography and intergenerational relations. Those are all topics we don’t think enough about. Because we’re not silly enough.
And click through to see what he thinks happens next.