Nullius in Verba: Your Key Cognitive Tool to Healthy Living

John McManamy Health Guide
  • This piece has to do with critical thinking. Think of critical thinking as our built-in bullsh*t meter. Without it, we are prisoners of our own prejudices and emotions and are at the mercy of those who pander to them.  


    Consider these fairly recent headlines:


    The Drugging of the American Boy (This appeared as a feature article in Esquire magazine.)

    Ketamine Miracle Cure for Depression

    NRA chief Wayne LaPierre wants 'broken' mental health system fixed but rejects calls for more gun control legislation

    Tips for Overcoming Depression (from Dr Oz)

    Genome-wide association study reveals two new risk loci for bipolar disorder

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    What got me started, of all things, was a humor piece by Colin McEnroe on, titled, Let’s all annoy Ann Coulter! Seven things to irritate the conservative performance artist.


    For those of you fortunate enough to have never heard of Ann Coulter - I envy you.


    During the World Cup, Ms Coulter penned a column that asserted that “any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay.”


    She also mentioned that soccer is “foreign,” and has something to do with “liberal moms.” Out of compassion, I will spare you the rest of what she had to say.


    Over at, someone posted a comment that NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar received no flak for saying “essentially the very same things Coulter said.” The commentator accused Coulter’s critics of exercising a “double standard.”


    So, should we just take this guy’s word for it? I went to Kareem’s piece in Time Magazine. It was nothing like Coulter’s. In fact, it was so low key and thoughtful that it nearly put me to sleep.


    But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself.


    Everyday, we are being asked  - often bullied - to take someone else’s word for it. Most of the time, it’s over silly stuff. But what if your survival is at stake? We have an illness that takes no prisoners. How good is your bullsh*t meter?


    The bad news is that our brains were not designed to process information rationally. The cognitive science is most unambiguous on this, but don’t take my word for it. Daniel Kahneman, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the topic, has written a terrific book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. (For my short take on Kahneman, click here.) 


    The good news is that we have a beacon from the past to guide us ...


    In the 1640s, around Oxford and London, a group of natural philosophers began meeting to discuss promoting knowledge of the world through observation and experiment. These were essentially gentlemen scientists. The actual term, “scientist,” did not appear in print until 1834.


    In the early 1660s, the group formally organized as “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.” Founding luminaries included Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. In 1703, Isaac Newton took over as its president.


    Nullius in verba, reads the Society's motto. "Take nobody’s word for it." England was just emerging from a bloody Civil War, overlaid with heavy duty religious politics. At a time when thinking for yourself could get you into serious trouble, Nullius in verba amounted to a call to arms.


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    Indeed, the Royal Society was part of the scientific revolution that challenged every old idea in the book and ushered in an age of enlightened thinking. From Nullius in verba, the way leads inexorably ahead to “We the People ...”


    Basically, rigorous skepticism needs to be our default setting - always. Question everything, take nothing for granted. Become your own informed patient. Nullius in verba ...

Published On: July 19, 2014