Thursday, February 23, 2012

13 Ways You Can Be Fooled

I Pity 'da Fool!
Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Politicians love this adage.  They will have you believing the Earth is flat even while you're in orbit peering down at its obvious roundness.

Why do everyday people—intelligent people—doubt things like Man-made climate change, the safety of vaccinations, and the evidence for the evolution of species?  People still doubt well-established facts, even with the availability of overwhelming evidence derived through the scientific method.

How can this be?
It's not simply because they have been fed lies.  The truth is, it's surprisingly easy for anyone to be fooled by faulty thinking.

Here are thirteen reasons why people can be fooled into believing nearly anything.  And yes, I am guilty of #9 ;-)

1. Confirmation Bias - Favoring evidence that supports your position while ignoring contradictory evidence.

Just remember, Columbus concluded that he had arrived in India; thus, he called the natives "Indians".

2. Slippery Slope Fallacy - Arriving at an extreme or absurd conclusion in order to discredit the initial premise and conclude it too must also be absurd.

A popular fear in the automotive industry was that once robots were introduced, all of the human assembly jobs would be eliminated.

3. False Dichotomy - Considering only two possibilities for an argument, so if the first is falsified, then the alternative must be true by default.

The following phrase is an example of a false dichotomy, "if you're not with us, you're against us." 

Actually, choosing "neither" is also a viable option, but it is ignored by this false dichotomy.  Things aren't always black-and-white.  That's why one of my favorite songs is "The Beauty Of Gray" by Live.

4. Correlation Does Not Imply Causation - A relationship between two events does not necessarily mean one event caused the other to occur.

In 2006, Airborne, an herbal supplement company, paid $23M to settle a class action lawsuit settlement for making claims their product boosted the immune system.  David Schardt, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "There's no credible evidence that what's in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment."

This surprised many people who had never gotten sick after taking Airborne before entering crowed surroundings.  But correlation does not imply causation.  They would have likely experienced the same effect by taking sugar pill or nothing at all.

5. Popularity - Conforming to an ideology because of its popularity rather than its merits.

Slavery, need I say more?

6. Coincidence and Ignorance of ProbabilitiesBelieving an improbable, (or inevitable,) event is caused by an unseen force or conspiracy.

This is related to #1 above.  We tend to exaggerate the significance of seemingly unlikely events because we generally don't understand the true statistical probabilities involved.

Do you know someone who shares your birthday?  The statistical probability that two people in a group of thirty randomly chosen people will have the same birthday is 0.71.  (The closer that value is to 1, the higher the certainty.)  Doesn't seem so profound now, does it?

7. Baby Goes Out With The BathwaterDiscarding every argument on the basis of falsifying only one.

This is a popular tactic in the courtroom.  To discredit, or to raise reasonable doubt, of a single statement can be grounds to throw out the rest of the testimony.

8. Comfort ZoneResisting ideas that run counter to one's familiar ideologies.

We have a vested interest in being 'right' in society, so we fight very hard to avoid admitting any flaws in our cherished ideas.

For example, it's easier to just vote for one particular political party because that's how your family has always voted, even though the party's current policies will actually cause you and your family significant trauma.

9. Hasty Generalization - Drawing a conclusion without considering all of the variables.

One bad apple spoils the bunch, is a hasty generalization.

10. Authoritativeness - Drawing a conclusion with an overreliance on authority.

The relative fame, or perceived intelligence of an expert can sway you to accept their position even if they are wrong.  Look how many people were convinced not to vaccinate their children because of Jenny McCarthy's recklessness.  (See #4.)

11. Burden of Proof - Not understanding that the burden of proof really lies with the person making the extraordinary claim against conventional wisdom.

This is how science works.

12. Ad Hominem Attack - Attacking the person making the argument, rather than their claim.

Politicians, lawyers, and pundits, oh my!

13. Easy Way OutDeciding to believe 'simple and wrong' with certainty.

Often there is no simple answer to a complex problem.

Just remember, "There are two ways to be fooled.  One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true."  Søren Kierkegaard

Have you ever been fooled in any such manner?


  1. This is a great post! So succinct. I'm going to share it will my English 101 students, if that's okay. Our textbook discusses logic in argumentative writing, but I have a feeling your post will make much more sense to them.

    As for me? I fear I'm fooled all the time. I'm at my most vulnerable while watching late-night infomercials. I have the Ultimate Chopper to prove it. :)

    1. But wait! There's more! Did you order in the next five minutes?

      That's how I was hooked. I just had to call the operators standing buy to make sure I received that limited time pricing!

      Oh well, if our brains worked like robots then we would all have automotive assembly line jobs (#2) So, apparently it's better to have flawed critical thinking skills. I'm happy to be human ;-)

  2. A very entertaining read. i think once you're in the fight you forget to be reasonable, you only want to be right. If only there was a way to make apologising feel good...


    1. That's a great thought! The drug companies should develop the 'I'm Sorry Pill'. Then the disclaimer would state, in some rare cases, individuals may apologize for things they did not do.

      But you're right, we don't reward people for discovering and learning from their mistakes.

  3. I read something recently that I found rather disturbing.

    Among people who self identified as Democrats the acceptance of climate change scaled with education. The more educated you were, the more likely you were to accept that it's real.

    Among self identified Republicans the correlation was reversed. The more educated you were, the less likely you were to accept that it's true.

    I find that simply fascinating. There's this idea that folks who are more intelligent and/or more educated are better able to tell the difference and it's not always true.

    Also I think there's a certain tribalism at play in a lot of things. If the people who agree with me on a lot of things have an opinion on something I have no opinion about then I am much more likely to side with them.

    It's more than a little bit scary.

    1. Rasputin, that is very interesting indeed. Can you provide the link to the article?

      There is no substitute for objectively examining the evidence for or against any problem. But, I agree it is strange that intelligence and education level don't necessarily hold as much weight as existing ideologies.

      Then again, highly intelligent people of any political affiliation can be more skilled at lying and defending their own crazy beliefs. White collar criminals, politicians, etc. all know they can outwit most people.

      In any case, this is an extremely sad commentary when it comes to medicine and science.