Junkfood Science: Have you taken the Thinking is Dangerous Challenge yet?

May 22, 2008

Have you taken the Thinking is Dangerous Challenge yet?

“Dr. T” at Thinking is Dangerous has issued a challenge to find places where all five of his top fallacies of logic have been used in the same place. There’s a prize. :)

Fallacies of logic

None of us sets out to believe things that are known to be false, but myths get the better of even the smartest of us. Its the instinctual part of human nature and how our brains work and can leave us absolutely dead certain that what we believe is right... when it’s not. How to circumvent those fallacies of logic that trick our brains and reasoning can help us avoid falling victim to unsound claims.

We’ve covered some of these important mythbuster techniques before, because if we don’t understand them, they’ll remain the secrets of those using them against us. It’s soooo easy to plant a scare bomb and leave the rest to our imaginations. It’s the easiest way to manipulate us, because once we’ve been frightened, fears and doubts stubbornly linger no matter how much science counters it. Surrounding us with a scare and giving it loads of attention adds to our perception that something might be a real threat. And, sadly, the opposite is true, too. Myths that offer false hope can be the most difficult to overcome and let go of, as was covered in last year’s British Medical Journal. As that special issue also highlighted, we can be taken in by two other fallacies of logic: “speaking from authority” and “science by decree.”

We’ve looked at the research led by Dr. Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D., of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, that found that simply repeating a myth makes it more familiar and more readily accepted. Then, cognitive biases, confirmation and disconfirmation biases, take hold and implant the myths more strongly in our minds. And one of the most powerful fallacies of logic is groupthink. Even professionals and skeptics are swayed by the power of group consensus. As the researchers noted, people naturally look to others and what everyone else thinks, the “social consensus,” to judge the truth of something. “If many people believe it, [they think] there’s probably something to it.” they wrote.

This powerful fallacy of collective beliefs was described the classic paper by Timur Kuran and Cass R. Sunstein. The perception that everyone believes something — no matter how outrageous it may be — gives it increasing plausibility simply because of its increased presence in public discussions. It was one of the key techniques of propaganda embraced by Joseph Goebbels. No one has surpassed his understanding of the psychology of misinformation and manipulating public opinion, which make his principles so important for us to understand.

The biggest fallacy of our day remains “correlation is causation.” This fallacy even finds its way into medicine, as assumptions and preconceived beliefs about people or conditions confuse association with causation. This makes all of us prone to “attribution errors,” meaning we ttribute behaviors and symptoms to the stereotype, as was explained by Dr. Jerome Groopman, M.D., chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and author of How Doctors Think. We’ve also had some fun with one of the most well-known fallacies of logic, post-hoc ergo propter hoc. It’s a Latin phrase that means “after this therefore because of this” and it appears (even in medical journals) when people believe that because something happened after something else, it must have caused it.

Today’s top 5

Today, Dr. T spotlights five important tactics used to confuse us and cloud issues of science. He describes how to spot these fallacies of logic and, more importantly, how to deal with them. As he writes in The Five 'A's of Empty Argument:

1. Argument from Authority. A real favourite for the Complementary and Alternative ‘medicine’ people... it would add no value at all to the argument. Famous people are not infallible; because they were very clever about one area doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable about all.

2. Argument from Anecdote... Again, a classic (s)CAM argument – religious ‘miracles’ are also perpetuated this way. This gives no idea as to confounding factors, people’s selective memories, story telling mistakes, mis-interpreted results etc etc. Humans are terribly prone to bias, which is why the gold standard for clinical trials is a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-centre trial. Also, from a statistical point of view, it may be pure chance...

3. Argument by Appeal to Emotion... This is pure appeal to emotion, carries no weight of evidence... Nonsense.

4. Argument from the Alternative. This is trying to give weight to an argument by attempting to show that the alternative is not preferable. It may be a relevant point, but it doesn’t provide any evidence for what is being argued for... Regardless of the argument in point, arguing that the alternative is preferable is not evidence for the opposite...

5. Argument by Ad hominem. Ad hominem is latin for ‘to the man’, but its meaning in debating circles is to use (irrelevant and often untrue) character sleight as a means of winning an debate. Again, the homeopaths especially like to use this one - if you take them to task about the lack of evidence that exists for their quackery, you will often be portrayed as a ‘big Pharma shill’ with no independent thought. Again, even if it is true (it isn’t) it doesn’t change the fact that homeopathy (and other CAM techniques) are quackery and have no solid evidence of efficacy. The person making the statement of fact has no bearing on the veracity of the fact.

His challenge to readers is to find all five being used in the same place.

Of course, we’ve seen one in this week's anti-obesity series in the Washington Post, filled with nothing but the opinions of experts, all from the very same interests [Today, one claimed: “We have taught our children how to kill themselves.”]; nonstop anecdotal evidence that appeals to our emotions [although it’s elicited a different kind of emotion among some bloggers]; scary, unsupportable predictions about what might happen if we don’t act; and finally, the ad hominem demon trying to “kill” efforts to help fat children is the food industry and anyone countering the obesity hysteria is accused of being an industry shill.

There are lots more examples of the top 5 in the news today. How many can you find?

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