In our quests for health, longevity, weight loss, happiness, there is no shortage of people willing to take our money. A short documentary called “Here be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” exposes the most common tricks of the trade used by those who make questionable claims, and how to avoid the pitfalls of such tactics.
Here are some examples;Appeal to Authority: This is the use of authoritative imagery – someone in a lab coat, celebrities, certifications, academics. An appeal to an authority is an argument that attempts to establish its conclusion by citing a perceived authority who claims that the conclusion is true.
In all cases, appeals to authority are fallacious; no matter how well-respected someone is it is possible for them to make a mistake. The mere fact that someone says that something is true doesn’t prove that it is true. Of course there are also cases where the alleged authority isn’t an authority on the subject matter in question.
Ancient Wisdom: The argument usually goes something like this: Our wise ancestors used X to treat condition Y. They understood the natural world and had access to knowledge that we no longer have.
It is illogical to think that the ancient people had more knowledge than we do today. Ancient “wisdom” also brought us the flat earth theory, bloodletting, 30 year lifespan. Who cares if it was used in 11th century China… does it work?
Confirmation Bias: This is the tendency to seek out or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs. This is why many believe in psychics, who ask hundreds of questions and make hundreds of probing guesses. We remember the correct aspects of what they say and believe that they know everything about us.
Correlation/Causation: Many people confuse correlation with causation. Events that occur together do not necessarily have a cause and effect relationship. Taking a supplement around the same time as a cancer goes into remission is an example. The immediate thought is that it had to be the supplement. The Autism/Vaccine debate is similar – diagnoses are typically after receiving vaccinations. Autism symptoms happen to be diagnosed at around the same age as vaccinations. In conventional medicine, doctors used to think that hormone replacement therapy lowered the risk of CHD but when put to a trial it actually increased the risk.
Red Herrings: A distraction from following a logical line of thinking. September 11th conspiracy theorists love red herrings. Skeptic: “Who crashed the planes?” Conspiracy theorist: “Dick Cheney had special interests in the middle east”
Proof by Verbosity: Laying out huge volumes of information – giving the illusion of being thoroughly researched. It’s not about quantity of information, but rather quality. People who cite pages and pages of “evidence” don’t expect that anyone will sift through and respond.
Mystical Energy: Many promoters of quackery claim some sort of mystical energy, life force or chi runs through our bodies and can be harnessed and manipulated. This sounds plausible because it is a scientific-sounding word. Energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work – period.
“Energy Healing” – a popular alternative therapy received some bad news about 10 years ago. A study published in JAMA demonstrated that Therapeutic Touch (TT) practitioners couldn’t even detect the energy field they claim they can manipulate. This was a true blind test – the (TT) practitioners didn’t know if the experimenter’s hand was there or not. If they can’t even detect the energy field, how can they manipulate it to make people well?
Suppression by Authorities (conspiracy theory): We’ve all heard the 911 conspiracies, the pharmaceutical companies suppressing natural cures. Now I’m not going to pretend that big pharma doesn’t have a sizable influence on studies, but if there were a “cure” for something, drug companies would jump on it.
All Natural: Mistletoe, botulism, asbestos, bubonic plague… all “natural”. If we were so inclined to broaden the definition, then so are tsunamis. Natural does not always mean better or safer. It is a marketing ploy.
Ideological Support: Many people claim that it is moral, ethical or politically correct to accept their claims. This is to distract people from the fact that there is no scientific support for their claims/product. The best example here is veganism.
It would be great if critical thinking were part regular high school curriculum. Having an open mind is good, but there is a fine line between open-mindedness and gullibility. Good science is done in labs, not on blogs, through marches or on Oprah. Use your better judgment and remember; if it doesn’t make scientific sense or common sense…it’s nonsense.