Monday, 4 April 2016

No, No, I won't believe it!

I read a really interesting article on the Guardian recently by Sian Townson about why we humans can be so gullible about the claims of pseudoscience.

This is where, despite what scientists have actually discovered within their fields, that the bulk of us would rather believe that our 'instincts' than the careful and methodical research of experts.

Pseudoscience encompasses myths such as vitamins, naturopathy, cancer being cured by diet alone, the Atkins diet working because carbs are bad for you, and that a face cream can reverse the effects of gravity and ageing.

Sian lists four key factors.

The first one interestingly is about sunk costs (which is related to cognitive assonance). Sian goes on to explain that, when we've purchased something we want to justify our expenditure to ourselves and others. It's a good point to remember that we are more likely to justify items that we have purchased based largely on wishful thinking, even more when that purchase is an expensive one.

Secondly, when we have purchased an item, we have what is known as a "confirmation and selection bias". We seek out only evidence that supports us being 'right', and - sadly - we ignore contrary evidence and be wilfully blind. It's like the family legend that Great-grannie being psychic; we remember only the few times she was right and forget about all the times that her "feelings" didn't pan out.

Thirdly, there is a great thing called a "clustering illusion". Humans are pattern seeking animals, and we will assume correlation or causal factors and a group of random happenings where there may not be a relationship. We create our own closure: put our own construction on what is 'actually' happening. Conspiracy theorists dine out on this stuff, and again, this is like our psychic Great-grannie. We should be cautious of clustering factors unnecessarily.

Lastly, there is the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the less we know about something the more likely we are to see the 'logical' solution. Oops, I think we will all have been there! This is "illusory superiority", where our lack of understanding of the complexities of an issue only allows us to see a simple answer; when in actual fact we know very little. I think "illusory superiority" is a gorgeous phrase.

I can put my hand up to all of these at one time or another, as I am sure can we all.  The trick is to remain open-minded enough to guard against getting sucked into these self-deluding behaviours.



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