How To Kid Yourself

With every birth, a parent can only expect to be handed numerous pamphlets, links to various websites and the odd book or two. Being enthralled (albeit less well slept of late), I have endeavoured to explore through all of this material, hoping to give my little girl the best possible chance in life.

There was one book, however, that I had to put down.

The writer stood for values I very much agree with – with dyslexia myself and a deep love for literature (which spawned from a desire to overcome the inherent difficulties associated with dyslexia), exposing my new daughter to the wealth in print is easily one of the values I hold strongest. Even though I agreed with much of what was being said, I still just couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.

The case on offer was written akin to the first step of Moncktonian drivel; claims made were left uncited while attempting to maintain the authority of rigorous investigation. Of course, Monchtonian drivel goes much further; in being a refinement of the Gish Gallop, he demonstrates a misconception of the body of evidence that exists – whether intentional or not.

In the first case of being told how “recent brain studies have shown…” I thought it may have been an oversight or laziness of the author and overlooked this because it sounded logical and reasonable. A few chapters more in the same style, or appeals to the authority of the peer group of the author, I’d had enough. The book can collect dust for all I care.

It seems to me a failing in our education system that all too often such evidence is taken at face value. Whether it’s the natural remedy that claims is backed up by recent studies (or more closely; a friend or a friend of a friend who has experienced greater health due to…), the deadly secrets behind wind turbines or even a topic of science (such as the Moncktonian drivel touched upon), one should automatically ask themselves not, “Does it sound credible?” but “What evidence has been provided and is that evidence strong?”

I very much agreed with the author, but that the case was being made alluded to higher authority without substance and so I had to deem it as such (and thus I had better things to do with my time). Likewise, when an individual makes a claim with the conviction of some authority on the matter, say, Monckton on Rachael Pinker’s research, their claims are only as good as their evidence is sound and valid to those claims, as people like John Abraham and Peter Hadfield have demonstrated.

That, as Terentius put it, homines libenter quod volunt credunt (men believe what they want to)*, in the pursuit of understanding, we need to avoid willingly being led down any rabbit holes. If I am proven wrong, I blame not the providers of that information, but only myself for basing too much validity on claims that were clearly taking dubious. Being found to be wrong is part of life and something that should be a positive growing exercise; by removing doubt you unavoidably increase certainty.

On the other hand, holding onto suspect information requires increasing energy to keep it afloat… Just think of the wild claims of hidden Nazi’s or devils and demons as well as that united world government plot discussed in my previous post; increasingly elaborate stories to validate erroneous claims.

As has been the topic of late here, the fundamental root leading one to buttress flimsy information tends to be a growing chasm between reality and a treasured ideology.

If it sounds right or it confirms a view we have of the world, we tend to be more open to accepting the information as valid. While this is instinctive, so are many behaviours we’ve judged to be primitive and left in our past. We should do as much with such confirmation bias.

It can’t be enough to simply take another’s word as valid because we like what we hear. Contradictory is how sceptical we are to information outside of preferences – some individuals so much so that they openly state an interpretation of the known universe is effectively set in stone (see the note of this post for example).

We need to be objective to information regardless of our initial reactions to it and treat all information critically. Otherwise we are merely fooling ourselves and blame no-one else when we look silly for it.

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* I spotted the quote in Vaclac Smil’s Why America Is Not a New Rome.

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