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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Independent Thinking - the Skeleton Key to Knowledge (Part 2)

Always question statistics and 'facts'!

As I've hopefully shown you in the previous blog article, you can easily manipulate opinion surveys, but what about cold hard factual statistics. Surely you can't change them... yes, you can.

Let's take for example the following made up statistic (I'll make it up since 67.92% of statistics are made up anyway):

33% of people with blue eyes catch the flu before they're four.

Okay, this is made up, but assuming it's true (or proports to be true), there are some unanswered questions that would put it in context. Without thinking like an independent thinker you'd say, "oh dear, blue eyed children are prone to catching the flu."

But is it really significant?

What percentage of people in general, for example, catch the flu in any given four year period? What about people with brown eyes or green eyes? Or people who are not between the ages of fetous and four?

And if that percentage is significant compared to these factors, what about all blue eyed people or all children indiscriminate of eye colour? Is it blue eyed children or just all blue eyed people? Or all children?

And who was recorded to get this statistic? How many people? Could this have been an anomaly in the area surveyed? Is it because they are blue eyed and children, or is there another reason for why these particular children get the flu?

Without this information the statistic is meaningless. It tells you nothing, yet it is manipulated statistics that get thrown around all the time to push opinions as facts.

Now this is a very harmless statistic to analyse. When the statistic has an emotional trigger involved, i.e. a topic people feel passionate about or enraged over, it is much easier for the population to accept. However, an independent thinker will never just accept blindly any statistic or 'fact'.

The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide

A while ago there was a petition to ban a substance called Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO). If you are not familiar with it here are just some of the startling facts. The substance:

- is a major component of acid rain (called "hydroxl acid")
- greatly contributes to the "greenhouse effect"
- can be fatal if inhaled
- can cause severe burns
- erodes our natural landscape
- accelerates corrosion and rusting of metals
- has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

However, despite the danger, DHMO is often used:

- as an industrial solvent and coolant
- in nuclear power plants
- in the production of Styrofoam
- by athletes to improve their performance
- in many forms of cruel animal research
- as an additive in certain junk foods, and especially so-called "diet" food
- in distribution of pesticides (even after washing the produce remains contaminated)

When this research was submitted to the US government of the time with the signatures of many concerned people, the government didn't take the petition seriously.

Why? Because Dihydrogen Monoxide is another name for H20 (water).

But people didn't ask what DHMO actually was, they just listened to the facts, and became enraged as an 'educated' member of the public. This case study is very famous and makes a clear point about the importance of being an 'independent thinker' - a thinker that isn't led.

Putting your trust in scientists in white coats, doctors with stethoscopes, and the "common belief"

For most people, a strong influencer in shaping your own beliefs is the opinion of 'credible experts'. They've studied the subject, so they must know more than you, right? They possibly do, but it is still not a good reason to compromise your own judgement and follow blindly.

Take the Milgram Experiment as an example, conducted by Stanley Milgram some fifty years ago or so. In this experiment people were brought in to do an experiment that was suppose to test if you could accelerate learning by administrating pain in the learning process.

The group was split up into two groups, those that would be 'teachers', and those that would be 'students'. A student would be paired with a teacher, and they would go into two separate rooms and communicate through a microphone.

KEY: E = Experimenter, T = Teacher, L = Learner

The teacher was then instructed by a scientist to ask questions to the student, and if the student got it wrong, the teacher would administer an electric shock. This electric shock would be increased for every wrong answer.

However, in reality, the scientists and students were all actors. The answers of the students and their responses to the electric shocks were actually recordings. But the teacher, the only group not let in on this, believed it to be real.

As the student failed to get the right answers the teacher was instructed to increase the level of electric shock, and despite the screaming in pain of the student, most subjects did as they were told by the expert and increased the shock higher and higher.

Eventually the recording stopped, and the participant supposedly answering the questions became completely unresponsive. And although it appeared the subject may be dead or unconscious, many still continued to administer higher and higher shocks as the student failed to answer questions in the alloted time.

Similar experiments have had people doing numerous shocking or ridiculous actions because of the instructions of actors in 'credible' uniforms. So the obvious lesson here is do not just base your entire belief system on someone who wears a white lab coat or a minister's collar, etc.


In my final blog entry about this subject I will look into the influence of peer pressure, how you can convince yourself of absolutely anything, the only thing we can know for sure, and what I believe is the best beliefs to adopt.

I hope by reading my last blog entry you will open your mind and formulate your own well-educated and flexible belief system. After this third entry, my blog will return to the usual humour and maddness.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Independent Thinking - the Skeleton Key to Knowledge (Part One)

Two pieces came across my desk recently that made me decide to share one of the greatest gifts you can ever be given - the ability of independent thinking. The topic is very large, so I'll just touch upon some basics that'll hopefully be of value to you over the next three blog entries.

But first, let's look at the pieces that stimulated these blog entries...

The first piece that came across my desk was about a drug bust in Mexico. The bust uncovered 22 million dollars according to the article, in the very first few paragraphs. The article then claimed at the end that the money discovered could cover every US citizen's health insurance for 12 years. The person who showed me this article took this last statement for face value - forgetting the previously stated amount - as the source was an ever trustworthy news report.

Now the US has a population of about 310 million people. Unless my math is wrong, it must therefore cost about 7c to give a person health insurance for 12 years in the US. Don't know why Americans are complaining about health insurance! It must be the cheapest health insurance in the world. Pay less than 70c and you'll be covered for life.

The second piece given to me was about the debt a certain country was going into (not the US or Mexico this time). This country was going into debt (according to the opposition party) $X million a day. Quite shocking.

Now, I have been told by an economics student that going into debt can sometimes be a good thing - I don't actually know whether that is true or whether it applies in this case so I won't go into that argument. But what I do know is that when I again did the math dividing the debt by the population of the country, it was a few cents a day per person. Is that bad? I don't know. But neither do most of the people who read this propaganda and become outraged.

The Skeleton Key to Knowledge - Knowing what questions to ask!

Knowing what questions to ask when hearing/reading facts is the secret to uncovering a lot about the validity of the supposed facts and studies being presented to you. Let's look at three example questions to ask yourself, and why they're important for your quest for the truth.

1.) Who conducted the research or fact-finding, and why?

This is a question most people don't ask themselves when hearing facts, but perhaps the most enlightening. For example:

  • Studies showing how there is a shortage in housing are usually conducted by real estate agents.
  • Medical studies are often funded by drug companies, and the results could mean millions in profits or loss to them.
  • The news industry needs 'hysteria' to sell newspapers or sell magazines or get ratings or sell advertising space, and drama that plays on your insecurities and fears sells.

Everybody has a motive for putting money behind research, and not everybody's motive is for the expansion of humanity's knowledge, creativity or welfare. Well, it could be for your welfare, but who decides what that entails for each of us - it is a very loaded ideal.

2.) Who published the research or facts, and why?

Almost all 'facts' and 'surveys' that are presented to you are from extremely bias sources too, for the same reasons as above. In fact, often the ones publishing the research are the same ones that conducted the research (and perhaps in some cases, the same ones who answered the questions).

3.) How was the question framed? And what was the discussion leading up to the question?

You can ask people the same thing, but position it in different ways and you'll get different answers. For example, say you were doing a survey on freedom of speech.

If you wanted for people to say that there should be restrictions on freedom of speech, you talk to people about unpopular opinions like neo-nazism, literature that encourages hate and crime, and the negative subconscious influence some communication and entertainment can have on children and unstable people... Then you ask, "do you think people should be able to say whatever they want in absolutely any public domain?"

If you want people to support freedom of speech, you talk to them about the positive role of protesting in the development of our society, about how dictatorships and police states restrict varying opinions, and about who gets to choose what we can say and what we can't. Then you ask them, "should our basic right - the freedom of speech - be more closely restricted by the government?"

Bonus question: Who was asked? How random was the selection process?

The last bonus question to ask yourself is how random were the people selected. Did they put a blindfold on the interviewer, spin him around in a train station where he got off in a random suburb, and he asked the first 100 people he came into contact with. Because even that is not very random. For example, the time of day you're interviewing people will effect what demographic of people are out and about (and not at work).

So how were the random people chosen? The 'random' people being surveyed or invited into focus groups were most likely 'profiled' first to give a desired result. (100% of surveyed people love this article so far. 100% of surveyed people also happened to be writing this article and be me.)

There you go, choose tomorrow's headline! Stay tuned for part 2 where I'll look into some interesting research on how we formulate beliefs and the dangers of cold hard 'unbiased' stats.