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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.

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