Cognitive Fallacies, Part 1

[ This is post #9 in the series, “Finding reality in a post truth world.” ]

Scientific skepticism requires a scientific attitude. What is that? Lee McIntyre, in The Scientific Attitude – Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience – sums it up nicely: “The scientific attitude can be summed up in a commitment to two principles: (1)  We care about empirical evidence. (2)  We are willing to change our theories in light of new evidence.”

A scientific attitude requires us to be aware of the most common cognitive fallacies grounded in our Automatic System 1 and short-circuiting our Deliberative System 2. An excellent book delineating these is The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, by Dr. Steven Novella. There are dozens of cognitive fallacies covered, so I will just describe the ones I think are most important.

The Fundamental Attribution Error & the Self-serving Bias

Dr. Steven Novella might disagree with me on this, but I believe this combo is the grand daddy of fallacies. The fundamental attribution error occurs when you blame internal rather than external causes for behavior. Typically, this happens in conjunction with self-serving bias, where you think your own success or good behavior is because of your hard work, i.e., internal attributes, while bad things that happen to you are because of factors beyond your control. When applied to our judgement of others, we tend to do the same thing: we attribute success to their “good upbringing” or “strong character,” while bad outcomes are the products of “unforeseen circumstances.”

The evolutionary origin of this error is our primal need to believe in our own agency in the face of the chaos and entropy of the objective world. Since we are endowed with a brain that can philosophize about that state, without a sense of agency, we would very likely fall into pure cynicism and fail as a species. Belief in agency gives us purpose in life, and thousands of years ago, it gave us the motivation to provide food, shelter, and clothing. The self-serving bias keeps us from drowning in our sorrow when bad things happen.

The problem is balance and equal application. There are many popular books, especially in the self-help genre, that magnify agency to an absurd level. A few years ago, a book called “The Secret” became a best seller, and millions of people believed all they had to do was “manifest” their desires and their wishes would be granted. The author, Rhonda Byrne, even went so far as to suggest that people starving to death in African famines were in that situation because they didn’t “manifest” enough.

Here’s the essence of Byrne’s thesis: “Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything.” And “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.” So, if you get COVID, or you lost your job because of the economic crash caused by COVID, now you know why it happened: you just had the wrong thoughts!

The corollary of this is the adage, “You can be anything you want to be.” Usually, this is repeated by people who have been successful in spite of difficult circumstances. If we look at life statistically, no situation is universally bad for everyone. There were enslaved people who escaped and became world famous leaders, e.g. Frederick Douglas. However, that doesn’t mean at all that the rest of the enslaved population lacked motivation to be free. Determination and good luck were partners in Douglas’s life, just as bad luck was a deciding factor for countless others.

Confirmation Bias & Motivated Reasoning

Here’s another pair of logical errors that often go hand in hand. Confirmation bias is “the tendency of individuals to seek out or interpret new information as support for previously held notions or beliefs, even when such interpretations don’t hold up to statistical scrutiny.” [Skeptics’ Guide, p. 94] Motivated reasoning is “the biased process we use to defend a position, ideology, or belief that we hold with emotional investment.” [Skeptics’ Guide, p. 50]

Neuroscientists have uncovered an interesting feature about this pair of fallacies when examined with fMRI, described by Dr. Novella:

When confronted with ideologically neutral information, subjects used the rational cognitive part of their brain. When confronted with partisan information, a completely different part lit up, one known to be associated with identity, sympathy, and emotion. . . after subjects arrived at their motivated conclusion, relieving the negative emotions of the conflict, the part of their brain involved in reward became activated, giving them a nice shot of dopamine.

Skeptics’ Guide, p. 54

While motivated reasoning may not seem to be a part of our Automatic System 1, the dopamine response shows that AS1 is indeed an integral part of it. As for confirmation bias, this occurs without us thinking at all. Suppose you buy a new Miracle-Widget. Suddenly, even though the Miracle-Widget is relatively rare, you see them all over the place. Confirmation bias gives you a little shot of dopamine, and you congratulate yourself on your intelligence.

As soon as you go on the Internet after your purchase, you’ll suddenly see ad after ad promoting it. You wonder to yourself, “Why are they advertising this when I already bought it? Isn’t that a waste of money?” No, the makers of Miracle-Widget are using confirmation bias to make you proud of your purchase, and thus reinforcing brand loyalty.

While it may be easy to label people who fall under the sway of confirmation bias as “stupid,” the same doesn’t apply to motivated reasoning. Flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers engage in copious amounts of motivated reasoning, requiring serious study and interpretation of data. The problem is that AS1 overwhelms Deliberative System 2, preventing DS2 from getting them to question their AS1 response to what they are studying.

Do we all engage in confirmation bias? No question about it – we all do. If we’re aware of its power, though, we can hopefully prevent it from pushing us into motivated reasoning.

The social effects of motivated reasoning range from the silly to the disastrous. Flat earthers who present their “findings” come off as silly, but the campaign to eliminate GMO products worldwide has implications for worldwide health as well as global climate change. GMO is perhaps the most tested technology we have, and the results are clear: there have been no documented adverse health effects from GMO. On the other hand, golden rice, a GMO food with genes inserted for beta-carotene, can prevent blindness and death from vitamin A deficiency. On the climate change front, using GMO to enhance photo synthesis in plants could eliminate gigatons of carbon per year from the environment as well as enhancing crop yields.

Appeals to Authority: Appeals to antiquity/tradition & appeals to nature

There are many variants of logical fallacies that basically cut short a Deliberative System 2 analysis by means of appealing to a heuristic AS1-approved “authority”. One of the most common is the appeal to antiquity, sometimes called the appeal to tradition. The “authority” in this case may be “ancient wisdom,” “the way we’ve always done it,” etc.

There is a basis in evolutionary fitness to this fallacy. Thousands of years ago, if a certain plant caused illness, it made sense to stay away from it, whether you knew the reason or not. If you improved your health from ingesting another plant, even though the effect was based on pure correlation, it could easily become part of your tribe’s tradition.

Lacking scientific tools, appeals to antiquity make sense. However, when we have the capability to examine evidence, these appeals can lead us to accept solutions that are at best placebos.

Acupuncture is a classic example of this. One of the first arguments in support of acupuncture is that it’s thousands of years old. In reality, modern acupuncture is only around 100 years old. Prior to that, it was basically the same as blood letting in Europe, except that it used lances or large needles and it was connected to Chinese astrology. The justification that the practice is valid is based on the idea that it has stood the test of time, implying that all “cures” are continuously tested. That just isn’t the case. Bloodletting was an established practice for two thousand years, and never helped anyone. It wasn’t time that ended the practice; it was scientific medicine.

As for astrology, it has been shown to be purely unscientific. Finally, acupuncture itself has been proven to be nothing more than a placebo effect.

“All natural” is the advertising man’s dream. Go to a typical supermarket and look at all the products labeled that way. The companies producing the goods know that this label is as meaningless as “No GMO,” but they are appealing to people under the sway of the appeal to nature.

As Dr. Novella points out, the organic food industry in particular is based on the appeal to nature. Organic farming doesn’t allow synthetic pesticides, but they do allow “natural” ones like copper sulfate and retonone, which are highly toxic. While copper sulfate has is a well known eye and digestive tract irritant, glyphosate has been shown to be safe by virtually every human peer-reviewed study.

I learned the lesson about “all natural” when I was a teenager going on hikes in the woods with my parents. On one hike, I came across some wild green beans that looked just like the ones you get in the store. I ate a handful of them and was throwing up for three days. On another hike, my parents went mushroom hunting and there was one poisonous mushroom in the batch. Everyone who partook that night was sick within hours.

The bottom line is this: everything in the world is made up of various combinations of elements. All the elements are all natural. One combination can kill you as easily as another can cure you.

In Part 2, I’ll cover some more of the most common fallacies.

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