I hope that title generated instant skepticism. Skepticism is healthy when driven by the right attitude (more on that in a second). Any hint that someone wants to dictate your thinking should put you on guard. But I’m not interested in telling you what to think, I’m interested in discussing how. The process, the depth, the thoroughness (or lack of it…). These are two very different things.
The first, and in my mind, most important thing to discuss about thinking is that it must be an active process. The natural, lazy tendency is to passively listen and accept whatever one happens to absorb (which is usually whatever they already agree with) and give no thought to anything. This is dangerous.
In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul makes two commands that we should explore. If you are a Christian, these words are inspired by God. If you are not, they are still useful to you. Either way, pay attention.
Paul says that we are to
- Test all things
- Hold fast to that which is true
I’m going to limit today’s discussion to the first one.
This is the attitude I had in mind when I mentioned healthy skepticism at the beginning of the post. This is the type of skepticism that says, “I need to think about that” or “I have more questions” or “I want to learn more about this” when hearing something new. Skepticism isn’t a complete opposition or reluctance to accept new ideas or information; that’s called having a closed mind. Skepticism (in the healthy context) is believing that information must be validated before it is accepted as truth. This principle applies to information we want to believe at least as much as it applies to information we do not want to believe.
In this series of articles, I want to take a look at several common examples of bad thinking.
For our first installment: Correlation does not equal causation.
I’m sure you’ve heard this concept described if you’ve taken any introductory economics class. Maybe even if you haven’t. In a nutshell, the fact that two things have a similar trend (or even a related trend) does not mean that one caused the other. Sometimes the cause is completely separate; sometimes it is the opposite of what is being blamed (or given credit). Let’s look at a few examples.
Thanks to buzzfeed for this one. The brilliant analytical thinkers over there noticed something obvious from this graph posted at Mark’s Daily Apple. The birth of Justin Bieber in 1994 was followed by a steady and significant decline in serum cholesterol levels for both men and women. This trend continued until the advent of Facebook in 2004, after which time our veins started to re-harden.
That’s right. Facebook not only cancelled but reduced the Crestor like effect of the Biebs.
Maybe Chris Pronger would have been easier on him if he’d known…
(Humanitarian note: Chris Pronger was working for the NHL in the Department of Plater Safety at the time of this inspiring horrific incident. The hall of famer and father of three girls fined himself $5 for the transgression).
Here’s an example that doesn’t require a graph. Data consistently shows that the more firemen report to a blaze, the more property damage there is. Try not to laugh when I tell you that there’s someone out there who would reverse the true meaning of that fact. And do it with a straight face. On the floor of congress. Representing the people of the 43th District of California…. (Fact check: this hasn’t actually happened. Yet…)
Congresswoman bozo says #FTFD
So far the examples have been hyperbole. We can all figure out that more fireman respond to the fires that cause the most damage.
The real danger lies in cases like this:
Since the 1970’s, the United States government, in all their infinite wisdom, has been advising its subjects citizens to reduce their intake of salt (don’t ever try to convince me that Richard Nixon was in any way laissez-faire….).
Noooooo, Sparticus von Fluffenstein III. Haven’t you read the food pyramid?
To make a very long story short, there was a correlation found between salt intake and hypertension. So, if people who eat more salt have higher rates of hypertension, the salt must be causing the hypertension, right? That was the conclusion of the powers that be. The answer, of course, is that it’s more complicated than that. There are more variables involved. This is almost always the answer. Our bodies are complex. Diet is complex. And, beyond this one example, the world is complex. More thinking is required. Much more. And the correct response when presented with information such as this is to ask questions.
Statement: There is a positive correlation between salt intake and hypertension.
Thoughtful response: Hmmm… Salt has been in the human diet for thousands of years.
- Could it be the availability of salt in regions or among populations who are more prone to hypertension due to other genealogical or environmental factors?
- Is there something about hypertension (such as a specific micronutrient deficiency) that causes humans to crave salt?
- Are there other foods that correlate with high salt intake?
- If so, do those foods cause the hypertension, or does the salt?
We could keep asking these questions. And we should until we have exhausted all of the angles we can think of. Try not to get hung up on this example. The idea of this article is to use a few case studies to illustrate how we should think in many situations.
In case you’re wondering, the answer to this specific case is revealed in the last question I listed. High salt intake, in the developed world, is often the result of a diet high in processed carbohydrates. As science has clearly proven, processed carbohydrates lead to hypertension (as well as all manner of other Western disease). Salt is a preservative; canned soup, frozen and box dinners usually contain a lot of it. Canned soup, frozen and box dinners are high in processed carbohydrates. By extension, a diet filled with these junk foods is high in salt.
So poor salt wasn’t the culprit after all… I’ll give you a moment to recover from the realization that your government was wrong. I’ll give you another moment to recover from the realization that your government hasn’t admitted that it was wrong. I’ll give you another moment to recover from the realization that the government has not only not admitted that it was wrong, it continues to make the same, since disproven, recommendation. And that it keeps feeding us nonsense. Literally. Feeding. #ThanksMichelleObama
If there was ever a demographic that was incapable of and/or unwilling to think beyond stage one, it’s the American politician.
The wise oracle of Kentucky. Right as always.
What do we do with this?
We change how we approach the information we receive. We test all things. Extensively. We don’t just say “does that seem reasonable?”. That’s not a test; that’s intellectually lazy.
Progress always comes with a price. For us, the price of technological advancements is not just to our muffin tops from sitting all day and our declining eyesight from staring at a screen the whole time. The price also includes the barrage of garbage we encounter as we seek the truth. It’s easier than ever to spread information. This goes for information that is credible just as the same as information that is not.
I mentioned earlier that politicians are particularly prone to feeding us these loads of bullcrap. That is true. Segments of the media are equally apt to do so. Many marketers are even more actively trying to do so.
None of this excuses us.
You are not off the hook.
We are responsible because we allow it.
Think what you will of the culprits I mentioned. You and I sometimes do it too. We just have a smaller audience. But these people are motivated by results. They tend to make informed decisions. They do the things they do, and they say the things they do, because they can. And not only because they can but because it works. They get the results they want. They sway our opinions, or our purchases, or our other decisions in ways that are worth the cost it took them to propagate the bad information. Because we accept it. We believe them. We buy in. We don’t think.
You owe it to yourself to keep your mind sharp and to put forth the effort to think beyond stage one.
Part two coming soon.
The Political Science of Salt by Gary Taubes.
Gary Taubes is a genius and a bestselling author. This is an interesting article about the bad science and politicization of government food policy in the United States. I heard an interview in which he stated that this salt issue is what prompted him to investigate the ultimately disproven theory that dietary fat causes heart disease. He realized the science was bad.
Smiling Chris Pronger squashes Justin Bieber
And the peasants rejoiced.
Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One by Thomas Sowell
Dr. Sowell’s brilliant book that inspired the title of this blog. I just might link it in everything I write. Buy and read. Get smarter. (Affiliate link).