Fallacies of Non-Skeptics

 Optimist or pessimist, atheist or believer--whatever your life philosophy, it can never hurt to apply an ounce of skepticism to everything you read, see and hear. We stumbled over the wonderful "Skeptic's Dictionary" at http://skepdic.com and found some fascinating phenomena everyone should be aware of.

Forer Effect/Barnum Effect

This effect, discovered by psychologist Bertram R. Forer, lends itself especially to the field of commercial fortune telling, astrology, the enneagram, etc. Forer found that people have a natural tendency to strongly identify with vague and generalized statements about themselves.

In 1948, Forer gave his psychology students a personality test and then gave each one the same evaluation, which he had copied from a newsstand astrology column. The "evaluation" was filled with platitudes such as "You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside." And so forth.

Forer asked his students to rate the accuracy of the evaluation with grades from 0 to 5, with 5 being an "excellent" assessment, and 4 a "good" one. The class average was 4.26. The test has been repeated many times over the decades, with an average of 4.2, or 84% accuracy.

Forer explained this phenomenon with human gullibility; the Skeptic's Dictionary offers hope, wishful thinking, vanity and "the tendency to try to make sense out of experience" as explanations. It is also called "Barnum Effect" in reference to P.T. Barnum's notoriety as a psychological master manipulator.

Concorde or Sunk-Cost Fallacy

The human tendency to throw good money after bad, even though it has become clear that there is nothing to gain. "When one makes a hopeless investment," says the Skeptic's Dictionary, "one sometimes reasons: I can't stop now, otherwise what I've invested so far will be lost." To us, this seems to be especially true for gambling of all sorts... which is why so many gamblers on a "bad streak" proceed to lose their shirts.

The SD explains such behavior as "a pathetic attempt to delay having to face the consequences of one's poor judgment... a way to save face, to appear to be knowledgeable, when in fact one is acting like an idiot."

Famous examples are Lyndon B. Johnson, who kept submitting troops to Vietnam, even long after he had determined that the war was a lost cause, as well as France and Britain financing the construction of the Concorde, a beautiful and great-working airplane, but financially a bottomless pit... in which the two countries nevertheless kept pouring their resources.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

Named after the storybook Texan who shoots at a barn and then draws a bull's eye around the bullet holes.

"Politicians, lawyers, and some scientists tend to isolate clusters of diseases from their context," states the Skeptic's Dictionary, "thereby giving the illusion of a causal connection between some environmental factor and the disease. What appears to statistically significant (i.e. not due to chance) is actually expected by the laws of chance."

A good example is the 1999 New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande, "The Cancer-Cluster Myth". He describes various incidents of "neighborhood cancer clusters" that prompted official investigation. For example, in the '80s, the California farming town McFarland made headlines "after a woman whose child was found to have cancer learned of four other children with cancer in just a few blocks around her home." Investigators found six more cases in the small town with a population of 6,400. The presumed culprit was a groundwater well contaminated with pesticides, which led to lawsuits against six chemical companies.

McFarland is not an exception, says Gawande, who cites other examples of neighborhood cancer clusters. But it's a fact that clusters of disease--even those six or seven times higher than expected--in any one neighborhood may well be within statistically normal limits... especially with a hard-to-pin- down disease like cancer. In the case of McFarland, for example, it turned out that the eleven sick children had nine different forms of cancer. Even though it's counterintuitive, stresses Gawande, clusters like this are most likely just a coincidence.

Most people think it's strange when they toss a coin and heads comes up four times in a row, says the SD. But there is really nothing strange about it-- in a series of 20 tosses, there's a 50% chance of getting four heads in a row.

Remember: Reality can sometimes be stranger than illusion. Maybe that's why so many people prefer the illusion.

Posted 06-21-2005 10:57 PM by Doug Casey
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