Why You’re Probably a Sucker

by Alexander Heyne · 11 comments

“Education has failed in a very serious way to convey the most important lesson science can teach: skepticism.”

- David Suzuki

Young People are Notoriously Easy to Fool

“Did you hear that a new study came out that said that cucumbers cause cancer?  Friend: “No way!”

“Given the fact that we only use 10% of our brains, imagine the potential we have!”

“I’m gonna work really hard and then succeed.  You know, because people who work hard always come out on top.”

“You can never travel the world because you have to work first and get an apartment and pay your health insurance and it’s too dangerous and you’ll abandon your family.”

“Good luck finding a job.  The economy has gone to shit and there are no jobs available.”

Some People Hear Anything and Start Proselytizing

I used to have this problem for a long time when I was younger.  I would read something mind-blowing and immediately begin sharing it with people, regardless of whether or not I had thought about or researched the material at all.

This later turned out to be a huge problem that I would end up apologizing for, because I would pass on things that were pure conjecture or were just theories at the time.

The sad thing is as I grew up, I realized almost all humans are prey to this critical flaw.  We as a species tend to hear something convincing and immediately assume it to be true, regardless of the facts.

I’d go further and say a majority of people prefer to accept evidence contrary to the truth, only because it agrees with their previous assumptions and won’t force them to re-evaluate patterns of thinking.

This isn’t just a pattern of the youth of the world, it’s pretty much a human issue.

It Takes a Sharp Mind to Read Something Convincing and Not Immediately Accept it as Truth


The classic example of sucker thinking (or more politely, one-sided thinking) is easy to see with the myriad health studies coming out in the field of science.

Every week there is a new study proclaiming the benefits of one food, plant, or vitamin, and denouncing the benefits that came out just last week.  So who is there to trust?

Well, science for one.  And by science I don’t mean the stuff you get from a 30 second special on CNN, something you hear from your friend, or a radio broadcast.  I mean seeing the studies themselves to look for bad science.  Media is notoriously sensationalist and is rife with mis-quoting and poor paraphrasing.

As a health nut, I end up having conversations with people about the proper thing to eat all the time.  I read a lot.  And I mean a lot.  I read everything that comes out in my fields of interest.  I read about medicine, I read about health, I read about neuroscience, I read about business and marketing, and I read psychology.  I read popular books, I read studies and I read articles & the news.

But people are fooled every time something sounds convincing!  Man If I were a scam artist I’d be bloody rich, but unfortunately I’m out for our best interests.

So what does critical thinking have to do with this?

Enter My Man Dr. Carl Sagan

In one of his books, Carl Sagan talks about the need of every individual to develop their own “Bullshit detection kit.”  He put it much more nicely with the word baloney.  But I really need to emphasize this. It’s really important.

Why the Need?

  1. I see people getting taken advantage of ALL the time, mostly because they fail to think critically about a subject or situation, but sometimes because they don’t know better.
  2. In the age of technology and information, it is exceedingly easy to gather information about any subject in existence compared to history previously.  There is no excuse for being deliberately ignorant.
  3. It will help you walk your talk, and will do wonders for your credibility.

Age Doesn’t Always Mean Wisdom

Here’s a brief introduction to some of the tools and principles Dr. Sagan suggests for improving your ability to decipher good stuff from the garbage.  All quotes are excerpts from his book Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

  • Arguments from “authorities” carry little weight; they have made mistakes in the past
  • Ask whether or not the hypothesis or idea can be falsified — an idea that is untestable isn’t worth very much because it won’t provide any answers
  • Are there experiments and data actively trying to disprove the idea, concept or study?
  • Logical Fallacies to Avoid
    • ad hominem - attacking the person and not their argument.  E.g. saying Jimmy doesn’t know squat about medicine because he’s a notorious glutton and is obese.
    • appeal to ignorance - claiming that if an idea has not been proven false, it is true.  E.g. “there is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist.”
    • straw man – making something seem simpler than it is in order to break down the argument.  E.g.   claiming that “scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance.”  It neglects all the details and scientific premises of evolution and puts it in an over-simplified position.
Another fun one: People sadly enough tend to carry personal biases and personality flaws along with them for their entire lives. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve known people my entire life with the same problems and have either never noticed, or haven’t decided to put in the effort to change.

Negotiating the Maze

Ever heard of analysis paralysis? The principle goes something like this:  the more choices you have, the harder it is to make a decision.  Easy and intuitive, right?

The major problem I have with technology and the immortal google is that there are so many options, so much information, and so much conflicting information that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish what’s real from what’s not real.

For most people the true/false dichotomy doesn’t work anyway, because information that conflicts with the opinions in your head will probably just make you hit the X on the website.  The ego tries to keep itself intact and thus keeps the cycle going; anything that doesn’t go along with your idea of how things should be gets filtered and thrown out with the garbage.

Advertising is Made for the Average American, AKA Sucker

Frosted flakes part of a healthy balanced diet?  You’ve gotta be shitting me.

Alien Landing Zone?

Ab flexor belt that will really give you a 6 pack!  I’ll bet you money that no matter how many crunches you do you’ll never have a six pack with exercise alone.

Getting surgery for your back problems?  Have you seen the science on relapse rates?

Use your ability to think critically and it will save you hundreds of hours of misery, thousands of dollars spent on useless crap, and the ability to sleep at night knowing you didn’t pass on garbage information to your friends and family.

The Goal

The goal of this post is very similar to the goal of the website. Challenge everything you see and hear, especially things deemed conventional wisdom.  What people “assume” to be true is vulnerable to what’s fashionable, what people want to believe and especially things people were told by others and never confirmed.

Think about every assumption based on society, for example:

  1. What works picking up women
  2. How to make money
  3. How to succeed
  4. How not to succeed
  5. Assumptions of what your <class/group/race/country/state/state of mind> is or is not capable of
Challenge them all.  You will probably be pleasantly surprised.

A Little Secret

A huge amount of life is simply programming your own mind and habits with the right kinds of seeds.  After all, habits are hard to break. That goes for bad habits as well as good ones.  Put in seeds for the good ones and it’s easy to maintain them.

Maintain the habit of thinking critically and picking apart every facet of your life.

Next time you see a news article about a new discovery or health Do / Don’t, think about it and look for more research.

When you see “frosted flakes, part of a healthy diet” on the TV, throw your bowl of cereal at the screen.  When you see another “ab belt” showing how well it stimulates your abs and shows a ripped guy with a 6-pack, realize that he’s a paid actor and probably never used the belt in his life. And then learn that it’s the diet and not the exercise alone that produces change.

Next time your friend tells you another “humans use 10% of their brain” fact, ask them to google some sources (or better yet, the origin of the myth).

Next time you see a commercial or opportunity that sounds too good to be true, stop for a moment and ponder.  And just remember:

Don’t be a sucker.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

te0h August 2, 2011 at 4:55 am

sooo in other words… don’t be fallacious? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

brings me back to critical thinking class when i begun philosophy in uni. hah. what’s funny is i just posted a phil article on my fb before reading ur latest entry.

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afheyne August 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

Teoh,
In a nutshell, sort of. Recently I’ve had a lot of time to sit down for long dinners drinking wine with old family friends, or friends of my parents, and a lot of people sill are just as gullible as they were as kids. And by kids, I mean frosted flake watching 9 year olds. They have this crazy inability to consider other possibilities, or to question anything, or to consider “maybe that wasn’t a ghost…” haha, that kind of stuff.
Also, they tend to be pretty prone to the “jump from diet fad to diet fad” thing, like the average American. They love passing on ridiculous facts that sound plausible, and pretty much just like repeating things for the sake of discussion rather than truth.
One of the thinks I liked about Carl Sagan’s book the most was that he included an entire chapter just of ridiculous letters he has gotten. It makes you realize that there are some extremely questionable people, even supposed experts.

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Jeff Chen August 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm

on the flipside of the coin, people nowadays are too quick to dismiss things as false. there’s a fine balance between being cautious and being a downright skeptic. this usually happens to people in the science field due to years of molding to require repeatable evidence in order to believe something as fact.

example: do aliens exist? we can’t prove they do, but we sure as fuck can’t prove they don’t. so who knows?

moral: do not believe they exist, but believe in the possibility that they exist.

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afheyne August 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Absolutely, and that’s an important point — Ideally, critical thinking should be a healthy balance between being too open minded and too much of a skeptic. It should have a basic fundamental standard that is met, all of the time.
And your last example re: Aliens I completely agree. That was just an example of one of the logical fallacies — just because there is no proof they do or do not exist, doesn’t mean we should dismiss the entire subject.

Sagan himself even said he strongly believes (and wants to believe) in life out there — but there just wasn’t good enough evidence for him to say it forthright.

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Jeff Chen August 4, 2011 at 4:50 am

i haven’t had an intelligent conversation in a while. my brain thirsts

afheyne August 8, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Hi — Yep! I’ve got a facebook page here for MilkthePigeon: http://www.facebook.com/groups/154783237932099/
I have a twitter as well, and will update that page within the next week!

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afheyne August 10, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Edit: You can find my twitter here: http://twitter.com/#!/milkthepigeon

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how to get a free iphone 5 August 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I really like your wordpress template, where do you obtain it through?

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afheyne August 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Hi – It is one of the provided themes from wordpress. It’s called “Bueno.”

Edit: It’s now Twenty-Eleven

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