Never ask a barber if he thinks you need
a haircut. You can apply this down-home wisdom in many ways.
In a study of doctors who owned their own x-ray equipment compared
with those who didn't, the machine-owning doctors recommended
twice as many x-rays to their patients. Hmmm. Curious.
They also honestly did not feel that their ownership of the equipment
had any influence on their decisions (the questionnaire was anonymous).
But when you look at what they were doing, you can see a very
These doctors aren't alone. A person's
point of view can be influenced by many things, including self-interest
or even a good cause they're trying to promote. When AIDS first
began to get some publicity, television viewers saw "experts"
predicting how widespread AIDS would become in the United States.
It was scary. Some of the predictions would have us believe that
by the year 2000, half the U.S. population would have AIDS! The
most pessimistic predictions turned out to be way off. The basis
of their predictions varied from self-interest (trying to get
publicity on television) to promoting a cause they believed in
(monogamy for example).
If you were a viewer at that time, how
could you decide what to believe? Who was more likely to make
an accurate prediction? A sex therapist? Not likely. A famous
actor? Not a chance. How about an epidemiologist. They study
epidemics. That's what they do. And they were far more conservative
in their estimations than anyone else. Their predictions are
turning out to be the closest to what has actually happened.
You remember the propaganda you got at
school about drugs, right? What do you most remember about it?
Well, if you actually tried drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana,
you probably remember thinking that the information you got was
exaggerated. The source of the information was promoting a cause
and trying to communicate information to further the cause. People
running those information campaigns had a perfectly reasonable,
healthy, positive goal: They wanted fewer people to ruin their
lives with drugs. That was their motive. But then, in the interest
of this justified goal, they distorted the information a little
(or a lot) to achieve their purpose.
The "missing children" campaign
made the same mistake. In the interest of promoting the cause,
they have given the general public the impression that the world
is more dangerous than it really is. How? By playing down the
fact that most of the kids are taken by one of their own parents.
Parents are afraid their child will be abducted by some evil-intentioned
stranger, which is a rare occurrence. In order to compel our
attention, to make us listen to their message, to encourage us
to give them money to pay for their activities, these public-service
groups have warned us to watch our children carefully in public
places, making some of us more paranoid than the facts justify.
Good people with good causes sometimes
justify the means with the ends. If the cause is just, then the
means is justified. When I was younger, I used to have a tendency
to believe the groups who promoted "good" causes without
recognizing that they have something to gain. For example, a
company that sells herbal-remedy teas has a vested interest in
disseminating information about how corrupt the pharmaceutical
companies are. Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest
in spreading claims that herbal tea remedies are potentially
dangerous and should be controlled.
In my naiveté, I tended to believe
the underdog, in this case, the herbal tea people, without recognizing
that their self-interest is just as strong as the pharmaceutical
companies' self-interest, and so equally suspect of being biased.
Their underdog status does not prevent them from distorting the
Recently, some employees of the Fish and
Wildlife Service and the Forest Service were caught trying to
mislead people for a "good" cause. The employees of
those agencies, quite understandably, are in favor of protecting
natural areas from development. But seven of these employees
went too far. They apparently took hair samples from a captive
lynx and tried to pass it off as a wild lynx in places where
the lynx doesn't live in an effort to make it seem like the animal
was endangered. Their motives may have been good. But their information
If someone hadn't blown the whistle, certain
areas may have become off limits to humans, which is probably
what these people ultimately wanted. They were probably trying
to protect wild places and wild animals. These are noble causes.
But no matter how noble the cause, a crusader has no more stake
on the truth than anyone else. Remember that. Be unnaturally
Even of me. People who are trying to promote
positive attitudes are no more likely to be telling the truth
than the cynics. Just because I obviously want you to be happier
and healthier and more optimistic does not mean my information
can't be biased. So what are you supposed to do? How do you know
what to believe?
Wait a minute. Who said you have to believe
anything? You don't have to either believe something is
true or believe it is false. Those are not your only two options.
You have a third possibility: you can consider something as possibly
true. You can keep your mind open. You can restrain yourself
from doing the easy thing, which is concluding one way or another
and closing your mind to the subject.
One way to do that is to question the motives
of the source of information. What are they after? What is their
purpose? And do not be persuaded any more by someone trying to
save rainforests than someone wanting to plow them under. Be
skeptical of information put forth by anyone with any kind of
vested interest that may bias them. That includes just about
Does this make you feel less secure? Don't
you feel that you should believe someone? That itself
is a false belief. You don't necessarily have to "believe"
anyone. There is nothing wrong with being uncommitted. People
with a vested interest may have convinced you that being uncommitted
is the same as being spineless or wishy-washy. They had a vested
interest in telling you that. It ain't necessarily so.
Let's look at how skepticism might work
in a specific situation. Say you read something about the danger
of a certain herbal tea you have been drinking. You don't have
to believe it or disbelieve it. You can look into it more, and
find out what the dangers are, if it's worth your time. You can
avoid the tea until you get more information. Or you might decide
that even with the dangers, you are willing to take the risk
and keep drinking the tea yet without making up your mind
that the danger claims are false. You can keep drinking the tea
while keeping your mind open. You don't have to make up your
mind. You don't have to believe or not believe. If the potential
danger is extreme and the potential benefit is small, you can
decide to stop drinking it while you investigate further.
When I was a teenager, I was trying to
get rid of my acne. I tried special soaps and lotions and all
the normal stuff. I went to a dermatologist who gave me pills
to take and a prescription for a lotion containing vitamin A,
which got me interested in vitamin A itself. I thought maybe
taking the vitamin might help, so I looked up as much information
as I could find about it.
Again and again, authors mentioned that
it was toxic to take too much. But how much was too much? They
didn't say. It made me careful. I took a moderate dose of 10,000
IUs per day until I could find out more. The moderate dose didn't
do anything to my acne.
Finally I found a book that was not trying
to persuade the reader one way or another. It simply gave information.
It said that doses over 100,000 IUs a day had shown some unhealthy
effects on the liver. And when you took too much, your skin would
temporarily (if you stopped) turn yellow.
This was an entirely different kind of
information. It wasn't designed to scare me. It wasn't designed
to encourage me. It was disinterested information; the best kind.
I started taking 50,000 IUs a day five times what I had
been taking but only half the dangerous level and it seemed
to reduce my acne considerably.
You notice I said it seemed to have
an effect. I am still open to more information. Maybe I was at
an age when my acne would have gone away on its own, and it coincided
with my taking the vitamin A. I'm still skeptical. I wanted
it to have an effect. I had a motive. And I can bias information
about myself and to myself just as easily, if not more easily,
than information I give to others.
Skepticism is the answer. It is not true
that skepticism stops action. Remember that. Remind yourself of it. You can still proceed
with the best information you have available at the time, making
the best decision you can about what to do while at the same
time remaining open to new information. This will help protect
you from metaphorical
the real lampreys
Pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism are
like lampreys. They invade your mind in much the same way as
invaded the Great Lakes.
What happened to the lampreys in the Great
Lakes? What became of the native trout? The biologists who work
for the fisheries have tried several things. They tried special
dams to prevent the lampreys going upstream to spawn. But these
were expensive and also blocked other fish. Not only that, they
didn't work very well. During the season when lampreys are swimming
upstream, the streams are very full, so the lampreys are often
able to swim over the dams.
If we may draw an analogy, this might be
similar to being too gullible: Believing everything you hear
if the person seems to have good intentions. You wind up getting
information that creates pessimism in the name of good causes
(like parents being more frightened than they need to be of strangers
abducting their children).
Biologists have also tried killing the
lamprey "larvae" (ammocoetes) with chemicals. The chemical
did a pretty good job, but of course it killed other things too,
like walleye and northern pike, and even some insects. This might
be analogous to believing in skepticism, but taking it too far.
You block out good information as well as biased information.
In 1992, the biologists started catching
male lampreys, sterilizing them, and then releasing them. They
go around mating with the females, who lay eggs that will never
hatch. This works far better than anything so far, without the
damaging effects on other species. The lamprey population is
only about a tenth now of what it was at its peak. It is effective,
but not perfect. This is analogous to a healthy skepticism which
blocks most misleading, damaging information, and allows good
information to come in. It's not perfect, but it's pretty good.
One way to protect yourself from a lamprey
invasion is to promote a healthy skepticism. And one way to help
you be skeptical is to question the motives of the source. Never
ask a barber if you need a haircut.
Read a good book about becoming more skeptical:
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of
Human Reason in Everyday Life.
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