Don’t Be a Sucker 101

Bottled water sales are a sure sign that there are a lot of suckers out there. The world is full of people who can be talked into buying or believing almost anything, but who would make far better decisions if they had a very basic understanding of subjects like chemistry, logic, and statistics. I would love to see a course entitled “Don’t Be a Sucker 101” taught as an after school program or as a college elective course. The course would cover these topics:

1) Ridiculously basic chemistry.

Concentration matters.

For example, there are currently a lot of people who think that fluoride is dangerous to human health, and there is even a group actively working to get officials to stop adding fluoride to our drinking water. For those who don’t know, fluoride is added to our drinking water because it decreases the rate of tooth decay. In fact, studies have shown that water defluoridation results in an 18-40% decrease in children’s cavities. For poor families who can’t afford good dental care, water fluoridation makes a big difference.

But the critics of fluoride have a point. It CAN be dangerous. The key point, however, is that it is only dangerous in high concentrations. Like many other compounds (e.g., niacin, Vitamin A, and copper), fluoride is beneficial to the human body at low concentrations but is toxic or even fatal at high concentrations. The levels at which we encounter fluoride in our day-to-day lives are typically within the healthy range.

2) Basic logic.

I think that this part is particularly important. Politicians and advertisers are constantly making illogical statements in an attempt to sway public opinion. Here are a few that I think people fall for pretty often:

Ignoratio elenchi. These are arguments that may be true, but are not relevant to the question at hand. For example, I’ve heard people argue that evolution can not be true because, if it were true, then life would have no meaning. The potential ethical implications of evolution are not relevant to the question of whether or not evolution is “true” and thus should not be included in arguments against evolution.

This type of logical fallacy seems particularly popular with politicians, who often avoid directly answering a question by diverting attention to an argument that they feel more comfortable making. If more people were watching out for ignoratio elenchi fallacies then perhaps we could hold more politicians accountable for answering the question they were actually asked.

Ad hominem. An ad hominem attack is when someone attempts to discredit a statement made by an opponent by attacking the person rather than addressing the claim. A good example of this can be found in a previous post, where the author tries to discredit the claims of a group of scientists by noting that these scientists once collaborated with a scientist who now has a bad reputation. They should have attacked the scientist’s methods and claims.

It definitely is important to take into consideration who is making a particular claim. If the person making the claim is an established liar, then you certainly want to take their arguments with a grain of salt. But if you’re arguing about the best way to deal with the financial crisis, for example, then the fact that your opponent smoked pot once in 10th grade probably isn’t relevant.

Appeal to authority. Check out my post on the worst advertisement ever for my favorite example. In essence, this type of argument hinges on the hope that the listener will believe a statement is true simply because it was made by a prominent figure. Lots of money is spent and poor decisions are made because people are more than willing to do what an authority figure directs them to do.

A particularly heinous way in which appeals to authority are used is in commercials with doctors to sell products. A doctor’s opinion on a particular product or procedure means nothing unless that doctor has conducted peer-reviewed research to back his opinion up. Unfortunately, many of us are quick to trust anything that comes out of a doctor’s mouth without carefully scrutinizing her statements.

3) Basic statistics.

People rarely question the statistics that they encounter on a day-to-day basis. For example, when you hear that 50% of people believe X, you should immediately ask yourself 1) What was the sample size on that poll? and 2) What sample population was polled (e.g., a call-in poll would have very different results if the viewers were calling in while watching Bill O’Reilly as opposed to Keith Olbermann)?

Many people also fail to put statistics into perspective. Hearing that 332 peopled died from swine flu sounds impressive, but it means nothing unless you also know how many people were infected total (and did not die) as well as information about the people that did die (e.g., were these 332 people immunocompromised or elderly?). I’m certainly not indicating that the swine flu or other emerging diseases should not attract our attention (or more importantly the attention of epidemiologists), but I do think that the publicity surrounding swine flu caused unnecessary hysteria in the United States.

Here is another good blog post on the misuse of statistics by creationists and AIDS denialists.

4) Home economics.

This course would cover the absolute basics, including what to expect when you get your first credit card, buy your first house, or take out your first loan. Who knows, maybe we could have avoided some of the current housing crisis if people understood what they were getting into.

Don’t Be a Sucker 101 wouldn’t even have to be a particularly long course. If the course met for 2 hour sessions once a week it could probably be done in a month’s time. Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing about what you think belongs in a Don’t Be a Sucker course.

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29 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Sucker 101

  1. Once purely for my own amusement I wrote a syllabus for a course called “LIFE101” which I think was basically point 4 of your “Don’t be a Sucker” course. Some of the stuff on it included how to do your taxes, credit, how a lease works, what insurance is for, and how to not kill house plants. Maybe we should combine forces and teach people how to exist.

  2. You’ve described exactly how fluoridation was promoted in the US – no science, appeal to authority, attacks on individuals.

    Modern science shows that ingesting fluoride delivers risks without benefits.

    While you may believe small amounts are beneficial, fluoride is neither a nutrient nor essential for healthy teeth, and while concentrations in water might be low, no one knows for sure how much fluoride an individual ingests, inhales or absorbs from fluoridated water, foods, air emissions, dental products and drugs.

    Wouuld you ever consider putting vitamin C or A in to water.
    Then why would you put something as toxic as fluoride in the water. Fluoride is more toxic than lead and the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal of lead is zero – so should the MCLG for fluoride be zero

    Adverse health effects of fluoride
    http://www.FluorideAction.Net/health .

    • I can see how water fluoridation got started…

      U.S. Public Health Service meeting, 1951.

      Official #1: Everything is going well. We have no work to do.
      Official #2: Poor people can’t afford basic dental care! Maybe we could help?
      Official #3: I KNOW I KNOW LET’S ADD STUFF TO THE WATER SUPPLY
      Officials #1 and #2: What a brilliant idea!

      It doesn’t matter if an additive makes you fart roses and live 200 years. Tap water is not a vitamin drink. It’s a question of ethics, policy and general sanity, not science.

      • Hey Ancorehraq sis, remember when you had a goitre? Or when your kids and their friends all had severe mental retardation?

        No?

        Maybe that’s because all of the salt that you buy/eat has iodine in it. That was a decision based on “ethics, policy and general sanity” that saved countless lives and increased the quality of many others. But every time you eat salt YOU’RE ALSO EATING A CHEMICAL OMG!

        Now back to tap water and fluoride consumption. nyscof, why do you say that no one knows how much gets into the body? Why not actually look for articles? Here’s one from May 2009 focusing on Belgium: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=19543414

        And what is this “Modern Science” that you speak of? An April article in the European journal of oral science concludes that increasing the concentration of fluoride from 0.3 to 1.1ppm in the water supply in Lithuania promoted lesion arrest and resulted in fewer fillings.
        (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122262896/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0)

        It’s peer reviewed and you can read the whole thing for free. There are hundreds more. Check Pubmed, Hubmed, or Novoseek to search the Medline index of real science articles.

      • Well guys, I wasn’t convinced before, but after seeing that fluoride conspiracy theory website that looks like it was made in 1994, I am now fully aware of the evils of fluoride.

        Thank you for opening my eyes to this shocking risk!

        Ok, but seriously, come on guys. I mean. Come on.

  3. As much as it sounds like home-ec, people need to learn how to cook basic meals and use kitchen tools (like a freaking knife!). Not just pop a frozen dinner in the microwave. It’d help the obesity problem and save people money.

    • Eh, I cooked for a while. It costs roughly the same as buying microwave food. It might be slightly less healthy, I dunno, but there’s also a 95% lower incidence of burning my dinner using microwaved meals as opposed to cooking.

      • You know, I think half the issue with burning meals is that people don’t pay attention to what they’re doing… I can put together a tasty, healthy and inexpensive meal that takes about 15 minutes to prepare and cook on the stove top, and it’s much tastier than microwave food.

  4. The first law of toxicology, “everything is toxic” (or more broadly “the dose makes the poison”) attributed to Paracelsus, a 15th-century German physician.

  5. Alright so lets assume that flourdation actually does have a negative impact on human health, albeit minor (I spent a good half hour reading through the articles on the website above and there is not one piece of research that absolutely links the current level of flouride in US drinking water to any sort of impairment).

    How does this minor impact compare to the negative impact from drinking bottled water? Well bottled water contains several chemicals leeched from the plastic (or other containers) that are implicated in health problems (as much as flouride, if not more). Also, the massive amount of plastic waste that heavy consumption of bottled water creates is creating a huge problem that is not easily solved. Flouride in your drinking water is easily fixed by filtering tap water.

    Conclusion: If you buy bottled water, you are not only a sucker, but you are also poisioning your environment and possibly yourself. The “flouride debate” is also a Straw Man used by the bottled water industry to increase consumption of their products. Whether or not the flouride in tap water has a minor toxicity, regular consumption of bottled water causes great harm.

    • Bottled water does make sense in some rare situations. Such as when visiting a country with a vastly different water supply then your own (f.ex. if I (from sweden) go to Chile, my stomach probably isn’t used to the various little critters that the water normally contains in Chile.

      However, if you don’t suffer from drinking the water where you’re at… well.. bottled water serves no use.

      I especially adore a few brands of bottled water, where it is printed right there on the lable, that the water is from a local water supply. Where your tap water probably also comes from.

      Overconsumption. Plain and simple. It’s everywhere (like flouride! omg!)

  6. I think everyone should be required to pass a logic class before they can graduate high school. Or maybe logic chapter in Don’t Be a Sucker 101. One of the most common fallacies I see is “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (after this, therefore because of this). Another way of saying that is “correlation is not causation.”

    Another week of this class ought to be devoted to Urban Legends.

  7. Of course, one of the problems with a class on how not to fail at life is that you must put yourself at odds with the collective stupidity that is so rampant in the human population. Conspiracy theories, “too-good-to-be-true” loans, ad hominem arguments, and appeals to authority (along with everything else you mention) all appeal to how human psychology and the human brain work.

    It’s the frustration at realizing one could possibly be wrong that leads to ad hominem attacks. It’s the desire to be unique, to be the only one in the room who actually sees what is going on that leads to conspiracy theories. It’s the desire to be led to the correct action rather than figure it out for themselves that fuels the continuance of appeals to authority. And finally, it’s the desire to have “it all” that leads to willful ignorance of reality in favor of a self created dreamscape.

    And then there’s the problem of whether or not people realize they are thusly flawed. You can’t help someone who doesn’t think they need help. I suspect that this class would end up being an exercise in mild frustration. Most of the attendees would be people already on the path of improving themselves, and the ones who really need it won’t attend because they won’t think they need to. It’s actually quite difficult convincing people that they don’t understand when they think they do. Great thinkers and leaders have been trying to do just that for millennia and failed – from time of Socrates to Budda to Jesus to the present day have tried to improve the general condition of humanity. So while I wish you luck on any endeavor you undertake, I can’t say I have much hope, because only the wise and knowledgeable know they are neither.

    P.S. I also disagree that appealing to authority is necessarily a bad thing. Again I have to say that Harrison Ford is an authority (as in he has authoritative knowledge) on aviation, and as such the advertisement is not some petty appeal to celebrity, but an actual appeal to authority in the sense that Ford has the authority to speak on the matter. So the real problem is appeal to false or worthless authority (probably better worded as appeal to celebrity).

      • Very rarely by my knowledge – Mostly because conspiracies require a level of secrecy and organization most humans will never even be able to aspire to, much less achieve. But yes, there have been conspiracies. More often then not however, there isn’t.

  8. Talking of basic logic: unstated assumptions, usually because they would weaken the point if stated explicitely. For example, assuming that people buy bottled water because they’re afraid of fluoride.

    I don’t eat at McDonald’s, will you assume it’s because I’m vegan? Well maybe I just don’t like the taste.

    In agreement with the rest.
    –Vincent

  9. Meanwhile, as a Medical Student (who is all for fluoride and iodised salt by the way), I’m still struggling to come to grips with AIDS denialists.

    THERE ARE AIDS DENIALISTS???

    That absolutely shatters my mind.

  10. I’m thinking I’d like to audit this course and add it to the curriculum at the community college. I think honestly, you could just use parts 2 and 3 and find that parts 1 and 4 generally fell into place. Although, part 4 is generally what I think -parents- are supposed to be for and I’m pretty sure similar courses are actually offered in some places as part of the “teen parents” programs. Strange damn world.

  11. I thought that was “argument from consequences” i.e. “that cannot be true otherwise this negative thing would be true”. Recently encountered when some dude (Who I thought was a smart person!) argued that evolution couldn’t be true because it would make eugenic theories like those of the Nazis correct.

    Quite aside from the fact that evolution doesn’t in fact lead to eugenics being correct, even if it did, one would not disprove the other.

    My counterexample is “Humans can’t be made of meat! That would make cannibalism right!”

  12. I’ve found that many of these examples adhere not only to my personal experience but to that of others, and those “suckers” involved in my past still cause me daily grievance.

    It was quite some time ago that I had been talking with a friend and, within about 3 feet of me at the same table I had been at, I heard someone claim that wearing a bra for too long causes breast cancer.

    I was more or less…disappointed in the person. Not for claiming something that was rather absurd, but for having full faith in the matter due to hearing it from her mother.
    This was a direct example of appealing to authority.
    Of course the subject ended when she revealed she knew nothing other than what her mother told her and had not further looked into the matter.

    As to the technicality of the entire ordeal, what is in fact correct is that wearing an overly tight bra for extensive periods of time (We’re talking 12-20 hours every day, for years) can block the pathways of lymphatic nodes, blocking toxins from being removed, which can lead to cysts.

    Cysts =/= Cancer.

    That was just one in the all too many cases in which people adhere to statistics spouted with either no source or any information on anything other than what the speaker heard.

    In every one of these instances, I’m somehow rightly labeled an asshole for not being a sucker, and never taking statistics/claims of any kind at face value.

    I’d rather be an asshole than a sucker.

  13. i think what people seem to lack most is simple comon sense. if we all actually took a moment to think about what we are hearing then we would realise that a good deal of what we are told is hyperbole and as you said “should be taken with a pinch of salt.

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