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.
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.
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.