Michael Specter was on Colbert tonight, and he managed to get some thoughts out that interested me. Specter is a journalist who recently released his book Denialism, which is about how irrational thinking harms us.
He asks questions like, “Why are we afraid of genetically modified food? Why do we take vitamins, most of which do nothing more than produce expensive, dark-colored piss? Why would a government leader let his people starve rather than allow in genetically modified wheat? ... ” He talks about our mistrust in institutions such as government and the medical establishment, and how even intelligent people succumb to belief in anecdotes over facts and can’t grasp that correlation is not the same as causation. How most of our irrational thinking is driven by fear.
At any rate, he gave a TED presentation, so I watched it:
He is right—it is hideously difficult to ignore anecdotal “evidence.” There is, for me, always an undercurrent of “Well, what if ‘They’ are wrong? What if future studies prove acupuncture works, or visualization is the key to wealth, that taking this or that vitamin every day really will stave off this or that particular disease ... or my knees started feeling worse when I stopped taking that supplement, so that supplement must work—for me?” I guess it’s only natural to hedge, but at what point does hedging become no better than appeasing the angry gods so the crops will grow again? I am a skeptic by nature, but it’s so hard to ignore the anecdotes, especially when they’re either my own or those of someone I know well and believe is intelligent. I bet even the most rock-solid, scientific method or nothing scientists have a superstition or two that he or she clings to in the face of evidence to the contrary.
I do plan on reading the book—even sent the sample to my Kindle (I absolutely love my Kindle—but that’s another post some day ... ) and if the sample intrigues me as much as his appearances and articles from the New Yorker, I might even fork out the $14.99 to buy it (that’s an outrageous price for an e-book ... but I digress yet again.) He’s certainly gotten me thinking about stuff, though.
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