27 September 2013

So, I know this guy who’s quite the conspiracy nut. Whenever something happens, he always jumps on the fringe theories. At first I wanted to write about conspiracy theories in general and debunk a few myths while I’m at it, but I figured it was pointless because smarter people than me are already doing it anyway. So instead I want to talk about critical thinking.

So, I like to think of myself as a scientist: after all, “science” is written somewhere on my bachelor’s degree. I also like to think that I’m able to spot bullshit when I see it (except that one time when I preordered SimCity). But that’s beside the point.

When someone tells me “don’t trust anything you see on the Internet”, and that I should double check the facts and cross reference the data, I’m down. I mean, it’s important to validate any claim someone makes. When I deal with conspiracy theorists, they usually go with “don’t trust the mainstream media”. Again, sure, nobody is perfect and even outlets with the best of intentions can make mistakes. Let’s not forget Hanlon’s razor after all.

And then said theorists go and share an article written on some blog, and expect me to swallow it whole without double checking anything. Why the double standard? You know, when some guy on a blog tells about “what really happened” for some event, and I decide to Google it, the only other sources I find are either links to the article, or wholesale copy-and-paste jobs of it. It’s like one big human centipede of unchecked data. And the fact that the article is written by one unknown guy should make it more trustworthy? I don’t know who he is, what his credentials are, or who he works for. I mean, I’m not saying the mainstream media outlets have my best interests at heart, but at least I can find their offices on Google Maps.

I’m biased, you’re biased, the world is biased…

I asked earlier “why the double standard”, but it’s a rhetorical question, because I know exactly what’s going on: it’s another case of a cognitive bias. The average conspiracy theorist blindly accepts the article because it already fits with his beliefs, and rejects the mainstream because it’s in contradiction with them. When they say “don’t trust the mainstream”, what they really mean is “don’t trust those I disagree with”. And let me make something very clear: I’m doing the exact same thing. And the fact that I’m fully aware of it doesn’t change a single thing: my first reaction when faced with evidence that goes against my faith is to question the evidence instead of my faith. And I still sometimes argue when I know I’m wrong, but I’m too prideful to back down. And it’s even worse when I’m inebriated…

But anyway, it’s alright. You know what? You can believe whatever you want. But don’t try to claim you have great ability for critical thinking when you’re just as biased as anyone else. Yes, everyone thinking that something is true doesn’t mean it is, but on the other hand, if you’re the only one who’s driving on the other side of the road, perhaps it would be a good moment to get out of there and ponder a bit before you kill someone.

As Orwell put it, all issues are political issues, and even something as “pure” as science is driven by political and ideological decisions. After all, you need to get funding to do research, and that means you’ll have to bend over either to the government or the private sector. Both are motivated by either ideology, profit or both. And sometimes, someone might want to push public opinion in a direction. Why not get a study out? Don’t be surprised if a libertarian think tank comes out with a report that says that lowering taxes is good. And in any case, reason is an abstract concept that is hard to put in practice. So anyone is entitled to its own irrational set of biases and preconceptions, and we all have to deal with it.

Also, when someone shows you facts that suggest a certain thing, maybe he’s not showing you everything. For example, most theories related to “9/11 was an inside job” rely heavily on cherry picking, that is, they only consider a small subset of the data that somehows points towards the point they’re trying to make. Which begs the question: if you need to be dishonest in order to get your point across, should you really be considered as “trustworthy”? If you think so, and you back it by saying that your “opponents” are doing the same thing, then I’m afraid I will have to put you in the “head stuck up your ass” category of people I know.

So, again, exercise caution on the Internet. What’s on there isn’t necessarily true, and not because people are trying to manipulate you. And before you jump on the conspiracy bandwagon, ask yourself why you’re doing it. I guess that what I’m saying is that you should read Predictably Irrational. It’s pretty good.

In related news, science is hard. Don’t try it at home, kids.