Sneaky Health Fallacies, part 2
(January 26, 2021)
The last time we met, I was talking about logical fallacies, which are rhetorical techniques used to distract people from realizing that an argument has no real basis in fact. We all like to think that we make our decisions on the basis of evidence, so if someone actually has some, they'll probably present it to you. If you are trying to make up your mind about the reliability of a person you don't know, then, it's a fair bet that if you see said person using these fallacies to present their viewpoint that that's all that they've got. Likewise, if you notice that an argument is chock full of them with barely a fact in sight, you can probably dismiss it as well. If someone has a factual leg to stand on, they will probably do so.
The two fallacies that I mentioned last week were
--"Correlation and Causation" (when you see two things occur together, especially if one tends to happen before the other, it's easy but incorrect to assume that one caused the other), and I gave the example of someone who starts taking Super Duper Immune Complex and assumes that that's why they stopped getting colds. It might be true, but just because something happened before something else doesn't prove causation. Also
--"Anecdotal Evidence", which would be using the stories of one or more people who say that Super Duper Immune Complex kept them from getting colds as proof that it works. Even if they are nice people and are completely sincere, that's not sufficient evidence to conclude that it does work.
You see both of those fallacies used frequently in the promotion of health and medical products because they are very effective and much cheaper than paying for a lot of expensive research that may not end up giving the hoped-for results. You also see
--The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
Named after a supposedly mythological Texan who fired his gun at a barn door and then painted a target around the tightest cluster of bullet holes. (I say "supposedly mythological" because if you actually know any Texans, you know that that story is probably true.) To make up your mind about something you need to assess ALL the evidence, pro and con. People who want to persuade you they're right may carefully show you some of the bullet holes, but not all of them.
You can use this technique to make something look either better or worse than it really is using the same set of data, depending on what result you want. If rather than trying to sell it, someone instead is out to get Super Duper Immune Complex, they might do it this way:
Say fifteen million people worldwide have taken Super Duper Immune Complex right after it becomes available, and then two weeks later one of them who was very famous dies. You'd go around loudly "asking questions" about the deaths of people who've taken Super Duper Immune Complex (making good use of "Correlation and Causation" above) and maybe even mentioning that a bunch of other people who took it also died that week -- a fair bet when dealing with a large number of people -- and ignore the remainder of the fifteen million bullet holes.
Any time you hear that a health practice or medical treatment is a glowing miracle, or conversely a complete disaster, you should be suspicious that someone is cherry picking the data and that nearby under a dirty tarp is hidden a large bin of some pretty rotten cherries. In this case, someone is choosing to highlight only a very small (and possibly irrelevant) part of the story and trying to scare you with it.
--The Tu Quoque Fallacy
This is my personal favorite because once you have learned to pronounce it 1) it makes you sound really smart, and 2) you can use it to humiliate your opponent at their most desperate time in the argument. The tu quoque fallacy (Latin for "you also") is the attempt to discredit an opponent by accusing them of hypocrisy, but never actually presenting a counterargument. It's a fallacy because even if someone is a big huge nasty hypocrite, it doesn't mean that they're wrong. Super Duper Immune Complex might very well work even if the salesman doesn't look very healthy. Tu quoque is just one more attempt by a propagandist to evade presenting supporting evidence for their viewpoint.
--Appeal to Authority
You do not ever believe something just because an expert said it, which is what this fallacy wants you to do. Experts are experts because they're good at doing something and knowledgeable people both in and out of their area of expertise deem them to be. Experts know more about what they're doing than non-experts. But! They also can explain things so that YOU understand them.
If Dr. Genius says Super Duper Immune Complex keeps you from getting colds (or conversely is going to kill you if you take it), that isn't enough. Ask him/her why and how. If they can't tell you, or they get annoyed at you for asking, Dr. Genius is no expert.
You only close your eyes and believe someone without evidence when there ISN'T any evidence. And then you'd better be sure that your chosen authority is a real one, and not just someone who feeds your prejudices. Lord only knows that in alternative medicine in particular there are no end of the latter.
The bandwagon fallacy assumes something is true (or right, or good) because other people are doing it or agree with it. "Few can resist bandwagon", an alert reader emailed me, and he is right. It terrifies us on some primal level to disagree with the crowd (probably because a lot of people have gotten themselves murdered that way) and when everyone in your office is taking Super Duper Immune Complex to fend off colds, you feel a little bit better when you start doing so yourself.
However, right away we should recall George Carlin's observation about how stupid the average person is, and half the people out there are stupider than that. (Seems like I've been bring that up a lot lately.) That in itself is almost a good enough reason to automatically View With Suspicion any new trend that sounds the least bit askance. People may call you a snob for doing that, but it's amazing how often you'll be right.
Finally, back to the English teacher who originally presented this all to me. In the midst of a class argument about whatever, one of my fellow students made an innocuous reference to said teacher being Jewish. He asked, "why do you assume that I'm Jewish?". Well, we'd all assumed it because of his name and because he looked a lot like Woody Allen, but we couldn't say that because we would have sounded like a bunch of little bigots. In the ensuing embarrassed hush, suddenly someone yelled from the back of the class, "You took the day off on Yom Kippur!". So remember two lessons that my favorite teacher ever taught us that day -- 1) to Assume DOES make an Ass of U and Me, and 2) Evidence, people, will save you every time.
--dr. diane holmes
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