False Equivalency, Nonsense Thinking, And The Grand Delusion

There’s something that’s been bothering me immensely for quite a few years. I’m certain I’m not the only one. It seems to be getting worse every year.

The Pit Bull And The Chihuahua

Once there was a lonely person named Charlie. One day they went to adopt a dog. Two were awaiting adoption: a chihuahua and a pit bull. The chihuahua was yapping and snapping. The pit bull growled a deep growl.

“I have to warn you,” said the pound attendant, “the pit bull has had a hard life and he’s very violent.”

Charlie thought about it, since they really wanted a big dog, and finally said, “But both dogs are growling, and we all know what violent dogs chihuahuas can be. I think I’ll take the pit bull.”

Later that night the pit bull mauled Charlie to death while they slept.

Moral: don’t be Charlie.

Charlie suffers from what is known as false equivalence. They also suffer from being mauled, although I hear it was a quick death, which, compared to a life time of stupidity could even be considered a silver lining.

You see, in Charlie’s case, any amount of violence, whether harmless or deadly, is seen as equally bad. In terms of moral judgement this may have some validity, but clearly in terms of physical danger the results speak for themselves.

“We all feign to ourselves that we are simpler than we are, we thus relax ourselves away from our fellows.” Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil

Herein lies one of the big delusions of society. You see, the human mind is not as simple as you might believe. In fact often when we think we’re making careful rational decisions, we are actually driven by a vast array of processes known as cognitive biases. Essentially these are kind of shortcuts that the brain uses to help us think quicker. They developed, presumably, for survival, however, often they can lead to false conclusions and disastrous results.

In fact a lot of research has been done into cognitive bias over the last half a century or so, yet we continue to pretend that we are all completely rational beings. Don’t think this applies to you? Think again!

One that stands out in false equivalence is neglect of probability. Humans have a natural tendency to ignore probability when making comparisons. Therefore in Charlie’s mind, the risk of being hurt by both dogs is non zero, and therefore equal. As an aside, this is the exact bias that allows insurance companies to dupe people into giving them all their hard earned money, much like lotto companies.

Another that rears its ugly head is wishful thinking. This one is interesting. If we think about survival, people who judge their odds purely rationally are likely to conclude that the future will contain a certain amount of happiness. People who suffer wishful thinking will perceive MORE future happiness and therefore be less likely to suicide. What this means is that wishful thinking is a subtle survival tactic. What this means in Charlie’s case is that fido is feasting on long pork tonight.

Also displayed, not so much considered a bias as a natural process of the mind, is motivated reasoning. Herein lies one of the cornerstones of modern delusion in so called “rational” thinking. It causes the human mind a lot of stress to introduce new information. This stress is known as cognitive dissonance. As it turns out, it is much less stress on the mind to create (valid or otherwise) reasoning to rebuke the information than to accept the information.

There’s a darker side to false equivalence though, known as false balance, that threatens to tear our world apart. It’s the increasingly dominant thought that for some reason we MUST tell both sides of a story, especially in media. This is possibly the worst kind of nonsense thinking in modern society.

And here is the big delusion that people seem to have been tricked into believing. Sometimes, in fact MOST of the time, there simply AREN’T two sides of a story. Who came up with this ridiculous form of non thinking? Often sayings can become a mind trap, where we don’t review the meaningfulness of a heavily repeated statement till eventually it is the statement doing the (non)thinking for us. “There are two sides to every story” is one of the worst.

Even though it is true that some issues have many sides, on what basis does any person have an obligation to perpetuate any of them? Take this recent example where a SCIENTIST was criticised for not discussing creationism. Lets not beat around the bush here: discussing an idea, even innocently, perpetuates an idea. Pretending that one unlikely idea has equivalence to another heavily probable idea, creates support for the probably false idea.

I refuse to do it.

We have no obligation to teach others about ideas that we do not support. This is not an issue of discrimination. It is in fact the opposite. Freedom of speech means not only freedom to say what you want, it also means freedom to refrain from saying what you don’t want. Repeating nonsense just to make someone feel good about themselves serves no one in the long run.

It could be even worse. These studies show that presenting someone with a falsity that appeals to their beliefs, followed by clear evidence to the opposite, actually STRENGTHENS belief in the false position. Any wonder that dodgy politicians and fundamentalists are the people banging this balance in media drum the hardest?

Next week: Global warming, is it myth?

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2 thoughts on “False Equivalency, Nonsense Thinking, And The Grand Delusion

  1. IAN an excellent summary of life which confirms my view that I had the privilege to have had a small part of your education

    Critical thinking is a sign of intelligence

    This was something you always had and didnt need to be taught

    1. Thanks Graeme, but the privilege is mine. I doubt I would be able to have the open mind I have today without my time at university.

      Actually that makes me think that the most important thing about school is not the facts you learn but the ways you are taught to think.

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