What do you believe about:
The War on Drugs?
And the Real Housewives of Loompaland?
What interests me is that most people who argue strong opinions about one thing or another don’t argue from a position of real knowledge.
Typically, people making the loudest argument don’t usually have a fist full of data that supports their position. What I mean is, they themselves have not collected data from glacier ice core samples, or traveled with drug mules, or visited the mythical South Pacific island of Loompa to watch the Real Housewives in action.
Hell, most people shouting about global warming (climate change, or whatever the buzzword of the day is) won’t even bother to google up the latest statistics on polar bear population density, or stop to think about how much artifactual heat those original electronic temperature-measuring devices— that we’re basing all of our current comparative data on— gave off.
I’m not picking on the global warming folks, either. The same can be said about the majority of folks who hold a strong opinion about one thing or another. Most won’t dare to look on the other side of their argument and risk having to deal with inconvenient, errant facts that might disrupt their already formed conclusions.
So, why don’t average people think like that? Who do you know that’s got that kind of time?
Besides, most people simply don’t think—they rely on others to do their thinking for them. I’m not throwing stones here; I’m just stating a fact about human nature that the author Malcolm Gladwell so brilliantly revealed in his book Blink.
The average person is totally dependent on the trend of thought of the masses— or whatever so-called experts are saying is happening, and what they say about what it all means.
But, as we’ve seen with the recent Climategate scandal, those experts might be bending the truth to fit their own personal assumptions and adgendas, or they themselves may be relying on what they have learned from others— who were merely stating, unquestioningly, what they assume to be true. Take for example the much-quoted statistics regarding gun seizures in Mexico.
Back in the spring of ’09, president Obama told the nation that ninety-percent of the illegal guns seized in Mexico came from gun shops in the United States. That’s a figure that could have bolstered the argument anti-gun supporters and the beliefs held by some of the gun-control advocates on both sides of the border. That is, if it were true.
The real number turned out to be somewhere closer to 17%. But that hasn’t stopped politicians and the press from perpetuating the misinformation. In a December 1, 2009 article for Government Executive titled, Guns & Drugs, writer Katherine McIntire Peters, who as a professional journalist, should know better, perpetuated the myth:
“A less frequently cited figure is equally alarming to anyone living south of the border: Ninety percent of the weapons seized from the drug cartels by Mexican authorities are traced to the United States. While the cartels are moving drugs north, arms traffickers are moving guns south. It’s a symbiotic relationship that threatens security in both countries.”
Given the lack of verifiable data from Mexico, the hidden political agendas on both sides of the border, and the fact that most of the recovered weapons have no intact serial numbers, we really can’t calculate a precise figure for what portion of crime guns have been traced to the U.S. And then, consider that neither the Mexican or US government has made account for the number of weapons that have been legally purchased from U.S. Manufactures by Mexican police and military which eventually end up in the hands of the drug cartels when Mexican soldiers and police defect to the side of the drug lords, and you’ll get an idea of how difficult a task it is to get at a real true number. Of course, pro-gun people want the real number to be lower and anti-gun people want it to be higher. But it’s not about what we want to be true that should influence our thinking– it needs to be about what actually is true.
And remember the hullabaloo about H1N1 being the worst pandemic since 1918? Well, as it turns out, the apocalyptic predictions popularized by government “experts” and fueled by the 24-hour news networks never came to fruition— as reported in a December 8th story in the LA Times: Swine flu may be mildest pandemic ever, researchers say.
Back when I was a neophyte studying epidemiology, I had a professor who told us: Never believe the first report. Good advice, then. Good advice, now.
As Malcolm Gladwell showed us, this shortcut thinking is common— across the board— for all things we have no firsthand expertise in. The vast majority of people who confidently hold a position on, say, the war on terror, or evolution, or the proposition that more gun laws equal less crime, or the best way to treat a Lymphangiosarcoma are likely entirely reciting hearsay they picked up in the form of sound bites from some Authority on MSNBC, BBC, Popular Science, Oprah or Acta Oncologica.
The average person has a certain group of people whose word they trust and they repeat as if it were documented fact. Most people I know have never personally looked through a telescope or microscope, unraveled the human gnome, examined a core sample of a polar icecap, or analyzed the historical, comparative data between the passage of new gun restrictions and the instance of violent crime. And wouldn’t know what they were looking at if they did.
As a general rule, people circumvent analytical thinking (which takes time and involves learning something new) and opt, instead, for shortcut thinking: we trust what each other tells us, and rely on group consensus and the collective opinions of others to help us navigate our way through a lot of our own day-to-day problems.
We suddenly need a surgeon, or a trial lawyer, or a good housekeeper. What do we do? We ask our friends and associates (very few of which are qualified experts on evaluating the competencies of surgeons, litigators or domestic help) and we then make our decision based on their recommendations: the guy who pumps gas down at the local Petrol station says Dr. Testeze is the top urologist in town…
In other words, the average person behaves exactly like human beings tend to behave. Which is why, as CounterThinkers, it’s critical for us to do the opposite—to think things through from beginning to end, to examine the flip-side of every argument, to test against the current best practices, to do our own research whenever possible, to question everything—including conventional wisdom, accepted practices and venerated beliefs, and at the very least, verify the validity of the information we are relying on.
And if you promise that you’ll do so, I can confidently promise you that you’ll be far more effective at whatever you do, and be much more likely to find a new and exciting way to make more money or solve a nagging problem that’s been forever getting in your way…
…and I also promise, I won’t make you think about the twisted sexual proclivities of a chocolate factory owner who will only employ men who dress in skins, whose wives dress in leaves and whose kids run around naked.