Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Human Gullibility – How Healthy is Your Skeptic?

Here’s this off-beat-news article about the creator of a fake drug and a fake illness made into a media campaign that people accept as genuine, even though the name of the supposed illness is obviously satirical: Dysphoric Social Attention Consumption Deficit Anxiety Disorder (DSACDAD). The tag line? “When More is not Enough.” The fact that so many people believed the drug and the illness to be genuine got me cogitating on the remarkable gullibility of homo sapiens.

To understand the nature of gullibility it is useful to consider its opposite: skepticism. While a gullible person is quick to believe in falsehoods, a skeptical person is difficult to convince. What makes the difference?

Here’s a helpful definition: “Gullibility is a widespread product of people’s failure to properly apply reason, logic, and skepticism to a claim or idea” (Cline, 2007). We can picture our pool of things we believe as a literal pool, filled with all the odds and ends of ideas we accept as true. As we navigate through the complexities of life, our pool of beliefs is continually assaulted by new ideas. What, if anything, stands guard at our pool’s edge, sorting out the true from the false, allowing only the true to enter our pool? A healthy skepticism. Now, to extend our analogy a bit, we may consider our guard, the skeptic, to be either an ineffectual weakling, allowing almost anything to pass, or so completely enamored of his authority to the point of rejecting anything new, regardless of its worth, or somewhere in between. To add even more this already overburdened analogy, let’s add emotion. Emotion tries either to help an idea get past the skeptic or to prevent it getting by.

Let us take a relatively common idea and see how my analogy holds up. Let’s say a Nigerian official contacts you via email, explaining that he needs your assistance to move several million dollars into a U.S. bank account. If you help him in this endeavor, he will give you a full 30% of the take. You are stunned and excited at the same time! “I could be rich! I could afford all my medications!” What’s happening here? First, as you’ve no doubt deduced, our skeptic is either asleep, uninformed, or simply very weak, so he hardly puts up a fight. Second, emotion is enthusiastically guiding this bogus claim straight into the pool. And so the Nigerian scam is, once again, successful.

Fortunately for us, it is possible to expel from our pool false ideas that have found a way past our skeptic. We can take a fresh look at the things we have accepted as true, and we can remove them from our pool if they lack the proper credentials for pool access. The process is sometimes painful and raucous. Emotion may complain bitterly. But in the end, a healthy and informed skepticism can prevail.

Someone will surely ask, “What’s the harm of letting some false ideas into my pool? They don’t really do any damage, and they make my emotions feel better.” If the skeptic in you, for sentimental reasons (i.e. to make emotion happy), chooses to give a few benign ideas permission to swim in your pool, even though he is healthy and informed enough to know that they probably don’t belong, there may be no harm in that, I suppose. On the other hand, I would worry that some of these interlopers may not be as benign as they appear to be. I would also be concerned that a skeptic who allows falsehoods to pass simply to make emotion happy may not be able to discern which false ideas may be benign and which may be malignant.

In order to determine if false beliefs are in fact benign, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I harmed in any way by holding on to this belief?
  • What price might I be paying in terms of money, time or energy because I believe this?
  • If this belief is costing me, is keeping it worth the price?
  • Who might be benefiting illegitimately from my belief?
  • Am I missing out on something valuable because of this belief?

When someone fails to “properly apply reason,” they run the risk of encouraging “the development of false, irrational, and even dangerous beliefs. Cases such as the Heaven’s Gate suicides and Internet scams are clear examples of dangerous beliefs that cost us wads of cash and even our lives. My advice, for what it’s worth, is this: Ask yourself, “How gullible am I? How healthy is my skeptic?”