Don't get me wrong, I know that it's the job of advertisers to use the truth selectively and to tell a narrative that may not be completely true to reality. But every so often I notice a commercial that I have to admit is a masterwork in using completely meaningless babble to trick people into believing they're getting actual information.
Case in point, Downy's recent "Basket of Cash" commercial. Take a look, and notice how not one single point made in the commercial carries any actual real world meaning:
Now let's take a deeper look at what the ad was showing us:
In this episode of The Dumbasses Guide To Knowledge podcast, I do a little reflecting on my experience since creating this podcast, and I do some analysis on my interview with Karl Mamer on his podcast, The Conspiracy Skeptic. Then I read an article I wrote all about definitions and how they can be misapplied. Finally, I start up the Dumbass Book Club, and I take a look at visitor comments.
I came across another one of those ads just the other day that caused me to do a double-take. This time it was a banner advertising a method for parents to determine the correct dosage of medicine for their children.
Here's the ad:
I'm personally all in favour of any product that helps make the job of being a parent easier. This statistic just didn't sit right with me though. I needed to look at the source of this claim and try and determine it's context.
At first I thought I was dealing with a mutant statistic - a fact or figure which has been misremembered/misinterpreted in such a way as to render it completely inaccurate. I wasn't able to find this 72% figure in any search of the literature, so it looked like maybe there was some mutation going on here.
So I wrote to the people at Accudial asking for information about this claim. Normally when I make these kind of inquiries, they go unanswered. But this time I actually did get an answer, and now I can tell you what I found out:
I've talked before about how how people can be overly confident in their ability to understand the past and predict the future. A good illustration of this is a book called "The Next 100 Years" by George Friedman.
As I see it, Friedman falls into the mental trap of looking at history and seeing it's progression as inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how historical events were really uncertain and chaotic, and how the outcome really could have been different than the one that history records.
From this misunderstanding he has looked through history for patterns, and whether they actually exist or not, has found them. From these supposed patterns he's projected out into the future to try and understand the forces that will shape the next century.
This seems to me like a good case study to highlight the ways that smart people can fool themselves and build a case that sounds compelling, but when you examine it closely you see that it rests on very shaky ground.
I read this book last year and am working off notes from an online discussion I had at the time. I want to make clear that even though I criticize the book, I did enjoy reading it. Especially the narrative of the coming war in the 2050's. He admits that the details of the war are more speculative than the other areas, though to me the rest of the book is almost as speculative. But in spite of being better suited to science fiction than anything else, it's a fantastic story.
But let's look at the arguments that Mr. Friedman puts forth as the solid basis for his claims:
Scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of
exposure to secondhand smoke. Breathing even a little secondhand smoke
can be harmful to your health.
I'm not a smoker, and I certainly don't like breathing in other people's smoke. But the thing is, I searched through the surgeon general's report in which these conclusions are made. It's listed as a "major conclusion" of the report, but no part of the report is referenced as evidence for this conclusion. In fact, no part of the report seems to back up this extreme statement.
The reason that this alarms me is because I've spent a lot of time arguing against woo concepts which contend that we're constantly subjected to tiny amounts of "toxins" that are responsible for every form of ill health. I'm always explaining to people that it's the dose that makes the poison. People often have knee-jerk reactions to ingredients in substances like vaccines, foods, and medicines that aren't informed by the state of current scientific knowledge.
It's harder to explain to people, for example, why we've concluded that mercury in vaccines is safe because of these reasons when the Surgeon General is actively feeding this kind of paranoia by stating that even the smallest exposure to a substance in passing can endanger your health.
There's a good excerpt available from audible.com (also available in mp3 format) of a book called "Hyping Health Risks" by Geoffrey Kabat. Kabat is a researcher who is fully in favour of restrictions on secondhand tobacco smoke, but he clearly demonstrates that the hyperbole surrounding the issue takes the risk out of all proportion with reality.
I believe that this is a symptom of an alternative health type mindset that has made it's way into mainstream medical discourse. Related to this symptom is the current intense focus on "healthy lifestyles" and "wellness" as a means of ensuring greater health.
I may have just lost some of you with that last statement. Let me explain myself in more detail.
I came across this article on canoe.ca by Vikram Sheel Kumar, MD. The article is entitled "Mobile phones are safe... we think. What we can do while the jury is out."
This is one of those articles that really depresses me, because it demonstrates vividly that we're just not adequately teaching our medical professionals critical thinking and how to understand science!
The jury is not "out" on mobile phones. The jury can only be "out" on the issue if there was ever any reason for the jury to be convened in the first place. The fact is that there's absolutely no reason to suspect that radiation from mobile phones is dangerous.
Dr. Kumar seems to have some idea that this is the case, and admits as much in the course of the article. But then goes on to make his case based solely on an argument from ignorance. It hasn't been proven absolutely that cell phone radiation doesn't cause cancer.... therefore, there's cause for concern. :wall:
The claims of many snake oil salesmen are fairly easy to identify as bunk. They're usually over the top, outlandish, and not supported by any real scientific evidence. But there are lots of more mainstream, less obvious distortions of science and medicine that people are easily taken in by.
Often this takes the form of fallacious statistical reasoning. And it's also often the case that the message being promoted is a reasonable one - but since it's being promoted with poor statistics it plays into the public's misunderstandings about science and statistics and reinforces them.
I've noticed a few statistical claims related to age ranges and how they relate to injury and illness, which severely distort any sensible perspective on the issues involved and promote an anxiety in people that is not warranted by the data.
I try to be on the lookout for articles that confirm common biases so that I can look deeper into them. I'm often able to find claims that rely almost completely on confirming preconceived notions but don't have the science to back them up.
One area that is particularly lucrative for finding such claims is the so called "obesity epidemic". Of course, it's true that there was an increase in average weight during the 80's and 90's which has since leveled off. However, it seems that the alarming rhetoric of calling it an "epidemic" has lead to people making remarkable claims completely unchallenged.
There's even a study suggesting that by 2048 the US overweight/obesity rate will reach 100%. I've talked before about how predicting the future in this way can lead researchers, who really should know better, down incredibly silly paths.
Right now, though, I want to look at a claim that's not as obviously silly. The claim is that young toddlers are increasingly too fat to fit in their car seats, and that this is becoming a problem.
I want to relate to you an incident that happened to me a while back. I was going to melt some peanut butter in my microwave for a recipe, but the moment I turned the microwave on, it started sparking inside.
Alarmed, I quickly pressed the stop button and took my bowl of peanut butter out to examine it. The bowl was one that I'd used before, no metal on it and completely microwave safe. I'd melted peanut butter in the microwave before, and never had such a thing happened.
Perhaps there was something wrong with the microwave, I thought. I filled a mug with water, put it inside, and turned the machine on. Nothing happened, it worked just fine.
Then I tried the peanut butter again: sparks.
I performed the comparison over again just to be sure. Only the peanut butter sparked.
What the hell was in my peanut butter that was making the microwave spark??
I managed to convince Steve Thoms of Skeptic North to allow me to write a guest blog post, which was posted online today. Since I was trying to be concise for Steve and keep the article under 1200 words, I didn't mention a few things that I'd have liked to point out. They're not points that are really necessary to understanding the article, but I think they'll be of interest to seekers of truth who like to get the full analysis.
So I'm going to post the entry here, along with a dumbass addendum. So please read on while a dumbass explores the importance of definitions.
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