The Basis of Bullshit: Bias, Logical Fallacy, and Our Imperfect Perceptions
Approximate Read Time: 16 minutes
“Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.” –Albert Maysles
Tucked away in the American heartland there is a community standing up against the norms of this crazy world. They are hard-working, educated people, deeply committed to their families and their church. They take the time for the things too often overlooked in American society: family dinners, book-study, donating money, and offering their time for what they consider community service. In fact, they are deeply committed to these service projects, most notably picketing soldier’s funerals and socially progressive institutions with signs like: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “God Hates Fags.”
The town is Topeka, Kansas and this is the Westboro Baptist Church. It is easy to conclude that each of these members is evil, but, from their worldview—their programming, they are the last vestige of human morality. They and everyone that matters in their life is certain that they have the right interpretation of the Bible—that they hold the irrefutably truth about right and wrong, the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, and what happens when we die. With this lens the only kind thing to do for the world is to get the word out that all of us are destined to burn eternally in a lake of fire, unless we change. From their place of certainty, not explaining the consequences is tantamount to watching a child climb into a furnace.
Apart from being a terribly boring way of operating in the world, dogma can make it appear quite rational to do terrible things. When acting based upon faulty assumptions, our flawed species is even more susceptible to poor judgment. The reality is, uncomfortable as it is to admit, we’re all wrong all the time. This becomes dangerous when we delude ourselves into certainty and refuse to confront the flaws in perception that characterize human experience.
Our Flawed Senses
Humans experience the world through flawed senses. Optical illusions, magicians, and marketers repeatedly take advantage of our imperfect perceptions. We’ve all been dazzled and mystified by the necker cube, the Andrus’ impossible box illusion, or your poor performance on this awareness test.
Even more, there are many things we cannot detect. Humans eyes don’t see ultra-violet (UV) light, the electromagnetic wave responsible for sunburns. Bumblebees, ants, and some lizards can see UV light, but humans can’t unless their cornea is removed. This is an advantageous protection, but it also limits our capacity to see reality. If humanity lost all electricity and our environment went completely dark, like the north pole at Winter Solstice, those rare outliers with a greater sensitivity to UV would be the most likely to survive. They’d pass on this trait and collective humanity would literally have a new lens with which to see the world.
Humans don’t see or smell oxygen, but if it suddenly vacated your premises, reading this blog would be the last thing on your mind. You can, however, detect other gases, like methane (men seem to love reminding each other of this reality). Whether we can sense something or not has very little to do with how important it is. Despite the fact that humanity had no way of seeing germs and viruses, they have caused illness and death since the beginning of time.
Our incomplete sensory set is inordinately influenced by our own narrow experiences. Americans assume that everyone needs a car because you “must” drive everywhere, that prescription drug commercials are normal, and that people in third world countries are less happy. A couple of short centuries ago, most people were raised believing women should not have careers or a vote and that slavery was part of the natural human order.
Growing up, I assumed no one talked during football games and everyone lived to debate politics and philosophy, but it turns out some find these proclivities rather obnoxious. When I adopted two black children, I assumed our hair care needs would be similar and that babies would sleep at night. The list of faulty assumptions is endless.
“Our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images, which we did not invent, but were given to us by society.” –Alan Watts
There is a Zen legend about a wealthy man who wanted to learn Zen. Accustomed to getting his way, the wealthy man came to visit a Zen master and said, “I have come for you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The Zen master suggested that they discuss this over a cup of tea. As the wealthy man sat, the Zen master placed a cup in front of him and began pouring. The cup filled, yet he continued pouring. “Stop, the tea is spilling! Can’t you see the cup is full?” the wealthy man exclaimed. The Zen master smiled, saying, “Yes, and you are like this tea cup—so full that nothing can be added. Come back when your cup is empty.”
Meditation is a way of loosening our attachment to prior conditioning so that we can observe reality less distorted by our preconceived notions. While it is near impossible to completely separate ourselves from our deeply rooted social conditioning, the reminder is worth revisiting often.
What we deem normal and correct is most often based on what we’ve seen. We have to hold our opinions to a higher standard than what is conventional, popular, or superficially apparent, or we are all susceptible to our own subtler Westboroisms.
In addition to the biases built from past experience, each of us are subject to a vast number of cognitive biases inherent to human thought—what Warren Buffet’s business partner, Charlie Munger, calls the psychology of human misjudgment. Some of the most powerful include:
Consistency Bias: The human mind is like the female egg. Once one sperm gets in, there is a shut-off mechanism that prevents any other from getting in. In the United States we have access to as many thoughts and ideas as we want to explore. Yet how many people are raised Methodist and say, you know, I think Hinduism makes more sense? How many even change from Baptism to Catholicism? How many say, you know these three branches of government and bi-cameral legislature have been cool, but the German parliamentary system makes more sense to me? These changes of mind are very unlikely to made without strong social pressure.
Liking Distortion: Humans naturally hold ourselves and our opinions with inflated regard. Thus, we all see ourselves as above average and gravitate to people who think like we do. It is why we consider our political views obvious to anyone who thinks and everyone who disagrees is an idiot. It is also, probably, why my father was certain I was the greatest high-school football player in the history of the world and why I’ve noticed a similar trend with most parents.
Social Proof Bias: How convenient that many Americans tend to fall into two neat political parties, each sharing very consistent views with the rest of their pack. Our tendency to believe what others do—social proof—has allowed humans to normalize bizarre beliefs and narrow simplifications even against overwhelming evidence. Hello Westboro. Hello feeding children Pop Tarts for breakfast. Similarly we see the over-influence from authority that was shown in the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. If wondering how genocide is possible, look no further.
Deprival Super-Reaction Bias: Studies suggest that losses are twice as psychologically powerful as gains. We will go to great lengths in order to mitigate small losses while not lifting a finger when modest effort would yield tremendous gains.
Reciprocation Tendency: The Marketing professor, Dr. Robert Cialdini went around campus asking people to take young children to the zoo. One in six said yes. Then he went around asking different people if they would devote two afternoons a week to watching young children. 100% said no, but he followed that question up by saying, well would you at least take them to the zoo once. By starting with the big ask, he tripled the frequency of people agreeing to take children to the zoo.
Contrast-Caused Distortion: Similarly, we are easily fooled by contrast. Put a hand in hot water and a hand in cold water, then plunge them both into room temperature water. One hand perceives that water as cold and the other hot, yet it’s the same water. This has tangible effects in sales. That mediocre home seems like a dream after the real-estate agent shows you a few over-priced dumps.
It is with flawed senses, heavily driven by bias and a very narrow set of experiences, that we humans try to make sense of the world and make decisions about the best ways to conduct our lives.
Right and Wrong
“…when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” –Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong
As the reprehensible actions of the Westboro Baptist Church display, there is a better and a worse way to behave. There is a righter and a wronger we should be striving towards and often, it won’t be so obvious. Truth is the bullseye and while we may never be dead on, we must always be striving to approach it.
The inability to find certainty does not excuse the radical subjectivism and moral relativity so commonly adopted as a means to deal with the discomfort inherent in confronting ignorance.
In fact, as we see from the Social Justice Warrior’s desire for absolute cultural tolerance, these are dogmas as non-sensical as any you’ll encounter across the world of fundamentalism. You simply cannot be a feminist while being an apologist for Islam whenever traditions like arranged marriage, restricted female rights, and female genital mutilation come to the surface. The tolerance paradox is that absolute tolerance tolerates the extremes of intolerance. Refusing to look at these uncomfortable realities only ensures they continue to plague millions.
Modern society is obsessed with honoring feelings and insulating ourselves from reality. Consequently, communities fracture and individual neuroses flourish. We suffer from a disturbing proliferation of bullshit and a lack of the tools to effectively identify and deconstruct said bullshit. Schools continue to teach outcomes and answers without the far more important ways to interpret and determine our own answers. An ability to retain information means nothing unless we can filter that information through an effective truth mechanism and understand the inherent flaws in our own perception. We can’t approach truth until we confront cognitive bias and logic.
Learning is the process of improving our capacity to interpret the world so that we are in a better position to appropriately respond and live more fully. If anyone is going to be right more often, it will be because they confronted their own ignorance more often. They didn’t read one book—they read many, some of which of conflicted and caused them to constantly revise past understandings. They didn’t just read, but they took that knowledge and reflected on how it impacted their life. This pursuit of truth is also called growth and it is the foundation of fulfilled living.
Despite having access to more opinions than ever, we are more fueled by confirmation bias than at any time in history. Now more than ever we should seek out unique opinions and perspectives. New jobs, joining new groups, moving towns, and travel are ways of forcing us to question our own socially conditioned concept of normal. Yet, as valuable as these experiences are, with this added context we will be exposed to more opinions and worldviews all full of their own flaws. We have to cultivate the skill of deconstructing beliefs to pull what has merit and to be unmoved by what doesn’t.
The Lost Tools of Learning
“How can juvenile people be expected to self-govern or to navigate an advertising-saturated market economy full of propaganda and untruths? How can they determine fact from opinion or what’s been proven from what might be possible?”–Ben Sasse
The most relevant critique of modern education and curriculums came in 1948 from Dorothy Sayers. In her Essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, she lamented the removal of Logic and reasoning skills for siphoned off, overly-categorized checklist learning. Society traded depth for breadth and somehow reconceived the point of learning as following directions and attempting to be more like Wikipedia. As Sayers explains,
“We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or ‘looks to the end of the work.”
Now more than ever the skills of rote memorization are insufficient. We have no idea what careers will look like in twenty-years and what challenges our people will need to be capable of adapting for. Lets not pretend teachers or google have all the answers and can distill all the wisdom needed for a lifetime. In a world of manipulation and message overload, the only people who stand a chance are those who have a means of distilling truth from untruth.
We need to understand the basic logical fallacies constantly utilized to distract from reality and substantiate oversimplified absurdities. A brief introduction:
The Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy: The position that you can assume X is true because there is no evidence proving it isn’t true. Enter anything. You contend that ghosts exist because you can’t prove they don’t. A girlfriend assumes you flirt with women at work, because she can’t prove you don’t. Any belief or accusation can be justified by this fallacy. This is why the burden of proof rests on anyone bringing charges. Accusations are empty. This fallacy is also used to discredit credible theories with overwhelming evidence based on feelings. For example, people will choose not to believe in carbon dating or that the earth could have existed over 10,000 years ago.
The False Equivalence Fallacy: This is when you claim that two things are the same, X is the same as Y, typically as a means of dramatizing a problem or discrediting a theory. Any shared trait is manipulated to mean equivalence. For example, in the movie A Few Good Men, two marines follow an order to give a struggling peer corporal punishment and one lawyer compares them to the Nazis at Nuremburg. In this vein, spanking is magnified to child abuse and Al Franken’s inappropriate attempts at humor have somehow put him in a category with Harvey Weinstein. Be on the lookout for this one anytime someone tells you two things are the same.
This fallacy is, also, especially common with scientific evidence. For example, vaccines save millions, evolution has virtual consensus, 97+% of climate scientists agree with the tenets of human influenced climate change, and there is very little doubt that the earth is over 4 billion years old. Yet, the modicum of uncertainty inherent to all scientific findings leaves all of these “theories” open to arguments that try to appear as equally logical conclusions. They are not.
The Appeal to Consequences Fallacy: An argument for how true or false X is based on how much someone likes the consequences if X ends up being true. Often this presents in people concluding a belief or reality is true because they want it to be. The most common is probably the daily conjecture that any positive development is proof that everything happens for a reason. Of course this line of reasoning is never applied to starvation in third-world countries, or babies born with AIDS.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it literally justifies any argument based on a person’s wishes. If a person wants to believe they are uniquely victimized so they can wear that badge of honor so desirable in the modern world, then they need only think it. If a person wants to believe that there are no environmental costs to human behavior, then boom it is true because they like the narrative better.
Affirming the Consequent: If I didn’t go to work one morning, I’d likely not check my work email. I am after all, one of those peculiar beings who only does work email at work. However, my not responding to an email inquiry by noon, does not necessarily prove I am not at work. In fact, I frequently won’t check my email until the afternoon. When you affirm the consequent you assume Y to be true, just because if X were the case, Y would be the outcome. This one can be used to justify any position we currently lean towards from politics, to sports, to I know you’re cheating on me because. An example: If someone were a racist or a sexist they’d probably hire that white guy over that black lady. The white guy got hired, but we can’t conclude the hiring committee was racist and sexist.
The Strawman Fallacy: When you are winning an argument, someone will often repeat back your argument in far weaker, overly-simplified terms. This is rampant in a world engineered for outrage and not trained for nuance. The most overwhelming example I’ve seen is in Cathy Newman’s interview with Jordan Peterson. Here is a segment where they discuss the wage gap:
Newman: … that 9 percent pay gap, that’s a gap between median hourly earnings between men and women. That exists.
Peterson: Yes. But there’s multiple reasons for that. One of them is gender, but that’s not the only reason. If you’re a social scientist worth your salt, you never do a univariate analysis. You say women in aggregate are paid less than men. Okay. Well then we break its down by age; we break it down by occupation; we break it down by interest; we break it down by personality.
Newman: But you’re saying, basically, it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top, because that’s what is skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying that’s just a fact of life, women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.
Peterson: No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it.
Newman: Yeah, but why should women put up with those reasons?
Peterson: I’m not saying that they should put up with it! I’m saying that the claim that the wage gap between men and women is only due to sex is wrong. And it is wrong. There’s no doubt about that. The multivariate analysis have been done. So let me give you an example––
The entire discussion follows in this mind-numbing and duplicitous pattern.
The Ad Hominem Fallacy: Attacking the person and not the issue. For example, “Oh you think I shouldn’t be smoking, Dad. You are one to talk. You and mom drink every weekend.” That example actually combined ad hominem and false equivalence. This has to be the most common tactic in any argument because it is far easier to break people down then their positions. Jordan Peterson, again offers a great example. In his debate on political correctness, Michael Dyson repeatedly distracted from Peterson’s points by concluding he was, “Just a mean mad white man.”
It is important to remember, still, that there are times that a person’s character is relevant, particularly if they are in a role where they will have to enforce moral standards.
The Slippery Slope Fallacy: This fallacy distracts from the argument at hand by concluding that if something happens it will set off a terrible sequence of events. The argument against legalizing marijuana is often based on a fear for what other drugs are going to become legal next.
Of course, like ad hominem, slippery slope thinking can have some merit. There is a need to be wary of the unintended consequences we’ve often seen accompanying increased government intervention. For example, in colonial India, the British government wanted to reduce the number of deadly cobras around the country so they enacted a policy where the government paid people for dead cobras. Seeing a financial opportunity, the native Indians began breeding more cobras and the cobra population quickly tripled.
Argument Ad Populum: This is claiming something must be the case, because most people believe it or operate based on its premise. For your own sake, run very far from this fallacy! Life is too short to be normal. Most kids eat dessert for breakfast. Most people have more debt than savings. Every single NBA player shoots free-throws underhand despite substantial evidence that underhand shots are highly advantageous. And this brings us back to Westboro.
“The truth will set you free, but first it’s going to piss you off?” –Unknown
Interpreting the world and making judgments is essential to individual and collective success. Individually an unwillingness to confront reality is a breeding ground for neuroses. Collectively, we see cognitive bias and an inability to detect nuance at the root of every destructive movement from McCarthyism, to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to the modern Social Justice Warrior.
How can we strive for truth if we are only governed by feelings? This is why truth must be foundational in any society or relationship. It is a prerequisite to growth. I love my wife for so many reasons, but most of all because she calls me on my shit. Sometimes I get my feelings hurt and sometimes I continue to disagree even after those hurt feelings pass. Regardless, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
As uncomfortable as it may be, we are all wrong. Constantly. Yet, we must act and be active players in our lives. It is essential to not only accept our own fallibility so we can learn from failure, but to strive towards improving our capacity to see truth. Even though our lens will always be skewed, we can consistently pull away weeds to experience a far more accurate, empowered reality.
Question of Week
Where are your assumptions impeding your growth? How are you full of shit, right now? Don’t worry. You’re in good company.