Journal: Does it quack?

There are few terms I use interchangeably as often as common sense, reason, logic and rationality. Regardless of which field of study you prefer, all roads lead back to cognitive dissonance and fallacy. Using colloquialism/ slang, these have to do with the “mental gymnastics” one must perform in order to talk themselves out of accepting anything that already easily passes the duck test, a form of abductive reasoning. If something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s logical to infer that it probably is a duck. Simple, right?

Cognitive dissonance is considering two contradictory beliefs as compatible/ able to coexist– hence the mental gymnastics. Have you ever seen a contortionist, such a circus performer? The logic required to hold two opposing viewpoints as equally valid is not unlike twisting oneself in a knot. “But perhaps if… I suppose it technically could be possible given… There must be some instance in which it could happen…” This type of thinking allows ambulance drivers to smoke, psychologists to have dysfunctional personal relationships and politicians to accept donations from patrons opposed to the causes that originally motivated their campaign in the hopes that the money will serve the greater purpose of getting them elected when they’ll suddenly ignore the powerful influences with which they’ve surrounded themselves. Women run back into the arms of men who beat them and human trafficking victims are sold to people with children of their own, who they ferociously protect. I heard about a recurring drug addict, who fretted about some berries offered to him– he was willing to pump his body full of poisonous substances, yet concerned about the cleanliness of his food.

Fallacy can take many forms but the underlying problem is being mistaken about either the origin of a proposed theory, which affects the outcome of any testing done to evaluate it, or conclusions drawn from facts, which veered off track somewhere along the way as generically related details are held directly responsible for an outcome. Most notably, debaters/ theorists get called out for using fallacies by using other forms of fallacies. To reuse an example I used in my previous post about vaccines, it’s illogical to assume it rains because I carry an umbrella; it’s equally illogical to believe my carrying an umbrella has nothing to do with rain. Starting from either theory will result in faulty results from any investigation– it’s best to first ask me about it then observe both the weather and my behavior, keeping my explanation in the back of your mind. Researching with the intention of proving an assumption means you could be going on a wild goose chase because you’re starting from a false premise.

The Scientific Method was originally developed to test a theory while allowing for the possibility that it could be wrong; not devising a fail-proof method to generate desired results. Certainly not the deliberate spinning of data to support a preformed agenda! Lately, “conspiracy theory” has become the ultimate derogatory label. And yet, conspiracies exist. Was the assassination of Julius Caesar a myth? Was the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ a hoax? Furthermore, everything we now accept as fact was, at one time, a theory. After all, someone had to be the first to eat a mango, just as someone had to be the first to try hemlock. Likewise, Humankind once thought the molecule was the smallest particle in the universe but now we know better.

At some point we need to return to the old adage distilled into an acronym: K.I.S.S. from “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Excessive wordiness can be used to confuse, overwhelm and ultimately divert attention from a point that should be made. Thus, anyone who criticizes, mocks, or redirects/ distracts/ deflects away from obvious facts is manipulating you for some reason. Recall from my previous summary of Humanism (from 19th century Germans’ “humanisums” and Italy’s Cicero’s “humanitas”) that poetic eloquence in rhetoric is revered as equivalent to reasonable logic. It’s been proven dangerous by the likes of Adolph Hitler and Charles Manson. 

As Geometry teaches, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” The Euler-Lagrance Differential Equation (a fundamental of the calculus of variations) demonstrates this phenomenon. And at this point someone will say, “But what about…” and embark upon a grand expedition down endless rabbit trails that miss the salient point entirely. Yes, there are mountains, rivers, canyons, etc. What of it? There’s a reason GPS devices/ apps are notorious for sending drivers through sketchy neighborhoods and along back alleys simply because the route looks more efficient on a map.

Likewise, if you require the quickest route possible– say you’re being chased by a legitimate threat to your life– will you sit around pondering infinite hypothetical variables? Of course not. You’ll either take off sprinting, jumping over fences and hedges, or hit the accelerator, busting through gates and driving over debris. Even when safety isn’t an immediate concern, there’s no reason to wander every aisle of a store unless you’re killing time and have extra money to burn. The most efficient route is straight down one of the main paths through the store to the department that has what you need, rather than passing between rows upon rows of shelves, zigzagging between multiple sections. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense.

This brings us to Occam’s razor, (a principle attributed to the 14th century logician, William of Ockham in Surrey, England), which states: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Subsequent scientists have revised it, such as Isaac Newton, who stated, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” To put it more succinctly, “when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is better.” As it was explained to me: a bank was just robbed. So far, the only evidence is a man with a big bag of money and a set of footprints leading from the bank to an apartment complex, around which are multiple sets of overlapping prints in front of all the doors. Is it possible the culprit is someone you didn’t expect? Sure. But which is the most efficient line of inquiry? Obviously, start by questioning the man holding all the cash.

It reminds me of the advice given to medical school students: “Don’t chase zebras.” Do zebras exist? Absolutely. Are they common to highly populated, developed regions? Nope. It’s prudent to rule out smaller possibilities before jumping to larger conclusions. Are there ever medical anomalies and scientific rarities? Of course. Should they automatically be a preliminary diagnosis? Never! Certainly, there are people, who leap to outrageous conclusions about dramatic phenomena that’s hard to ignore. But just as many take the most convoluted route possible in order to explain them away rather than acknowledging what’s plain as the nose on their face.

Despite so many warnings against it, fallacy and cognitive dissonance are rampant. Even Jesus Christ addressed it. The Bible’s Matthew 18 says, “…calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…” According to Matthew 19:13-15, “Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'”

Kids are curious; they naturally want to learn about the world around them. They trust those with more life experience, believe what they’re taught and ask questions when they don’t know. “Why?” Best of all, they don’t overthink. “Uncle Henry is bald.” “Aunt Mable is fat.” “Burnt toast tastes yucky.” “This cheese tastes yummy.” “That man is creepy.” To this point, countless songs lyrics, movies scripts and jokes contain variations on the same theme, “Who are you going to believe– me or your own eyes?” A concept best illustrated by one of my favorite childhood stories, The Emperor’s New Clothes. I just love how it took a child to point out to everyone, “…But he’s naked!” 

How many more ways can I say it? Beware of any irrational acceptance of a lie and illogically rationalizing and justifying a nonsensical idea. Someone can’t be a recurring liar AND be worthy of a fourth, fifth or sixth chance. A stakeholder can’t be both completely loyal AND totally unbiased. Someone can’t be a proponent of population control AND have your best interests at heart. A substance cannot be both dangerous AND beneficial to your health. You can’t collectively dismiss celebrities as idiots then follow the advice of a public figure, who doesn’t even have a current, valid medical license. Don’t claim to hate fear-mongering then look to mainstream media for information; it’s called “programming” for a reason! If a source has rarely been right, why continue to believe it? If a source has rarely been wrong, why continue to doubt it?

Do whatever it takes to avoid getting sucked in by slick deceptive marketing. Isn’t that how we got into this mess in the first place? A serpent twisted God’s words and convinced Adam and Eve the instincts with which they were created couldn’t be trusted. It’s time to learn from our mistake and stop falling for it again and again. If something smells fishy, give yourself a little bit of credit; when in doubt, use logic: how many coincidences are mathematically possible? Forgo the mental contortion; if it passes the duck test, choose the shortest path between your question and its answer. Then accept the realization, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. The world will begin to make a lot more sense!

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