Thursday, August 7, 2008

Human folly is so very entertaining

After many years as a teacher of “critical thinking” (I hate that phrase, but what are you gonna do?), if one thing is clear to me, it is that it’s easy to make mistakes when judging about causation, i.e., X causing Y.

Most people grossly underestimate these difficulties.

Not long ago, I spoke with a highly intelligent colleague (known for being sharp) who explained to me that he takes his horses to a chiropractor. I gave him a look. He said, “No, really. I’ve taken horses to this guy and the adjustments really work.”

If there were a course called “Causation 101,” among its targets would be the old “it works for me” (or “it works for Trigger”) rationale. No doubt it would be discussed along with the famous “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (after this, thus because of this) fallacy.

Just because A happens (Trigger gets tweaked), then B happens (Trigger eats more hay), doesn’t mean that A caused B. Right?

Yeah, but there’s a pattern. A then B, A then B. What about that!

I won’t launch into the whole lecture. I just want to make the point that, unless you study the fallacies concerning causation carefully, you’re very liable to commit them.

The truth is that the history of humanity is a history of people coming to believe things—ideas about causation included—on poor or nonexistent grounds. Example: two hundred years ago, doctors purged and bled patients. In fact, they were killing them. But this didn’t lead to much skepticism about purging and bleeding.

History (including the present) is littered with examples of poor causal thinking and unfortunate and erroneous causal believing.

But here’s the kicker. It’s not as though someone has gone through society with some kind of anti-virus program, spotting and fixing all the causal goof-ups. We are tempted, I think, to view society as a place in which, more or less, reason rules, and glaring folly has largely been identified and discarded. But nothing could be further from the truth. I often tell my students, “Go anywhere and point in any direction. It would be amazing if you were not to find yourself pointing at some instance of routine foolishness.”

In a way, journalism amazes me by how bland it usually is. It seems to me that one need only enter some random building and one will find something absurd or alarming.

Imagine that we point at the world of sports and athleticism. There, one hears endlessly about the importance of “stretching.” We listen to this and think, “Guess so. They’re the experts.”

But if people can find a way to puke and bleed themselves to death while supposing they’re on the road to health, then they sure as hell are capable of believing just about anything about stretching. I mean, it’s not as though anybody’s really studied the matter.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Filip Kwiatkowski asks Is Stretching All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Kwiatkowski first notes that trainers (et al.) are very passionate about the issue of stretching. That is, they are very sure that stretching is important—something you'd better get right.

But, in fact, advice about stretching is remarkably different around the world: “In Norway, people stretched after they exercised; in Australia, they stretched before exercise.” Further, the nature and purpose of stretching differs. In some parts of the world, athletes stretch to prevent soreness, but that’s not why people stretch in this country.

But it sure is important.

Something doesn’t add up here. If stretching is so all-fired important, how come people don’t agree on when to stretch and how to stretch and why to stretch? Tell me that!

Well, two large studies have been launched to try to get to the bottom of this. You can read about them in the Times.

I have my doubts about these studies. I don’t think this “stretching” business will get cleared up right away—not based only on two studies, even if they are large (they are). One hopes that further studies will be done and results compared. In time, the truth will emerge.

In the meantime, think of all the fallacies that will be committed, all the conclusions jumped to, all the misconceptions and passions generated.

Humanity is so very entertaining.

Gotta go. I need to take a quick walk. It's good for the digestion. Everybody knows that.


J said...

I hope you stretched before your walk.
-Student T/TH 9.30

Anonymous said...

Why does the term, "critical thinking" bother you? Just curious.