Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Intelligent Individuals Aquire Irrational Beliefs

Our society has taken a dangerous turn, an anti-science one. Information bombards us daily through various forms of media, such as television, internet websites, and through our daily conversations. Differentiating the useful information from the bad is a skill that is often neglected. By bringing attention to these types of logically fallacious pitfalls that misinterpret misinformation as truth, we can more effectively and efficiently encounter and address them.

The very concept of vaccines causing autism was initially a reasonable one from a parents’ standpoint. At one moment your child is healthy and fine, they get a vaccine and they become sick and unwell, leading to a rational inquiry into the vaccination. So, some may find themselves asking if the cause could be attributed to the vaccine. This line of reasoning may seem rational to some, but to the trained eye, it is an illogical or irrational argument that makes claims some un-scientific claims.

Autism is diagnosed between one and two years of age, around the same time most children are getting their MMR vaccine. The brain might be making the sequential connection between displaying symptoms of autism following the vaccination, but it is only a temporal association. This is an example of how the brain can confuse corrolation with causation. Also, known as the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because one set of events correlates with another, is not sufficient evidence to rule out all other possibilities.

Scientists use specific population studies that are designed to examine associations between personal characteristics and environmental exposures that increase the risk of disease. Epidemiology is a field which not only studies diseases in the populations of humans, but also determines when and where they occur. Through the aid of epidemiological studies, scientists can provide answers to questions like, “Can the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine cause autism?”, by using a variety of these studies all looking for correlations between sets of variables, we can use the statistical probabilities to rule out specific causes and assume causation where it is the most probable. That is what leads to further inquiry into a claim and experimental research is done. But, the greater the claim, the more sufficient amounts of evidence are required to be considered as "causal".

Relating this type of information or data to a parent who has a child with autism can be quite difficult. Quite often, logic and reason have to compete with the heavy emotional influence of seeing the effects of nature. Parents normally become psychologically vulnerable and more inclined to believe information that appeals to those kinds of emotions. This is why anti-vaccination groups purposely target those emotionally defenseless parents because they are more susceptible to being manipulated into fearing things like all vaccinations, doctors, or even the entire health care system.

The notions of vaccinations causing illnesses, such as autism, have been around for years. However, autism itself has a long unique history of causal beliefs that have changed over time. In the past, it was the parents of autistic children who suffered most of the blame from psychologists. Often facing accusations of denying emotional responses during critical points in the baby’s development, fathers were blamed for being absent, and mothers were even implicated as being “cold”. So, there are not only psychological factors associated with each of these distinctive narratives, but there is also a history of guilt that influences many parents. Simply having something to blame suddenly becomes emotionally appealing for autism parents because it can provide a way for them to alleviate feelings of helplessness and any misplaced guilt that is often associated with this type of illness. These types of cultural stigmas that exist in our country can influence many parents into some potentially dangerous beliefs that are nothing more than attempts to help them explain or rationalize why their child appears to have been singled out by nature.

Core belief systems are inherent through the societies that people live in and can be very influential as well. Tradition and culture get passed down to new generations from the community organizations like churches or spiritual gatherings and parents teach their children what was taught to them by the predominant figures of their pastime. The world is full of ethnically diverse and culturally rich societies that posses equally unique traditions of spiritual or religious practices that attempt to explain reality. Many groups of people use a specific cultural belief system as a means to connect with people in the community or simply with nature.

These experiences of "connection" that people feel are real. We all have brains that incorporate these core personal beliefs into our thought systems. But, if those beliefs go unchecked and without any challenge from honest inquiry into the actual causes behind them, they can lead us astray and into dangerous extremes of reasoning. That being said, we can also say that we are all susceptible to the same logical pitfalls of thinking as well, such as selective thinking or confirmation bias.

The act of self-deception through confirmation bias can keep people from changing their minds, even in the face of solid contradicting evidence. Often the information provided is not accepted because the results are cognitively dissonant with one’s self-image. Or, it is psychologically difficult for people to change their stance on an issue that goes against their specific set of core, personal beliefs. Surprisingly, there is evidence that shows in most cases, engaging in people's core beliefs only reinforces them. While any evidence confirming the prior notion is accepted, any evidence that is contrary to the belief is not accepted, no matter how valid the data. To a critical thinker this might not seem rational or logical, but much like any other aspect of science, as our body of information grows on a subject, so does our understanding of it.

Our brains are pattern seeking machines that are predetermined to seek recognizable systems, even in the places that don't appear to have them. Magicians exploit this part of our thought process by having the audience assume the outcome, only to reveal an unexpected and seemingly inexplicable end result. Slight-of-hand and misdirection are a couple more examples of how the brain can be "tricked" into assuming an outcome, but some of these brain assumptions come from an even more subtle subconscience level. This is why optical illusions can still manage to work even after knowing how the trick is done. The brain's thought process can become biased due to the influence of an out of control, unchecked, unchallenged, convoluted core belief system.

Only believing in what you can see is is just as irrational as only believing in things you can't. But, even bad logic is still logic. For example, a great deal of homeopathy practitioners and naturopathy proponents claims that they prefer a more natural method of protecting their children from illness and disease. The notion is that the chemicals in the vaccine are not "natural", therefore they are deemed as toxins which are dangerous because they are unnatural to the body. This is either a good example of a complete absence of scientific knowledge or an obvious perversion of science that can potentially endanger an entire community.

Unscientific, illogical, and irrational thinking can lead to some dangerous conclusions. But, the emphasis should not be focused on the conclusions as much as the methods to get there. After all, "how do we really know what we know?" We can't just take the word of every quack making claims, and we can't always research every unfamiliar subject that comes across our path. But, ultimately, how do we know the beliefs that we establish meet the standards of qualifying as being "valid"? In a world full of bad information in the media, on the Internet, and all of the misleading views of science can make it difficult to discern what is credible information, even for veteran skeptics. So, this is where it becomes evident that the importance of being able to think analytically serves as protection from believing something that is simply not true. If we build a strong understanding of the various ways that our minds actually work, we can become more aware of fallacious thinking when encountered by false claims.

As skeptics, we realize and acknowledge the need to address the most fundamental beliefs of people to make sense of how they perceive reality to be. Alluding to the concepts that illustrate all the various ways that our brains play tricks on us can often lead to the misconception that someone is telling you that your experience is, "all in your head". When in actuality, there is a deeper understanding which people frequently ignore, misunderstand, or in extreme cases, outright deny exist. But the world is just as full of wonder and discovery as it was when we were kids. The infinitely huge void of things that we just don't understand, is as abundant as the universe is in size. The more deeply you understand things, the closer you get to objectively viewing reality. So, understanding how our brain works not only allows us to better understand the beliefs we have, but even the one's we don't.

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