There is Something Wrong with Your Brain…

We’ve all heard the phrase “it is what sets us apart from the animals” applied in various contexts. Some sociologists say language sets us apart, but we now know many species effectively communicate through their own versions of what could reasonably be called language. The ability to feel emotions beyond fear and aggression is another possible differentiator, although any dog or cat owner would disagree. What about having sex for purposes other than procreation? Well, it is pretty thoroughly proven pigs do that, and, I have to believe, dolphins as well. It’s just something about their eyes. I propose that, from a strictly biological position, it is the ability to use outside information to make informed choices that truly sets us apart. It is the ability to participate in rational thought. If this is true, one of our greatest responsibilities as humans is to become as skilled a thinker as we can be. To do that, and to do it well, we need to learn a few things first.
A good place to start is to explain what I mean by using “outside information.” I mean that we have the ability to learn from experiences other than our own, use this to form opinions, and then make choices. We can hear a story from a friend about their experience with a movie, a food, a health product, a car, a job, incorporate that into what we have already learned and experienced, and make decisions utilizing this information. We can read scientific reports on whatever the given issue it. Sure, some animals can associate action and reaction, but they are not capable of this type of abstract thought. The problem for humans is, by nature, we really suck at this. Let me explain.
As humans, we are inextricably bound to our feelings. We tend to believe things that “feel” right. We often operate from a place of confirmation bias. This means that we have a particular world view. We accept ideas that fit with this view and dismiss things that don’t without taking into account the quality of the new data we have been presented. We are also not very good at knowing what really counts as data. “My friend says he started taking X vitamin supplement and feels great. He is really into the healthy lifestyle so it must be true.” This is one of a million examples of treating biased reports as though they were verified fact. The thing is, these tendencies are innate. They are have been part of humanity for a long time. There was a time when you might have heard a bush shake, then a saber-toothed tiger jumped out and ate your cavemate’s face off. From then on, every time you heard the wind rustle some leaves, you grabbed your trusty stone spear and got ready for a little feline fight club. Fortunately, most of us don’t live in an environment like that anymore. We have time to analyze a situation and make choices based on testable, repeatable facts. Unfortunately, we often do not do that. The saber-toothed tiger has been replaced by words like “chemicals” and “radiation” and “big pharma” and “big oil.” As soon as we hear them, we either tuck tail and run or head to Facebook with our spears freshly sharpened.
The first question a reasonable person would ask is why does this matter? Does it hurt anyone if I believe vitamin C has a direct influence on my immune system? Is it really important whether I understand the environmental impact of locally produced groceries versus mass-produced ones? The short answer is yes, it abso-freaking-lutely does. It matters because the way each individual arrives at conclusions determines the way they exert their small influence on the world. For example, if your world view categorizes all GMOs (genetically modified organisms) as bad, then you might go out of your way to avoid these products. You might even support special interest groups that seek to pass laws against GMO research and production. You may be right or you may be wrong, but there are consequences to these beliefs. GMOs account for a huge amount of the crops grown in third world countries. When our choices potentially effect the availability of food for the poorest of the poor, we need to be very certain about the way we arrived at our conclusions.
So now that a fair amount of you already clicked on to the next article, let me talk to the two or three of us that are left. I have simple question for you. Would you rather make most of your choices based on established facts, or on your feels? Okay, that’s a trick question. Of course you want to make choices based on emotion. Hell, so do I. But, do you want to get better and more deliberate at making choices based on facts? If your answer is yes, then welcome! Welcome to the beginning of knowledge that will alienate you from friends and turn you into that social hand grenade you always knew you could be.
Over the course of this series of articles, we are going to focus on learning to not let our personal ideologies have too great of an effect on the way we assess individual situations. To do that, we need to start with the monster hiding in the closet, ready to reduce our positions to the intellectual equivalent of a 4chan thread. This monster, the number one killer of rational thought and informed decisions is call the logical fallacy *insert theme from JAWS*. Basically, these are ways of thinking about or processing information that are not likely to produce correct answers. There are lots of these, and most of them are in Latin, but fret not. If this guy can understand it, I promise you can too. We are also going to look at some various manifestations of these fallacies in the real world.
In an effort to stimulate your mental appetite, let’s give you a taste of one of the most common logical fallacies around. It is called the ad hominem fallacy. This is short for the Latin phrase argumentum ad hominem, translated “to the person” or “to the man.” This type of argument focuses on the person making the claim, rather than the claim itself. While I know I am stepping into the deep waters of anon hate with this topic, I can’t think of a better modern example than anthropogenic climate change. This means the part of climate change that is the result of human actions. Think about any anti-change arguments you have heard. I will bet almost all of them have been attacks on people rather than the actual issue. “Al Gore flies around in a private jet, so he must be lying about climate change.” This may be a legitimate criticism of an individual, but it does not have a darn thing to do with whether or not we are effecting the climate. This argument highjacks the discussion and pulls it away from the actual topic at hand. It focuses on the more fluid and emotional thoughts one may have about an individual. Rather than bring us closer the facts, it leads us down a painfully monotone rabbit trail.
So what is the best way to combat this particular fallacy? Simply put, it is to politely direct the conversation back to the issue. How do you do that and still keep a few of your friends around? You’ll have to tune in to future episodes to find out.

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