11 October 2015

Learn This, and Become Immune from Cults and Conspiracy Theories

Posted by Dan Satterfield

So, in just one (two-part) blog post, I propose to keep you from falling into a crazy cult, or posting one of those crazy videos on YouTube about chemtrails, or the Moon landing hoax. Beware though, if you think what I’m saying is silly, then you’re at high risk already. 

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 3.26.33 AMIt’s more than just the politicians in Alaska, who tell people with a straight face, that climate change is a hoax, and it’s more than the fact that a majority of voters that believe them. How can these people not see how absurd they look?  There are dozens more, and they’ve become so numerous that we have names for these folks now, birthers, truthers, etc. My own amazement at this trend has led me to some answers that I believe have definitely improved my critical thinking skills, and I want to share them.

Critical Thinking Skills Are The Key to Immunity

It’s all about critical thinking skills, and understanding some things about how we humans think, Most highly educated people know these concepts,but most do not. This is not about book knowledge though, and just because you understand organic chemistry, or quantum electrodynamics, is not enough, although there is strong evidence that the higher your education level, the more immune you are from crazy land. You likely will have heard of some of these, but do not dismiss them and spend some time to understand these concepts very clearly.

Let’s Get Started

There are four concepts that will do amazing things to your thought processes. The easiest first, and by chance, the Washington Post just published a story about it, as I was planning this post. So read and understand the 


If you hang around with folks who have similar education, ethnic history, etc. you may get the idea that most people think as you do. You’d be most likely wrong. This error often leads to politicians, and other government officials (including police) posting things on social media that get them in big trouble. Beware the majority illusion, because it will mess with your critical thinking abilities, and keep you from seeing other people’s perspective.

2. Confirmation Bias 

Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, filters information based on their own political and social world view. This is why scientific method is so valuable, because it attempts to lessen this. Dr. Richard Feynman said it best when he warned young science students The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” When you read or hear something, actively try to defeat your own bias. Read the opposite opinions, look at the data, and ask yourself if your belief is supported by experiment/facts. If almost everyone disagrees with you, it is almost certain you are missing something important. A good summary is available from You are Not So Smart here

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 3.37.14 AMConfirmation bias is how the Farmers Almanac sells millions of copies of its 6 month weather forecast every fall, and why people cut their grass on a certain day believing they will get less weeds. It is pervasive in modern society, and just knowing about how it can trip you up is a powerful defense against its subtle, but deadly charms. I do mean deadly, because thousands have died after not getting vaccinations due to autism scares, etc. that have no foundation in fact. Understand it, and you will never read another horoscope.

3. Dunning Kruger Effect

Good graphical example of D-K from Lindberg Consulting.

Good graphical example of D-K from Lindberg Consulting.

The people who never passed high school physics that tell climate scientists that they are all wrong about greenhouse gases warming the planet, are suffering from Dunning Kruger. A harsh definition of it is “being too stupid, to know how stupid you are!” This is where I get to put my own quote on the same page as the great Feynman- The number one thing an education teaches you, is how much you DO NOT know.

Dunning-Kruger drives MD’s crazy these days. Everyday, someone shows up in their office, after self diagnosing themselves online, and many are reluctant to believe they just have a cold. My fellow meteorologists (including me) get emails from viewers (after seeing weather  model snapshots posted online) who think we’re wrong on the snow forecast. We know the errors the models make, but there is rarely time enough to explain that to viewers, and I’m sure attorneys can also tell some good stories of Dunning-Kruger in action.

4. Authoritarianism

This one takes the most time to understand, and is in part two (coming in around 24 hours).