“Fallacy is instantaneous but truth works at the speed of science”


Do you recognize the thumbnail at left of the Fukushima radiation plume spreading all over the Pacific? If that’s what you think the image is you definitely will want to read on. If you recognize the thumbnail as the NOAA tsunami wave height model published the day after the Tohoku earthquake — then I hope you find some useful resources here.

I wish I had written No, but in all seriousness…. But I’m very happy that Alistair Dove did write this essay on critical thinking.  This is one of those pieces that we are so happy to find and share! Alistair sees a cross section of flawed reasoning in the comments that appear on the group blog Deep Sea News. E.g.,

… examples of the sort of reasoning that we have seen in comments, emails and tweets about the above examples:

  • Starfish wasting disease. Starfish are melting. Radiation leaked into the ocean at Fukushima. Therefore Fukushima caused the starfish melting.
  • Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy. Hurricane Sandy happened. Then dolphins began dying on the Atlantic coast. Therefore Sandy caused the Atlantic dolphin UME.
  • The “great Pacific garbage patch”. There’s a giant patch of garbage out there. If we could just sort of scoop it up, that would be good. Someone should invent something to do that.
  • The Long Island Sound lobster fishery. “They” sprayed insecticides in the tri-state area to control mosquito populations. Around the same time, lobsters died. Therefore insecticide spraying killed lobsters.

I see the “Backfire Effect” every day: 

A related problem is that in the time between when people first propose a fallacious cause, and when the true cause is revealed through reason and research, the fallacious one can become ingrained like an Alabama tick.  Once people get an idea in their head, even if it’s wrong, getting them to let go of it can be bloody hard.  Indeed, there’s a term for this; it’s called “the Backfire Effect”: when confronting someone with data contrary to their position in an argument, counter-intuitively results in their digging their heels in even more.  In this phenomenon, the media has to accept a sizable chunk of responsibility because, as the lobster example shows, the deadline-driven world of media agencies is more aligned with the rapid pace of the logical fallacy than with the slow and deliberate pace of scientific research.

Alastair closes with a checklist that we should share where it may do some good:

…so it can’t hurt for all of us to think consciously about our thinking, me included. To that end, I offer the following, non-comprehensive list of things to consider before you hit “Reply” on that cleverly crafted response. If you have additional suggestions I invite you to add them in the comments.

  • Am I seeing a pattern that could just be a statistical rarity, and leaping to a conclusion?
  • Am I connecting two events causally, because they occurred close together in space or time?
  • Am I inferring a cause in the absence of evidence for any other explanation?
  • Am I thinking inductively “It must have been such and such…”
  • Am I framing the issue as a false dichotomy (debating only two possible causes, when there may be many others). In other words, am I framing the issue as an argument with two sides, rather than a lively discussion about complex issues?
  • Am I attacking my “opponent” and/or his/her credentials, rather than his/her argument?
  • Am I arguing something simply because other/many people believe it to be true?
  • Am I ignoring data because I don’t want to lose face by conceding that I may be wrong?
  • Am I cherry picking data that support my position (a cognitive bias)

So, I hope that’s enough to motivate you to read Alastair’s No, but in all seriousness… You will be happy you gave it your attention and reflection.