Myths, facts and decision making: The human animal

The world is full of facts. People are facts. Therefore myths are facts. Sounds like a logical fallacy? Well, actually it isn’t. It’s just playing with semantics a little. What I mean to say here is that facts are what help us create a picture of reality. We talk about Homo sapiens as a species because we know individuals similar to us (or me) exist, and that we can group them together. So people are facts. It also seems almost inevitable that if there are people, there will be myths, gossip and so forth. There is always a limit to our perception of reality. However, our perception of reality -which can be mistaken at times- is in itself a component of reality. We need to understand that in order to understand ourselves. That is why studying myths belonging to a particular culture is an important exercise in trying to get an anthropological or sociological picture of that culture. The diversity of myths across cultures gives us an insight into the varying ways in which human societies evolved over time. Even in relatively modern, secular societies you have truckloads of urban legends that have little basis in reality. Religion, for example, is a collection of myths. A recent study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making studied how susceptible humans are to meaningless bafflegab. Do they judge it to be more profound? This is what the study found:

We gave people syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords and, across four studies, these statements were judged to be at least somewhat profound. This tendency was also evident when we presented participants with similar real-world examples of pseudo-profound bullshit.
For example, many test subjects judged statements like these to be profound:
Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.
Which has no real meaning. Rather which begs an explanation and is given none. That is what obscurantism is all about. This kind of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, of course, co – varied with other personality characteristics and indicators.
Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

The study is probably the first of its kind -in that it takes a position and calls a spade a spade- and hence probably needs to be refined (not in the linguistic sense), enlarged and replicated. But it does give us a qualitative indication of the general human tendency to believe and to propagate information (or misinformation). The paper has this to say in its conclusion:

Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before…. Bullshit is not only common; it is popular…

Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia…..bullshitting is something that we likely all engage in to some degree….. One benefit of gaining a better understanding of how we reject other’s bullshit is that it may teach us to be more cognizant of our own bullshit.
The text ends with a quip, quite uncharacteristic of scientific papers:
That people vary in their receptivity toward bullshit is perhaps less surprising than the fact that psychological scientists have heretofore neglected this issue. Accordingly, although this manuscript may not be truly profound, it is indeed meaningful.
It’s not entirely a matter of surprise that this has been found to be the case. A 2010 study found that people in general tended to uncritically believe any information about the brain and its working that the media sold them to be scientifically valid. The media, in other words, tends to shape public policy by selling people their own interpretations of scientific studies.
Some important details regarding the use of neuroimaging techniques like PET and fMRI are infrequently reported while speculative benefits associated with these techniques are frequently featured. Measures to proactively correct and enhance the accuracy of content are therefore desirable….neuro-realist and neuro-essentialist interpretations of neuroscience led us to consider how unbridled the optimism for neurotechnology could shape public expectations regarding the future evolution of psychiatry, as both a mind-based and a brain-based discipline.
So “science” reporting in much of the media tends to pamper the wishes and desires of the lay public.
….future discussions about the ethical and social implications of neuroscience should pay close attention to the evolution of media coverage. This is particularly relevant given the existence of debatable and uncorrected epistemological and ethical assumptions of neuroscience innovation disseminated in the media. At stake, ultimately, are also some common assumptions about the role of the media in liberal democracies and the role of the press in creating an informed public.
The media, in its drive to be more popular and entertaining to the masses, spreads oversimplified and overly optimistic interpretations of otherwise speculative scientific studies through catchy headlines and colourful, ambiguous visual stimuli. For example, a 2009 article in the UK Telegraph claimed that eating chocolate helped maths ability. For one thing, the article did not link the reader to its source. However, it did manage to give us an idea how the study was designed.

For the study 30 volunteers were asked to count backwards in groups of three from a random number between 800 and 999 generated by a computer.

The findings show that they could do the calculations more quickly and more accurately after they had been given the drink.

However, the same was not true when the group was asked to count backwards in groups of seven, which the researchers described as a more complex task, requiring a slightly different part of the brain.

The findings also show that the volunteers did not get as tired doing the calculations if they had been given the cocoa drink, despite being asked to do them over and over for an hour.

A study with “30 volunteers” is hardly a representative one. Also, the researchers were clearly biased in that they were looking for “improvements” in math ability. So they fell for the “correlation as causation” fallacy. The subsequent experiment, where the subjects were required to count in groups of seven, clearly failed, but there was an excuse ready for it, namely, a “different part of the brain”. Of what value is doing easy calculations more quickly? Anecdotally, I have come across illiterate people who were good with small and simple daily life calculations, but failed to use that ability for larger numbers. What if counting backwards is not a definitive indicator of mathematical ability at all?  It is more useful to talk about the ability to form abstract mathematical concepts than elementary arithmetic proficiency. The final “finding” actually contradicts the conclusions of a 2011 study:
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive stimulant with prevalent use across all age groups. It is a naturally occurring substance found in the coffee bean, tea leaf, the kola nut, cocoa bean….The neurophysiological health disadvantages of caffeine include anxiety and panic attacks and hallucinations brought about by above moderate doses of caffeine. In addition to this caffeine may impair learning and memory. However, most alarming is the similarity of caffeine to other drugs such as morphine, heroin, ethanol, and most importantly to cocaine. Caffeine shows the most similarity to cocaine and reinforces cocaine-seeking behavior after elimination of the drug. This finding strengthens the argument that the potential of caffeine dependence is high and awareness of this should be created.
This was basically an example of sloppy research and oversimplification. This link between caffeine and enhanced cognitive functioning was something that people would have wanted to read. People are being encouraged to believe what they want to believe. So the media is complicit in generating and spreading myths and legends of all kinds. It is, therefore, “safe” to assume that myths are, indeed, facts.
Here are a few myths coming from across cultures:
1. Cow urine has anti-cancer properties: Originating in India, and is consistent with the Hindu belief that the cow is divine. A paper in an Indian journal makes certain claims:
Cow urine has a unique place in Ayurveda and has been described in ‘Sushrita Samhita’ and ‘Ashtanga Sangraha’ to be the most effective substance/secretion of animal origin with innumerable therapeutic values. It has been recognized as water of life or “Amrita” (beverages of immotality), the nector of the God. In India, drinking of cow urine has been practiced for thousands of years. It is an important ingredient of panchgavya, a term used to describe five major substances (urine, milk, ghee, curd and dung), obtained from cow. All the five products possess medicinal properties, and are used singly or in combination with some other herbs against many diseases, even those not curable by allopathic treatments. This kind of alternative treatment, termed as ‘panchgavya therapy’ or ‘cowpathy’, has been reported to be beneficial even for dreaded diseases like cancer, AIDS and diabetes. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine from India routinely use cow urine as a remedy and the medicines made from it are used to cure several diseases. Improvements have been shown or reported with those suffering from flu, allergies, colds, rheumatoid arthritis, bacterial/viral infections, tuberculosis, chicken pox, hepatitis, leucorrhoea, leprosy, ulcer, heart disease, asthma, skin infections, aging, chemical intoxication etc.
Anti-cancer potential of cow urine therapy has been reflected by several case reports, success stories and practical feed back of patients for the treatment of cancer.
None of these “success stories” have been given any details about. The researchers have also probably forgotten about conducting double – blind randomized clinical trials (RCTs), a standard procedure followed in medical research. Their “success” is basically dependent upon the strength of (real or imagined) anecdotal evidence, as is usual with all kinds of alternative medicine or quackery.
Experimentally it has been proved that among all sorts of urines, the urine of the Indian cows is most effective. Seeing the potential use of indigenous cow urine in several ailments including even the cancer, the use of Gomutra (cow urine) of indigenous breeds of cattle should be promoted extensively.
This is cheap nationalistic defense of pseudoscientific nonsense. Some kind of veterinarian racism, if you like. A bit like the Orthodox Jews’ claim that Israel is the Promised Land (and history is the worse for this assumption). All appeals made are those to emotion (natural cure, no side effects, ancient methodology, cultural compatibility etc). None of the claims are backed up by any hard scientific evidence. Till it actually comes through the rigours of scientific testing, not even US patents or any number of positive testimonies should lend it any credibility as an anti-carcinogenic.

2. We use only 10 percent of our brains: This is usually attributed to William James and Albert Einstein. A lot of people believe that to be true. They feel they have great untapped potential yet to reveal itself in some sensational form, a la Albert Einstein or Wolfgang Mozart. However, this is a myth, and a very popular one at that. In the 2010 science fiction movie Inception, the protagonist suggests  that humans use only a fraction of the brain’s true potential when they are awake, and that it can do almost anything in its dreams. The reality is a bit different, though:
The average human brain weighs about three pounds and comprises the hefty cerebrum, which is the largest portion and performs all higher cognitive functions; the cerebellum, responsible for motor functions, such as the coordination of movement and balance; and the brain stem, dedicated to involuntary functions like breathing. The majority of the energy consumed by the brain powers the rapid firing of millions of neurons communicating with each other. Scientists think it is such neuronal firing and connecting that gives rise to all of the brain’s higher functions. The rest of its energy is used for controlling other activities—both unconscious activities, such as heart rate, and conscious ones, such as driving a car.
Also, in an evolutionary sense, a brain using only 10 percent of itself and continuing to consume the amount of energy it consumes is a total misfit:

“Let’s put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body’s weight and uses 20 percent of the body’s energy.”

Much of the evolutionary “advantage” that human beings possess is attributable to the relative size and efficiency of the brain. In such a scenario, evolving to leave 90 percent of an energy guzzling organ unused goes against the whole dynamics of evolution.

What’s not understood is how clusters of neurons from the diverse regions of the brain collaborate to form consciousness. So far, there’s no evidence that there is one site for consciousness, which leads experts to believe that it is truly a collective neural effort. Another mystery hidden within our crinkled cortices is that out of all the brain’s cells, only 10 percent are neurons; the other 90 percent are glial cells, which encapsulate and support neurons, but whose function remains largely unknown. Ultimately, it’s not that we use 10 percent of our brains, merely that we only understand about 10 percent of how it functions.

Which might explain the myth as a distortion of a fact.

3. Diet modifications and alternative medicine (quackery) can help detoxify your body: This one cuts across cultural lines. In India, in Australia, in South Africa and in Turkey . Everywhere it seems to appeal to people. Apparently it’s necessary to detoxify your system, in addition to a reasonable and optimized combination of diet, rest and exercise, in order to get rid of the excess pollutants, or “toxins” in your body.

Just as you focus on the foods that you eat and proper exercise, there are many other elements to living your best and healthiest lifestyle. Not only do these things factor into detoxifying your body, but there are other simple and highly effective ways to do so as well.

What are some of these?

1. Replace a meal each day with a detoxifying smoothie

2. Turn to organic foods when possible

3. Try acupuncture for a truly balanced body

4.Try fasting for a day or two

The first one is an inoffensive commandment, it is unlikely to benefit you, but unlikely to cause you much harm either, unless you begin obsessing over it and mess up your diet. The second one is an appeal to the pervasive “natural is better” bias and is otherwise inoffensive as well. Let’s take a more detailed look at the third commandment. A look at some acupuncture propaganda reveals this:

BALANCE, RELAX, RESTORE…..Acupuncture treats the whole person, rather than just the disease. It effectively treats musculoskeletal problems such as back, neck and shoulder pain, through to acute and chronic problems ranging from fertility issues, tiredness and headaches to digestive complaints. Acupuncture’s soothing effects work very well for anxiety and stress. As holistic practitioners, we understand the importance of considering the mind and emotions along with the physical body in the assessment of health.

In their book Trick or Treatment? , authors Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh track the development of acupuncture from becoming a global health fad in the 70s to the fiasco of being endorsed by WHO in the late 90s and early noughties to its dismissal as an ineffective or inconclusive treatment for any condition by the Cochrane reviews in the latter part of the previous decade. With acupuncture, it doesn’t matter where you put the needles in (acupuncture points or not) or even if you put the needles in, you get nothing better than a placebo response. It’s just that it took people quite a while to figure out a way to begin blinding a controlled trial of acupuncture. There are no such things as “chi” or “acupuncture points” in the human body. It’s just ancient Chinese fairy tales. Placebos don’t help one attain any “balanced” state physiologically whatsoever, at best a sensation of it.

The fourth point is a well-known myth. Fasting has no known health benefits whatsoever. In fact, it might lead to serious side effects.

Contrary to the teachings of proponents, fasting doesn’t “cleanse” or “rest” the liver. If anything, fasting overworks the liver by saturating it with toxins produced by fasting itself . Fasting can be dangerous, especially when undertaken or supervised by ideologists who are blind to its actual effects.

So much for the “detoxification” bunk.

4. Some people have a photographic memory: Also known as an “eidetic memory“, it is the supposed ability of some human beings to perfectly remember images, sounds or objects even with negligible exposure to the information. The 1997 movie Good Will Hunting  shows the protagonist possessing eidetic memory, so that he has mastered everything he has ever learned, even though he is only a janitor by profession. It’s heart-warming and even inspirational, but sadly a science fiction. While people with exceptional memory -like Kim Peek- have been documented, there is no one who has yet been documented with the ability to accurately recall visual stimulus in sequential, pictorial form.

Alan Searleman, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in New York, says eidetic imagery comes closest to being photographic. When shown an unfamiliar image for 30 seconds, so-called “eidetikers” can vividly describe the image—for example, how many petals are on a flower in a garden scene. They report “seeing” the image, and their eyes appear to scan across the image as they describe it. Still, their reports sometimes contain errors, and their accuracy fades after just a few minutes. Says Searleman, “If they were truly ‘photographic’ in nature, you wouldn’t expect any errors at all.”

Some memory skills can be acquired through training, most often arithmetic skills. Others can simply be the result of ADHD or some other autism spectrum disorder, where a person is obsessed with a narrow range of interests and hence has high recall ability through familiarity. However, perfect recall is almost non-existent.

While people can improve their recall through tricks and practice, eidetikers are born, not made, says Searleman. The ability isn’t linked to other traits, such as high intelligence. Children are more likely to possess eidetic memory than adults, though they begin losing the ability after age six as they learn to process information more abstractly.

Although psychologists don’t know why children lose the ability, the loss of this skill may be functional: Were humans to remember every single image, it would be difficult to make it through the day.

Not surprisingly, most people with exceptional memory are often socially challenged. The “photographic memory” myth, however, continues to be perpetuated.

All these myths have been debunked many times before, but they continue to have a powerful hold over public imagination, it’s because people like to believe. They want to believe. We are always prone to deceive ourselves by employing heuristics to jump to conclusions from limited information. It takes quite a bit of effort to reserve judgement until all the information has been gleaned. Our brains have evolved to make quick decisions in the real world scenarios. This is why our backgrounds play an important role in shaping our beliefs and value systems. And because this schema becomes our default option for decision making, it becomes very hard to ignore and discard it in the face of conflicting evidence. It’s much harder to do if the societies we are part of continue to validate our beliefs. So, the question arises, when will we learn? The answer is probably never. The world is too uncertain for us to be too certain about it. We must believe. It’s just something like a golden rule to continue to challenge our own beliefs, or our own pseudo-profound bull shit. Since this is unlikely to become a part of our evolutionary progression as a species, we have to make critical thinking part of our educational structure. That’s the best way to get rid of our obsession with myths.


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