Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Pseudoscience is on Fire, Run!

If you yell fire in a theater, you're are going to get a lot of folks running for the exits.

If the fire alarm goes off in your building, people will finish their coffee first.

If you are in a temporary building, also known as a 'trailer', and there is a tornado siren, you look around for a second or two to see if you have your car keys and then run like a scared little girl for the nearest tornado shelter.

The key reason for the difference between the three different reactions is the context. Context plays a roll in many aspects of life. Context can also lead to misinterpretations of facts and lead to pseudoscience.

In your office, there is always a drill or false alarm due to poor microwave use. We are used to the fire alarm being a cry of wolf. We also don't expect a modern building to really burn very fast. 

In the safety zone of your workplace, we also don't panic very easily. But think back. The first time a fire alarm went off at a 'new' job when someone overcooked the popcorn, you were ready to run out the door! But I am sure you looked around and saw your calm fellow employees drinking their coffee. Their actions may have felt a little odd, but your heart slowed it's pace. Now for any new alarm, you are just as likely to get a fresh cup of coffee for the trip to your fire safety meeting point or muster station.

Context can backfire. Think New Orleans and the hurricane. Too many calm people mucking about, taking their time to get out of town. Nobody panicking means nobody in a hurry and finding reasons not to go at all. Hurricane warnings are like fire alarms in buildings. There are a lot of false alarms or storms that are not as powerful as the warnings. Plus most are in the safety of their homes, increasing their comfort of literally weathering the storm.

Context is another coping mechanism of our lazy brains. We gauge our need for fight or flight from the group we trust and personal experience. Unless you have almost died in a hurricane you are not going to go running out of town. Most would have stayed except for the need for some compliance to authority. 

Think tribes of people and prairie dogs. In either case the members depend on the skills of the watchful or experienced. Why waste your time looking for a hawk when their are others that will spot it first? Imagine looking for a fires, hawks, or other threats all the time? We can only hold a couple of concepts in out head at one time. Some people need to be looking for and gauging the threats so that the rest of us can get on with the other jobs. 

The police are the prairie dogs that spot the hawk. Your fellow workers sipping coffee as the alarm goes off are also hawk watchers. With the coworkers, they haven't really seen a lot of hawks other than a fire marshal or two, but they are part of the collective watchfulness of the tribe. 

We listen when the ones we trust start raising the alarm. This is as dangerous as the possible problem. Sometimes the people you trust are not trustworthy.

Comfort and experience can short circuit the authority figure. You can imagine that the police are not seen as authorities in New Orleans. Fear of looting may even be the bigger motivator of some. If police are seen as ineffective, believing them about evacuation and trusting them to safeguard your possessions, however meager, will fall on the side of self protection.

Where is the pseudoscience? Hold on, I'm thinking.

Oh yeah, the problem is that yelling fire is the same a yelling global warming or financial meltdown. It does not matter how true it is. What causes you to believe is the context and the authority. 

You will not believe much in global warming if you are watching the Discovery Channel while socked in with six feet of snow. You will believe if you are experiencing 101 degrees in December. Context! 

If you are listening to Al Gore, a reasonably respected man, about global warming, you will believe him. He looks like he did his homework. Unless you are a far right republican, his slide show is compelling.  Al Gore is an authority. His slides are also context as they have elements that remind you of your daily experience. You have also heard this before, so add repetition. 

I am not saying yes or no to global warming. I won't say it is pseudoscience. But there are many arguments and out of context facts for and against global warming that are pseudoscience. Even claims of one side or another is practicing pseudoscience, may be just as much pseudoscience. 

Look carefully to avoid the assumptions and not fall for either the context or the authority. Ask yourself why you think something is believable. Does the context influence you? Does the authority influence you?

Imagine you are in your office with the fire alarm blaring. You are grabbing another cup of coffee for the long wait out in the parking lot. Then you see a fireman run past... Will you head to the parking lot a bit faster than normal? Yep, new context and the authority figure in the fireman's attire.

The final word is that many factors cause us to believe in one thing or another. Fires, hurricanes, and even global warming will form beliefs in your mind that depend on their context and authority.

One more thing. First a warning, if you like to read aloud, do not read this in a theater...