Tuesday, August 6, 2019

How We Know What Isn't So

How We Know What Isn't So

     Thomas Gilovich's book: How We Know What Isn't So (The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life) is a psychology novice’s dream. I am far from adequately versed in the world of psych, but the focus on example-based learning felt optimized for this. It not only details psychological phenomena and their causes but applies them to the every-day setting. Gilovich focuses the first half of the book on establishing various fallacies for the reader, so that they have the proper foundation moving forward when the fallacies are used as explanations for erroneous beliefs later. Gilovich uses all of this to dissect modern myths and encourage the reader to think more critically to avoid the same misjudgments and delusions, rather than fall victim to the universal flaws of human reasoning.

     I found part three: “Examples of Questionable and Erroneous Beliefs” to be the most interesting, particularly the chapter on “alternative” health practices. Gilovich makes the claim that no area has been more dangerous in application of these beliefs than health and medicine. He critiques “quack” medical services and procedures which are physiologically ineffective and sometimes mentally damaging. Regarding ineffective, a massive culprit today is the essential oil industry. The essential oil miracle product can be rubbed directly on skin or vaporized and inhaled in the practice of aromatherapy. Some of aromatherapy’s alleged therapeutic values include improved psychological and physical wellbeing. Purveyors of the essential oils used for aromatherapy vow that they treat depression and anxiety, as well as acne, arthritis pain, and even cerebral palsy. The essential oils global market is set to be worth 27 billion dollars by 2022. All with only circumstantial evidence to support its assertions.

     Holistic health products like essential oils have become a millennial staple because of the post hoc (ergo propter hoc) fallacy, the reasoning of which can be explained most succinctly as "If event B followed event A, event B must have been caused by event A". So, if you have a toothache and apply peppermint oil to the affected area and the ache goes away 20 minutes later, it must be because of the oil! To circle back around to the potential mental damage “quack” practices can have, I’d like to use the example of “faith healers” such as Kathryn Kuhlman and Prophet Johnson. A person with cancer can request a healing session, and if they enter remission (perhaps due to actual treatment), you will hear them make pious claims like “I don’t heal; the Holy Spirit heals through me”. But if the afflicted’s condition worsens, you are more likely to hear them say “If I can’t heal them, there’s something wrong with their souls”. Yes, someone actually said such a horrible thing.

     Ironically, with the above being the writing I enjoyed most from Thomas Gilovich, it is also the topic I take the most issue with. Gilovich provides only a brief qualifier at the beginning of this Holistic Health subsection, recognizing how broad the term is and that there are reputable scientists with based practices in this field. But while this is a book about dis-proving concepts, I still feel it focused too heavily on sham treatments, when there are many “New Age” ideas which are credible and have the proper evidence to support their continued use. But overall, the way in which Gilovich levelly approached his criticism of widely accepted beliefs was a lesson in itself. He doesn’t lambast believers of these methods as idiots, instead he references the likes of Francis Bacon and George Washington who respectively believed that rubbing pork rinds on the skin could cure warts and that bloodletting could cure “various bodily ills”. The addition of these respected figures -having the same misunderstandings as so many people today- helps to soften Gilovich’s overall tone and make a reader with a contrasting view more receptive of his critiques.

I grew up in a family adverse to use of traditional medicine for common ailments. When I was little, I never used anything but these exact homeopathic pellets for headaches, back pain, nausea, you name it. I still use them occasionally when I'm home from school. Do they work? I have no idea. But if anything really hurts I can always take some ibuprofen. 

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