Today, a lesson on pseudo-skepticism, or false skepticism – it looks and sounds like critical thinking about an extraordinary claim on the surface but a shallow dig reveals it is a ploy to make you feel smarter.
Think back to a typical unsolved mystery television program or media piece on a questionable claim. Has it ended with the proposition “you decide?” Posing this question at the end of a presentation of evidence feels democratic. It appeals to your vanity as a smart, responsible person weighing the information. You can choose to believe or not, use this or not, pick this one or not. It’s YOUR choice. Or is it?
Your decision is only as good as the quality of information that goes into it.
If you only watch Fox News, you WILL be skewed in your view of world events. If you only listen to a preacher talk about earth history, you WILL be lacking a huge and important component to understanding. You are deciding based on faulty characterizations of the issue.
Watch for agendas
Questionable claims that don’t have sound science to back them up rely on the “you decide” gambit to encourage you to consider their side. They have no evidence so they use other means to affect your decisions such as emotional ploys, testimonials, appeals to their own specialized secret knowledge, or they may simply appeal to ignorance – “Who knows?” “Anything is possible.” “Science doesn’t know everything.” Those are cop-outs designed to manipulate and guide you to their preferred opinion, not open your mind.
At the core of the problem with “You decide” is that we don’t always have the means to fact-check or determine the quality of information. Our human tendency is to take what people tell us as accurate. But when there is an attempt to push an idea or a product, deception may be in the mix, so it’s a handy skill to learn to recognize and not fall for the ploy.
False Balance and False Choice
There remains a core journalistic idea of balance within a story; it should portray both sides. While that sounds fair, the reality in life is that there is almost never just TWO sides, things are more complicated than that. Such complexity is hard to examine within the time constrains of television or radio pieces. (The textbook examples are the political ads [see below] that have only 30 seconds to convince you to vote for this person and definitely NOT the other.) This situation results in a false balance or false choice when there may be more than two choices or no CLEAR choice. It’s not a good practice to choose a medical treatment, investment or important life path solely on a local news piece. Such choices call for more in-depth research and stripping away of any manipulation attempts.
Not all positions are equally worthy of serious consideration even though they are portrayed that way.
There are endless examples of situations in which alternatives are not equal but are presented side-by-side as if they should be treated as equal. Bad ideas are frequently and creatively propped up to appear credible. For example, 90 scientists of 100 will say global warming is caused by human activity, but a person set on disputing the idea will put up their own scientist (who exists in the EXTREME minority) against the one who supports the scientific consensus. To be fair and show the true outlook, we should see 1 “con” representative versus 9 “pro” representatives.
Without some prior knowledge, you may not know whether the information you are being presented is accurate or not. If you have never learned about evolution, you may not be aware of or understand how the evidence for it is crushing, overwhelming, beyond dispute. But that one person with a fringe idea will attempt to wipe all that foundation away with their poorly supported belief. Beware! This kind of stuff is attempted ALL the time.
Watch for the “you decide” ploy in the following scenarios:
- Paranormal evidence for ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, etc. Stories are related as facts but how can we confirm these are true? Often they fall apart upon scrutiny and are unreliable as eyewitness testimony. There is no scientific foundation for these claims, so proponents wish to convince you through their experiences alone. They will often try to seem credible by asserting they “know” what they saw.
- Vaccination fears. There will always be a few doctors who will go against the rest of the medical establishment and put out their views that vaccinations may be potentially hazardous. They will present an extreme few cases or cases that are actually NOT related to vaccine injuries to bolster their claim. It’s highly emotional – who wants to risk injuring their child? Sadly, it works. This is a clear case of false balance – the support for each of the “sides” is not equivalent.
- Food fear mongerers. There is a popular advertising trend to promote food and treatments as “all natural” or “organic” or “gluten-, preservative-, chemical-, artificial whatever- free”. This sounds like a good thing on the surface but it is really capitalizing on the public lack of knowledge about food safety and chemistry. Often people playing this food fear card are NOT experts. They aren’t even well versed in basic nutrition! (Like The Food Babe, who is clueless about simple science.) They do not give you the reasoning behind additives – they may make the food safer, shelf-stable, more nutritious, or more efficient to produce. And the won’t tell you which such “chemicals” are found naturally everywhere and are not harmful.
- Elections. A guaranteed example of “you decide” are political ads promoting one person running for an elective office over one or more other choice. Negative ads for candidates are the most blatant examples of manipulation, emphasizing the bad aspects or mistakes without ever mentioning the positive about the other candidate(s). Those negative things about a person (or product or group) stick in your head and are recalled when that name is mentioned. Notice how frequently political ads end with, “Do you want to see candidate X do that to your town/state? Come this Election Day, you decide!”
It’s Your Opinion, Make it Informed
We don’t usually have the time to carefully consider a question, so we rely on short-cuts of thinking, rules of thumb, generalizations, and what sounds like common sense. Most often, we decide upon a claim based on what feels right at the moment. Typically, it’s not a critical choice – like ghosts, UFOs, or Bigfoot – but it can be when it means spending money or risking health and well-being. In those cases, it’s critical to look at good quality information from sound sources before deciding.
Don’t rely on one source, look for the problems that have been noted with each side, and be VERY aware to not confuse belief and opinion with fact. Anyone can come up with an opinion out of thin air, but not many have made the concerted effort to gather all the best information and evaluate the issue more completely. That’s good skepticism.
When asked to decide, remember that your choices may be unlimited and if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice, possibly the BEST one.
Read more at “Decisions, Decisions: The problem with “You decide”