Remember, we all think dumb things.

August 31, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

Freethinkers, in their attempts to cast light on culture’s many logical foibles, can lose focus. Like the more traditional naysayers, who bemoan our times while looking foggily to those good-old-days that never existed, liberal critical thinkers can come to a similarly deluded doom-and-gloom conclusion. Of course, the evidence used by both camps differ completely- people like us at DI don’t mourn the decay of some imaginary moral backbone, but instead the rotting of clear-thinking minds.

It can seem at times that only the present U.S. suffers from ignorance, sloppy logic and woeful gullibility. This probably comes from our own faulty thinking- the availability heuristic at work. We see neighbors and coworkers buying into bogus alternative medicines and celebrity gossip, and the U.S. seems doomed to crumble into total sensationalism or idiocy. As if silly, baseless thoughts flourish only in the cultural Petri dish we have created.

But humans think silly, baseless things everywhere. Take the South Korean fear of “fan death” for example. As recently reported on Public Radio International’s program The World, many South Koreans believe in a unique urban legend that claims if you sleep with a fan running in a room with closed windows and doors, you die. No explanation why, mind you- it just happens. This zany, senseless belief apparently has had a profound impact on South Korean culture- every fan in the country supposedly comes equipped with a timer to prevent a deadly fan death disaster. South Korean researchers have even devoted studies to debunking the pervasive myth. Yet despite the evidence, the fear carries on successfully, and the superstition just won’t shake free from the minds of the people. That sounds almost American, doesn’t it?

The South Korean “fan death” urban legend reminds me that we cannot place all the blame for stupid people and idiotic thoughts on the media, the education system, religion, or the American culture at large. Sloppy logic appears in any group of human animals, and our species will likely always struggle with this aspect of human nature.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Psychology Cognition, Web Site

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I guess I'm more courageous than I ever realized. I have often slept with a fan running in my room, yet I've always awoken the next day. Or maybe I'm in heaven, deluded that I'm still alive on Earth. If someone can prove to me that I'm actually still alive, I ought to give lectures in South Korea on how to safely sleep with a fan in the room. I could become a national celebrity!

    I'm not inspired by the thought that so many people, everywhere and at all times, have embraced so many unwarranted beliefs. It makes me wonder whether humankind will ever break out of this tendency. Maybe most of us never will.

    One tempting thought is that we are only speaking of ignorant, uneducated people, when we look at unwarranted beliefs, but that's simply untrue. Some very smart people believe some incredible unsupported ideas. Dare I even mention homeopathy again, given the passion with which so many well-spoken people promote it?  Also consider fundamentalists of all stripes (not just fundamentalist Christians). They include some highly capable people who are successful in demanding careers. They don't always veer off the path of rationality.

    Therefore, many smart people carry around some dumb ideas.

    But it's far more unusual to find people who have embraced the scientific method to fall prey to ideas as wacky as "fan death" (or angels or ESP or the fear of the number 13). The scientific method is the best way we know of weeding out unwarrented beliefs. But learning the scientific method takes discipline, a commodity not common enough in this instant-gratification, television-permeated ADD world in whch we live.

    In "Smart People Believe Weird Things," Michel Shermer elaborates this idea that the scientific method is the foundation for curing all of us (including all of us otherwise intelligent people) of our tendency to take on untenable beliefs. Why do we get fooled so often? Beware the great power of the confirmation bias. Here's Shermer's money quote:

    Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

    Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that do not.

    For more on the confirmation bias, see here and here.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    At the top of the list—and I recently heard this again after a long hiatus, which made me assume such idiocy had faded—is the belief that education is protection against HIV. "Are you using protection?" "Why should I? My new partner went to college."

    Basically, there's what people want. Then come the justifications. Some of the justifications attain the airy heights of near genius.

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