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Epistemology -Philosophy and Exercise Pt. 2.

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

For part 1 see here.

Disclaimer- for those small number of actual philosophers who read this, you should know this and it’s sister, are introductory blogs to those who have no experience with logic, critical thinking and fallacies – hence it’s obvious parochial nature.

Now we turn to Venuto’s eight reasons we are susceptible to weight-loss myths.

Reason #1 – Social Proof, Conformity, and appeal to masses.

In this section Venuto discusses a logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad populum otherwise known as the appeal to popularity. Ventuo states that:

Usually you assume a behaviour is appropriate if a lot of other people are doing it. This is known as social proof. Psychologists tell us this phenomenon also applies to beliefs. We believe what we do because it’s what most other people believe. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 25, 2009)

Now we may remember from our last blog that this relates to epistemology as our beliefs are a subset of what we know – moreover it might be appropriate to label knowledge as ‘justified true belief‘ – as in what has been substantianted. The reason we call this a logical fallacy is that truth does not rely upon the popularity of the proposition, it relies upon it’s substantiation. It is one of the most common fallacies as philosopher Keith Parsons states in his book Rational Episodes:

Humans are social creatures, we are strongly motivated to want to belong and not to be left out ostracized… In short, nobody likes to be the wierdo. There is, then, enormous pressure to act like other people act and think the way other people think. Manipulators well understand this aspect of human nature and use it against us. They gives us arguments that, either subtly or not so subtly, try to get us to accept or reject some belief, opinion, or idea because, well, you don’t want to be a weirdo, do you? (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 223, 2010)

Parsons continues suggesting that the popularity of any doctrine is simply irrelevant to the question of whether it is true or not, or even whether there are good reasons to accept it – as stated above.  We accept a doctrine as true because it is reasonable, rational, well-grounded and depends on the arguments and evidence that can be offered to support it. Anyone who tries to convince you of anything via an argument from popularity is not doing so on the basis of rationality, but are merely trying to trick you. (p. 223)

Reason #2 – Appeal to authority and loyalty to gurus

The next logical fallacy we are discussing is another popular one, it is known as the ad verecundium or as Parsons’ calls it “the illicit appeal to authority“. (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 223, 2010) Venuto, p. 27, explains that it seems only natural to rely upon the information disseminated by “experts”, whose opinions are based on credentials, reputation and experience. We see this all the time, particularly among personal trainers – they latch on to a philosophy that a strength coach they like promotes and then uncritically push that same philosophy – I know, because I’ve done it too. The problem is, experts don’t count, facts do.

The problem as Parsons, 2010,  p. 224 says with trusting an authority is when the “authority” isn’t one – merely someone pretending to be one – or someone presented to you as one, by someone who wants you to believe in him or her and buy what he or she is endorsing. The example Parsons uses is of Michael Jordan selling you a brand name product or some other celebrity doing the same – what makes Jordan an expert? Of course he isn’t one – hence his word is useless.

Parsons also points out that it is not simply advertising that attempts to sell us of false information:

Much more serious is the fact that there are many organizations that present themselves as bodies of experts who are serving the public interest by offering objective, impartial, scientific information that bears on important issues. (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 224, 2010)

The example he uses is of the “National Canter for Global Climate Research” which purports to promote rational science on the state of the global warming research – instead it promotes motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, faulty research etc.  The important point – is how do we know this institute is bunk? We investigate – we research. When looking for experts we want good books written by popular authors – when we listen to an expert like Lawrence M. Krauss in matters of physics, his word isn’t the end of the discussion, we can take his information to other experts in the field of physics to confirm or disconfirm his ideas. As Venuto states:

All information must be analyzed critically and never accepted blindly. If the advice comes from people you respect and admire, then listen, but still verify. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 26-7, 2009)

Reason #3 – Anecdotal evidence and testimonials

We see this type of tactic used to promote supplements, and amazing fat loss claims all the time, but as Venuto, p.27,  states anecdotes don’t prove anything in the factual sense – which amount to little more than heresay.

Philosopher and ex-physicist Victor J. Stenger – in his book The New Atheism – supports Venuto’s contention when he states that when deciphering testimonial claims we need to base our acceptance of them proportionate to the nature of the claim presented:

If an airline pilot flying over Yellowstone National Park reports seeing a forest fire, we have no reason to doubt her. But if she reports seeing a flying saucer whose pilot waved a green tentacle at her, I would demand more evidence. (Stenger, The New Atheism, p. 60, 2009)

Venuto states that anecdotal evidence can only lend credence to established scientific evidence – but are generally not to be accepted at face value.

Reason #4 – The news said so

This one falls to the same errors as the argument from authority.

Reason #5 – Confusing correlation with causation

We have actually discussed the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc here (see “myth #7″).

Reason #6 – Confirmation bias

This is a common one, it is part of our fundamental reasoning that our unconscious mind deletes and distorts information based on past prejudices and preferences, says Venuto. Another way of looking at confirmation bias is how John Allen Paulos describes it in his book Irreligion:

…  a so-called psychological tendency to seek confirmation rather than disconfirmation of any hypothesis we’ve adopted, however tentatively. People notice more readily and search more diligently for whatever might confirm their beliefs, and they don’t notice as readily and certainly don’t look as hard for what disconfirms them. (Paulos, Irreligion, p. 108, 2008)

Venuto says we do this because it’s comforting, it feels good to be right, and embarrassing to be wrong . The problem being of course, that if we continue to only stay within our comfort zone, accepting truths taught to us, and accepted uncritically it can lead to “close-mindedness, poor decisions, discrimination and justification for odd behaviours.” (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 30, 2009)

Reason #7 – Habitual thinking and appeal to tradition

Humans are by nature, habitual creatures, Venuto states that this power of habit can hold us back from changing things up, as trainers for example. When we find systems that work – for me it’s HIIT and MRT and for others it’s distance cardio and high carb diets – we tend to stay with them. The problem with this, a particularly in the world of training is what’s known as “the law of diminishing returns” – the longer we stick to a single protocol – the less reward we receive from doing it.

The lesson is: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. If you want different results, do something different. Or as the humorous Demotivators calendar says: “Tradition… Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.” (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 32, 2009)

Reason #8 – Wishful thinking

This one is important – Venuto states that:

It is tempting to form our beliefs according to what we wish were true rather than on evidence or logic. It’s more reassuring to believe that excess fat is not your fault and that a slow metabolism is to blame. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 32, 2009)

Rather than basing what we believe to be true on what feels good, we should base it on evidence, as Venuto states above. This comes back to what Martin was explaining in the previous blog – about believing for epistemic – or justified reasons, versus believing for beneficial reasons. I’ll add only to simply state – when investigating any claim what makes us feel good or what we wish to true has little bearing on reality – and if we are to operate in this world with both eyes open, we should base our perceptions on the evidence, not on how we would like the world to be.

Conclusion

This ends my very basic look at some epistemological pitfalls we all fall into, myself included – being aware of these traps, simply helps you to be aware of your environment – of the tricks brought to bear against you – but it doesn’t immunize you. That you must do on your own – investigate every claim you can, don’t accept anything based on dogma, tradition, authority (including my own – challenge me, it’s healthy to do so), search out the truth of claims yourself – this of course doesn’t mean push yourself to some relativistic wasteland where you are the only one with any kind of truth – but, rather, make sure you don’t accept uncritically, and form for bad reasons the things you think are reliable.

References

Parson K. (2010). Rational Episodes. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 223, 224.

Paulos J. A. (2008). Irreligion. New York, New York. Douglas & McIntyre Inc. P. 108.

Stenger V. J. (2009). The New Atheism. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 60.

Venuto T. (2009). The Bodyfat Solution. London, England. ThePenguin Group. Pp. 25, 26, 27, 30, 32.

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