The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hypocritical Thinking

I often find myself fascinated by the two-faced way in which most, perhaps even all, people approach those things that they agree and disagree with. In my experience, it's very common to see someone criticize, rightly, a particular flaw in the thinking of one person, and then appear to be blissfully unaware that the exact same criticism can be made of their position.

Probably one of the most common places that one sees this is in politics. It is common to hear the left deride, with good reason, the right's tendency to court people opposed to actual science on religious or political grounds (evolution denial or global-warming denial, anyone?), and yet endorse the equally anti-science ramblings of many left-wing folks (for example, a large range of questionable claims about "natural" medicine come from the left*) - and please note that I am using the terms "left" and "right" as they are used in current U.S. political discourse, I personally don't think that we can simply cut politics into two halves like this but that's a different blog post.

Likewise, it's common to hear Republicans ranting about the "lack of rationality" and "over emotionalism" of the Democrats, while concurrently using scare tactics, nationalism, and claims that "if X happens, then the terrorists have won!" to prevent their own members from actually stopping to think about matters.

I recall a commenter on one of my blog posts about Proposition 8 claiming that if gay marriage was made legal by vote, then this would be the "tyranny of the masses" forcing those opposed to gay marriage to accept it as a legal reality, but this same person was apparently unaware that they were supporting the same sort of "tyranny of the masses" to control the personal lives of other people.

Living in Santa Cruz, probably the most common place that I see this is when I hear a proponent of an untested medical therapy state that "medical establishment" is opposed to the therapy because "big pharma" (which is often used interchangeably with "the medical establishment") is driven by the profit margin and therefore would rather keep you dependent on drugs to treat the symptoms than to actually heal you. However, the companies producing herbs, vitamin supplements, homeopathic pills, etc. are also businesses which profit (to the tune of $34 billion per year) from consumers buying products**. In other words, the alternative health industry has the exact same profit motive that the major pharmaceutical companies have!

And as I type this, I can think of the many, many times that people have patiently (and sometimes not-so-patiently) shown me that I have engaged in this very same type of fallacious thinking on various pet issues of mine. I am grateful (if somewhat embarrassed) when people point this out to me, and I know perfectly well that I am unaware (or hiding from myself) of other issues on which I am guilty of this.

That's the thing, all of us are guilty of this, it's a common human trait. Skilled politicians and marketers can cause us to fall into it, certainly, but our own worst enemies are ourselves. We all hold positions that are incorrect, and that we would realize are incorrect if we were able (or allowed ourselves) to view our positions and especially our rhetoric and reasoning as an outsider would, and yet we are masters at fooling ourselves and rationalizing our own positions. Some people do this more than others, but we are all guilty.

So, what is to be done? I don't know. Certainly, pointing it out when you see it may be useful, though most people have built up enough layers of rationalization that this is unlikely to have much of an effect. Accepting that you do it, and trying to be open to criticism when others point it out will help. Still, I don't know that this is something that can be eradicated even within oneself.

*There is, however, one major difference. While such claims absolutely exist on the left, the left has not organized as well as the right, and therefore you don't see concerted efforts to, for example, force medical schools to teach homeopathy int he same way that you see pressure to put creationism into science classes. So, there is a difference, but it's a difference of application, not of type of thinking.

**A particularly high-profile matter at the moment is that one of the things that the anti-vaccination groups claim is that "big pharma" wants to keep putting out vaccines and "pro-vaccine propaganda", while the anti-vaccination folks peddle a long-debunked anti-vaccine report by Andrew Wakefield that was produced fraudulently in order to help Wakefield's own business dealings! In other words, the whole anti-vaccine hysteria was sparked by someone who falsified data to make money from payments from attorneys suing a vaccine producer and also his own work to produced a competing vaccine.


The Armchair Skeptic said...

Good post. For a good description of the psychology behind self-justification and cognitive dissonance, read Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris. Everyone is guilty of this, even people who call themselves skeptics. Being able to recognize this in yourself and break through your own rationalizations is, IMO, the foundation of critical thinking.

Anthroslug said...

I have read that book and found it to be an excellent resource as well as an interesting read. It was also eye-opening to see the number of ways in which all of us justify our beliefs and actions.

Anonymous said...

With regard to big pharma and the profit motive, I believe that there is an inexorable economic logic to the claim that "managing" a disease is far more profitable than curing it.

Where big pharma and alternative care providers diverge is that many in the alternative industry tout their cures in a purely altruistic manner with no profit motive that I can see. Such "cures" may or may not be valid, but nowhere do I see big pharma working for the benefit of mankind without first putting their hand in your pocket.

Now don't get me wrong, the profit motive is a powerful incentive and if Adam Smith is to be believed, then the correct outcome will emerge in spite of personal motivations.

Where I do agree with the crazy left is that possible cures that are in the public domain do threaten the for-charge alternatives owned by big pharma, so there does exist an economic incentive to discredit these cures. In effect, patent laws give pharmaceutical companies enormous monopoly power over goods for which there is a very inelastic demand. Is is not out of the question that pharmaceutical companies will do anything to protect these profits?

Anthroslug said...

It is not out of the question that pharmaceutical companies will do a good deal to protect their porfits - and I am certainly no defender of the industry (quite the contrary in fact). However, for these companies to be as succesful as many int he alternative camp would claim, they would have to have much more power than they do, and would have to be able to bribe and/or threaten almost every research biologist and pharmacist in the western world. They are powerful, and can throw their weight around in some disturbing ways, but even they aren't THAT powerful. Hell, in the end, not even the Tobacco and oil companies have been THAT powerful (they may play havoc, but science is winning out).

Another major weakness of your argument is that there are in fact cases where non-synthetic treatments have been verified, and these tend to pass into mainstream medicine, which would not happen if the larger corporations were as powerful as is often implied. I would concede that there is more reason for concern if someone could show me a scientifically valid naturopathic treatment that has been blocked by a pharmaceutical company.