Be skeptical about your skepticism

We are being constantly bombarded with messages from people who want to change our minds and companies that want to sell us products.

We are being constantly bombarded with messages from people who want to change our minds and companies that want to sell us products. Those delivering these messages have a pretty good understanding of human psychology and know which buttons to push to make us more receptive to their pitch. So we are fighting this battle to apply a healthy amount of skepticism to the many messages we receive with one hand tied behind our back.

Unfortunately it sometimes seems that we humans are not necessarily wired to be skilled at skepticism. We consciously (and correctly) realize that we need to take a skeptical approach to life, but our overloaded brains use a variety of mental shortcuts – what psychologists call schema and heuristics – that frame our understanding of issues.

Unfortunately these shortcuts – while perfectly sensible as general principles – often fail us when we try to apply them to situations in day to day life.

Skepticism of the profit motive is a prime example. Modern skepticism is highly suspicious of the claims of anyone who stands to make money if we accept their claims. And for good reason. Great sins have been committed by those in pursuit of profit.

Automobile manufacturers have been caught red-handed withholding information about potential dangers because a recall would be too expensive. Products are often rushed to market without adequate safety testing only to cause property damage, injury and death later on.

But the fact that someone stands to make a profit on something does not necessarily make their claims untrue. We live, after all, in a capitalist society where entrepreneurship and innovation are rewarded with that dreaded “p” word. Developing a new technology can be expensive and risky. If we reject the claims of anyone who stands to profit from an innovation we are rejecting a substantial part of modernity as well.

We are also selective about whose profit motive we are skeptical of. Many people are extremely skeptical of highly regulated “big pharma,” but much less skeptical of the claims of the less-well-regulated, $34-billion alternative medicine “industry” (homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, etc.). Many of the biggest names in the anti-vaccine movement are selling books and “alternatives” right off their websites, yet the same critical eye that is (rightly) applied to “big pharma” rarely directs its gaze at conventional medicine’s critics.

Revenue from natural and organic food retail sales has exploded to $81.3 billion in the U.S. in 2012, but the only profit motive we hear about is Monsanto’s, with its genetically modified foods.

This isn’t to say that we should automatically prefer drugs and GMOs to supplements and organic produce – obviously there serious scientific questions at play here (unlike with vaccines, which I’ve opined before are safe and effective, but I digress). But when we are evaluating these competing claims we should recognize that there are vested interests on each side tugging us in their direction.

Another trendy and related shortcut that is employed far too often in modern society is this dichotomy of natural and artificial. The superiority of all things natural is as close to a modern orthodoxy as you get these days, and what I am about to say will be seen by many as a form of heresy. There are times when I feel that I am part of a very small minority when I am not immediately impressed by claims that a particular product is “natural.”

Take “natural” stevia and evil laboratory-produced aspartame as an example. Contrary to popular belief, aspartame – which has been on the market for decades – is one of the most carefully studied food products out there. It is compound that is processed by the body in a fairly well understood and (for most of us) harmless manner.

There are many anecdotes regarding aspartame’s supposed harmful effects. But anecdotes are not science, and these proposed side-effects are implausible given what we know about the way the body processes moderate doses of aspartame. Furthermore, the more rigorous scientific research has failed to detect such effects.

Yet fear of aspartame in recent years has led to a significant decline in the sales of diet pop and calls for its removal.

Another sweetener, stevia, on the other hand, despite receiving a rough ride from regulators, is a favourite amongst boosters of all things “natural” and is marketed by at least one company as being preferable to aspartame primarily for that reason (there is that pesky profit motive again).

There is, however, no evidence that stevia is any safer to ingest than aspartame and many of the same anecdotes you hear about aspartame can be found regarding stevia. Yet the public (regulators are a different story) is much more comfortable with it because it is “natural.” This makes very little sense to me.

As a society we seem to have lost sight of the fact that throughout human history nature has been trying to kill with bacteria, viruses, poisons, famine, and so on. Life expectancy throughout “natural” human history was pretty grim. Many “artificial” developments have served us very well and it is clearly fallacious to deify all things “natural.”

Again, this is not to say that “artificial” is always preferable to “natural.” Sticking with the example of sweeteners, the natural sugars found in fruits are clearly healthier than added refined sugar. But a “nature good, man-made bad” approach is not truly skeptical.

The message here is we should be skeptical of our own ability to be skeptical and examine whether or not our biases actually serve us well as we navigate today’s world.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.