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Gullibility Taking Over For Logic And Critical Thinking

By Ethan Winer

This op-ed article appeared in the July 30, 2000 edition of the Danbury News-Times.

Alternative medicine, lottery tickets, astrology hot lines, conspiracy theories, reports of UFO sightings, and expensive jewelry. Can you identify what these seemingly unrelated items have in common? Their immense popularity shows the need for improved critical thinking among Americans.

Millions of people who should know better watch TV reports of UFO and ghost sightings, believing every word while ignoring dozens of more likely explanations. Others waste money on astrology hot lines, paying far more than they would for legitimate advice from a professional therapist. Too many folks buy lottery tickets every week, blissfully ignoring the laws of probability. Do people truly believe they have a chance to win the big prize? Do they know what it means to have odds of 68 million to one? The popular media milks this for all it's worth, believing - rightly so - that stories about miracles and lottery winners sell magazines and entice TV viewers. It is news when someone wins a $60 million lottery prize. Unfortunately, that someone will never be you.

Art from original newspaper articleAre we so gullible to believe that a $70 bottle of perfume really increases our chances of landing a mate? Continuing magazine ads prove that we are. Does a diamond ring look any better than one with a zirconium? Can you honestly tell the difference? Can your jeweler? Not likely, but TV ads with beautiful music persuade us otherwise. It makes little sense for young newlyweds to buy an expensive ring having no intrinsic value, when they could instead buy a more reliable car or save toward a first house. Indeed, there's no limit to the manner in which people will squander their hard-earned money.

Ultimately these are consumer issues, and I accept that people have a right to waste their money however they choose. But this problem goes far beyond buying useless trinkets. Poor thinking is directly responsible for many of our worst social problems. It is behind the failed war on drugs - ongoing for nearly a century - that sends millions of otherwise innocent citizens to jail at taxpayer expense. Yet marijuana use is at an all-time high. Few recreational drugs are as debilitating as alcohol, and not one is as deadly as cigarettes. Inertia and faulty logic maintain the status quo.

Careless thinking has other social and educational consequences: It keeps nations in perpetual war, elects incompetent and corrupt politicians year after year, and it was behind Kansas trying to pretend evolution is not established fact. Poor thinking has TV censors bleeping every sexually suggestive word while letting children see countless acts of violence. It subsidizes pro sports teams - private businesses - with public funds while schools deteriorate; it denies condoms and sex education where AIDS and teen pregnancy flourish; and it opposes stem cell research despite enormous medical potential. Sheer lunacy has police ambush drivers who run red lights at 3:00 am rather than fix the lights.

Lately, however, I am most disturbed by the growing acceptance of Junk Science and, in particular, Alternative Medicine (AM). We've mapped the human genome, landed men on the moon, and taken close-up photos of Mars; yet we willingly embrace 19th century crackpot theories about invisible human energy fields and the notion that disease can be healed by waving hands over a patient's body.

It used to be obvious when someone was selling snake oil, but these days the peddlers of AM products are very sophisticated. They use scientific-sounding jargon to make their potions appear legitimate, while at the same time claiming that conventional scientists, like family doctors and pharmaceutical researchers, are either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy. (Like the urban myth about the guy who invented a way to power cars and trucks with ordinary tap water, but was silenced by the big oil companies.)

It wouldn't be so bad if the result was merely a few suckers being parted from their money. But Alternative Medicine has, sadly, become mainstream. More and more folks are seeking herbs and magnets for real medical problems instead of consulting their doctors. Most damaging of all is when our trusted doctors lend their names to such proven frauds as homeopathy, therapeutic touch, magnetic healing, and chelation therapy. It was truly a sad day when the Danbury Hospital - in a shameless grab for dollars - opened its AM department in 1998.

An acquaintance of mine died at age 48 from cancer because he wasted precious time with herbal products and AM charlatans. Had he sought real medical treatment when first diagnosed he might have been saved. [Steve Jobs died needlessly the same way.] There's a good reason ads and packaging for alternative products include the disclaimer, "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA." You can be sure if a medicine actually works, its manufacturer will scramble to receive FDA approval.

In fairness, some herbs show promise even if not yet fully proven in controlled testing, and many legitimate drugs are derived from plants. But our fascination with those magic words "all natural" overrides our logical thinking. Hemlock is all-natural, but that doesn't mean you should ingest it! Likewise, antibiotics are synthesized from chemicals in a lab, yet they have saved the lives of countless people.

We express concern about how poorly American students perform in school, yet we don't teach our children logic, consumerism, or how to recognize scams. We tell them what but not why. We make them memorize mind-numbing lists of facts, but we don't teach them how to think.

Ethan Winer is an audio engineer, computer programmer, and avid musician who lives in New Milford, CT.

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