Know these twelve common mental mistakes. Resist them when they threaten to hijack rational decision making. Be on guard when others use them in attempts to convince you to accept unusual claims or outright lies.
1. The Emotion Potion. We are emotional creatures, and this often leads us to make irrational decisions, embrace bad ideas, and act in ways that work against our best interests. Emotions can intoxicate us, make us dumb. Be aware of this vulnerability. If someone tells you the world is going to end in fiery chaos soon, for example, don’t let fear of such an event distract you from rationally analyzing and challenging the claim.
2. The Power of Popularity. We are social animals. The safety of the herd feels good, and it can be cold and harsh out there all alone in the wilderness. Recognize how we all can be swayed by popular support of an idea no matter how destructive or ridiculous it may be. Never forget that truth and reality are not decided by vote. The majority of people have been wrong about many things many times throughout history. There were times when a flat Earth, phrenology, and bloodletting were respectable and popular ideas—but were still wrong.
3. Straw People Everywhere. A common tactic people use to promote weak or worthless claims is to attack an easy-to-beat, diluted, or counterfeit version of the counterargument. Those who say, for example, that Earth is around 4.5 billion years old should not be swayed one bit on this point if a science denier were to tell them that there was a time when geologists didn’t understand continental drift and still can’t explain everything today about the structure and function of the Earth’s core. Of course geologists don’t know everything. But this does not refute the strong evidence for a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.
4. Loaded Questions. Sometimes people try to make their point seem more sensible by slipping in an unproven claim or bit of nonsense as filler or padding. Example: “Another reason we know the Lost City of Atlantis is real is because psychics and mediums have communicated with dead Atlanteans.” Listen well and catch weak arguments or bad ideas within the larger claim. Challenge them all.
5. Wishful Thinking. Simple but deadly to good thinking. We desire something, so we believe it to be true. This is a powerful human compulsion. Be aware of it and be tough with yourself. Always ask, “Am I accepting this claim because it makes sense and it is supported by sufficient evidence? Or do I just want to believe it so much that I am willing to pretend to know it’s valid?”
6. False Dilemma. Watch out for people who frame their case as an “either, or” proposition. Sometimes there is a third option, or perhaps many more options. For example, a politician might say that more prisons must be built or there will be more violent criminals on the streets. But what if nonviolent offenders were released early or given lighter sentences, freeing up space for more dangerous criminals to serve longer sentences?
7. Explaining by Naming. Giving a name to something is not the same as explaining it. For example, calling an event a “miracle” is not an explanation for what happened. Calling a session with a psychic a “reading” does not explain how information was supposed to have been retrieved by the psychic. Watch for this deceitful form of verbal carpet bombing and simply ask people to explain names and concepts they try to pass off as explanations.
8. Circular Reasoning Makes You Dizzy. Always popular in religious circles, this one also gets plenty of mileage in other arenas as well. It happens when people attempt to prove A by pointing to B, which they claim was proved by A. Example: “My special book is true because it was inspired by the gods and I know the gods are real because my special book says so.”
9. Authority Worship. Try to remember that in many ways we are essentially chimps who wear shoes. Just like them, we are obsessed with social rank and power. This is a huge weak point in our brains, because our natural reaction is to snap to and obey when we view someone as our superior. I’m not suggesting you rebel against everything every authority figure says to you, of course. But do try to think clearly about the validity of words from on high. Don’t let a uniform or someone’s dominant posture hoodwink you into believing nonsense or buying a junk product.
10. Special Pleading. People who promote or believe in things that are unlikely to be true often scramble to change the game when they feel the walls of reality closing in on them. For example, a person who says acupuncture works because “one billion Chinese people can’t be wrong” might not like hearing that only about 18 percent of China’s population relies on acupuncture4 and react by arguing that numbers suddenly don’t matter.
11. Burden of Proof. The person making the extraordinary claim is the one who has the responsibility of backing it up. You and I don’t have to prove that mediums can’t talk to dead people or that aliens have never visited Earth. It’s not even fair to suggest that we should, because in most cases it would be impossible to definitively disprove such things. Instead, it is the believer who must validate her beliefs.
12. Ad Hominem Attacks. When one can’t get anywhere attacking facts, the next best thing seems to be attacking the person aligned with those facts. This is a weak, immature, despicable tactic—and we all do it. But that doesn’t make it right. If you are discussing astrology with a jerk, remind yourself that being a jerk is irrelevant to whether astrology’s claims are true. Focus on logic and evidence. It’s better for everyone in the long run to kill the message rather than the messenger.