How charlatans and pseudo-science make us stupid

By Francisco Dao , written on January 15, 2013

From The News Desk

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” -- Stephen Hawking

I once gave a talk to a college entrepreneurs’ club where I simply said, “Tell me what other speakers have told you, and I’ll debunk it.” For two hours, I exposed all the previous advice they had been given as either straight up bullshit, or pointed out that the universal “truths” proffered to them were by no means universal and at best partially true. I didn’t claim to have all the answers myself. In fact, that was the point. Nobody does. My goal was to show them how charlatans who claimed to have the secret to success, or dieting, or business, or the future of the world were doing a disservice to everyone.

I’m not talking about outright liars, but the purveyors of fads, trends, and pseudo science theories who often honestly believe the BS they’re spreading and confidently pass themselves off as experts. Because their ideas often sound plausible or have a partial level of truth to them, these people and the beliefs that they evangelize can derail us in far more dangerous and expensive ways than a fast-talking salesman. They are effectively pushing the illusion of knowledge, and our only defense is to practice well considered skepticism with unwavering vigilance.

The first category of pseudo-science consists of unfounded dogma and mysticism that most reasonably educated people dismiss. Examples of this are the end of the world theories that come along every few years. While most of us laugh at them, consider the people who gave away their life savings because they believed it was true. For these people, it was no laughing matter. Fortunately, the number of people who fall for these types of fallacies is small so they don’t pose much danger to the general population.

Much more dangerous are the pseudo-science theories that sound plausible and develop a larger following such as the belief that there is a link between pediatric vaccinations and autism.

I’m not a doctor, but I can’t find any credible medical arguments that show a connection between the two, and yet thousands of parents are now choosing not to vaccinate their children, because Jenny McCarthy claims vaccines made her child autistic. I’m sure Jenny truly believes it, and she has an autistic child to “prove” it. But that doesn’t make it true in the face of medical evidence. I just hope a bunch of kids don’t end up with polio or rubella because people bought into Jenny’s claims.

Typically, the more grounded in truth something is, the more potential it has to convert believers. Take for example the current gluten free craze.  If you have celiac disease, which is thought to affect between 1 in 1,750 and 1 in 105 people in the United States, the availability of gluten-free food is great. But let’s look at that number. The highest ratio of people thought to be affected with this disease is still less than 1 in 100, and yet I know dozens of people who have bought into the fad and have become gluten free hypochondriacs.

What else could explain why so many people who have eaten regular food for 30 years have all of sudden decided they’re afflicted with celiac disease and need to eat gluten free?

The advice and theories in the world of entrepreneurship and business typically fall into the partially true category but, because they directly affect your life and livelihood, can end up being the most expensive lessons of all.

The biggest problem with commonly dispensed advice is that it almost always suffers from selection bias. People will tell you things like, “Everyone who’s ever achieved their dreams put it all on the line.”  Okay fine, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who put it all on the line achieved their dreams. You just don’t hear from the vast majority of people who crashed and burned. Such advice wouldn’t sound so good if you knew how many people took their best shot and ended up losing everything, would it?

When it comes to business theories, things like lean, scrum, social media, and most other fads aren’t technically wrong. In fact, most of them have a lot to offer that is right. The danger comes from dogmatic Kool-aid drinking practitioners, who would have you believe that their particular business religion is the universal gospel. If their methods really were a guaranteed path to success and universally applicable, wouldn’t they have used those methods to start multiple successful billion dollar companies? It just doesn’t hold up.

Many people think that being skeptical is the same as being grumpy or pessimistic. This isn’t true at all. Skepticism is simply a matter of questioning things. We would all do well to question everything, including ourselves.

If you ever meet someone who claims that their beliefs or methods are the absolute truth, or if you yourself ever feel like you have everything figured out, remember the famous Bertrand Russell quote, “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]