YANSS Podcast 034 – After This, Therefore Because of This: Your Weird Relationship with Cause and Effect

The Topic: The Post Hoc Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 3.02.37 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 3.02.37 PM

This episode brought to you by Squarespace. For a free trial and 10% off enter offer code LESSDUMB at checkout.

And by Lynda, an easy and affordable way to help individuals and organizations learn. Try Lynda free for 7 days.

When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grandparents. They, like many Southerners, had a farm populated with animals to eat and animals to help. It was everywhere alive with edible plants – fields of corn and cucumbers and peas and butterbeans and peanuts, and throngs of mysterious life from stumps claimed by beds of ants to mushroom fairy rings, living things tending to business without our influence.

Remembering it now, I can see the symmetry of the rows, and the order of the barns, the arrangement of tools, the stockpiles of feed. I remember the care my grandmother took with tomatoes, nudging them along from the soil to the Ball jars she boiled, sealing up the red, seedy swirls under lids surrounded by brass-colored shrink bands. I remember my grandfather erecting dried and gutted gourds on polls so Martins would come and create families above us and we wouldn’t suffer as many mosquito bites when shelling peas under the giant pecan tree we all used for shade.

For me, the wonder of that life, even then, was in how so much was understood about cause and effect, about what was to come if you prepared, took care, made a particular kind of effort. It was as if they borrowed the momentum of the natural world instead of trying to force it one way or the other, like grabbing a passing trolley and hoisting yourself on the back.

This relationship with cause and effect was not perfect, not that I knew that then. In fact, my grandparents had a collection of books about cause and effect that I adored called Foxfire. They looked like encyclopedias, and they were numbered. Foxfire 1, 2, 3, etc. Looking them up just before writing this, I discovered they were actually anthologies of an old Appalachian magazine. An article in the Christian Science Monitor from 1983 and an entry at the Georgia Encyclopedia website both say the contents of the magazines came from interviews with people who were already old in the 1960s, people from around the South who shared folktales and folk knowledge and folk remedies and methods of borrowing that same momentum that my grandparents busied themselves pursuing.

My grandparents considered the Foxfire books correct and accurate and worthy of study, reference, and reverence. They were second only to the Bibles resting beside the beds in several rooms. They only had one worn copy of each of the Foxfire books, but as a whole they had their own shelf, just outside the kitchen. What could you find inside them? Rural tips and tricks to tackle the harsh wilderness. What you would call life hacks today, except concerning moonshine and planting crops. Some advice was great, passed down for generations and finally captured in an interview for the magazine right at the end of other people’s grandparents’ lives. A lot of the advice wasn’t so great, though as a boy I never noticed any suspicion or skepticism among my family. A hacking cough, said one Foxfire book, could be cured by swallowing a wad of local spiderwebs. That one I remembered. Others I didn’t, but they came hurtling back to me once I looked at the contents on Amazon today. I saw entries on “Snake Lore” and faith healing but also sections on how to make soap and butter, and how to build sturdy log cabins. It’s a mix of things that seemed to work. Some of it true wisdom, and a lot of it completely wrong. Those Foxfire books, and the life my grandparents led, was prescientific and irrational, but most of the time it produced results. The bits that are wrong, and downright bizarre, make me smirk while I push up my glasses from behind this computer, but then I remember that the only time my grandparents visited the grocery store was to buy things like milk, beef, and cheese since they no longer had the energy to deal with cattle. Other than that, well until their 70s, they very nearly lived completely off the land, which is something I couldn’t do today.

The Foxfire books, and the lives of the sort of people whose knowledge is captured within, are another testament to how we have always depended on good-enough solutions to the complexities of decisions, judgments, and reasoning. Whether or not the people practicing these techniques for decades and longer knew for sure they had pinpointed the causes to the effects they were seeking, things tended to work out anyway. Do spider webs cure coughs? No. Does your cough get better after you eat them? Yes. It’s no different than the zillions of remedies I see floating on the web right now from wine to chocolate to gluten abstinence and paleolithic dining. We mess up all the time when it comes to cause and effect, but it usually doesn’t lead to enough harm to notice. In general, over many generations, we’ve gotten by because more often than not the system works well. It might not get you to the moon, but it will keep you alive and full of butterbeans. Also, you might be burned as a witch.

In modern times, when the system hasn’t worked out well, it once led to one of my favorite mental pratfalls of all time. A few years ago, Bill Clinton bought and wore in public a magical amulet.

That’s right, magical amulet. There isn’t a single entry in those Foxfire books, not a solitary nugget of folk wisdom my grandparents could have offered up that is any less wacky than the Power Balance Bracelet. A band of silicone with a tiny hologram affixed to the side that, according to the manufacturer, enhances natural energy fields and provides balance to the wearer as he or she comes into resonance with the hologram. The result? Better athletic performance. Well, that’s what the company used to claim, but that was before they lost a $67 million lawsuit and had to publicly state, “We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct…” Now the company makes ambiguous claims about “Eastern philosophies.” You can find Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints endorsing the enchanted bracelets of power at the company’s website right now. He prefers the black collection made with “surgical grade silicone.”

The Power Balance bracelets were debunked thanks to scientific research, much of it conducted in Australia and Wales. The results showed that they had no more power than any other bracelet charged with meaning and supported by belief. No doubt, most of the contents of the Foxfire collection have yet to receive a similar level of scrutiny.

Who wore the power bracelets in their heyday? At least one former president, a slew of professional athletes, and one third of my uncles. Enough people to make the company more than $30 million in 2011, according to the Associated Press. Presumably, all of them intelligent, reasonable people who had no problem with the idea of a factory that employs wizards.

Still, the Power Balance bracelet is just another in a long line of magical items and alternative cures that people have fallen for since there have been people, and there will be many more thanks to the post hoc fallacy. After this, therefore because of this – that’s the fallacy. It’s a rule of thumb, a heuristic, that guided my grandparent’s farm, filled the Foxfire books, and for the most part got human beings out of the nomadic lifestyle and into yoga, but it isn’t perfect. Whether you go to the doctor for your cold, or you decide to eat a ball of cobwebs, or eat nothing but grapefruit for a week, your cold will get better. Which one then is the true cure? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. That’s our predicament. We are stuck with this weird brain that’s so bad at pinpointing cause and effect that one of us can run an entire country, give rousing speeches that change the world, yet not possess the skepticism required to prevent him from handing over $30 for a hologram with a magic spell inside.

On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, you’ll learn a lot more about the Power Balance Bracelet as we explore the post hoc fallacy, and how it leads to all sorts of things from pressing disconnected crosswalk buttons to rubbing your nipples with frozen cabbage.

At the end of the episode we discuss a recent study that suggests men drink so that their smiles become contagious.

NOTE: Some of this content is material researched for and written about in a chapter in my second book You Are Now Less Dumb.

Links 

DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Alcohol Makes Smiles More “Contagious,” but Only for Men

Sources

• Arabe, Katrina C. “”Dummy” Thermostats Cool Down Tempers, Not Temperatures.” ThomasNet News. Thomas Publishing Company, 11 Apr. 2003. Web. Sept. 2012.

•Associated Press. “Power Balance: Bracelets Don’t Work.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures., 04 Jan. 2011. Web. Sept. 2012. Bathe, Carrlyn. “The Ice Crew’s Lucky Charms.” FOX Sports West. FOX Sports Interactive Media, LLC., 08 Mar. 2012. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Brice, S. R., B. S. Jarosz, R. A. Ames, J. Baglin, and C. Da Costa. “The Effect of Close Proximity Holographic Wristbands on Human Balance and Limits of Stability: A Randomised, Placebo-controlled Trial.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 15.3 (2011): 298-303. Print.

• Callahan, Gerry. “Cheers Wade’s World Back in Town.” Boston Herald 21 May 1993, Sports sec.: 112. Print. Damisch, L., B. Stoberock, and T. Mussweiler. “Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance.” Psychological Science 21.7 (2010): 1014-020. Print.

• “Goran Ivanisevic Quotes.” Goran Online. Web. Sept. 2012. Hutson, Matthew. “In Defense of Superstition.” The New York Times 08 Apr. 2012: SR5. NYTimes. The New York Times Company, 06 Apr. 2012 Web.

•Kaptchuk, Ted J., Elizabeth Friedlander, John M. Kelley, M. Norma Sanchez, Efi Kokkotou, Joyce P. Singer, Magda Kowalczykowski, Franklin G. Miller, Irving Kirsch, and Anthony J. Lembo. “Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” PLoS One 5.12 (2010): E15591. Print.

• Lockton, Dan. “Placebo Buttons, False Affordances and Habit-forming.” Design with Intent. WordPress, 10 Jan. 2008. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Luo, Michael. “For Exercise in New York Futility, Push Button.” NYTimes. The New York Times Company, 27 Feb. 2004. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Murdoch, Jason. “Superstitious Athletes.” CBC Sports. CBC, 10 May 2005. Web. Sept. 2012. “Power Balance Band Is Placebo, Say Experts.” BBC News Wales. BBC, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. Sept. 2012.

• “Power Balance Endorsers, Athletes Who Wear Power Balance Bands.” Athlete Promotions. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Sandberg, Jared. “Employees Only Think They Control Thermostat.” WSJ. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 15 Jan. 2003. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Stech, Katy. “Power Balance Sold to Chinese Manufacturer.” WSJ Blogs Bankruptcy Beat. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 11 Jan. 2012. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Tritrakarn, Thara, Jariya Lertakyamanee, Pisamorn Koompong, Suchai Soontrapa, Pradit Somprakit, Anupan Tantiwong, and Sunee Jittapapai.”Both EMLA and Placebo Cream Reduced Pain during Extracorporeal Piezoelectric Shock Wave Lithotripsy with the Piezolith 2300.” Anesthesiology 92.4 (2000): 1049-054. Print.

• “Wade Boggs.” Baseball Library. Ed. Richard Lally. The Idea Logical Company, Inc. Web. Sept. 2012.

About these ads

YANSS Podcast 032 – Seeing willpower as powered by a battery that must be recharged

The Topic: Ego Depletion

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on "It's Me or The Dog" on Animal Planet

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on “It’s Me or The Dog” on Animal Planet

One of my favorite tropes in fiction is the idea of the perfect thinker – the person who has shed all the baggage of being an emotional human being and could enjoy the freedom and glory of pure logic, if only he or she could feel joy.

Spock, Data, Seven of Nine, Sherlock Holmes, Mordin Solus, Austin James, The T-1000 – there are so many variations of the idea. In each fictional world, these beings accomplish amazing feats thanks to possessing cold reason devoid of all those squishy feelings. Not being very good at telling jokes or hanging out at parties are among their only weaknesses.

It’s a nice fantasy, to imagine without emotions one could become super-rational and thus achieve things other people could not. It suggests that we often see emotion as a weakness, that many people wish they could be more Spockish. But the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio suggests that such a thing would be a nightmare. In his book, “Decarte’s Error” he describes patients who, because of an accident or a disorder, are no longer able to feel silly or annoyed or hateful or anything else. If they can, those feelings just graze them, never taking hold. Damasio explains that these patients, emotionally barren, are rendered powerless to choose a path in life. They can’t ascribe value to anything. Their world is flat. Despite remaining very intelligent and able to carry on conversations, they no longer make good decisions. Former business owners will lose all their money on bad investments. People who used to work from home will become lost in constantly reorganizing their shelves. Not only are their decisions flawed, but reaching conclusions becomes an excruciating process. When Damasio handed one of these patients two pens, one red and one blue, and asked him to fill out a questionnaire, the man was lost. To choose red over blue using logic alone took about half an hour. Every pro and con was listed, every branching possibility of future outcomes considered. Damasio wrote that “when emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.” Judgments and decisions corrupted by bias and passion are the only way we ever get anything done.

Continue reading

You Are Now Less Dumb now out in paperback!

fbbookHere are just a few of the hundreds of new ideas you’ll stuff in your head while reading You Are Now Less Dumb:

* You’ll learn about a scientist’s bizarre experiment that tested what would happen if multiple messiahs lived together for several years and how you can use what he learned to debunk your own delusions.

* You’ll see how Bill Clinton, Gerard Butler, and Robert DeNiro are all equally ignorant in one very silly way that you can easily avoid.

*You’ll learn why the same person’s accent can be irritating in some situations and charming in others and how that relates to poor hiring choices as well as avoidable mistakes in education.

*You’ll finally understand why people wait in line to walk into unlocked rooms and how that same behavior slows progress and social change.

*You’ll learn why people who die and come back tend to return with similar stories, and you’ll see how the explanation can help you avoid arguments on the internet. You’ll discover the connection between salads, football, and consciousness.

LINKS TO BUY

Amazon IB –  B&N – BAM Powell’siTunes – Audible – Google

EXCERPTS

TRAILERS

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.51.41 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.51.41 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.51.41 PM

THE STORY BEHIND THE GOOSE TREES

Before I explain where the idea came from, I’d like to endorse the people who did the hardest work. If you need a video, please contact Plus3. They made the trailers above, and they are great to work with. You can visit their website at http://www.plus3video.com.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 028 – The Sanity of Crowds with Michael Bond

The Topic: Crowds

The Guest: Michael Bond

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns - Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop, Original here: http://bit.ly/1tqXdx6

A scene from the 2011 Vancouver riots, described by the photographer as, “a rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns” – Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop, Original here: http://bit.ly/1tqXdx6

It is a human tendency that’s impossible not to notice during wars and revolutions – and a dangerous one to forget when resting between them.

In psychology they call it deindividuation, losing yourself to the will of a crowd. In a mob, protest, riot, or even an audience, the presence of others redraws the borders of your normal persona. Simply put, you will think, feel, and do things in a crowd that alone you would not.

Psychology didn’t discover this, of course. The fact that being in a group recasts the character you usually play has been the subject of much reflection ever since people have had the time to reflect. No, today psychology is trying to chip away at the prevailing wisdom on what crowds do to your mind and why.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 027 – The New Science Communicators with Joe Hanson

The Topic: Science Communication

The Guest: Joe Hanson

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

I recently collaborated with Joe Hanson of the YouTube channel It’s Okay to be Smart and helped him write an episode about pattern recognition.

The video is all about how our hyperactive order-generating brains can lead to us to incorrect assumptions, and how those assumptions can lead to widespread, social phenomena causing millions of people to do completely ridiculous and futile things, sometimes for generations. In our video, Joe talks about blowing in Nintendo cartridges to get them to work (totally pointless, and damaging), but you can substitute that behavior with a lot of other silly things that we did until science came along and tested to see if we were wrong.

I thought it would be great to bring him on the show and interview him in an episode all about the new science communicators, the people who grew up with Carl Sagan and Bill Nye, who are now watched by millions of people online as they explain everything from why some sounds are scary to whether or not Spanish delivers more information per minute than does English. Most of those YouTube channels get more viewers per episode than any FOX News program. Many YouTube science shows, numbers-wise, are far more popular than Game of Thrones.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 25 – How the clothes you wear change your perceptions and behaviors with Hajo Adam

The Topic: Enclothed Cognition

The Guest: Hajo Adam

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Take the YANSS Podcast survey, win a $100 Amazon Gift Card: http://www.podsurvey.com/yanss

When you work from home, do you produce better results in pajamas or professional attire? Do casual Fridays damage productivity? Does a jeans-and-T-shirt startup have an edge over its business-casual competitor?

Researchers are just now getting to the bottom of questions like these. The answers depend on the symbolic power the particular item of clothing has in the mind of the particular wearer, but the answer to each question is never “not at all.”

Up until now, most psychological investigations into clothing have dealt with how clothes communicate status or facilitate rituals. For instance, if you put a person in a police uniform and have them ask questions or make demands you’ll get completely different results than if you had the same person wear a pirate costume. But what about the person in the uniform or the costume? Are the clothes affecting his or her behavior, thoughts, judgments, and decisions? The evidence collected so far suggests that yes, the clothes we wear affect our minds in ways we never notice. In fact, it’s likely the same person in the same situation in the same clothes will behave differently depending just on the color of those clothes.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 023 – What you can learn about dealing with differing political views from bloodthirsty, warring tribes of children

The Topic: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A photo from the Robber's Cave Study - Source: York University, Toronto

A photo from the Robber’s Cave Study – Source: York University, Toronto

In the 1950s, in an effort to better understand group conflict, a team of psychologists nearly turned a summer camp into Lord of The Flies.

The story of how and why it was so easy to turn normal boys into bloodthirsty, warring tribes (and how those tribes eventually reconciled and became peaceful thanks to brilliantly conceived cooperative exercises) can teach you a lot about a common mental phenomenon known as the illusion of asymmetric insight – something that helps keep you loyal to certain groups and alters the way you see outsiders.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 022 – How we miss what is missing and what to do about it with statistician Megan Price

The Topic: Survivorship Bias

The Guest: Megan Price

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Illustration by Brad Clark at http://www.plus3video.com - available for purchase here: http://bit.ly/1mItekh

Illustrations by Brad Clark at http://www.plus3video.com – available for purchase here: http://bit.ly/1mItekh

The problem with sorting out failures and successes is that failures are often muted, destroyed, or somehow removed from sight while successes are left behind, weighting your decisions and perceptions, tilting your view of the world. That means to be successful you must learn how to seek out what is missing. You must learn what not to do. Unfortunately, survivorship bias stands between you and the epiphanies you seek.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 021 – Christina Draganich explains how anyone can use science as a tool to understand nature, human and otherwise

The Topic(s): Placebo Sleep and Science

The Guest: Christina Draganich

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Photo by Matteo Ianeselli, via Wikimedia Commons,  http://bit.ly/1fAKROj

Photo by Matteo Ianeselli, via Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/1fAKROj

In 1998, The Journal of the American Medical Association published research that debunked therapeutic touch and moved the well-meaning mystical practice out of the kingdom of medicine and into the abandoned strip mall of quackery.

Continue reading

YANSS Podcast 020 – James Burke and Matt Novak ponder the future and why we are terrible at predicting it

The Topic: The Future

The Guests: James Burke and Matt Novak

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

If you love educational entertainment – programs about science, nature, history, technology and everything in between – it is a safe bet that the creators of those shows were heavily influenced by the founding fathers of science communication: Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, and James Burke.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast we sit down with James Burke and discuss the past, the present, and where he sees us heading in the future. Burke says we must soon learn how to deal with a world in which scarcity is scarce, abundance is abundant, and home manufacturing can produce just about anything you desire.

Continue reading