Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Who Can You Trust?


HAPPY MEN ARE LESS ATTRACTIVE

It has been proven by leading scientists that happy men are less attractive. However, happy women are more attractive. Have I got your attention? Do you trust me? Do you trust the 'scientists'? Are you going to change your behaviour?

How can you tell what to believe out of what you read, see or hear? Have you believed in something and then lost your belief? Green men from outerspace? Ghosts? Crop circles? God? Have you ever bought a new shampoo/mascara/body spray/car thinking it would change your life/get you the person of your dreams? We are bombarded with information, ideas, views and adverts. It is impossible for us to look into all the information that is thrown at us. How can we question an expert on a complex issue when we are not experts ourselves? Do we just pick and choose what we like to make ourselves feel better and to suit the beliefs we have already?

Often when we are given information we are presented with snapshot of the story, sometimes with an added bias from the person giving the information. Take news articles as an example. News articles are short, punchy and usually have a big bold strapline. GRUMPY MEN = MORE ATTRACTIVE. Although these snapshot headlines certainly do a great job of attracting attention and selling newspapers and other stuff they can often confuse the issue in question. How often do you check a news website to get a snapshot of what is going on that day? How many stories do you read into in more detail? And how many do you discuss with others?

Headlines stick in the mind. A headline might tell you that more carrots may help prevent Alzheimers, next time you are in the supermarket, instead of buying your usual vegetable of choice (let's say peas) you might buy carrots. Companies and organisations know this, obviously and can cook up ‘news’, in the form of dubious scientific studies, equations and stunt events in order to get attention. The example I created is probably harmless enough to everyone other than pea farmers. What if the headline tells you that chocolate, wine or cheesecake contains miracle crystals of health? You might use that to justify buying an extra treat, even if you know you are at risk of diabeties… still harmless? What if the headline tells you that the MMR jab causes autism? Or that climate change doesn’t exists and was created by scientists. Harmless now?

People are aware of these tactics but real news and rigourous scientific investigations get mixed up with the rubbish. How can you pick out what has sound reasoning and what hasn't? The BBC recently had a change in policy, all news articles that mention a scientific study or research link back to the journal of publication, which makes it slightly easier for people to follow up on the story. However, a lot of research is not freely available.  Beauty products do not provide the justification for the claims on bottles of shampoo. Everything is limited, the data is limited,  which leaves everyone else in the hands of ‘experts’.

Time is limited too, how do you know when to be sceptical? Is it worth the effort? Do you believe that you can spot a marketing tactic from a mile off? I am pretty good at it (although it doesn't stop the sales tactic working on me). Do you disregard anything that sounds too good to be true?

I didn't make the grumpy men are less attractive headline up by the way, it's a classic example from The Daily Mail.

At risk of sounding like an advert...If you are interested in delving deeper into stories (and find yourself researching the information behind the headlines) you might be interested in attending a Skeptics in the Pub meeting.. if you don't already, more info can be found here ...

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