Question Motives

Never ask a barber if he thinks you need a haircut. You can apply this down-home wisdom in many ways. In a study of doctors who owned their own x-ray equipment compared with those who didn't, the machine-owning doctors recommended twice as many x-rays to their patients. Hmmm. Curious. They also honestly did not feel that their ownership of the equipment had any influence on their decisions (the questionnaire was anonymous). But when you look at what they were doing, you can see a very clear influence.

These doctors aren't alone. A person's point of view can be influenced by many things, including self-interest or even a good cause they're trying to promote. When AIDS first began to get some publicity, television viewers saw "experts" predicting how widespread AIDS would become in the United States. It was scary. Some of the predictions would have us believe that by the year 2000, half the U.S. population would have AIDS! The most pessimistic predictions turned out to be way off. The basis of their predictions varied from self-interest (trying to get publicity on television) to promoting a cause they believed in (monogamy for example).

If you were a viewer at that time, how could you decide what to believe? Who was more likely to make an accurate prediction? A sex therapist? Not likely. A famous actor? Not a chance. How about an epidemiologist. They study epidemics. That's what they do. And they were far more conservative in their estimations than anyone else. Their predictions are turning out to be the closest to what has actually happened.

You remember the propaganda you got at school about drugs, right? What do you most remember about it? Well, if you actually tried drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana, you probably remember thinking that the information you got was exaggerated. The source of the information was promoting a cause and trying to communicate information to further the cause. People running those information campaigns had a perfectly reasonable, healthy, positive goal: They wanted fewer people to ruin their lives with drugs. That was their motive. But then, in the interest of this justified goal, they distorted the information a little (or a lot) to achieve their purpose.

The "missing children" campaign made the same mistake. In the interest of promoting the cause, they have given the general public the impression that the world is more dangerous than it really is. How? By playing down the fact that most of the kids are taken by one of their own parents. Parents are afraid their child will be abducted by some evil-intentioned stranger, which is a rare occurrence. In order to compel our attention, to make us listen to their message, to encourage us to give them money to pay for their activities, these public-service groups have warned us to watch our children carefully in public places, making some of us more paranoid than the facts justify.

Good people with good causes sometimes justify the means with the ends. If the cause is just, then the means is justified. When I was younger, I used to have a tendency to believe the groups who promoted "good" causes without recognizing that they have something to gain. For example, a company that sells herbal-remedy teas has a vested interest in disseminating information about how corrupt the pharmaceutical companies are. Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in spreading claims that herbal tea remedies are potentially dangerous and should be controlled.

In my naiveté, I tended to believe the underdog, in this case, the herbal tea people, without recognizing that their self-interest is just as strong as the pharmaceutical companies' self-interest, and so equally suspect of being biased. Their underdog status does not prevent them from distorting the facts.

Recently, some employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service were caught trying to mislead people for a "good" cause. The employees of those agencies, quite understandably, are in favor of protecting natural areas from development. But seven of these employees went too far. They apparently took hair samples from a captive lynx and tried to pass it off as a wild lynx in places where the lynx doesn't live in an effort to make it seem like the animal was endangered. Their motives may have been good. But their information was not.

If someone hadn't blown the whistle, certain areas may have become off limits to humans, which is probably what these people ultimately wanted. They were probably trying to protect wild places and wild animals. These are noble causes. But no matter how noble the cause, a crusader has no more stake on the truth than anyone else. Remember that. Be unnaturally skeptical.

Even of me. People who are trying to promote positive attitudes are no more likely to be telling the truth than the cynics. Just because I obviously want you to be happier and healthier and more optimistic does not mean my information can't be biased. So what are you supposed to do? How do you know what to believe?

Wait a minute. Who said you have to believe anything? You don't have to either believe something is true or believe it is false. Those are not your only two options. You have a third possibility: you can consider something as possibly true. You can keep your mind open. You can restrain yourself from doing the easy thing, which is concluding one way or another and closing your mind to the subject.

questioning motives

One way to do that is to question the motives of the source of information. What are they after? What is their purpose? And do not be persuaded any more by someone trying to save rainforests than someone wanting to plow them under. Be skeptical of information put forth by anyone with any kind of vested interest that may bias them. That includes just about everyone.

Does this make you feel less secure? Don't you feel that you should believe someone? That itself is a false belief. You don't necessarily have to "believe" anyone. There is nothing wrong with being uncommitted. People with a vested interest may have convinced you that being uncommitted is the same as being spineless or wishy-washy. They had a vested interest in telling you that. It ain't necessarily so.

Let's look at how skepticism might work in a specific situation. Say you read something about the danger of a certain herbal tea you have been drinking. You don't have to believe it or disbelieve it. You can look into it more, and find out what the dangers are, if it's worth your time. You can avoid the tea until you get more information. Or you might decide that even with the dangers, you are willing to take the risk and keep drinking the tea — yet without making up your mind that the danger claims are false. You can keep drinking the tea while keeping your mind open. You don't have to make up your mind. You don't have to believe or not believe. If the potential danger is extreme and the potential benefit is small, you can decide to stop drinking it while you investigate further.

When I was a teenager, I was trying to get rid of my acne. I tried special soaps and lotions and all the normal stuff. I went to a dermatologist who gave me pills to take and a prescription for a lotion containing vitamin A, which got me interested in vitamin A itself. I thought maybe taking the vitamin might help, so I looked up as much information as I could find about it.

Again and again, authors mentioned that it was toxic to take too much. But how much was too much? They didn't say. It made me careful. I took a moderate dose of 10,000 IUs per day until I could find out more. The moderate dose didn't do anything to my acne.

Finally I found a book that was not trying to persuade the reader one way or another. It simply gave information. It said that doses over 100,000 IUs a day had shown some unhealthy effects on the liver. And when you took too much, your skin would temporarily (if you stopped) turn yellow.

This was an entirely different kind of information. It wasn't designed to scare me. It wasn't designed to encourage me. It was disinterested information; the best kind. I started taking 50,000 IUs a day — five times what I had been taking but only half the dangerous level — and it seemed to reduce my acne considerably.

You notice I said it seemed to have an effect. I am still open to more information. Maybe I was at an age when my acne would have gone away on its own, and it coincided with my taking the vitamin A. I'm still skeptical. I wanted it to have an effect. I had a motive. And I can bias information about myself and to myself just as easily, if not more easily, than information I give to others.

Skepticism is the answer. It is not true that skepticism stops action. Remember that. Remind yourself of it. You can still proceed with the best information you have available at the time, making the best decision you can about what to do while at the same time remaining open to new information. This will help protect you from metaphorical invading lampreys.

the real lampreys

Pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism are like lampreys. They invade your mind in much the same way as real lampreys invaded the Great Lakes.

What happened to the lampreys in the Great Lakes? What became of the native trout? The biologists who work for the fisheries have tried several things. They tried special dams to prevent the lampreys going upstream to spawn. But these were expensive and also blocked other fish. Not only that, they didn't work very well. During the season when lampreys are swimming upstream, the streams are very full, so the lampreys are often able to swim over the dams.

If we may draw an analogy, this might be similar to being too gullible: Believing everything you hear if the person seems to have good intentions. You wind up getting information that creates pessimism in the name of good causes (like parents being more frightened than they need to be of strangers abducting their children).

Biologists have also tried killing the lamprey "larvae" (ammocoetes) with chemicals. The chemical did a pretty good job, but of course it killed other things too, like walleye and northern pike, and even some insects. This might be analogous to believing in skepticism, but taking it too far. You block out good information as well as biased information.

In 1992, the biologists started catching male lampreys, sterilizing them, and then releasing them. They go around mating with the females, who lay eggs that will never hatch. This works far better than anything so far, without the damaging effects on other species. The lamprey population is only about a tenth now of what it was at its peak. It is effective, but not perfect. This is analogous to a healthy skepticism which blocks most misleading, damaging information, and allows good information to come in. It's not perfect, but it's pretty good.

One way to protect yourself from a lamprey invasion is to promote a healthy skepticism. And one way to help you be skeptical is to question the motives of the source. Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.

Read a good book about becoming more skeptical: How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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