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Do the Science

Many people treat the real world as if it was really simple. They think that what has been accepted as true in the past or is accepted by a large number of people must be true. They think that what seems obvious intuitively must be true. Or they think that something must be true simply because it’s taken seriously by people with the same beliefs as they have (sometimes referred to as people they can trust).

All of these factors are an obvious source of false beliefs in the area of politics and religion and I don’t think I really need to demonstrate this with examples. But what about more subtle things? One of the aspects of psychology which I found fascinating (I majored in psych – along with computer science – when I was at university) was the amazing subtlety required to allow for human biases and behaviours when designing experiments to study social phenomena.

Recently I have heard of a few examples where subtle behaviours have lead to interesting, counter-intuitive results in studies of human behaviours.

Here’s an example: which is safer, riding with a cycle helmet on or without one? It has been shown that, while many helmets don’t offer a huge amount of protection, they are still a lot better than nothing. So the answer would obviously be that it’s safer to ride with a helmet on, right? Wrong! According to at least one study you are more likely to be injured or killed when wearing a helmet. How can that be? Apparently it’s because people wearing helmets feel safer and take more risks. Also car drivers tend to treat cyclists with helmets with less care than those without. So if you do crash the helmet will help but without one you are less likely to crash. Isn’t that interesting!

Here’s a similar example: which season is the most dangerous for driving? Most people say winter because the roads are more slippery, visibility is reduced, and the general conditions are much more difficult. But the answer is summer. More people drive in summer, but more importantly, people take more risks because they feel safer. When the road is icy or visibility is reduced by a rain storm it’s actually safer because people are far more cautious.

So by now you are probably getting the hang of this. Often the obvious answer is wrong because many of these phenomena are controlled by people’s behaviours which depends on perception rather than reality. So let’s try one more. If you are going to spend time in the sun should you use sunblock?

Most people would say yes, although some would say no because they think sunblocks contain dangerous chemicals. I’ll provide another clue here: the chemicals haven’t been shown to be dangerous so that logic fails. But if you took notice of the previous examples you might reach another conclusion: that using sunblock is dangerous because it gives people a false sense of security and they therefore spend more time in the sun.

Combine this with two other factors. First, most people don’t use enough sunblock; and second, they misinterpret the SPF number. Doubling the number does not double the effectiveness.

So people who use sunblock get more skin problems because they don’t use enough, misinterpret the protection it would offer even if they did use enough, and spend more time in the sun as a result. Interestingly, there is no well established link between the most serious form of skin cancer (melanoma) and sun exposure anyway. In fact there are some indicators that some sun exposure might help prevent some cancer, possibly through vitamin D production!

So the real world is very complex. There is no easy way to establish truth through intuition. In real life many factors are at work and all of those need to be taken into account before a real conclusion can be formed. And even then that conclusion should be provisional. The best way to establish what’s really happening is to test the phenomena using a controlled experiment.

The whole mechanism sounds very much like something we already know about doesn’t it? It sounds like empiricism and the scientific method. So the next time someone tells you they believe in god because it says so in a book, or they think right wing politics works because a blogger says so, or that global warming is false because humans could never influence the climate of the whole planet, just remember they are being pathetically naive. To really understand what’s going on in the world you need to transcend simplistic notions like that and do the science!

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