Saturday, August 7, 2010

What's the harm? This is why science is important.

This is exactly the kind of thing that depresses me about humanity. To sum up:
A COUPLE allegedly tied up and tortured a teenage employee because a Vietnamese fortune teller told them she stole from them, a Darwin court has heard.

Nhung Tri Tran and Trien Tran pleaded guilty to assaulting Leilani dos Santos on February 17, but not guilty yesterday to threatening to kill her and depriving her of her liberty.

...a Vietnamese fortune teller told the couple the person who had stolen the handbag was close to them, and was someone they loved.

Ms Tran also allegedly told Ms dos Santos they would cut off her fingers, but they loved her and would inject her with heroin, so she would not feel it.

Ms dos Santos said Mr Tran beat her in the back with a meat cleaver, threatened her with a samurai sword and burnt her arm with a cigarette.

Ms dos Santos said the couple had a Lady Gaga CD playing loudly.

There are a few things to this story, but one that jumps out at me is regardless of how much she stole, there's no justification for being subjected to loud Lady Gaga. This is exactly my problem with non-evidence based world views: it's not the everyday people that go around doing insane things, but as long as this kind of irrational, delusional belief is encouraged, we leave ourselves open to just this kind of abuse. Those in the "psychic" industry need to be more responsible (I'm looking at you, Sylvia Browne).
Granted, the egregious abuse in this story may be telling of a serious mental health issue, suffered by the Trans, or even dos Santos- that's beside my point. I'm not interested in placing guilt, or even blame- the fortune teller had a job to do, the Trans had a business to run, and the victim is right to sue for damages.
What I want to examine is the kind of person that could take something like this seriously. Why would anyone even believe in a fortune teller, for one thing? For the exact same reason one believes in magnet therapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, witches, or breaking mirrors for bad luck (or glasses for good luck). Because they've been told it's true. That's all it boils down to- and society plays it off as harmless, which it is, most of the time. Most Christians I know go to doctors, and get vaccinated (even if they refuse to accept the theory of gravity).
<> There are lists of cases as long as my arm where kids are neglected to death, or even murdered, by their parents because of their ridiculous beliefs. When people take homeopathic talismans to protect them from malaria. Men in Africa sleep with virgins to be cured of AIDS (also, see the even more depressing dissenting opinion here). Vultures are hunted to near extinction for gambling on soccer. Rhinos are killed to make ineffective potions against arthritis. Tigers are killed to make manly wards.
So yes, I get upset when otherwise intelligent people ignorantly ruin our planet, kill our innocents, or spread disease needlessly, because they want to believe in superstitious drivel.
< /Rant >
I feel that people believe this sort of nonsense because of the way we're wired. I'll use myself as an example, though according to studies of human beliefs, many people fall into these (and other) traps. 1.) I know that if someone tells me something confidently, I'll be inclined to believe them without trying to verify it. 2.) Similarly, if I hear something multiple times, or I read it in several places, I'll be inclined to believe it. 3.) I also know that if I already believe something, or am inclined to believe it, that I'll tend to remember the things that confirm belief.
I could go on, but let's stick with those three.
1.) Obviously, this is a terrible reason to believe something! And yet, most of us will, and salesmen and preachers alike take full advantage. There are two things I do to avoid this tendency toward blindly obeying. First, I avoid making decisions when caught up in the moment. I give myself a chance to cool off and think about my actions. Second, if I catch myself doing this, I do research to find out whether it's justified.
2.) Just because a billion people believe something, doesn't make it true. One thing that makes this one so dangerous is because of our tendency to gossip and spread rumors. When at all possible, I go directly to the source, if it's about someone, or I verify the story with multiple sources (as above, when I mentioned the dissenting opinion on the virgin cure of AIDS myth).
3.) This is also called confirmation bias, and this one can be tricky to countervail. To do so, I must, on a regular basis, actively seek out dissenting information and re-evaluate my beliefs on a given topic. For instance, after catching myself uncritically repeating the above AIDS myth, I've done some more research- and sadly, it holds up.
The dissenting story was saying that the infant rape in South Africa had nothing to do with the Virgin Cure myth- it still exists. People believe you can cure an STD by transferring it to a virgin. And that's the harm.

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