20 September 2012

The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.

Ben Okri

As the elections draw near, I am constantly reminded of the class that everyone should have taken all four years of High School. The class is titled "How to tell when people are bullshitting you." Instead of beating around the bush, and hoping that kids develop critical thinking though some mysterious combination of math, science, history, and literature, we should just teach the subject directly.

The syllabus of the class would contain probability and statistics, psychology, magic, and con artistry.

From probability and statistics, kids would learn to call bullshit when people use statistics in an incorrect way, which is what happens most of the time. Eventually, we wouldn't have to suffer through all those terrible Allstate commercials, because they wouldn't work on informed people.

From magic, kids would learn how easily we can be tricked through misdirection, false choices, and outright lies.

Through psychology, kids would learn the ways that our brains set us up to fail in certain situations, and how people take advantage of our biology to constantly bullshit us. Whether it's concepts like learned helplessness, or appealing to our emotions instead of our intellect, people are consistently trying to subvert our brains to their own purposes, and without knowing psychology, there is no way to call bullshit.

Con artistry is interesting to study, because it combines so many methods of trickery into one complete package. If you have never gone to a palm reader or psychic, I highly recommend that you try it out. Then, after you are shocked and amazed by your experience, go read a book on cold reading. Then go back to the psychic.

In fact, the entire industry of psychics, tarot card readers, and other charlatans would disappear if people were just exposed to the concept of cold reading in high school. This is an exploitative, multi-billion dollar a year industry, which is targeted at the poor and uneducated. There are countless examples of people losing all their money and destroying their relationships because of a disease that education should have inoculated them against.

As they say in the X files, the truth is out there, and we have the capacity to work together and overcome the big challenges that we face as individuals, and as a society. However, without the tools to wade through all the bullshit and discover the truth, it is not going to be easy.