Baloney Detection 101 – Self-Deception

Foolish young kitteh...  ...fools himself
Self-Deception is extremely common, and it can often lead us to believe that something is true when it’s not and valid when it’s actually fallacious. It’s extremely difficult for most people to avoid in everyday experience, and sometimes no matter how evidently false or rationally unsound a belief is to others, it’s a primary means of vindicating it to ourselves.

It’s far easier to fool ourselves than it is to fool others, because most people aren’t as introspective as they give themselves credit for. Thinking that one is infallibly self-honest and in general immune to gulling oneself is itself the result of self-deception and a time-tested and reliable way of letting down one’s guard and opening the floodgates for more of the same.

Although self-deception can make us feel better when we are overly critical of ourselves, most psychologists and mental health professionals agree that self-deception is generally a Bad Thing™.

One consequence of it is that the actions that we commit based on it are derived from a fallacious, flawed, incomplete, or outright false view of ourselves or the world, and such actions are consistently unsuccessful.

There are a host of personality elements involved with self-deception, including personal or ideological  bias, self-interest of varying degrees, anything we really want to be true, any petty personal insecurities we may have, all of which, often together can powerfully and sometimes irrevocably influence our will, our very need to believe, and not in a way beneficial to us, especially when the insidious effects of personal experience play an important part in the process.

Deceitfulness, irrationality, or simple personal circumstance can motivate the beliefs that result, since not all of us come equipped with, or take the opportunity to acquire, the mental toolkit for critical thinking needed to make valid or correct conclusions based on our sense data, past experience, and personal knowledge-base.

When it comes to the possible uncritical acceptance of unusual or otherwise questionable claims, there are a few things that need to be carefully considered:

  • Confirmation Bias — the tendency to seek out and give more notice to whatever confirms our prior beliefs, and avoid or downplay that which doesn’t…
  • Selective Thinking — the tendency to pay attention to and remember events we consider significant and meaningful to our beliefs, and to ignore and forget that which doesn’t. This is sometimes oversimplified as ‘counting the hits and forgetting the misses,’ though it can involve paying attention to and remembering significant negative events as well, as long as they are personally meaningful…
  • Apophenia — the tendency to see significance and patterns that do not exist in random noise and incomplete data…

For these reasons, science places a heavy but appropriate emphasis on controlled studies, especially randomized ones, requires reliable replication of reported phenomena by unaffiliated researchers, employs double-blinded — even triple-blinded — testing procedures, makes use of evidential criteria that are clearly defined beforehand, and finally, fully and openly accessible data and whenever possible, detailed procedural records.

There are a lot of people who are convinced, wrongly of course, that having a string of letters before or after their names and world-class intellectual brilliance in general instantly gives them complete immunity to fooling themselves, when in fact this just lets them be better at making up convincing rationalizations for themselves.

So, being a genius doesn’t by any means provide protection from gullibility. In fact, it can make it worse, especially when combined with an unhealthy amount of arrogance. There are a lot of amazingly intelligent people who are nevertheless quite easy to fool — though they’re incredible when it comes to skill with technobabble handwaving. Fnord.

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