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6 January 2020

Flogging a dead horseradish: “The Game Changers” got a lot wrong, but are you completely guilt-free? Part 3.

by Lyndon Purcell 0

You really are a glutton for punishment In my previous two pieces of this series I discussed the concept of truth, how easily misinformation manifests and the truth deteriorates, how simplified methods of truth-seeking (such as reversing what is “wrong”) is not likely to yield better outcomes and finally, the notion of seeking truth for…

You really are a glutton for punishment

In my previous two pieces of this series I discussed the concept of truth, how easily misinformation manifests and the truth deteriorates, how simplified methods of truth-seeking (such as reversing what is “wrong”) is not likely to yield better outcomes and finally, the notion of seeking truth for its reliable utility.

Today I am going to continue this exploration of what is true, real and valid, again using The Game Changers documentary as the centrepiece of our investigation. However, the level at which we explore the topic today won’t be philosophical, but instead psychological.

While I can’t say there is one major uniting theme to all that can be found beyond this point, what I can say however, is the following were all things that sprang to mind as relevant “teachable moments” while I watched the documentary. 

So bare with me if what is discussed today seems a little tangential at times, but I can say it has all been done with the intention of instructing.

I have no doubt there are many things that I missed, however I wanted to use these moments to expound a little further on some things regarding rationality and the consistent “flaws” in human cognition. I figured you might find it useful in your own quest for improving your own thinking and the outcomes it generates. 

The following is a list of six things included in the film that one should be wary of if they are truly looking to consume information in a critical manner.

Things That Make You Go Hmm

1. The disclaimer

“The statements expressed in this film are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice”.

This was the very first thing that appears on the screen once you press play, yet everyone ate up the subsequent statements like they were mini dim-sims at an open bar.

That was mistake number one.

Disclaimers exist for a reason, and that reason is basically to cover someone’s ass. Why would someone need his or her ass covered? Good question, likely because they are saying, suggesting or doing something that is untrue/risky/immoral etc. Now, it may only be on a minor scale, but it’s still something.

A disclaimer is a subtle warning sign, just because you get used to seeing them everywhere doesn’t mean you should stop taking notice. Sharpen your sensitivity to them.

2. It looks GREAT! 

It is said that beauty is only be skin deep. In fact though, perceived beauty can have a MUCH deeper impact than that, all the way down to literally changing how we interpret reality!

This is what is known in psychology as the Halo Effect [1].

In layman’s terms; the halo effect describes how things that seem attractive/desirable to us, we experience more favourable judgement towards, in unrelateddomains. 

Just like better-looking people are hired and promoted more quickly [2], cute babies are treated more lovingly [3] and small, young pets are adopted more readily than adults [4]. We experience much more general positive emotion towards things that look and sound good. 

So what does this mean in regards to the film?
Cinematically, it is a very high quality film – the camerawork, the soundtrack and the additional imagery all added to the effect. Which, as has been pointed out numerous times now, one should expect when none other than James Cameron helped to produce it. 

You know, the man who helped bring us The Titanic, The Terminator, Avatar… Just a few moderately popular movies that you may have heard of. 

Why is this an issue?

Because the Halo Effect would suggest something like: 

Appealing documentaries are likely to be trusted more easily. 

As the film was an enjoyable viewing experience, with great visuals and soundtrack, we are more primed to look upon its validity and the truth of its claims more favourably. We struggle to compartmentalise its features and discern what is favourable about it, and what is not. 

Instead we form a general impression about the film in its entirety, which is informed by a multitude of factors, and that general impression is used as the anchoring-point for our judgement about any specific aspects of it. 

Now you can reject this claim all you like and convince yourself you aren’t swayed by aesthetics or skin-deep beauty, but the experimental and observational research (like I cited above) indicates otherwise. 

Not necessarily a pleasant reality, but the one which we are confronted with. Ignoring it would certainly just make this fact even more pronounced.

This then generates the question of why does the Halo Effect occur? 

The simple explanation is that it occurs because it is in your brain that sensory information, emotion, what you need to do that day as well as the logic of stated claims, among many other things, are all processed. Once we recognise this, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that we suffer from a slight processing problem where things get a little mixed together at times.

Remember this and keep an eye out for other instances in your life where the Halo Effect might be obstructing your view of reality. 

3. We LOVE a good narrative

Stories are a centrepiece of the human existence. 

Stories are one of the most pervasive of all cultural devices, and are found at all corners of the globe. While we mostly tend to think of stories for their entertainment value, more fundamentally, they convey information—it just that we use that information for entertainment purposes. 

While all tales and narratives convey information, the utility of that information can vary greatly. The most successful stories are ones that continue to be reinterpreted and reinvented, generation after generation, because they convey almost eternal wisdom or insight into human nature, while also being entertaining and coherent. 

Think: Robin Hood, Cinderella, Hamlet or David & Goliath.

The almost miraculous power of story is widely considered to be one of the major reasons that religion, in its various forms, is still so prominent in the 21stcentury. Speaking very generally, the credibility of many religion’s origins as well as the catalogue of historical claims and futuristic predictions made by them have been extensively discredited by modern science. Yet even so, the staying-power of religion is hard to ignore.

Now, I am not trying to admonish religion for its empirical inaccuracies. The point I am trying to make, is that that stories are powerful. Some so much, in fact, that they have played an almost incalculable role in the development of contemporary civilisation. Stories influence both how and what we think—and this is an important point in regard to our purposes here. 

While the following may sound grandiose, in my estimation, stories are the single closest thing we have to a mind-control device. Which is staggering considering the advancements in technology we have experienced in recent history. 

Keep that in mind.

So why exactly are stories so powerful?

The ability of stories to be incorporated into and transform our thinking appears to be related to the way in which our brains process information. Fields such as linguistics have shown that the human brain has an innate tendency impose structure on language—and as an extension of language—the stories, narratives and tales we tell. Language and stories exist in the way that they do because they are products of our brains. On the flipside of this however, stories that we hear are very effective at altering our minds because of the way they conveyed. They exist in a format that is easily uploaded to our human brain, because that is where they ultimately came from.

Conceptually, it’s very similar to writing a computer program on one computer and the ease of which it can typically be uploaded to another.

So while this all sounds nice and all, what exactly is the relevance to critical thinking and The Game Changers?

Quite simply, the documentary was told in a very typical story format. As most in fact are.

The main characters were introduced, their goals and desires were revealed, they encountered an antagonist (namely meat, and the belief of its importance), which they then overcame, besting whatever challenge stood before them and resulting in their own version of a happily ever after.

It sounds silly, but the effectiveness of story telling is hard to discount when you’re trying to push an agenda.

Nassim Taleb details the inadequacy of our cognitive defense systems when it comes to stories in his 2007 book; The Black Swan.

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding”

It is well established in cognitive science that the human mind has an innate tendency to simplify things. It must, as otherwise we would lack sufficient computational power to do anything!

We often criticise people for oversimplifying (in particular those of us who promote critical thinking), but the reality is that it was evolutionarily adaptive to do so. Natural selection has favoured homo sapiens who were quick and decisive. Paralysis by analysis was a great way to end up dead, and thus not continuing your genetic lineage. 

By simplifying things, and embedding the information in a story, the documentary’s message was easily uploaded to the minds of many, many viewers. And by having a coherent and easily understood narrative framework (albeit factually inaccurate), the viewer adopts the message of the film, and as it every effectively creates the illusion of knowledge. 

Let me close this section by emphasising the key point: 

Stories create explanations, and explanations create the illusion of knowledge. 

Don’t let someone ruin good facts with a story.

4. Lack of Sound Reasoning

In today’s tour of human irrationality, we have seen some rather glaring flaws in how effectively we think and reason. This next one is no different.

This point relates to how inaccurate we are at probabilistic and statistical reasoning. 

Case in point; the gambling industry. I don’t think anything more than that needs to be said.

The specific instance of this that stood out to me during the film was the undeniable presence of survivorship bias. Intuitively, we know it is silly to form a conclusion on a limited amount of evidence. Survivorship bias takes this one step further though. 

Survivorship bias is the logical error of forming a conclusion based on only evidence which made it through some kind of selection process.

An example of this would be if we only looked at the people who returned from war, we could (incorrectly) conclude that war is safe.  

We all know this is wrong, however the same illogical architecture is employed in the documentary. 

In order to make an informed conclusion, we must make an effort to look for the data that isn’t as visible as the data that is. The Game Changers exploited our tendency to not do so by concluding that plant-based diet is superior, by only examining successful outcomes of plant-based eating. And most fell for it.

However, as stated, in order to reach a rational conclusion, we need to examine all variables and their outcomes. 

We could represent this relatively simply in a 2×2 matrix

Plant based & Successful Plant based & Unsuccessful
Non-Plant based & Successful  Non-Plant based & Unsuccessful

This is exactly what doesn’t happen in the documentary, which instead focused on only the top left “Plant based & Successful” square and indicated that it was a broadly generalisable data set.

The most represented or easily found information isn’t always the most informative. If you seek the truth, you need to do the work in order to locate it.

5. Logical Fallacies

One of the first things you are typically introduced to in the study of rationality, critical thinking etc. are logical fallacies. Having a heightened sensitivity to detecting these errors in reasoning is one of the most fundamental skills when it comes to holding more accurate beliefs, because if you don’t hold illogical beliefs to begin with, then you don’t have to do the work of trying to rectify them (which requires going against your confirmation-bias and it’s just a really difficult and unpleasant time for everyone involved). 

While there is a large, and quite possibly infinite number of fallacies (as there is an infinite amount of ways which you can incorrectly reason); today we will simply focus on the most blatantly obvious one that appeared in the film.

The most evident fallacy in The Game Changers was the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Although it should be noted that it’s presence certainly isn’t isolated to the content of concern here. The Latin-mouthful that is the post hoc ergo propter hocfallacy is more easily understood once translated to “after this, therefore because of this”.

This is recognised as a fallacy, or faulty reasoning, as just because something occurs before something else, isn’t sufficient grounds to claim that the earlier thing caused the latter thing.

We can examine this line of reasoning with what is known as a syllogism.

Premise 1: I removed animal products from my diet and went “plant-based”
Premise 2: My health, performance and vitality improved
Conclusion: The removal of animal products for “plant-based” alternatives caused my increase in wellness

So while this makes sense on face value, you need to look at things a little more closely and critically in order to determine their validity. As mentioned above, just because something followed or came after something else, doesn’t mean that it was caused by the initial thing. We can recognise this as erroneous logic with any number of hypothetical or real examples that require nothing more than common knowledge.

For instance:

I went home from work yesterday because I was sick. That morning I ate my breakfast at the bench instead of at the table as I normally do, therefore eating at the bench made me sick.

Anyone older than about 8 years of age would have enough of an understanding about illness and the immune system to know that this is undoubtedly false.

Because we only need one instance of this form of reasoning to be shown as false in order to determine that it alone is not sufficient to support a conclusion, we have now demonstrated why the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy exists.

So, let’s just incorporate that information into our knowledge base as we review the basic tenet of the film: 

So-and-so stopped eating meat and started eating more plants and then this great thing happened. Therefore plants are amazing and meat is terrible.

Unfortunately, the individuals responsible for making the documentary are either unaware of logical fallacies, or they were aware of them and instead wilfully misrepresented the truth. Whichever way you slice it, I don’t think that looks good. Topics that are as critically important as an individual’s health (let alone ones that are as contentious as climate change and ethics) shouldn’t be pontificated on by the logically uninitiated or the unethical.

6. More Logical Inconsistencies

Athletes are competitive people; they want to win. If an athlete really had found a winning formula, how likely are they to share it do you think? 

Say for example, an athlete had found the key to success was a plant-based diet. How likely do you think they would be to begin spreading that knowledge through an international medium?

I mean, I don’t know for sure, so I’ll let you decide that one yourself…


I’m going to leave it there. 

The point of this post isn’t to nit-pick every flaw of the film, from the major all the way down to the minor. The intended point was to illustrate some (hopefully) interesting examples and information that is useful to know if you wish to consume the documentary (and other sources of information) with a critically equipped mind. Heed the warnings voiced here and learn how to apply them to a broad range of subject matter, you won’t be worse off for becoming more acquainted with the truth.

So to do so, remember the brief lessons discussed today. These were:

1. Be wary of disclaimers. They are small, but significant indications of whatever follows is of some risk.

2. We are all susceptible to the Halo Effect, regardless of whether we feel like it or not. The Halo Effect is the tendency to make favourable judgements about people or things that aren’t necessarily justified based upon some of their other desirable, but unrelated traits.

3. Narratives have a uniquely powerful impact on how and what we think. Stories are everywhere and we need to be extremely careful of which ones we let permeate out consciousness, as they often create the illusion of knowledge, not actual knowledge.

4. Humans are almost woefully disappointing at statistical and probabilistic reasoning. We also need to be aware that the most informative evidence isn’t always the most visible or readily accessible. The survivorship bias is the tendency to only examine evidence which has made it through some kind of selection process, yet this gives us a skewed view of reality.

5. Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning. The most common example found in the film was the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, which means “after this, therefore because of this”. Just because something occurred before something else, doesn’t mean it caused it to occur. The sun came up this morning, but did it cause you to read this article?

6. There are no silver bullets. No single variable can make or break an athlete. However, if there was one, the likelihood of athletes making it public knowledge is about as likely as Donald Trump reading this article.

If you can remember these key things and try to keep an eye out for instances of them in everyday life, you will slowly improve your critical faculties and you’ll be on your way to becoming a rationality Jedi. So while the benefit of critical-thinking is often promoted uncritically, I still do believe it is a valuable skill, and one which the importance of is only increasing as we begin to enter the information age.

So go forth and hone your truth-seeking apparatus, because the information you consume directly influences the kinds of thoughts you have. The kinds of thoughts you have then directly influence your behaviour. Your behaviour is how you interact with and influence the external world, in which, other people are situated. So in my opinion, if you have a moral duty to do anything, it isn’t to stop eating meat,  it is to try and get your ‘facts’ straight before you do anything else. 

1 – Nisbett, R.E. and Wilson, T.D., 1977. The halo effect: evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of personality and social psychology35(4), p.250.

2 – Marlowe, C.M., Schneider, S.L. and Nelson, C.E., 1996. Gender and attractiveness biases in hiring decisions: Are more experienced managers less biased?. Journal of applied psychology81(1), p.11.

3 – https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-04/uoa-rsp041205.php

4 – https://priceonomics.com/what-kinds-of-pets-get-adopted/

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