The Common Belief Fallacy

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Back when Shakespeare said you were the paragon of animals, both noble in reason and infinite in faculties, he did so during a time when physicians believed the body was filled with black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, and all sickness and health depended on the interaction of those fluids. Lethargic and lazy? Well, that’s because you are full of phlegm. Feeling sick? Maybe you’ve got too much blood and should go see a barber to get drained. Yes, the creator of some of the greatest works of the English language believed you could cure a fever with a knife. 


It’s easy to laugh at the very wrong things that people once believed, but try not to feel too superior. My friend Susannah Gregg was living in South Korea and working there as an English teacher when she first learned about fan death, a common belief among people in that country that oscillating desk fans are among the most deadly inventions known to man. She was stepping out for a beer with a friend when he noticed, to his horror, she had left her fan running with her pet rabbit still inside her house. Her friend, a twenty-eight-year-old college graduate, refused to leave until she turned off the fan. He explained to her that everyone knows you can’t leave a fan running inside a room with the windows shut. That would mean certain death. It was shocking to him that she was unaware of something so simple and potentially life-threatening. Susannah thought he was kidding. It took several conversations to convince him it wasn’t true and that in her country, in most countries, no one believed such a thing. She successfully avoided absorbing the common belief not because she was smarter than her friend but because she had already done the experiments necessary to disprove the myth. She had slept in a house with a fan running many times and lived to tell about it. Since then, she has asked many friends and coworkers there about fans, and the response has been mixed. Some people think it is silly, and some think fan death is real. In 2013, despite the debunking power of a few Google searches, the belief that you shouldn’t fall asleep or spend too much time in a room with a running electric fan is so pervasive in South Korea that Susannah told me you can’t buy one within their borders without a safety device that turns it off after a set amount of time. The common belief is so deep and strong that fan manufacturers must include a safety switch to soothe the irrational fears of most consumers.

Your ancestors may not have had the toolset you do when it came to avoiding mental stumbling blocks or your immense cultural inheritance, but their minds worked in much the same way. The people who thought the world rested on the back of a great tortoise or who thought dancing would make it rain – they had the same brain as you; that is to say, they had the same blueprint in their DNA for making brains. So a baby born into their world was about the same as one born into yours.

 

Written By: David McRaney
continue to source article at bigthink.com

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    • In reply to #2 by MilitantNonStampCollector:

      The truth is the truth even if nobody believes it. A lie is a lie even is everybody believes it.

      How can it be othertwise? How could it have ever been otherwise? Well, ignorance and superstition for a start; or to employ the supreme euphemism “Organized Religion”.

  1. But some erroneous common beliefs can be helpful- I was on a documentary film crew in Guatemala, in parts rather a jungle, and I asked a local which snakes were poisonous. He answered, “They’re all poisonous.” As unenlightened as I found that, it became my default position.

    If only all such common beliefs were as harmless. The answer must lie somewhere in human DNA and the mutation that provides some of us with bullshit filters is all too rare.

  2. Fan death. Silly Koreans! Fans running in a closed room can’t kill you. They can pop your ear drums from the pressure buildup, but they won’t actually kill you. That’s why they oscillate, to help prevent ear drum pressure build up.

  3. I remember play fighting with my younger brother. I squeezed his nose. My sisters were dreadfully alarmed, claiming this would cause brain damage. I claimed this was nonsense. By what possible mechanism could it damage the brain? Three sisters ganged up. Besides the risk was too great.

    CocaCola will kill you in many different ways if you believed my sisters. Peers pass these stories along deadban uncritically.

  4. In reply to #6 by A3Kr0n:

    Fan death. Silly Koreans! Fans running in a closed room can’t kill you. They can pop your ear drums from the pressure buildup, but they won’t actually kill you. That’s why they oscillate, to help prevent ear drum pressure build up.

    Also seems rather unlikely…

  5. The irony about the common belief fallacy is it may be the reason so many people believe something in the first place, i.e. you might only be adopting a belief on its basis because other people have done that.

    • In reply to #9 by Jos Gibbons:

      The irony about the common belief fallacy is it may be the reason so many people believe something in the first place, i.e. you might only be adopting a belief on its basis because other people have done that.

      Yes, we are social animals. Agreeing with each other is often more important than almost anything else.

    • In reply to #4 by rjohn19:

      But some erroneous common beliefs can be helpful- I was on a documentary film crew in Guatemala, in parts rather a jungle, and I asked a local which snakes were poisonous. He answered, “They’re all poisonous.” As unenlightened as I found that, it became my default position.

      If only all such commo…

      I think this confuses epistemological justification with practical advice. It is practical to act as though every snake you meet is deadly because the cost of being bitten outweighs the cost of reacting to nothing. That doesn’t mean the belief is justified: you could just as easily acknowledge that you have to make a gamble based on ignorance. It isn’t even foolproof: if you have a panic attack every time you see a milk snake, or if the bite is merely painful as opposed to fatal, it might become more sensible to be less cautious around snakes, since the relative costs have changed.

      In reply to #9 by Jos Gibbons:

      The irony about the common belief fallacy is it may be the reason so many people believe something in the first place, i.e. you might only be adopting a belief on its basis because other people have done that.

      Yes, it’s self-perpetuating. I believe it because my parents believed it, and my parents believed it because their parents believed it, ad nauseum. I think a big part of it is a commitment to trust those who are close to you, which is why changing one’s mind is so often a battle of wills: at least one side has adopted beliefs from a trusted one, and to abandon those beliefs is essentially to admit one doesn’t trust the judgement of one’s friends and family. In that context, doubting the wisdom of others probably makes them feel arrogant and two-faced.

      I have to admit with hindsight I’m less impressed with this article than previously. It spends much less time actually discussing the details of the fallacy than I would have liked it to, which is a shame because its link was in youarenotsosmart.com, and there they have a list of posts for psychological ideas that are more properly fleshed out.

      A better explanation of the so-called “madness of crowds” can be found in The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, in the chapter on Inner Demons. There, he points out that it can be rational to accept the wisdom of crowds because they usually have had more collective experience than any one individual. It’s essentially the same explanation as that for the division of labour and for specialized expertise. Unfortunately, it’s a two-edged sword.

  6. Practically every German I have met (and that’s a lot since I lived in Germany!) wails “Es ZIEHT” (there’s a DRAFT!) whenever you open a window on a hot day to let in a breeze. It has somehow become accepted wisdom that a stream of cool air over a too-warm body will cause a cold.
    No one ever explained to me the difference between a draft inside a house and a cool breeze outside.

  7. In reply to #16 by Agrajag:

    In reply to #8 by Peter Grant:

    Also seems rather unlikely…

    Peter, you need to turn up the sensitivity on your sarcasm detector a bit. ;-)

    Steve

    Guess so… Problem is it’s not any more ridiculous than “fan death”, so how is one supposed to tell?

  8. Okay now, I can think of many reasons for turning off fans when one leaves the home. Any electrical device, especially older ones, can catch fire. A running fan in a house with no one in it is wasting electricity, etc., etc. Obviously, a fan isn’t going to kill anyone when used in the proper fashion. Running a fan at night might seem like a good idea when the evening is very hot, but sometimes things cool off considerably over night and a running fan might cool you off too much. Of course, I just wake up and turn the thing off.

    • In reply to #20 by prietenul:

      Okay now, I can think of many reasons for turning off fans when one leaves the home. Any electrical device, especially older ones, can catch fire. A running fan in a house with no one in it is wasting electricity, etc., etc. Obviously, a fan isn’t going to kill anyone when used in the proper fashion…

      All of those scenarios seem a little far-fetched to me. The most obvious reason why it’s a bad idea to leave the fan on overnight is because it wastes electricity.

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