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Pathfinders: Gullibility Travels


  ONE has to feel a bit sorry for Graham Mace who, keen to improve his car’s green performance, bought an online ‘hydrofuel conversion kit’ in the hope that it would save 30 per cent on fuel consumption, only to find that it ran on snake oil instead (‘Fuel boost device ‘does not work’’, BBC Online, 19 Oct).  After chucking £700 at this miracle device he hadn’t saved so much as a dribble of fuel, at which point a BBC investigation revealed the awful truth. It was a con.

  But one wonders at the thinking here. Didn’t it occur to him to wonder why none of his friends knew about this ingenious gadget, why garages or motor suppliers didn’t stock it, or why it wasn’t fitted as standard at the factory? And what possessed him, after shelling out the original £290 with no success, to spend a further £400 on ‘upgrades’ rather than cut his losses? Even if it had worked, he’d have had to drive to Vladivostok and back to make up for the outlay. What on earth was going on?

  Consumer programmes regularly trot out the old standard: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. But throw in a bit of seductive science and the consumer just seems to melt like warm butter, effectively separated from their money and common sense in equal measure. New Scientist notes that dodgy online companies think they can sell anything if they put the word ‘quantum’ in their blurb, like the ‘quantum pulse device’ that powers a ‘human generator’ and retails for a mere €420,000 (17 October). Hard to believe that anyone is dumb enough to fall for this supposed immortality machine, but you would only need one or two gullible net-travellers and you’d be made for life, so such stuff is always worth a punt to the scruple-free.  If people can’t summon the wit to do a bit of comparative research, one feels that they deserve everything they get (or rather, don’t get) for their money.

  Daft pseudo-scientific ideas have been around a long time though. Who hasn’t been assured with huge confidence by someone wearing a copper bracelet that it helps them enormously with their arthritis? But in the first properly controlled trial, at York University, these often expensive jewellery accessories fared no better than placebos (‘Bracelets ‘useless’ in arthritis’, BBC Online, 16 October). What undoubtedly explains the popularity, and durability, of such urban myths is the effect of ‘authority’, whether it comes from one’s peers, one’s elders or one’s newspaper, even though not one of these can be trusted as far as you can throw a grandad or a printing press.

  As the Observer reminds us in relation to current fears concerning the rise of racism (18 October), we are horribly suggestible. We know, for instance, that we would rather give wrong answers than right ones if it means fitting in better (Asch conformity experiment, 1951), that the ‘only following orders’ defence at Nuremberg is more than a mere excuse (the Milgram pain-inflicting experiment, 1961, and the Stanford prison experiment, 1971), and that it’s a whole lot easier to start a Nazi party among liberal students than anyone would believe possible (Ron Jones and the ‘Third Wave’ experiment, 1967).

  It’s not our fault. We’re a social species, with an outsize brain as mad as it is miraculous, and science is about as natural to us as an abacus to a baboon. Gullibility is only another word for ‘faith’ or ‘conviction’, part of the social glue that binds us. It travels by express while reason has to plod on foot. But that’s all the more reason to make an effort with our reasoning capacity, both in buying products and buying into ideas.

Improbability drivers

  WHO would believe -  a vegetarian spider and a stingless wasp? Both of these turned out to be true, in a ‘truth is stranger than April fool’ kind of way, as was the story about the Maldives politicians who held a cabinet meeting under water. While this excellent innovation should be made compulsory for all politicians (minus scuba gear) we look forward to a story about a ‘benevolent species of capitalist’ discovered lurking somewhere north of Basingstoke and miraculously still in business.

  Wackier still is the theory put forward by two CERN physicists, that the Large Hadron Collider is being sabotaged by ripples in time returning from some future cataclysm where, oh cripes, they really do find the Higgs boson and nature revolts (‘The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate’, New York Times, 12 October). That’s the thing about quantum theory. It’s so improbable anyway that theoretical physicists, like celebs, can talk any bollocks they like and still get serious media attention. Maybe we should start talking about ‘quantum socialism’ and thereby grab a few headlines.

Time to call time

  AFTER the runaway success of Europe-wide anti-smoking legislation, much is now being made about ‘passive drinking’ as states gear up for a similar assault on that other popular working-class pastime.
Despite efforts by the UK government chief advisor on health, Liam Donaldson, to incite a wholesome evangelism among the public by tarring all drinkers as potential wife-beaters or lager louts, the concept of ‘passive drinking’ is just not going to hold its whiskey and water.
Anyone who’s ever been in a pub knows perfectly well that wild-west saloon brawls do not break out as a rule nor do most customers get arrested or fall off buildings pretending to be superheroes.

  The fact that more than half the UK’s population ignore the government safety limits on alcohol (Observer, 18 October) may be because a), the limits are too low to be of any practical value and b), the government has banned every other drug for spurious reasons so nobody believes anything they say. The half who stay below the limits are probably lying about it anyway.

  It’s not that there isn’t a problem, of course there is. But the bigger problem is a patronising establishment which, not content with screwing workers into the ground, then presumes to lecture us about what’s good for us using dubious arguments they fully intend to ignore themselves. For let’s not be in any doubt, this is not about anti-drinking among the ruling classes. Let them swill their port and champers and snort their coke until they’re cross-eyed and drooling over the chambermaids. This is about controlling the workforce, saving some police and hospital A&E expenses, and cutting absenteeism in the dark satanic wage-mills.

  Maybe alcohol is the fifth biggest cause of premature death and disability worldwide (New Scientist, 14 October), but workers know damn well that capitalism is responsible for the other four, and that’s what drives them to drink in the first place. Capitalists think they can save money by forcing puritanical self-denial on workers, but with the stress of exploitation we face, we don’t need temperance, we need to lose our tempers.

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