One fundamental hallmark of life is the necessity of decision making. In fact, regardless of our age, gender or ethnic background, we would invariably come across scenarios in which we are forced to make choices — Should we agree or disagree? Consume this or consume that? Proceed as advised by our lawyers, or as advised by our relatives?
All too often, however, we get tricked into believing that it’s either one way or the other, or that only a predetermined set of choices are available:
- “Either we support abortion and uphold women’s right, or we condemn it along with the killing of babies.”
- “Is carbohydrate good or bad? Some doctors advocate its consumption while some other researchers warn against it.”
- “Now that people have learnt about the mess shipping oils via train can cause, they generally come to the realization that pipelines are really the only way to go. In fact, transporting oils via pipelines is actually much safer than the way it is portrayed in the mass media.”
- “You really need to take these antibiotics and wash your hands regularly. Remember, an infection can spread all over the body.”
When such a scenario arises, we are said to be in a false dilemma. That is, we are under the impression that only a few choices exist, while there are in fact many other unexplored alternatives. A false dilemma is a special form of narrow-focused reasoning — an oversimplified characterization of a rather-nuanced scenario.
While false dilemma is conceptually easy to grasp, catching one in time sometimes proves to be incredibly difficult. What’s worse, the inability to recognize the presence of a false dilemma could result in one living with the consequences of their own poor choices — be it a minor discomfort, or a lifetime of suffering and guilt.
Pernicious False Dilemma
In the recent years, there has been an increase in the so-called grandparent scams. where people known to be grandparents are contacted by scammers pretending to be one of their grandchildren (or a friend/relative of their grandchildren) via telephone.
In a typical grandparent scam, a scammer could, for example, pretend to involved in a serious car crash which violently broke their legs. They would talk to their “grandparent” with a desperate tone in a noisy and distressful environment, begging for, say, $10,000 of medical fees to be sent immediately via wire transfer. Not surprisingly, the grandparent would usually comply right away with the request, in part because of their fondness towards their grandchildren, but also in part because of the impossibility to promptly verify the scammer’s claims.
In effect, the grandparent-scam phenomena shines a spotlight on the darkest sides of human nature, and yet these scams are, for the most parts, carried out without even physically hurting anyone! In fact, it is with this realization that we came up with the following analysis, on how the scammers inflict damages on their victims:
- Creating a false sense of urgency: regardless of the specifics of the scheme, the scammer would start by setting up a scenario where immediate actions are required — This would prevent the victims from having enough time to accurately assess the situation they find themselves in.
- Instilling fear: irrespective of the details of the scheme, the scammer would cook up a devastating worst-case scenario, which is bound to happen if little action is taken — a tactic commonly used to activate the victims’ limbic brain, prompting them to act irrationally based on the then-acquired fear of disastrous consequences.
- Imposing a false dilemma: Pressured by fear and urgency, the victims are then given an ultimatum. Distraught and with their defense mechanism gone, the victims then quickly comply with the scammer’s demands.
It’s now fairly clear that a scammer’s exploitative effectiveness essentially relies on their own ability to conjure up a specialized form of false dilemma — one that relies on a combination of the above three tactics. And this, is what we refer to as a pernicious false dilemma.
While it’s easy to vilify scammers for deceiving people through the rampant use of pernicious false dilemmas, in real life however, the heroes and villains are intertwined and interchangeable from one minute to another — individuals spreading pernicious false dilemmas need not have malicious intent, and malicious individuals need not rely on pernicious false dilemmas as their primary tactic:
- Surgeon: “Unfortunately, we have detected a lump on your mammogram. You are highly advised to consider undergoing biopsy or even surgery before it’s too late.”
- Devout Catholic: “The Bible teaches that anyone (Catholic or non-Catholic) who has not been born-again will not enter the kingdom of God, but instead suffer everlasting torment in the eternal lake of fire.”
- Professor: “Staying blind is inexcusable when a simple pair of eyeglasses (or contact lenses) with the right power is all one needs to see.”
- Family Physician: “Sir. If you don’t lower your cholesterol, you could literally die from a heart attack!”
- Radical Cleric: “Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”
- Advertisement: “If saturated fat can clog this pipe, imagine what it’s doing to yours.”
Case Study — Pharmaceutical Drugs
There is a systematic medical bias within the medical community when it comes to chronic diseases. For example, when a doctor finds a patient with unusual levels of certain biometrics (e.g., blood pressure, LDL) or a list of unusual symptoms, there is a tendency to jump towards prescribing a drug or recommending a surgery that has been known to work well in the literature (or maybe not!). Occasionally, the doctor might come across some nasty side effects associated with these drugs/surgeries, and ultimately decide to adopt a more minimalist approach when it comes to prescription.
This all sounds reasonable, until we look a bit further: it turns out that the way the medical system is set up and regulated actually encourages (both to the doctors and the patients) the promotion of a certain false dilemma — It is the dilemma that certain drugs/surgeries are the only currently available treatments, and that whether they should be prescribed or not depends on whether the benefits of these treatments outweigh the harms.
Here at The Sustainabilitist, we believe that for chronic diseases, this narrow-focus approach is fundamentally flawed: if a drug or surgery can cause serious side effects, then we think that no matter how miraculous it is in treating certain disease (or the symptoms of a disease), the optimal solution is to break the so-entrenched dilemma and look elsewhere for alternatives that truly address the root causes of the illness in question. To put it slightly differently:
“We prefer to do things the hard way, through researching alternative treatments that involve behavioural modifications and lifestyle changes.”
Here is a former pharmaceutical-drugs sale representative, Gwen Olsen, explaining the scope and the extent of our drug-oriented culture and pharmaceutical malpractices:
Case Study — Eyeglasses
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, it might occur to you to have to go back to the optometrist/optician/ophthalmologist to update your prescription every year or so. Alas, you might even be told that your prescription is the only thing that prevented your myopia/hyperopia from getting worse — unless you want to consider laser surgeries (i.e., PRK, LASIK, LASEK) of course.
Perhaps at some point in the process you might have given this escalating illness a little bit more thought. For example, you might have suspected the role prescription has to do with this gradual-but-steady visual decline — but then, you might just have equally well resorted to blaming your poor-quality genes for causing this terrible refractive error.
As people who have looked into the literature and conducted extensive self-experimentations, we can safely conclude that on matters pertaining to traditional lens prescription, you have been fed a pernicious false dilemma — We will be publishing more and more about this issue as time goes by, but as of now, we can already say this much:
Extensive anecdotal evidence, coupled with several experimental studies involving fish, chicks, rodents, marmosets, tree shrews, rhesus monkeys and humans, strongly suggest that the lens commonly prescribed for myopia (i.e., minus lens) has the tendency to worsen myopia, and the lens commonly prescribed for hyperopia/presbyopia (i.e., plus lens) has the tendency to worsen hyperopia.
Case Study — Synthetic Supplements
Over the years of advancement in nutrition science, we have come to understand that certain nutrients are essential (i.e., cannot be synthesized by the body on its own to a sufficient amount) while others are not. This then led to the creation of the concept of synthetic supplementation, and, before you know — a multi-billion industry is born.
How does a synthetic supplement manufacturer justify the need of supplementation? A typical answer would be that today’s food are devoid of nutrients, and that synthetic supplementation is the only way to correct this potential nutrient deficiency — which would ensue if not intervened.
Except that such arguments avoid the real, fundamental issues that the industry would prefer consumers not to know: how comes that our food are devoid of nutrients? “Because they are grown on soils that are depleted of nutrients, and are then processed extensively afterwards.” But then, how on earth did this soil depletion and ultra-processing happen in the first place?
Actually, let’s focus on something more practical. It turns out that synthetic supplements, for the most parts, convey very little tangible benefits — if any at all!
- “In male physicians aged 65 years or older, long-term use of a daily multivitamin did not provide cognitive benefits.”
- “we found no evidence of an effect of nutritional doses of vitamins or minerals on CVD, cancer, or mortality in healthy individuals without known nutritional deficiencies for most supplements we examined. In most cases data are insufficient to draw any conclusion, although for vitamin E and β-carotene a lack of benefit is consistent across several trials. We identified 2 multivitamin trials that both found lower overall cancer incidence in men (19, 21). Both trials were methodologically sound, but the lack of an effect for women (albeit in 1 trial), the borderline significance in men in both trials, and the lack of any effect on CVD in either study makes it difficult to conclude that multivitamin supplementation is beneficial.”
- “High-dose oral multivitamins and multiminerals did not statistically significantly reduce cardiovascular events in patients after MI who received standard medications. However, this conclusion is tempered by the nonadherence rate.”
Or how about this?
“β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases. Although available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup of the population, we believe that the case is closed — supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention.”
The bottom line, is that we need to acknowledge that nutrient loss doesn’t happen magically, and that by carefully choosing minimally-processed food grown in accordance to Ecological Principles, it is possible to obtain nutrient-dense food that satisfies our daily needs, yet continuing to enjoy an abundance of health and well-being — Remember, we can supplement ourselves with real food too!
As we have seen, false dilemmas are not always easy to detect, especially when accurate information is difficult to come by within a relatively short timespan. Given this limitation, it is therefore necessary to develop some kind of immunity towards (pernicious) false dilemmas, by learning to recognize some typical patterns and déjà-vus that might have otherwise slipped through our critical thinking radar: does it appear that an ultimatum is being imposed? Does it feel like someone is, intentionally or unintentionally, hiding other viable choices away from us? If so, we should inform them that we simply need more time to reach a sound decision/conclusion, and then take charge from there!
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