About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, July 27, 2009

New blog by Massimo: Gullibility is Bad for You (.org)

Those of you who know or follow me surely realize that I'm not exactly a guy with a lot of spare time on his hands. Yet, I just launched a second blog devoted to short entries (mostly a paragraph with an accompanying link) to document the fact that gullibility is bad for your health.

The idea came to me while writing my new book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (to be published by Chicago Press in early 2010) and more recently a short column for Skeptical Inquirer (due out toward the end of the year).

The question I was struggling with was: why skepticism? Why am I devoting so much of my time and energy to help fostering critical thinking and generally trying to advance a skeptical outlook in our society? I came up with three related answers:

1. Gullibility (which I think of as the logical opposite of skepticism) literally can kill. Just consider people who are unnecessarily dying of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere because their leaders bought into insane ideas about holistic medicine and Western governments' conspiracies to spread the disease.

2. When it doesn't kill, gullibility opens one up to being taken advantage of both emotionally and financially. The obvious example here is the case of people who fall prey to dubious figures like Sylvia Browne, John Edward, James van Praagh and the like, because these characters assure them that they can get in touch with dead loved ones.

3. Finally, there is what I would call "the Matrix argument." As you might recall, that movie was about Neo, who thinks he is living a perfectly normal life, which turns out to be a fabrication, a virtual world created by intelligent machines mercilessly exploiting human beings. In a crucial scene, Morpheus, who is trying to get Neo to help the resistance against the machines, offers him a choice between a red and a blue pill: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Taking the red pill is not just the only way to make the story in the movie continue, it also is the morally right thing to do. Welcome to gullibilityisbadforyou.org


  1. I clicked on the link and was told the page does not exist - does this mean I've been gullible ALREADY? Blast!

  2. Sorry guys, the frame forwarding doesn't seem to work, but the link now works!

  3. Hi Massimo,
    I think that is an excellent idea. I have a suggestion for it, take it of leave it.

    Why not link a special email for that site where people can send you tips and suggestions? Set it up exclusively for the site so you don't get the suggestions clogging up your other accounts and you could check it at your leisure.

    My first suggestion would be something that has been annoying me a little. "Enhanced Water" or "Vitamin Water" that they are marketing these days. The drinks like Propel Fitness Water are marketed as having "anti-oxidants vitamins". Maybe they do. But the major ingredients listed in order are water and high fructose corn syrup.

    Note, the Wikipedia entry is an advertisement!

    Hey if people want add more vitamins to their, they should go to the produce department and pick up some broccoli.

    The whole vitamin supplement industry thing also should be looked at with a skeptical eye. The recent May/June Skeptical Inquirer article by Reynold Spector called into question the value of vitamin supplements.

  4. Hey Massimo,
    Sorry for the repeat message, but I just was scrolling on to the next article and in the right column is a big fat ugly advertisement for Scientology.org!

    This is probably linked to the New York Times article scroll on the side of your blog. So maybe you don't have any direct control over the particular advertisement.

    However, maybe this is a place to take a stand against commercialization and advertisement propaganda which are things that are the enemy of skepticism?

    Maybe I am wrong, but I can't imagine you really make that much money from letting Google put adds on your blog do you? Maybe the principles of skepticism are more important?

  5. Sheldon,

    yeah, the vitamin water thing bugs me as well. The way I envision the new site, however, is for people to suggest already available online sources, which I will then check and select for special mention. I simply don't have the time to do much more writing myself.

    Suggestions can indeed be sent to a special email address, which appears on the side bar of the new blog: massimo@gullibilityisbadforyou.org

    As for ads I actually do not allow either blog to carry advertisements, I don't make any money out of it, so I'm not sure where the scientology ad appeared. Could you be more specific?

  6. Yes, upon closer inspection the Scientology ad looks like it is connected to the philosophy quote of the day (within that frame). Maybe whoever provides that feed should be told that promoting Scientology isn't such a good idea.

    Looks like you already thought of my suggestion. Maybe I will look for an online debunking of vitamin water and send you the link.

  7. I don't think anything in the grocery store annoys me more than the Air Borne displays. Despite the company being a known fraud the stuff still sells.

  8. "Hey if people want add more vitamins to their, they should go to the produce department and pick up some broccoli. "

    I agree with you, Sheldon. Good quality food is the best defense. If someone has been seriously ill, the uptake of especially B vits and C might be something to consider though. And for some reason a lot of people did not for long time get enough fol-ate or iodine either. If you believe the press on these minerals and vitamins anyway.

    Don't know if this is being gullible, but I've gotten into using sea salt (even tho its lacking iodine) and pro-biotics and therefore yogurt for quite a long time. Don't know if its an indication of eating the right things (I don't always eat the right thing) or not but few months ago my doc said I'm "disgustingly healthy" as he put it.

    Is good health in the genes or in our food? Both probabaly. The five trillion dollar question. Lol!

  9. Well then we agree on something Cal!

    And I wasn't saying that vitamin supplements are never called for.

    However I do know that there are fads and pyramid sale likes schemes out there promoting the sale of vitamins that are pretty much scams.

    I had a friend that was dropping $40.0 or so a week (or month) on vitamin supplements when he could have just made an effort into eating more fruits and vegetables.

  10. A new book. A new blog. You are adding to my information overload Massimo!! I suppose I'll manage. I always enjoy reading what you write. It's always nice to have good things to read even if it is hard to keep up!

    Now eat more fruits and vegetables!

  11. So whatever happened to this venture? (If you have blogged about it since, I donn't recall.) Was the RS podcast what you ended up doing instead?

  12. It just got too much to carry on two blogs...


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