05 February 2014

Beliefs, Assumptions & Communication


"We all know the vast majority of French citizens are against Turkey joining EU", I heard on the radio last week, inspiring today's post. Really, do we all know that? "We all know that [insert pile of merde here]" is one of the most common phrasings to make unwary people believe facts which, usually, aren't facts at all. While I am not going to discuss EU politics today, I thought I could share a bit of my communication background to discuss our beliefs and opinions, and the reliability of information we hear and read every day.

 I remember an argument I had with a family member about Japanese culture some years ago, where her justification against my case was "but I saw it on TV". TV, and mainstream media in general, have an aura of authority. People tend to believe what they hear or read quite easily, because journalists are professionals and did their research. Right?

Without discussing journalist's professionalism, TV is full of many other things than journalist's reports, mainly, advertising, messages sponsored or endorsed by private companies... Most of these have to be biased. What shocked me the most in that video about sugar, is that people have a completely twisted, and medically inaccurate, vision of what a healthy diet is, because they have been fed with false information endorsed by major food companies.

Over the course of our lives, we all gather a certain amount of knowledge - from school perhaps, but also from what people tell us, from what we read, hear or see. We integrate these pieces of information into our belief system, and, over time, tend to accept it as true, even if it has never actually been proven or verified. A valuable lesson I learned from my Master thesis research days is: always verify and double-check your sources. While I do not possess the Ultimate Truth, here are a few tricks that can help spot the merde.

Common Phrases

Communication has rules. And, surprisingly, messages and phrasings are not as obscure as you may think. "We all know that" is a textbook example of communication tricks politicians and other public figures are trained to use. Think about it, if you are given a piece of information that starts with "we all know that", you'll naturally tend to think it is indeed a globally accepted truth, therefore a reliable fact.

"We all know that cow farts kill over 3500 trees a year on the French territory."

That one's huge, but you get the idea. Be careful of wordings that tend to be too assertive and induce that it is common knowledge or proven, without citing any source or data. Other similar wordings can be something like "it is scientifically proven that...", "We have known for a long time that...".

Wording Tricks

Sometimes, it only takes a bit of playing with words, a selection of - often ultimately meaningless - terms to make you assume what it means without saying it explicitly (usually because it's not the case). These communication tricks are used in advertising a lot, since they are bound by law not to lie to consumers.

There is a textbook example in French, the mention 'Sans Sucre'. It means "Sugar Free". BUT, if you write "sucre" without plural, it actually means without glucose. But there still can be other forms of sugar in the product, like saccarose or fructose. You'd have to look for the plural form "Sans Sucres" to make sure there is, indeed, no sugar at all in the product.

In English, the word "flavored" is a perfect example of food communication bullshit. "Lemon flavored" = Artificial flavor. And they usually put a lemon picture on the packaging, just in case the wording wouldn't be enough to fool you. There is a hilarious video from George Carlin on advertiser's words, debunking myths like "authentic", "natural" and other communication flips. As far as food is concerned, the best is just to look at the ingredients list, I'd say.

The Little Annotations and Sources (or lack thereof)

Another way to analyze a piece of information is to read the little mentions, you know, the asterisks. A beauty product ad would say "Wrinkles diminished by 80% in 3 weeks*" and then * says: "auto-evaluation on 29 women". For a study or statistic to be even remotely accurate, you'd need at least 1500 subjects or so. Besides, "self-evaluation", meaning "looking in the mirror", is hardly a reliable way to measure the depth of wrinkles. It is easy to organize the information so that the main message is big and bold, and the little, annoying details are in font size 6 at the bottom of the page. The smaller it is written, the more you'll want to read what it says.

On the same topic, an easy way to assert the solidity of the information contained in an article is to take a look at their sources, if they cite any. A solid demonstration will be based on research, former publications, tests, statistics... It shows how the writer formed their conclusions and got this information they are feeding you with. Granted, not all types of articles can be full of sources, it applies better to scientific papers, or articles that mention facts and numbers, but is does show if the writer is thorough in investigating their own sources.

For example, I am a regular reader of Beauty Redefined. If you take a look at most of their articles, you'll see some annotations with a "references" paragraph at the end, listing the sources they got their information from. I'm not saying it means we should believe them blindly - knowing sources doesn't prevent from critical analysis - but at least, I know their opinion is based on something solid, and not endlessly repeated assumptions with no basis whatsoever.

As a counter-example, a couple of media or public figures cited information from Le Gorafi (all French links). For non-French speakers here, le Gorafi is a humorous news site which only publishes absurdities as a way to mock the current hot news. I wouldn't trust the source-checking ability of these media and persons, who take this obivously satirical material as sources for their own serious articles.

Ask Questions

We turn a lot of assumptions into beliefs through day to day conversations with people around us. I don't know about your culture, but in France, we love to debate and argue on anything and everything among friends or family members. From "the future of our economic system" to "which Mass Effect is the best", We love to confront our opinions.

What I personally like about these debates, is that I get to hear other people's views on things, and nuance my opinions in the light of this different world view. However, how to assess the other person's opinion, or rather, the beliefs that lead to that opinion? Sometimes, it only takes a couple of questions to see if the other person's argument is solid, or if it is based on assumptions.

My fiancé hates when I question everything he says. I remember a political discussion over a Christmas holiday lunch, where he said "M. XX is stupid". (I don't remember which politician he was talking about). I asked: "Why do you think he is stupid?" And guess what? He didn't even know why he believed that. He probably just repeated what he heard. Can you imagine how many absurdities become beliefs, if we accept everything people tell us as a fact, without actually checking it?

As A Conclusion...

I sound like a conspiracy theorist, don't I? Contrary to what this post may lead you to assume, I am not spending my days checking every single fact from articles I read or interrogating people I talk with. I think spotting a few tricks and clues such as the examples above are a good and easy start to become more critical about information.

I just wanted to touch on that topic and raise the question of the critical analysis of the information we receive everyday. After all, we base our choices and actions on the belief system we create from these pieces of information, so I think it is important to make sure they are solid. Don't you think?


  1. Great post! Although I wonder where you got the idea that "For a study or statistic to be even remotely accurate, you'd need at least 1500 subjects or so." I'm a researcher in everyday life and I use statistics every day. This is not actually true, the number of subjects you need depends on your research design and hypothesis, etc. Besides for that, however, I really loved the post. Keep up the good work!

    1. I agree that it depends on research design, hypothesis and so on (and definitely finances!!!). It also depends on what kind of science it is (natural sciences or social sciences or...). But honestly I can't think how testing a cosmetic formula on 30 women will really give any significant answers. 30 people are still too few to make a double-blind study representing as many lifestyles as possible and considering co-variables like biases, effects like the "science effect" (oh, here are scientists trying a new scientific formula on me, it just has to work, right?) as well. But what probably is more important, is how they chose the samples. Did they choose women of all kinds of lifestyles and skin types? Did they have a placebo group?
      What kind of research do you do?

      The number n=1500 is the ideal sample size (or rather n=2000, at least here in Austria). You will get 100% accurate results. However, finances are often a problem, that's why pre electional research often has samples sized n=400 here in Austria. That means, the data will give a quite good direction, but will not be very accurate (apart from the fact that people can change their minds until the election).

    2. I meant, the ideal sample size in social sciences, when the research is about the whole population. I vaguely remember that the (ideal) size of the sample has to be 10% of the (assumed) subject size (not sure about the correct english word)... Something like that. I should look it up, shame on me. I studied Sociology once, but I may have forgotten some things in the meantime... I heavily focused on qualitative methods.

    3. Haha already doing some field application of my own pieces of information? :) I get this number from our statistics classes - it applies indeed to the specific type of statistic that aims to turn the global average into something that is applicable for a single individual. Meaning, if 1500 women have an average reduction of wrinkles of 80%, you can start to infer that you, individual woman, could have a reduction of wrinkle of about 80% (with margin error). But, even if the measurement method was reliable, having a sample of 29 women doesn't guarantee at all that you, as an individual, will show the same result. If you are a researcher and use statistics everyday, I can assume your information is more reliable than mine though. Thanks for the note!

    4. I see further responses popped up while I was slowly typing my babble. I didn't know the number was 2000 in Austria, I guess that, depending on the research field and size of the population studied, teachers/statisticians have to pick an arbitrary number which ensures a minimal margin of error. To specify, my statistic classes applied to marketing/sociology, not hard science testing.

      I also agree that it depends a lot on how the women are chosen - the test sample must be large enough to have, statistically, a number of possible variations in health, consitution, age, lifestyle etc. 29 women, probably paid by the brand to use cream, offered by the brand, and assess the evolution of their wrinkles in front of a mirror doesn't sound very thorough...

  2. This is another great post, Kali!

    I didn't know that about the s on sucres, that's really sneaky! I have a food allergy so I read all labels carefully. It's amazing what I've learned since I started doing that!

    Another communication trick that I see a lot, and often it is sloppy writing as opposed to intentionally deceitful, is when people say something like, such and such cause five hundred deaths without stating a time frame. Is it per year? Since data was first recorded? Per day? It's easy to make numbers look huge or small

    1. Ah, number manipulation! I should have mentioned this in my post! You are right, another commonly used communication trick is to put our numbers out of an actual study, but omitting the context or twisting the way numbers are displayed to make them bigger or more important (or less big and important).

      One typical trick is to use percentage. "Consumption of coffee increases armpit cancer by 30%". 30% sounds like a lot, people imagine a third of the human population already. But it is an *increase*, which means it is only 30% more than was before. If 3 persons had that particular cancer, a 30% increase means only one more person.

      Also, as you mention, there are the number out of their context, with no precision of the time period of population considered. For example 200 deaths by shark in one year across the globe doesn't sound like a lot. But 200 deaths by shark in one day in a village of 500 persons is quite big.

      Pseudo-scientific arguments in advertisments and other propaganda often use the numbers trick. I think Jess, from the blog Empty Emptor, analyzed a whole report from H&M concerning their "commitment to ethics" and it was full of that kind of number manipulation, among other communication tricks. Politics love number manipulations too, when it comes to crime percentages, unemployment rates etc.

  3. I love your critical and very thought through posts! My sensitive skin (atopic eczema) and my vegetarian/vegan diet made me learn to read labels very carefully. I've always loved DIY, including making my own cosmetics, so I actually know what xanthan, cetyl alcohol and sorbit is (first one: thickener, second one makes a light feeling texture, third one is a moisturizer). When I buy shampoo I totally ignore the front of the bottle, I go straight to the ingredients list.
    In my opinion, we all should at least try once to make our own products, so we learn about how it works, so we can make better decisions. Maybe it even becomes a new beloved hobby.

    The tricks really are amazing. I laugh the hardest at advertising trying to be scientific. People with glasses and white laboratory coats presenting totally meaningless sinus (or exponential) curves without naming the x and y axis, no numbers, no units. :D Sooooooo, if I buy your toothpaste, my sinuses go uuuup, and doooooown, and uuuuuup and doooooown and... what?
    Or TV-shows that are pure advertising, but masking it as "scientific" product testing. Can't tell you how glad I am, not owing a tv since 2006... Visiting my parents can be extra fun, sitting in front of their tv and having fun with bullshit analysing :D

    1. A lot of people are actually turning to DIY these days, it seems. Whether it is about clothing/interior decoration, cleaning or beauty products, food... Lately, knitting is in the air in France. Some of it may be another trend, but I think this also stems from getting crappy products from unknown origin with opaque contents or fabrication methods - and which is getting more and more expensive. I find it ironic though, because a lot of these DIY recipes were used by our grand-mothers before the expansion of the consumerist society. The main barrier to DIY may be the lack of knowledge and time though.

      "Scientific" ads are really the funniest, when you know how little there is behind it. I bet the "Sensodyne expert" with his glasses and white blouse in the toothpaste ad is the marketing brand manager haha.

      I am astonished at how people really believe it though. I think I've already mentioned this anecdote in former comments, but a colleague of mine used to work for Nestlé and conducted a study on La Laitière yoghurts.

      In France, on the "La Laitère" ad, you see the French Revolution and people screaming in the streets, and you see a milk-maker woman (une laitière) stirring a big cauldron-like pot with the yoghurt in it. The Révolutionnaires smell the milk and vanilla from the yoghurt, and they abort the storm of the Bastille to eat yoghurt instead. (I found a newer version of the ad here to give you an idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ewTes2yGlo)

      Well, in my colleague's study, over 50% of the interrogated subjects thought the yoghurts they bought in the supermarket were *actually* hand-stirred by a Laitière! Over. Fifty. Percent. Can you imagine the lack of education and knowledge of the average population?

      That is a bit condescending, but that reminds me of a George Carlin quote: "Think about how stupid the average person is. Can you imagine 50% of the population is actually stupider than that?" Although I personally believe that there is no such thing as inherent, fatal "stupidity". It's just a lack of education and awareness, in my opinion.

    2. Somehow I ask myself if there is some unconscious general adapting to the possible future in the air, when I see how trendy DIY is at the time. I strongly believe in the reduction of working hours as one important method to reduce many problems we face now (mass unemployment, burn out, scarcity of resources etc.). This also means that we have to do a lot of subsistence work by ourselves again, when we all are just employed for 20h. The post-growth society is something we hopefully are heading to sooner or later, so it's a good sign when not only the intellectual elite rediscover DIY and most importantly: have damn good fun with producing and repairing our own things :)
      I wonder what part advertising will play in such a world...

    3. That's a very interesting debate, I'm always wondering what our post-consumerist society will look like, and what I would like it to become. I even have some short story ideas and drafts in the sci-fi/dystopia genre - probably nothing original though. I agree that it would help a lot to distribute work more equally, diminish hours, and be more self sufficient in some aspects.

      I think there needs to be a return of certain local expertise too - people always tell me that without consumption/growth there wouldn't be work, but I don't agree. We could bring back specialised repairmen, small craftsmen stores which are more specialised than supermarkets but offer an expertise. You know, have more hand-made, tailored to needs objects, which would be much more expensive than the Chinese mass market stuff, but would be exactly adequate to personal needs, and would last a long while, by taking it back regularly to the craftsman for repairs and improvements. If it makes any sense. Again, that's not inventing the wheel, that's probably how things happened before the mass production era... But that would take a LOT of reshaping of values and mindsets, as people today are not ready to pay what expertise and work really costs.

    4. Exactly my hopes! Fact is, the connection between GDP and employment rates is flawed: In Europe the GDP grows, but so does unemployment... I'm getting really angry at any politician who tells me, we need more growth to secure employment! More growth, more advertising, more buying, consuming, consuming up all our planet. I'm sick of it. Gladly, so many people are.

  4. Just a note on the stats and detecting statistically significant differences, you need to do a power calculation to determine what level of confidence you have in the sensitivity of your test to detect whether your sample data differs from a null distribution, and to know whether to reject or reject the null hypothesis (that there is no effect). You would also need to consider your data, i.e. what you're measuring and how. With the beauty product example, if you had one group of women use the product (presumably containing some purported "active" ingredient) and another group use an inactive "placebo" cream, you would have less statistical power to detect effects than if you had one group of women use the product and then also use the placebo (or the reverse), so you would need bigger groups if you've got the two experimental conditions spread across different groups of subjects rather than within the one group of subjects. If you try to measure effects using continuous variables (e.g. the number of wrinkles, or the depth of wrinkles, or whatever) you would have more statistical power than if you use discrete, categorical variables (e.g. rate the impact of the product on your wrinkles as "no change" vs "minor improvement" vs "major improvement). Lots of factors determine the ideal sample size, so there isn't a hard-and-fast rule to go by (like that whole "sample size = square root of the population you're interested in" thing). I'd hazard a guess that a good study could easily be done on a couple of hundred people, if done the right way. I think people are often surprised at how few subjects are sometimes needed to have a good level of confidence of detecting any meaningful effects - my current study at work involves a comparison of two groups of 15 subjects each, and the mother of one of the kids who is in one of the groups is an economist, so she knows all about using statistics to determine relationships between variables, and she thought it was insane that we had so few subjects per group, but hey - we do know what we're doing, haha.

    But you are absolutely right in that basically no product evaluations conducted by brands are carried out in an empirically sound way. I mean, frequently the product itself is not even scientifically viable (e.g. the Lancôme mascara that had stem cells in it - anyone with a basic understanding of biology would know that, if there are stem cells in that mascara, they died long ago and broke down and are absolutely useless to the consumer, and even if they were alive, there's no way in the world they could do anything for your eyelashes, or any other part of you), so studies of its effects are going to be worse than useless!

    And on the topic of sugar marketing - if you haven't yet, I recommend a read of 'Salt, Sugar, Fat' by Michael Moss. A lot of it is about the marketing tactics used to sell unhealthy food. One issue that really stuck with me was how the dairy industry in the US flipped the public opinion of dairy products, and to this day, Americans assume that huge amounts of cheese and milk is healthy because it gives them protein and calcium and B vitamins, when in reality they're getting a whole heap of saturated fat and salt and they could be getting the same vitamins and minerals from much healthier sources (like leafy green vegetables). But marketing has successfully transformed dairy products into bona fide health products in the public's consciousness, and parents end up giving their kids hugely fatty and sugary flavoured milks while thinking it's honestly a healthy option.

    1. (And just to finish off, because my comment exceeded the Blogspot limit!)... I wish everyone would make a concerted effort to think more critically, but I honestly find that many people simply don't want to. I mean, it's my job as a scientist to think critically and evaluate evidence and that tends to translate into other areas of my life, but I frequently find that other people find that really aversive, like being critical is somehow being too serious and taking the fun out of life. I think a lot of people are just really uncomfortable with questioning things, *especially* their own thought processes. The number of people who think that the well-established, all-pervading cognitive biases surely don't apply to them... sigh!

    2. Thank you for all the details on conducting statistics - being that precise would have lenghtened my post quite a bit, but I see your point. I guess I have been using the "1500 subjects" approximation we have been taught in our 101 statistics class. In any case, seeing how we craft our messaging in marketing,I don't see any "real" scientific measurements, it probably wouldn't serve the messaging anyway, so it's all just a communication screen of smoke...

      On the topic of sugar/food marketing, I haven't read the book you mention I'll definitely take a look at it. I've read "Trick and Treat, Why Healthy Eating is Making us Ill" by Barry Groves - he takes a look at how lobbying and advertising works to make us believe in a certain vision of "healthy" food, then explains medically how this is wrong and what is really healthy for the body. A very interesting read. There have been similar advertising campaigns on diary products in France too - what annoys me the most is the idea of "healthy breakfast", which consists in milk, canned orange juice, cereals and bread with Nutella. Apparently, that's hardly healthy at all - too much sugar, makes you hungry during the morning. but that's what we tell people to eat and make their children eat. Anyway, I could go on all day about food and health and modern society.

    3. Jess, love your post!

      My observation is that people's minds are just so overwhelmed by information overflow, consumed by constant consumption, their decision making is all used up in the supermarket. People are happy when "mundane" things are decided by someone else, when they don't have to do research because advertising does for you. Or maybe they are not happy, but they may have no other choice.

      We must always bear in mind that not everybody grew up in a critical environment. We are privileged with our higher education and all the abstract thinking we're used to from early age because of our usually higher educated parents.
      When I think of a single parent working class mom in a poorer district in my city, working her ass off on a daily basis to get enough money home for her two little children - when should she think critically?
      Critical thinking has a lot to do with education, financial wealth, free time and class.

      I know an older working class couple. They are very kind people, worked hard their entire life, building up their little business, but I had to explain to them that global warming doesn't come from the heat emitted from the motors and ovens and camp site fires. While they are 70, grew up in the poor country side and actually know that milk comes from the cow and not from the supermarket, I'm not sure if they really grasp what's going on in industrial agriculture today. Their daughter heats up her house to 27°C in winter because she wants to go around bare foot. She is the kind of person I trust of believing in the Laitiére. She is not stupid, but just not used to critical thinking. She voted for Haider.

    4. I'm wondering what family conditions make an environment critical though. Social class may be a factor but i'm not so sure - yes, lower classes may be less educated and have less time to think about it, because they spend more energy finding resources to "finish the month", but I'm not sure a high, more educated social class in itself guarantees critical judgement ability. let me explain.

      Of course, this only derives from personal experience and not statistics or studies so I don't knwo to what extent it can apply to the general population. But, among the people I know who apply critical judgement, myself included, many are not from a high social class. In my family we have been coal miners for generations until the mines closed and we became factory workers. My parents evolved into goverment workers (middle class) thanks to the economic growth in the 70s and 80s, but we are blue collars, yet they did teach me to think critically. One of my friend's parents were teacher and librarian - hardly high class material - and another one's parents were university teachers (maybe higher middle class on this last one).

      On the other hand, since I've started working in the marketing department of a big company, I have met a lot of high class coworkers, from Parisian little bourgeoisie graduated from business schools, yet most of them don't apply critical judgement. They are more educated, and no doubt they know supermarket yoghurts are not hand-stirred by a Laitière, but they don't question politics or the economic system, they buy high-end brands without questioning their ethics or even the quality/price ratio. They watch reality TV and speak about it at work... I was actually quite abashed that these very people, who work in marketing and know how the system works, are so vulnerable to brands and spend so much money on brand names - they are Nespresso drinkers, if you see what I mean. They are educated but they are perfectly formatted to the current economic system, they oil it, they live in it, they promote it, and it wouldn't even occur to them to question it. And, as Jess pointed out, they may also be the ones who think it is "too serious" to think purchases through or question information, the system etc.

      I don't really know what conclusions I want to draw with this - maybe that the criteria for developing critical thinking go beyond "being educated" in general. I think it does pertain to education, but maybe a certain type of education. Back to the friends I mentioned earlier, most of them grew up in particular cultural environments, with teacher parents etc. Maybe it does take a specific education to teach children to think for themselves. Just a thought...

    5. I guess, the conclusion is that the world is complex :)
      Maybe critical thinking has also to do with the question: who benefits? The people who benefit from the system don't question it or else they would question themselves. As far as I know, coal miners have always been highly political, because they had to be, otherwise their existences would be threatened (as they actually have been quite a lot, right?)

  5. I saw our Beauty Redefined site had gotten a few hits from your site and came over to see what was being said. Just wanted to say thank you so much for your support and a nice little shout out! We do try to cite credible sources so people know this isn't just flippant opinion we're throwing around. Thanks for reading bR!

    1. Thanks for the kind note! I really enjoy reading your articles and appreciate your project a lot. Being a woman raised in modern society, I can relate to many topics, and it goes deeper into what French researcher Mona Chollet wrote in an essay called "Beauté Fatale, les nouveaux visages de l'aliénation féminine". Thank you for putting this initiative together :)

  6. You're not a conspiracy theorist - just someone with a brain! Although, the mainstream media would like the masses to think you're just a conspiracy nut so they can keep on with their tricks and fool the public. :)
    In the U.S. all of our news outlets are compromised by sponsored content and riddled with catchy memes. To make it worse, people only read headlines and form "opinions" based on that. No one wants to expend mental energy figuring out the truth when there's Candy Crush to be played.

    1. And people of power probably don't want the general population to think more critically, either. Otherwise, we would educate our children differently at school woudln't we? There is another video from humorist George Carlin on that subject - he is very impolite, harsh and quite misanthropic, but what he says does make sense...