Marketing sometimes involves the science of making you believe something that is not true, with the specific goal of selling you something (a product, service, or even ideology). The organic lobby, for example, has done a great job of creating a health halo and environmentally friendly halo for organic produce, while simultaneously demonizing their competition (recently focusing on GMOs).
These claims are all demonstrably wrong, however. Organic food is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional food. Further, GMO technology is safe and there are no health concerns with the GMO products currently on the market.
There is an even more stark difference, however, between beliefs about the effects of organic farming on the environment and reality. In fact organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming in terms of the impact vs the amount of food produced.
First, organic farming may use pesticides. They just have to be “natural” pesticides, which means the ones they use are not chosen based upon their properties. Ideally choice of pesticide and the strategy in using them would be evidence-based and optimized for best effect, minimal impact on health and the environment, cost effectiveness, and convenience. Organic farming, however, does not make evidence-based outcome choices. Their primary criterion is that the pesticides must be “natural”, even if they are worse in every material aspect. This represents ideology trumping evidence. It is based on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, an unwarranted assumption that something “natural” will be magically better than anything manufactured.
In fact my main complaint against the organic label is that it represents an ideological false dichotomy. Each farming practice should be judged on its own merits, rather than having a bunch of practices ideologically lumped under one brand. I don’t care if a practice is considered organic or not, all that matters is the outcome.
Imagine you are at a Las Vegas casino and you’re approaching the roulette table. You notice that the last eight numbers were black… so you think to yourself, “Holy smokes, what are the odds of that!” and you bet on red, thinking that the odds of another black number coming up are really small. In fact, you might think that the odds of another black coming up are:
0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5 = 0.00195 (a very tiny number)
Or are they?
The problem is that a roulette table – if fairly constructed – has no “memory”. That is, one outcome does not depend on the previous outcome’s result, and so the odds for a red number or black number are just about equal (actually, just shy of 50% each, since there is one or two green spaces on a roulette table depending on American or European versions).
Keeping with our example, if you bet on either red or black for each spin, this type of outside bet pays 1 to 1 and covers 18 of the 38 possible combinations (or 0.474). A far cry from the 0.00195 number above (a miscalculation that is roughly 243 times too small). Now your odds of a red coming up aren’t so good anymore…
This fallacy is called the Gambler’s Fallacy, and it’s what the city of Las Vegas is built on.
Random events produce clusters like “8 black numbers in a row”, but in the long term, the probability of red or black will even out to its natural average.
The key to your success at the casino? Understand that every individual spin (or “event”) has its own probability which never changes. In this case, 18 in 38.
So the next time you’re at a casino and you see a string of the same color coming up, remember that the odds of that color coming up again are exactly the same as the other color… it might save you a few bucks so you can play a bit longer.
- Unpredictability: Hot Hands vs. Gambler’s Fallacies (practicalpersuasion.wordpress.com)
- Last Week At Science-Based Medicine (randi.org)