Friday, February 24, 2006

Sceptical about... common sense

Sometimes, in my less than tolerant and easy-going moments (Yes, I DO have them occasionally) I'm astounded by the lack of simple common sense that some people display. Every week it seems that there's a story in the papers of someone who's been conned out of their hard-earned money or has given it all to a charlatan prophet in the hope of salvation or a miracle and has probably not seen them since.

Recently there was a story in the papers about a filling station manager in Francistown who had been conned out of P85,000. Apparently some guys approached him and told him that they had a magic box that multiplied money. All he had to do was put his own money in the box and miraculously it would increase. So he did. And you know what? They distracted him and ran off with the money. OK, so you are probably all thinking the same as me.

But the most remarkable thing about this story? They came back again the next day and he fell for it again! I really can't think how to describe (in polite terms) what I think about this, errr…. critically challenged individual.

Luckily the con artists who pulled this one off were caught and prosecuted but why isn't the victim being prosecuted for gullibility? Oh yes, I forgot. It's not illegal to be gullible. In my intolerant moments (and this is one of them) I think it should be illegal to be so foolish.

But how did it come to this? Presumably the victim is a reasonably bright guy. He must be, he runs a filling station. I have huge admiration for filling station managers. They have to be Finance Managers, HR Managers, Sales Executives, Stock Control experts and General Managers all rolled into one. It's high pressure, demanding work that requires the person to be constantly switched on. So how on earth did such a person fall for such nonsense?

It's not just that this particular guy was dreadfully gullible. It's as much a tribute to the quality of the con artists we have. Con artists are clever people. We should be proud to be in a nation that produces such imaginative people. They are specialists who prey on the gullible, the desperate and the innocent (that's a polite way of putting it). But surely we can see through their scams?

Why do smart people continue to fall for cons? Why don't we learn? Part of it is that con artists usually prey on one of our most disreputable characteristics: greed. So many of us want to get something for nothing and worse still, think that’s it’s actually possible to do so. We don't want to work to make money; we think we can get rich quickly without doing the work we know it actually takes.

So when they turn up and offer us something that is clearly too good to be true, like a magical box that multiplies money, our first thought is of the money, not of how ridiculous the idea is.

The same goes for all the internet-based cons, the so-called 419 scams which all revolve around an offer out of the blue, from a total stranger, usually about an opportunity to help him extract millions of dollars from Nigeria. You are offered 10% of the total sum as payment for your services. However, as soon as you're hooked, they tell you that you need to pay an advance fee, maybe legal fees, account opening fees or taxes. Funnily enough as soon as you pay these fees the con artists disappear.

These scams are obviously fakes aren’t they? If we engage our brains for more than a moment we must realise it. But thousands of people all over the world have fallen for them, giving away millions of dollars. How on earth do people believe that a total stranger will appear out of nowhere, offering them a few million dollars? This simply doesn't happen. Ever.

Do I really have to say this? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If someone you've never met before offers you something that is clearly too fantastic to be true then the truth is clear. He's lying and wants to steal money from you.

So what about common sense? It’s been said before but I think it’s worth repeating.

Common sense isn’t.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sceptical about... Scepticism

What actually is a sceptic? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sceptic as “a person inclined to doubt accepted opinions”. You could also say that a sceptic is someone who understands that just because someone says or writes something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. That goes for me as well. You are forbidden from believing anything in this article unless you’ve thought about it first.

I believe that in this increasingly dangerous and confusing world we must examine everything. Nothing is exempt from analysis and critical thought. There are no sacred cows.

However some things don't take a lot of thought. For instance it's pretty easy to show that killing people is wrong, mainly because it's cruel and causes pain and suffering. Surely nobody needs to explain why pain and suffering are bad things that should be avoided if possible.

Nobody really needs to think hard about lying. Almost always lying is a bad thing and we shouldn't do it. Getting drunk and hitting people is bad. Being a racist is bad. Torturing people is bad. Cheating to become President of the USA is a bad thing.

None of these things really deserve a great deal of debate because the issues are fundamentally quite simple.

Then there are the issues where common sense and a little thought are needed, maybe not even full-scale skepticism. If a man approaches you saying he has a magic box that will multiply your money and all you need to do is give him the cash for a little while, well, surely it doesn’t take too much thought? Unfortunately for the filling station manager in Francistown who fell for exactly this a few weeks ago, well, maybe he’d left his brain at home that day.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the genuinely complicated moral and emotional issues like abortion, the death penalty and, dare I say it, the relocation of the Basarwa. I believe that on these issues most people, if they really examine their consciences, will confess that they understand the other side’s viewpoint even if they disagree with it. However the issues are often so complex, so difficult, so loaded with emotion that it's very difficult to be absolutely certain.

I think that the very best weapon we have in thinking these through is the sceptical approach. These issues deserve clear, rational and very careful thought. They are so important that we MUST give them the thought they require, that they demand. Surely if we are to be honest with ourselves we have to think them through for ourselves? The sceptical approach is simple. In my view it all comes down to the rule I mentioned earlier. Just because something has been said or written that doesn't mean it's true.

My biggest complant about the human race is our tendency to behave like sheep. We seem to be programmed to accept whatever someone in authority tells us to believe. Whether it’s a politician, a church leader or Survival International we seem sometimes just to take on their opinions as if they were the direct words of God and not to be challenged.

Despite their complexity surely these issues deserve clear, rational and very careful thought? Surely the best weapon we have in dealing with them is between our ears? Each of us is blessed with the most amazing piece of equipment the world has ever known. No inventor has ever come up with anything as advanced, as clever and as amazing as the human mind and they’re not going to, at least during the lifetime of anyone reading this article. So why don't we use it? It's like being given a Ferrari for Christmas and only ever driving it to the supermarket.

Every last one of us has the capacity to think about what we hear, what we are told and what matters. To make matters even better we live in a country where using our brain is actually encouraged! Remember that there are still a few countries left, like Burma, Turkmenistan and a certain country just a little north of us where using your brain will get you thrown in jail if you're lucky and a shallow grave if you're not. Let’s exploit the freedom we have and think about things, debate things, have heated arguments over a few drinks (not on a Sunday though) and listen to what other people think. And then make up our own minds.