Category Archives: Education

‘Increasing prevalance’ of PTSD in UK Veterans after recent conflicts.

New results published in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggest that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be on the rise in service personnel. The condition, associated with exposure to trauma, has long been long linked with combat. But this new study highlights just how much Veterans may be at a higher risk than active soldiers.

But to really show what this means, I also talked to a veteran, who was kind enough to explain what PTSD feels like beyond the data.

I knew that something was different after my six-month tour of Afghanistan. It was really difficult to go from an environment where I fighting in close quarters with the enemy on nearly a daily basis, to an extended Christmas break with my family in a quiet suburb. At new year we had guests and I didn’t even go downstairs to see them. It was tough interacting with people who had no idea what I had gone through. I just couldn’t understand why people would get so angry over the little things or first-world problems; I still don’t today. – Soldier X

Worse mental health outcomes

A cohort study compared over 8000 personnel either deployed to Afghanistan and/or Iraq, with those active but not deployed, and those newly active since 2009.  The study reviewed the participants in three phases, collecting data on mental health symptoms and level of alcohol use during the study period.

The first phase examined soldiers deployed to Iraq, then the second followed these up and added those deployed to further conflict, and a third to new soldiers as well as those already under review.

The study found that, overall, 21% of those reviewed displayed symptoms of common mental health disorders (such as depression,) and that those who had been deployed to the conflict were at a higher risk. 6.1% of those surveyed showed signs of probable PTSD, with a significantly higher risk in those who had seen active duty.

I was in a close-combat role for six months, which was really intensive both physically and mentally. I was also responsible for the lives of 28 soldiers and I had to make tough decisions daily; which at the time was a lot of pressure for a 25-year old. I know the decision-making really affected me because its something I still think about a lot and often run the scenarios through my head with “what ifs”.  – Soldier X

All in all, the overall risk was 9% for veterans and 5% for those still serving, and higher in combat roles and support roles such as logistics and medical personnel. However, the study also showed that alcohol abuse rates have dropped during the same time period.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a mental health condition characterised by the emergence of unsettling or traumatic symptoms from short months to years after a severely troubling event. Those who develop the condition may report a combination of symptoms, either ‘reliving’ the event in some way such as through flashbacks or nightmares, or through ‘numbing’ by avoiding emotional subjects or addressing their symptoms.

It took me nearly three years to talk to someone about it and get some help. I still don’t talk to my partner or family about it; I find it easier to talk to professionals or put it in writing. The hardest part about asking for help was that I didn’t think I needed or deserved it, there were plenty of other soldiers that I knew of who had been through far worse experiences and were not seeking help – so why should I?  – Soldier X

The link with military work has been long known and likely due to the intense and terrifying experiences. And the legacy is one that is unfortunately predictable. But this new study sheds light on how PTSD may develop, not as something that primarily affects soldiers, but preferentially affects those who have survived and come home.

It may very much be that the evolutionary antecedents to our survival, forged long ago in the heat of prey vs predator, have become maladaptive. Or indeed, never had the chance to become adaptive over time. Repeated exposure to life and limb trauma is not a natural state which can be readily traced back beyond tribal warfare, as survival was much less guaranteed.

Perhaps a study like this, which highlights the true cost of war to the victor, can help us learn that suffering is ubiquitous in theme, just different in nature.

PTSD is always going to happen in war. There will always be traumatic events, but I think we could deal with them a lot better. Mental health became the elephant in the room in my Battalion, with some soldiers suffering from horrific cases of PTSD. One of the reasons it took me so long to talk about it was because it took 13 months to see a mental health professional after I requested it. – Soldier X

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr. Full informed consent was gained for interview and distribution of content obtained during the interview. All profits from this article will go to the Poppy Appeal.

 

 

 

 

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Critical Thinking for Young Adults And Children

Years ago, long before Twitter and Facebook, my teachers would ask me and my classmates to sit in a line.  And in a game then called ‘Chinese Whispers*’ we would pass a secret message down the line, mouth to ear. And by the end of the line, the story would likely be very different from what began.

Although this childhood game is just a bit of fun, it has real-life implications. They say that information is power, but the truth is that it is not the information, but whoever controls it and how it is told that holds all the cards.

And today this could not be more important. As the world grows so does our circle of friends and strangers. Some of you will have social media accounts, that over the next few years, will connect you with thousands of people. And you will come to rely on them not just for friendship, but for learning about the world.

And this is where misconceptions, prejudice and being controlled can begin.

The Social Mesh

News articles, blogs, and opinions will filter through this mesh of people in ways similar to the old game of ‘Chinese whispers’, and by the end, it is hard to know what the real story is. And even worse, someone may change the story deliberately to mislead you, or just make one up for some personal reason.

You may have heard US President Donald Trump talk about ‘Fake News‘ (where the stories are untrue, or only parts are told,) or his opponents call him a liar. But when you don’t know the real truth, how can you decide? Is Trump a liar, or are the press spinning tall tales?

Well thankfully there is an answer, and its called ‘Critical thinking.

And in a world where the control of stories is power, it prepares you to decide for yourself what is true, and what is a lie. It helps you decide who to vote for, which issues will affect your life and what you need to do about them. Today I will teach you an introduction into how to think about stories and some questions you might ask.

Critical Thinking and Critical Appraisal.

Critical thinking is a process by which you can approach information. It allows you to ask the right questions about stories to figure out what is real, and what is not. It helps you to spot patterns, tricks and tells that reveal whether the speaker or writer is telling the truth.

Alongside it is something called ‘Critical appraisal’, where you learn how to break apart scientific studies and important papers that often provide the basis for these stories. Today we will focus on critical thinking in general, as critical appraisal requires its own time and a basic understanding of scientific theory and study.

This may already sound difficult, but it’s not. Science may seem difficult, but it’s all about practice. One hour spent learning something makes you one hour better, and it’s true for critical thinking as much as maths homework.

So the concepts I will introduce you to here are just part one of something much bigger, that I will leave to you to investigate the rest.  It’s probably better that way.

Tricks and Tails

First, let us imagine a story. Imagine, for a moment, that your pet dog has chewed up your parent’s favorite plant. It was your job to make sure the dog was looked after, but you left the front door open. Your parents are angry, and asking you what happened.

Dependent on what you want to happen, you will tell a different story. Perhaps you will say that ‘the wind opened the door,’ or perhaps that ‘the dog was asleep.’ Much like the game of Chinese whispers, you are changing the story to suit a particular purpose.

Your parents probably won’t believe you, but you have learned something: that lies can be useful. This is even more true for what you read on newspapers, television and online. If you can spin the facts to tell your story, you can make people do what you want.

But, you know this is wrong. Lies are generally a bad idea.

Unfortunately, ‘fake news’ is just that, lies. It may not be changing the facts ‘the dog ate the plant’, but it will change something about the story. Perhaps the dog ate the plant because ‘your parents weren’t feeding it’, (which may or may not be true,) but suddenly the dead plant is your parent’s fault. Not the dogs or yours.

This is called ‘spin’, a way of communicating information toward a certain story. Or another way of saying ‘bending the truth.’ But in the case of the dog, you are saying something believable, even if a lie. This happens all the time in the adult world, whether it be about Brexit (ask your parents,) or the reasons countries may fight each other.

It is saying something that’s believable, or perhaps even likely, without proof and letting people connect the dots.

Asking Questions

So your parents may ask you a few questions. They may look around the room and notice that the dog’s food bowl is half eaten. They may notice that the television is on with your favorite show playing. Eventually, they will figure out the truth. The facts around them cut through your story.

You have learned something new: ‘lies can be spotted.’

For the dog and the dead plant, this is easy. Your parents know you, your habits and probably when you are lying. They spot patterns in your voice or inconsistencies in your story. It’s just time and practice.

But as the stories become more complicated, and more people are involved, it gets harder. What if the dog was in the next house, and you couldn’t check the food bowl? What if you had to ask your neighbor about the food, and they could lie. Welcome to reading news stories, lots of people, half the information and much more power.

The more uncertainty there is around a story, the harder it is to spot what is added or taken away. Just as further down the chain of ‘Chinese whispers’ the words change, the further through social media or a newspaper from the original source the story travels, the less it can be trusted.

Thankfully for all of us, if we learn to spot common ways in which the news and others will trick us, we can apply our thinking to new information. In the case of the dog and the plant, your parents could just check for bite marks on the plant.

Three simple questions

So instead of spending a long time going through all the tricks, I am going to give you three questions to ask whenever you hear or read a new story. And for each one, a little explanation of why it’s so important.

By the end of the questions, you may have noticed that the story doesn’t quite add up. Or perhaps that something is missing, and you are being forced to believe something false:

Do you feel strongly about what you read or hear (sad, happy, angry?)

Emotions are very useful things. But for a news company, making someone angry with a headline is a good way to sell a paper. But we know that when you are angry,  you pay less attention to the facts.  So if a headline is angry, or uses overly comforting words, it is there to make you concentrate not on the story, but your emotions.

The paper wants you to react to the story in a certain way. A good example would be whenever some British papers talk about people from abroad, they always use angry words. This is because they want you to be angry with those people, even if those people aren’t doing anything wrong. They don’t want you to think about the facts.

So if you read a news story and feel very strongly, take a moment to remind yourself that this could be the purpose of the writer. And that purpose may be to distract you from actually thinking about what the story truly means. So take a moment, forget the feeling, and read again.

If the story seems odd once you read it again without the anger, then you may have spotted something. Remember that a story built on emotion may lack truth.

Can you trust the ‘facts’?

Often a news story will contain a lot of numbers. They may say ‘40%’ of people think this or that, or that ‘10% of people’ did this or that. These numbers may not be trustworthy, or part of a bigger picture that the paper is choosing to hide. This is to trick you into thinking something is accurate or ‘backed up.’ It may not be.

For example ‘100% of people think that hunting foxes is okay ‘ may sound quite a little odd to you, especially when you realize that the group of people asked were all ‘Fox Hunters (this is called bias, and once you learn to spot it the news becomes very different.) If you were to ask 100 people from school, the answer would be very different.

You may also see newspapers refer to ‘studies’ or ‘one study’ done by a scientist. The problem is that not all studies are good, or even true. If you wanted to sell a medicine, and 3 studies had shown it a bad drug, and one showed it to beuseful, which would you talk about? Newspapers will often pick the studies that suit their story, without talking about the other ones.

This also happens in which stories some newspapers or social media stars will report on. For example, one particular youtuber tends to only report on crimes committed by a specific racial group, whilst ignoring those committed by others. There is a purpose to this, to make you hate a specific group by making it seem like they are all bad.

So when it comes to numbers and studies. it’s always worth finding out more. Who was actually asked? Where there other studies? What did they say, and did the newspaper mention them? Why not? Are these ‘facts’ really true, or are bits missing? If you notice something is missing, then treat the story as misleading.

And when a newspaper seems to only focus on one ethnic or religious group, be all the wiser. There is always more to the story than the color of a man’s face.

Who is telling the story?

You may notice that your parents buy the same newspaper every day, or watch the same news channel. But you may also notice that one newspaper will report on something in a very different way to another. For example, some British newspapers will always attack those from other countries, whilst others will always defend them.

Ask your parents about ‘The Sun’ newspaper, or if in America, ‘Fox News’. Ask them what these two groups say about people from other countries. Then compare it with what ‘The Guardian’ says in the UK, or CNN in America. The answers may surprise you.

This is called an agenda, which is the ‘purpose’ of the newspaper. Not all agendas are the ‘right’ one, and which you agree with is up to you. But if you can look at who is telling the story, you might be able to spot an early clue about whether you are being lied to.

Think of a friend at school who lies a lot. They may sometimes tell the truth, but if you hear a story from them you are much more likely to ignore it. But if you hear a story from someone you trust (or should trust,) you may believe it, even if its a lie.

Newspapers and broadcasters are meant to be trustworthy, but not all of them are. Adults have agendas, and it’s up to you to figure them out. One way is to look at who is telling the story. What have they said before? Do they like the person that they are talking about? Is it possible that they are changing the story because of their beliefs?

Or do they want you to believe what they do?

Bringing it together

So these are just three questions, and there are a lot more of them. It is important to know that each question isn’t meant to tell you ‘Yes or No’ about whether you can trust a story, but help you to spot the tricks.

It is then up to you to use your brain to work out what you can trust. This will only get better as you ask more questions and practice. Much like your parents are an expert in you, you can become an expert in spotting lies by others.

Asking questions, like about whether the plant has nite marks, or whether your neighbor likes dogs, helps you to approach a story prepared. It helps you to spot the lies and prevents you from being forced to believe something false.

Elections are won with lies, wars begun with fake news and truly terrible things spread by rumour. Its up to us to stop it.

The reason this is so important is that the world, especially the rich and powerful, rely on controlling information to control people. When a newspaper is caught lying, it used to be a big deal, but now it is not.  The same is true of politicians and presidents. It’s up to you to spot the tricks.

And the younger you can start, the better decisions you can make. And as a final task, to you, I will leave you with one last question:

‘If this is so important, then why isn’t it all over the news?’

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

*Apologies for the term used here. I feel it fair to acknowledge the relative cultural insensitivities of the past in order to learn from them. You can read an interesting take on the subject here. 

‘Mental health myths you wouldn’t believe still exist’

myth mental heath care

Mental health issues are more common than you would think. And in fact, mental health problems are amongst the leading causes of disability worldwide. Astoundingly, 1 in 4 of people in the United Kingdom alone will experience mental health issues a year.

So when you look at the world overall, that is an awful lot of people.

Regardless of the universality of the problem, many people still labor under false beliefs. So we hope that by breaking some of these myths down that we can not only eliminate some undeserved stigma, but encourage a community driven empathy toward those who ask for it.

And with that in mind, I have invited some wonderful friends along with me to spread the message of what we have learned. I have also talked to psychiatrists and other medical professionals who have been kind enough to lend their time.

It is my belief that through knowledge we can really make a difference and, hopefully. together we can shine some light.

mental health depression compassion

By correcting misunderstandings we can build a community around empathy. Image courtesy of Flickr.

1. Mental health problems only affect ‘weak people.’

Being diagnosed with a mental health problem, be it depression or any other, can make one feel fearful and insecure about themselves and their future. This is a natural response, as any drastic change to our lives and sense of structure will influence our emotions.

‘Everyone can have a mental health disorder. If I were to lose someone, I would suffer and could get depression. I would not consider myself a weak person. We are all human, we are all built the same way.’ – Scott McGlynn, Present and LGBT+ Activist.

But let’s not confuse sadness with weakness, it is simply human. And since we know that the commonality of these issues is so great, it’s fair to say that just about anyone can suffer.

And from what we know about the causes of these problems, be they social, biological, psychological or a combination, we can say confidently that a ‘person’ is only part of the recipe for developing a problem. Some predisposing causes include childhood abuse, social issues and adult trauma, as well as genetic or biological antecedents

myth mental health

Even those that society elevate as heroes can feel the same pain as the rest of us. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And although there are many more factors prevalent in developing a disease, you would be hard pressed to conclude that a personal ‘weakness’ is solely to blame for somebody becoming unwell, or that a mental health issue is a sign of that weakness.

These issues can strike anyone, from military leaders to doctors, from artists to authors and beyond. Much like any disease, the human at the centre of it is who matters, not their job or what society demands. And many with mental health issues become world leaders. This is despite what society tmay wrongly consider a flaw.

Incredibly, they do this knowing that some members of society would reject them simply for their diagnosis. Former US President Abraham Lincoln and War-time UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill both presided over tumultuous times, but both were alleged to have suffered with mental health issues. 

depression stigma myth

Winston Churchill famously battled depression whilst leading the British war effort during WW2. Image courtesy of Flickr.

So instead of considering those with mental illness as ‘weak’, we would better reconsider what we define as making a person ‘strong.’ I think you would agree that Churchill’s tenure was one requiring a tremendous personal strength.

And on a personal note, living with depression requires more resilience and strength than you would realise.  And to make a difference in the world, to enrich the lives of others, whilst battling every day, that is true strength by any definition.

2. People with ‘mental health problems’ are a ‘drain on society.’

A particularly uncomfortable idea, some believe that those with mental health issues are simply faking it. Or worse still, doing so with the intention of sponging ‘off the state.’ This is a particularly divisive attitude worsened by some social media commentators going as far to claim that depression isn’t a real condition.

depression stigma myth welfare

To some, Depression is not considered a real disease. But to the patients, the story is very different. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Although it is true that in acute episodes of some mental health issues people may require time off work, it is important to note that the vast majority of patients work regularly. In fact this can be as high as 70% in those with anxiety or depression.

Furthermore, the idea ignores the very fact that: patients want to get better and businesses have a legal obligation to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure an unwell employee can return to work. It is clear that many wish to return to a relative normality, and work with their employers to facilitate this. According to the Health and Safety Executive UK (HSE);

‘Most people who have ongoing mental health problems continue to work successfully. But when someone needs support, managers can work with them to ensure flexibility to suit their health needs.’

Being unwell is as simple as being unwell, and it seems that ‘mental health issues’ are viewed as a less legitimate to need time to recover than a more obvious physical illness. And where those with conditions like cancer are given worthy encouragement, those with depression may not be extended the same courtesy by the public.

medicine chemo depression mental health myth

It seems that ‘mental health’ problems are viewed as less legitimate than other ‘more medical’ problems. Image courtesy of Flickr.

By comparing the statistics we can see the bigger picture. Although the total number of work days lost to mental health was around 40% of the total during 2016/17, the vast majority of time off was due to other problems. So, we are forced to ask why the minority cause of time off receives such disproportionate stigma.

Are people with cancer a drain on society? What possibly makes people think that an illness of the mind makes you lesser than anybody else? We need to realise that mental health is not a failing. The connotation is that these problems are some sort of societal betrayal. – Mike Stuchbery.

Instead of considering those with a mental health issue as a ‘drain on society,’ the truth is rather different. Like patients with all diseases there will always be a relative loss of work, and this is necessary to their recovery.

Even better, since most with mental health issues do choose to work, it is clear that the problems are taken in hand where possible. So you may ask why people would attack those with mental health issues when the evidence is so clear?

work myth drain on society mental health

Despite the myth, the majority of those unwell continue to work. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Personally,  I think it’s because content creators recognise just how financially powerful encouraging that stigma can be for their channels, or perhaps that because stoking division is an effective political move. If this is true, then the problem does not lie with the patients themselves.

“Cinema, radio, television, magazines are a school of inattention: people look without seeing, listen in without hearing”  – Robert Besson.

If society can be so easily hoodwinked, then combatting the stigma is that much more important.

3. ‘All people with mental health problems are dangerous’

Another dramatic misconception is that ‘all people with mental illness’ are dangerous, and when the public are repeatedly told that those committing mass shootings are ‘mentally ill,’ you can understand why there is a concern.

But the fact’s don’t support the sensationalism. In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association reassures us;

Mental illness plays no part in the majority of violent crimes committed in our society. The assumption that any and every mental illness carries with it an almost certain potential for violence has been proven wrong in many studies.

Although it is true that some people may commit a crime while unwell, only 1% of people in a recent survey believed that individuals with mental health issues pose a threat. There is something lost between the public and some of the papers here.

But thankfully, many in print media are very aware of the misconception.

In my time as a journalist I met a good number of people who could be described as violent. Some were guilty of some shocking deeds. Yet, I cannot recall a single one who had a recognisable, distinct mental health issue. But I think when it comes to misconceptions, it’s not just journalists making the leap but society as a whole – Andy West, Broadcaster and Writer.

crime myth mental health

The majority of violent crimes committed in the UK and US are not committed by those with Mental illness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Given that an estimated 7 million people in the UK have a mental health disorder, the average homicide rate is just between 50 -70. And over 2016-2017,  this represented a tiny fraction of the 790 homicides in the UK (8.9%.)

This means that 91.1% of UK murders are committed by those without a mental health issue, and when it comes to acts of violence,  those with mental health problems are responsible for only 3-5 % of crime compared to 96% (approximately,) within the general population in the United States.

In addition, within mental health overall, those with schizophrenia have a only slightly higher risk, mostly associated with substance abuse. But in the same vein, the vast majority will never commit a violent crime.  But what of psychosis itself?  During a psychotic episode, where in some psychiatric conditions a patient may lose contact with reality, only 6% may present any risk.

What about mass shootings? Well, less than 1% of all gun related deaths in the United States are due to those with a mental illness, and in that small number, the majority are suicides.

suicide harm

Contrary to popular belief, those with mental health issues are more likely to harm themselves than someone else. Image courtesy of Flickr.

So, why the overinflated preoccupation with risk? Perhaps misconceptions about serial killers being insane, the vilification and over-dramatisation of mental health in movies and television, and most insidiously, the use of mental health patients as scapegoats.

Let us consider the US, where gun laws are under constant scrutiny. It is much easier to blame a mass shooting on a ‘mentally unwell lone wolf’ than admit that you may have a culture problem and access to firearms. For some gun advocates, perpetrating this horrible myth serves them well.

So all in all, those with ‘mental health’ problems commit less violent crimes than the rest of the UK (and US,) and are a greater risk to themselves than others.

scapegoat mental health violence

It seems sometimes that those with mental health problems are made scapegoats by those who should know better. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Although there is some risk, the data bears out nothing significant beyond specific cases to a population level. The very idea that everyone with a mental health issue is dangerous is demonstrably false, stigmatising and worryingly, seemingly deliberately sold.

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ – Franklin D Roosevelt

4. There is ‘no getting better’

‘People succumb to an idea that things don’t get better. You can’t see mental health, it’s not like a broken leg. There is an ‘end point.’ It’s clear, but with mental health its a lot more difficult for people to believe that there is a definitive fix.’ Ralf Little, Health Advocate and Actor.

For some, a mental health problem can last a long time, but for others, they may only brush with it briefly, once in their lives. Everybody’s experience of life is different and with that comes a different experience of mental health issues. It can be easy to feel trapped in disease, only to wonder why you felt so helpless months later.

Mental health disease future

A mental health problem can seem like the end of the world. But for most, if not all, the veil is lifted with time. Image courtesy of Flickr.

It is often with the benefit of hindsight that the truth becomes clear. When it comes to mental health, this often shows us that recovery may require lifelong treatment to maintain. or nothing at all – it all depends on the person and their journey. In fact mild to moderate depression may need drug treatment for no longer than a year, if at all.

The misconception that these issues are ‘permanent’ or ‘inescapable’ is very much hyperbole, and does not take into account how different people define their quality of life. Or indeed, what people consider being ‘unwell.’

It is up to the patient to decide when they have escaped the disease, which for many is the cessation of its symptoms, and for others, never feeling them again.

Personally, I view my depression as companion who raises it’s head from time to time, and during those periods inbetween I consider myself ‘better.’

For me, its about assigning value to the moments and realising my choice in doing so. Perhaps many of you will understand this.

myth value life

Sometimes a mental health problem can reveal what is truly valuable to us. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Yet somehow, society forces a double standard when comparing mental health issues with more physical ones. A cancer remission is treated as ‘getting better’ whilst many would say recovery in a depression is ‘only temporary.’ Both have a chance of returning, but we consider the time without illness as being ‘healthy again.’

While appreciating the complexity of the comparison, its fair to say that both have periods of being unwell and less unwell. Or not unwell at all, with a potential with recurrence or not. But in most cases, there is some level of improvement.

Have faith that on the other side of your pain is something good. – Dwayne Johnson

Whether this improvement is enough is up to you, but from personal experience and the stories of others, life can be just as good, if not better than before, when a condition is well managed. For me, my depression has added such value to my life that I appreciate living it all the more.

So, by using a medication, therapy, or lifestyle changes (or some combination of them), we can have great success in treating a wide variety of conditions. And, although many years ago these conditions could be something lifelong and debilitating, today’s patients can live rich and fulfilling lives.

life mental health myth

It is up to us as individuals to decide what matters to us, and when life is worthwhile. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is important is realising that each patient is an individual, that treatments may need to change over time and that each step back can be regained. To suggest that there is ‘no escape’ poses only one limitation, on how well you understand human life.

5. ‘Mental health only matters when you are unwell.’

If you are reading this through twitter,  you may have already seen the ‘I have mental health’ campaign. And for those who haven’t, the grassroots movement included people from all walks of life holding up a sign with the statement.

But why?

The idea was to make normal what many do not consider reasonable: that mental health is a constant and ongoing entity, one that we all share and one we can all lose. This idea is uncomfortable to some. But why?

mental health myths all of us

All of us have mental health, and it can waver just like our bodies. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Perhaps because of the idea of ‘weakness’, some societal expectation, or fear, many do not like to entertain the idea that their mind is like the rest of their body. Something that can become ill, and requires maintenance to work well.  Just like our skin that can become itchy and red, things can change in an instant.

‘Mental health isn’t all of me, but it’s a massive part of my journey and a massive part of my whole being.’ – Adwoa Aboah

It seems that many only realise the fragility of our minds when something breaks. But unlike a precious vase, we rarely handle our minds with care. We expect them to be indestructible, when in fact all of us have our limits.

Since 75% of mental health problems begin before the age of eighteen,  it is clear just how beneficial teaching people how to take care of their mental health can be.

When we consider the theories around mental health disorders, we can see that many explain problems as the result of misbalance. Either too much work, too little sleep, a significant life event, a loss of purpose or one of another million things. It can take just one extra thing to tip the scales.

myth mental heath care

Mental health can be fragile, so it must be valued and taken care of. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In addition, when we consider treatment, the same can be said. Whether it be medication or therapy, a change is made to tip the scales back to equal. Mental health is an ongoing and organic process, the sum of our experiences and way of thinking.

It deserves as much kindness as our greatest treasure. And with that, it may be of huge societal benefit for all of us to embrace our own mental health, learn how to manage it and ensure that this is done from an early age.

6. You can ‘just snap out of it.’

I am sure many of you reading this will have heard a statement just like this, and for many, it will be very frustrating. There seems to be a belief that you can just ‘buck up’ and ‘snap out’ of mental health issue.

‘The idea that you can ‘positivity your way out of it’ is ludicrous. Its strange to believe that those unwell are just ‘being silly’, there is a real issue happening. Why do we collectively believe that such issues can dismissed so easily?’ – Ralf Little.

Almost as if its something flippant, volitional and subject to change at your whim.

From what we know about mental health conditions, this is not true, and often problems like depression can be pervasive, and take some time to sort out. This is also true for anxiety and a wealth of other issues.

clock mental health

Mental health issues may not be solved quickly. They can develop over a long time, so treating them may take a while. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The very complexity and individual nature of these conditions dictates that the right amount of time be taken.

The primary misconception lies in the general understanding of the problem, and that comes from familiarity. But if you have never had a disease, you simply don’t know as much about it as someone who does. That is forgivable, I wouldn’t personally understand how it is to live with heart disease.

However, there is information out there, it is just a process of making it available. I feel rather than ensuring everyone experiences a mental health issue first hand (although 1 in 4 do,) we can explain the problem instead. Most people are incredibly empathetic once talked to, it is the silence between conversations that breeds misunderstanding.

“I’m here to tell you that if you get broken, it’s possible to put yourself back together. I’m here to tell you that if you get lost, it’s possible that a light will come, dancing, on the horizon, to lead you home.”  – Nick Lake

According to Health Communities, depression itself can take weeks to truly manifest and if untreated can last up to 18 months on average –  and with treatment, can still take a number of weeks or more to even out.

therapy time treatment

Therapy can take a number of weeks to months. But the time is important. Image courtesy of Flickr.

When it comes to anxiety, those with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD,) the treatment process can take up a number of months before you see results. After that, continued treatment may be necessary. These are just two examples, but the same is true across the spectrum.

So, if we can help others to understand that mental health issues are not a quick fix, we can change their expectations. I feel that this would help both those with a mental health issue and without.

7. ‘Everyone will think I am crazy!’

 ‘People with mental health conditions are worried that others will judge and be afraid of them just because they are ‘different.’ Awareness needs to be brought forward that people with diagnosed conditions should never be ashamed of who they are. And just because someone is different doesn’t mean that they are dangerous in the form of being ‘crazy’. Never judge a book by its cover. – Paul Manners, Recording Artist and Influencer.

There is a lot of confusion around ‘psychosis’. But what is psychosis? According to the National Health Service (NHS);

Psychosis is a mental health problem that causes people to perceive or interpret things differently from those around them. This might involve hallucinations or delusions.

Put simply, and it isn’t quite as simple, psychosis is a loss of touch with reality manifest in either some hallucination (seeing, hearing or otherwise sensing something that others cannot,) and/or delusion (believing in something that is in conflict with reality.)

media misconception drama

The fear of being seen as ‘crazy’ is one based in hyperbole and insensitive media portrayals of mental health issues. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Psychosis can occur alongside numerous psychological issues when they become severe, including depression and schizophrenia. It can also be caused by medications, other organic illnesses such as dementia, and can relent when treated. Insanity is not necessarily permanent and resolves when the cause is dealt with. In each case it is important to not that a trigger can precipitate an episode, or that something can come on gradually. 

So, now we know what ‘actual medical insanity’ is, we can remind ourselves that the symptoms of a depression or anxiety disorder (amongst others,) do not mean that you are ‘crazy’. The fear is very much in the mind, but that is understandable.

“Perfect sanity is a myth propagated by straitjacket salesmen. – Rebecca McKinsey

Given that society is so demanding, and that mental health issues are so emotionally depicted in media, people often associated mental health problems with psychotic symptoms. However, this is only relevant in the small fraction of people with psychosis. 0.7 % of those over 16 years old in 2016. And, unless you work in a psychiatric facility, your chances of meeting a psychotic person are vanishingly low. The issue lies with expectation, not reality.

fear crazy myth

Most people who are mentally unwell would not stand out from a crowd. So you shouldn’t worry about it. Image courtesy of Flickr.

So, when you compare this 0.7% percent with the number of those with active mental health problems (25% approximately,) you can see how rare actual ‘craziness’ is. It’s up to us to convince the public that the 25% are not the 0.7%.

If you perceive crazy as ‘abnormal’, i.e to exhibit the symptoms of a mental health issue, then it is worth reminding yourself that we all experience mental health symptoms. It is the duration and strength that differs, and how they affect our lives.

By realising that, the idea of others judging you can go away rather quickly, all it takes is a conversation to correct a misunderstanding.

8. It’s ‘all made up’

‘Nobody thinks that the pharmaceutical industry is completely above board. But problems with big pharma do not equal that everyone is lying. The idea that psychiatric diagnoses are made up is incredibly dangerous.’ Ralf Little.

One of the more insidious claims made is that ‘mental health’ conditions are not real, and worse still, they have been invented by ‘Big Pharma‘ or ‘government agencies’ to control people and make money.

Having already dealt with the logical fallacies inherent in conspiracy theories in my work on climate change, we can surmise that conspiracy relies on misconceptions and fiction to be believed. Where science relies on evidence, conspiracy relies on imagination.

conspiracy big pharma fake

Conspiracy theories rely on fantasy and the ignorance of evidence to persist. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Instead of accepting any evidence to the contrary, a conspiracy theorist will say that ‘it’s all part of the conspiracy.’ There are simply some people that are harder to convince. But when asked to provide evidence of their conspiracy, it often falls apart. As journalist and author Christopher Hitchens once said;

What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
To truly understand why people purvey this myth, we need to consider motivations. Some may have had bad experiences with the pharmaceutical industry (and rightly so, it needs improvement!), and others may wish to manipulate the unwell to offer them some ‘alternative’ treatment for money.

Others may point to the apparent difference between psychiatric diseases and more ‘common physical ones.’ They claim a paucity of verifiable evidence for these diseases, and when comparing them to the more easily believed metrics of physical disease, that the proof simply isn’t there.

This is what we call an argument from incredulity, the idea that the complexity of an explanation undermines its truth. And within psychiatry, there are physical changes in certain conditions we can demonstrate objectively, but diagnosis is a complex process looking at behaviours over time.

diagnosis psychiatry

A psychiatric diagnosis is made on a patients behaviours, as well as other factors. Image courtesy of Flickr.

But those changes are real, and to suggest that things are being made up is quite a leap. Whilst we hazard to claim that Einstein’s equations are untrue,  most of us won’t understand them. So why the double standard?

Personally, I suggest that when it comes to psychiatry there is a huge personal and societal stake involved. When emotions are riding high, people are more likely to make snap judgments, and when it comes to identifying with an idea, or joining a group, the idea becomes a sense of identity.

Being part of a movement fulfils basic psychological needs.

group identification myth

Being part of a group, or one believing in an idea, is a powerful and comforting thing. Image courtesy of Flickr.

For many, their belief in a conspiracy becomes part of who they are – they may think they are ‘in the right’ and ‘helping’, so don’t judge them too harshly. But there are those who knowingly manipulate, and they are a different story.

So in the end it comes down to which is most plausible;

  1. Psychiatric conditions are complex and individual problems require expertise to diagnose and treat. There are replicable behavioural and physical changes that can be used to aid this process. There will always be some financial gain to those producing medications, but that is a separate issue to the truth of the disease.
  2. Psychiatric issues are made up, the evidence is ‘false’ and it’s all done to ‘make money’ or ‘control people.’

I think when you view the two side by side, one looks rather less believable.

9.  Mental health issues are ‘simply biological problems’

‘There are reams of papers and journals dedicated to the idea that things like upbringing and trauma can have a remarkable effect on health. To say its just ‘chemicals whizzing around in your brain’ is just ludicrous. Demands on life are often unworkable, and this can lead to problems. It is important to realise that environment and behaviour factor heavily in mental health disease.’ – Mike Stuchbery, Writer and Broadcaster.

From what many understand about disease, this myth is an understandable one. We are brought up to only recognise diseases in terms of physical problems (a sneeze, runny nose, a painful stomach,) and it makes sense that we would attribute biology to their causes too.

These ideas are developed early on in our lives, and are hardwired.

With a move within psychiatry to reconcile behaviour with neurology, one could be forgiven to treat the two as one – but it is a little more complicated than that.

biology mental health

Although it may be tempting to reduce mental health issues to purely biological problems, the fact’s say otherwise. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What we know from medicine places a larger influence on psychological and social factors than you would realise. For example, we know that patients with depression are more likely to suffer from heart disease, and that mental health problems find some cause in social factors.

Disease is the result of an interplay between biology, psychology and the environment. Some diseases are a tad more ‘biological’ in nature, and others seem to be purely ‘genetic’, but most fall between the categories, where one factor is just part of their makeup.

‘To study the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all.’ – William Osler.

To dismiss mental health issues as ‘purely biological’ sells them short. Crucially, it means we are missing vital information in helping us treat them. If we can recognise the psychological and social determinants of disease, and understand their contribution, it gives us more avenues for treatment.

As such, psychiatrists and other doctors use a ‘Bio-psycho-social’ model of disease in their diagnoses.

freud mental health

Sigmund Freud was one of the first to popularise the idea of past experiences being part of mental health issues. Image courtesy of Flickr.

With depression for example, although there are genetic factors and talk of biological antecedents, we know that stress, sleep deprivation and trauma are highly predictive. And for anxiety, childhood experiences of fear and hopelessness play a role.

So when we treat psychiatric issues we combat each domain, where therapy and medication can be just as important as each other. To separate psychiatric diseases from biology is incorrect, just as saying that they are ‘only’ biological.

‘Doctors and patients need as much data as possible to make an informed decision about what treatment is best’ – Ben Goldacre.

The truth is somewhere inbetween, and with it, our best chance of making people’s lives better.

10. ‘Mental health issues are rare.’

The final myth is particularly pervasive, and you may have already been convinced otherwise of its assertions. Mental health problems are extremely common, it is the severity that differs.

global burden disease

Mental health problems are a global issue. And extremely common. Image courtesy of Flickr.

All in all, 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from a mental health issue at some point in their lives.

Depression is the leading cause of disability for women across most of the world and will be the lead the world in disease burden by 2030.

The very idea that these issues are rare can be traced to a misconception about what they are. Many consider mental health issues to be exemplified in rare cases of psychosis, or those dramatised in media. But mental health problems are not always as dramatic.

I don’t think it’s a healthy way of living to assume mental issues are a rarity, everyone will probably stumble across a mental issue at some point in there life, it’s how we deal with it that determines our outcome and if we’re prepared to accept it. ‘ – Charlie Parsons.

But they are worth knowing about. Considering just how common they are, and that they are becoming more common, we can build a community that wants to recognise why and do something about it.

learning mental health

By learning the truth of mental health problems, we can become wiser and more empathetic as a society. Image courtesy of Flickr.

By correcting the idea that ‘mental health’ issues convey only the extremes of behaviour, we miss the vast majority of people who suffer. We owe them the time to recognise not just how common mental health issues are, but how they affect each and every one of us.

There is no standard normal. Normal is subjective. There are seven billion versions of normal on this planet.” – Matt Haig.

One in four is a big number, so next time you are out shopping consider just how many around you are suffering in silence.

Let’s end the stigma.

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”  – Carl Sagan

I hope that this work has explained why some of these myths exist, and what the real truths actually are. And I hope that by taking the time to explain them that we can correct some of the harsh inequalities experienced by those with mental health problems.

Crucially, we can see that whilst each myth can be debunked,  there is always some believable idea behind it. It is what happens next that builds a misconception into a commonly held belief.

stigma learning together

Learning is the first step in ending the stigma that drives us apart. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Stigma against mental health problems, like any stigma, is founded on misconception and fear. And like any stigma, it disappears as the truth of the matter becomes well known. We have seen it time and time again, but it takes work from the ground up.

When it becomes clear that the public will no longer tolerate the abuse of the mentally unwell, (and why should they?) the financial and political motivations will die along with the stigma itself.  People are generally good, so if we can respect each other and work together the sky is the limit.

‘Mental health stigma is killing a lot of people, especially men. This is not addressed in dialogue, men try to ‘power their way through.’ Mental illness is ‘not a challenge to be overcome’, it’s a whole load of added pressure. It’s an illness.’ – Mike Stuchbery.

I hope that in some way I have given you something  that you can discuss and share. Together we can end the stigma, so here is as good a place as any, So please help by sharing, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

In memory of R.O

If you wish to reproduce this article, in full or in part, please get in touch.

What’s next? Join our wonderful community!

The opinions above represent those of Dr Janaway alone and do not necessarily represent his affiliates. Any quotation or contribution made by a third party (signposted in text,) has been done under volition and without financial compensation. There is no direct financial gain to either the author or contributors from the publication of this work, it is all done for free in our own time to help others. All text has been discussed and reviewed with senior mental health professionals to ensure accuracy. There are no concerns of breaking patient anonymity or confidentiality.

Several twitter posts were originally going to be used, but due to the confusion noted of others in questioning the users intent these have been omitted out of courtesy. Apologies to those wishing to be featured, but your responses were incredibly valuable. And to those I was not able to get back in touch with, I appreciate your willingness to help and look forward to new opportunities to work together in the future. If you are concerned about your health please see your local healthcare provider. Featured image referenced above.

A special thanks to; Scott McGlyness, Paul MannersAndy West, Ralf Little, Charlie Parsons, Mike Stuchbery, Ayden Callaghan , Stephen Ritchie and Chloe Whichello and my twitter community for providing such great feedback. And not forgetting Ashleigh Howells for her patience in reading and editing, as well as much needed encouragement, as well as Dr David Denton for his keen insights.

10 Common Logical Fallacies And How To Fight Back

We have all been in arguments on social media. And sometimes your opponent may begin to twist your words and place you in seemingly ‘unwinnable’ positions. For example, you may argue that ‘legalising medicinal cannabis is a good idea’, but are then asked to comment on ‘so you think all illegal drugs are fine.’

Obviously, this is not true, so you are unlikely to agree with it.

This is a strawman argument, and by making any concession the opponent will then erroneously signal your defeat. And because debates are often won or lost on emotion or ‘strength’, this can be a crucial difference in conveying the truth.

But with strawman arguments, as with many other logical fallacies, there are ways out.  Often the very argument raised is illogical, dishonest or weak.  So all you have to do is spot and declare the common errors.

So let’s list our top 10 logical fallacies, teach you how to spot them, and how to dismantle them.  In each case, we have included a comprehensive retort for you to use. And you can skip to the end for the biggest argument destroyer of all.

1. ‘Black and White’ Fallacy (False dichotomy, False dilemma.)

This common fallacy presents an erroneously limited number of outcomes for any given argument. And in doing so, limits your answer to either agreeing with or refuting a single point using an incomplete set of alternative explanations.

In short, you are forced to pick an outcome you don’t agree with from a list without all the answers. This may illegitimately misrepresent the truth of a situation, your own view and further the dishonest cause of the person involved.

So let’s look at the fallacy simply;

  • Black White Fallacy; Premise ‘A’ must be explained by outcome ‘1’ or’ 2′.
  • Correction:  Premise ‘A’ is explained by neither ‘1’ or ‘2’, both, partially, or by something else entirely.

So to make things a little more useful, let’s present a common use of the fallacy

  • You can either believe that humans cause climate change or that it’s due to volcanoes.

And although volcanoes do contribute to climate change, we know that humans do. The statement asks you to agree with either side, dismissing the other. But in practice, both humans and volcanoes contribute to climate change.

An easy way to spot this fallacy is to simply look for a question or statement that forces a narrow set of options or explanations, and then consider whether the answers provided are exhaustive. If not, then the advocate is making a black-white fallacy. Look for words like ‘which, pick one, must, is and either.’

So now that you know how to spot it, what can you say back? I would recommend copying and pasting this answer;

‘The options presented do not capture the truth of the situation at hand. You have deliberately limited our possible responses to further your own agenda. I will not entertain a false dilemma.’

You can then provide your argument, having both recognised their dishonesty and called the person out.

false dilemma

A ‘false dilemma’ asks you to choose between two extreme views, when the truth lies elsewhere. Image courtesy of Flickr.

2.   ‘False Cause’ Fallacy (False Association, induction error.)

A false cause fallacy presents an erroneous association between two variables. The user will link two or more different ideas to form a dishonest or incorrect conclusion. This could be comparing data, or someones past actions with their current (although this is not exhaustive.)

In each case, the link between the variables is erroneous, confounded by a third factor (or more,) or not as straight-forward as the person would wish others to believe.

So let’s look at the basic idea;

  • False Cause Fallacy:  Since A is ‘true’ and B is ‘true’, then ‘C’  must be true.
  • Correction:  ‘A’ and ‘B’ may both be true, but do not explain or cause ‘C’ at all, entirely or alone.

A common example oft used to demonstrate this is ‘Storks and Babies.’ In a study comparing the number of breeding pairs of ‘Storks’ in a country with the number ‘human births,’, finding that with more storks came more births;

  • Since Stork numbers increase in proportion to human births, babies must be delivered by Storks.

Here we can see how the conditions addressed (correlation in stork numbers and human births,) do not explain their relationship. The conclusion itself is erroneous, as we know how babies are born. There is a third factor involved, the size of the country, which also predicts an increase in stork numbers and birth rates.

An easy way to spot this fallacy is to note any argument made using data or a premise to justify the conclusion. At this point you may question whether the conclusion can be explained fully by the argument offered, or the data/premise presented. Look for words like ‘since, as, showed.’

And what can you say back?

The argument presented is incorrect. The variables that you have presented do not provide evidence to justify your conclusion. This is a false cause fallacy.’

You can then post the truth.

cause fallacy babies

A ‘False Cause Fallacy’ suggests a direct link between things that doesn’t exist. Image courtesy of Flickr.

3.  Appeal To Nature Fallacy (Naturalistic Fallacy.)

An appeal to nature fallacy presents the idea that something is only true if it appears ‘natural.’ Conversely, anything that does not fit someone’s view of ‘natural’ can be dismissed. The argument places an undeserved omnipotence in the ‘natural world’ as a source of truth when it comes to any subject, and an arbiter of its ‘morality.’

  • Naturalistic Fallacy;  ‘A’ is’ unnatural’, so it must be ‘incorrect’ and/or ‘morally wrong.’
  • Correction: The natural world has no moral precepts, and the efficacy or truth of a statement or intervention must be judged on means other than ‘what is natural.’

So let’s look at a common example;

  • Medicines are unnatural, it is much safer and morally preferable to use herbal remedies.

In this scenario, medicines are argued to be ‘unnatural’ and therefore ‘not safe’ and morally ‘bad.’ The advocate assumes that ‘natural is best’ and that any abrogation is morally and functionally wrong. But we also know that medicines save lives in situations where their avoidance would mean death (i.e antibiotics, chemotherapy.)

From a logical standpoint, the moral judgment must be made on the effects of medicines compared with our shared precepts of ‘right and wrong.’ You could easily argue that using antibiotics to save a child’s life is more morally agreeable than using a herbal remedy that won’t make a difference. Here nature is neither superior or morally ‘better.’

To spot this fallacy look for any argument where the person refers to nature or what is commonly accepted. Look for words like ‘natural, better way, holistic, homoeopathic, folk wisdom, alternative medicine or big pharma’.

So now you can spot the argument, here is our perfect retort;

The statement presented assumes a ‘natural’ omnipotence and moral authority. Neither is true, as nature is neither moral or universally effective. This is a weak appeal to nature. We must consider an argument on several attributes before making any judgement in either domain.’

You can then post your counter argument and any relevant evidence.

appeal to nature mosquito

An ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy asserts that ‘natural’ is better. Not sure I would agree when it comes to mosquitos. Image courtesy of Flickr.

4.  The ‘Strawman’ argument

A favourite of keyboard warriors, the ‘strawman’ argument switches the focus of the debate to untenable grounds.  Often the person will ask you to extend your premise to account for another situation, where it is either limited or not applicable at all. It is designed to distract from the core argument.

Crucially, it creates a false or imaginary situation constructed to force you to agree. It is a conscious attempt to misrepresent both your views and the reality of the situation;

  • Strawman argument: Since you support ‘A’, you must support ‘B.’
  • Correction: Supporting ‘A’ is not necessarily coherent with ‘B’, context matters.

Often people will then concede on the new subject, and the concession be cited as ‘evidence’ that their original point is no longer valid;

  • How can you possibly support ‘A’ if you cannot support ‘B’? I guess you don’t believe in ‘a’ at all!

So let’s review a topical example;

  • You say that guns shouldn’t be used by civilians. So you are happy for people to be robbed?

In this situation, you can be unhappy with both civilian firearm use and theft. The two are not intrinsically related, and your reasons for not supporting civilian firearm use are nothing to do with theft. The person insists that you must accept their faulty reasoning to validate your own.  Look for phrases like ‘so you’re saying, so you must think.’

So what do you say back?

This is a strawman argument. Do not assume to generalise my point beyond it’s original context. My argument stands on it’s on merit in the domains in which it is presented. Refute that before you invent an imaginary scenario to your favour.

straw man argument fallacy

A ‘strawman argument’ tries to pull you off topic, and make you concede a different point. Image courtesy of Flickr.

5. Begging the question (circular argument, circular reasoning.)

This particularly dishonest approach presents an argument that includes its own conclusion as a premise. In short, it assumes that you won’t spot the trick. You are forced to agree with the statement because it is logically valid, even if untrue.

In this situation you have no choice to agree with the conclusion if you agree with the premise, and therein lies it’s weakness;

  • Circular Argument:  ‘A’ proves ‘B’ and ‘B’ proves ‘A’
  • Correction: Neither proves either. You need alternative evidence.

A common example is the recognisable ‘Proof of God’;

  • The beauty of nature is proof of God.  Since nature is beautiful, then God exists.

In this situation, the premise deductively inextricable from its conclusion. But you can dismiss the argument by pointing out that the ‘beauty of nature’ does not prove anything, and therefore it ‘being proved’ by ‘what it asserts must be true’ as a consequence is simply invalid. But how do you spot it? This one is a little trickier, but look for when someone includes synonyms in a statement, repeated terms or words like ‘proof, since, then or must be true.’

And what can you say back?

This is circular reasoning and provides no actual proof of your assertion. You are not highlighting a distinct relationship between two variables, but merely presenting them as one logical entity. Unless you can provide a third proof, then this argument can be dismissed.’

‘Circular reasoning’ is a trick designed to use a premise as its own proof. Image courtesy of Flickr.

6.  The ‘Slippery Slope’ (absurd exploitation, domino fallacy.)

The basic design of this argument is to take a premise and extend its consequences beyond context to something catastrophic. It presents the ‘worst case’ scenario as grounds to dismiss any suggestion, conveniently ignoring any sense of restriction or limitation. Simply put, it takes your argument beyond your intended situation into realms most would find it disagreeable, and likely never have to encounter.

In this situation you are forced to recognise the theoretical risk, which appears to others as if agreeing with it. But as Aristotle said

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

It essentially says;

  • Slippery slope: If ‘A’ causes ‘B’ and ‘B’ causes ‘C’…. (ad nauseam until uncomfortable conclusion drawn.)
  • Correction: ‘A’ may cause ‘B’, but does not inherently cause an unstoppable sequence of events. We have choice and means to exercise restraint on the conditions considered.

A common example often encountered on Twitter is;

  • If we elect the democrats this will lead to communism, and before you know it there will be mass executions.

In this unfortunately non-hyperbolic example, all you need to do is point out the inaccuracies in the original premise and the important of context in disrupting the chain of causation. For example, the democrats are not communists, and communism is an ideology. Mass executions performed under communist regimes were not a result of the ideology, but the dictator.

So how can you spot this approach? It’s quite simple, just look for anyone extending your argument toward anything emotionally tumultuous, topical or disagreeable. The weakness of the approach is it’s appeal to tragedy, which although powerful, makes it easy to spot. Or you can look for words like ‘if, will lead to, next, before you know it, consequence’ or any historically significant abomination ‘Nazis, racism, executions, etc.’

And in response you can say;

This is a nonsensical slippery slope argument designed to paint the worst case scenario. In reality it makes a number of unsupported links and assumptions and ignores our ability to recognise poor outcomes. There is no unavoidable chain of consequence here. You are not just being dishonest, but underestimating and insulting both your readers and myself.

slippery slope

A ‘slippery slope’ argument tries to convince you that ‘what can go wrong,’ ‘will go wrong.’ Image courtesy of Flickr.

7.  Anecdotal Argument (personal experience, hearsay’)

A rather personal bugbear of mine is the anecdotal argument. This is where somebody uses one or more limited examples of ‘experience’ to extrapolate their view beyond the examples.  In short it compares the conclusions of one person with the combined data for all applicable situations, and favours the former. Within science, this is the lowest form of evidence as it is prone to error, misinterpretation and confounded by other variables.

In this case the person may not be aware of their error, as the result is ‘true to them’;

  • Anecdotal Argument: I know that ‘A’ does not cause ‘B’ because I know someone who does ‘A’ and doesn’t have ‘B.’
  • Correction: Individual examples of the relationships between variables may differ from large-scale observations. There may be other factors involved, or you have  experienced a case within the margin of negative probability. 

This one is a little wordy, so let’s use a common case;

I don’t vaccinate my children because my friend Jane’s son has autism, and she says it’s because of the vaccine.

In this situation it is clear where the fallacy lies. There is a misconception (that vaccines cause autism, they don’t,) and the child’s diagnosis is used as proof of the misconception (this is somewhat similar to circular reasoning.)  Here the person is using a single unverified case to generalise to an entire field of study, ignoring the wealth of contradictory evidence.  Look out for words like ‘hear, my friend, but didn’t, this one case’ or worse still, people posting links to anecdotal opinion pieces.

And how do you respond?

‘Anecdotal accounts are unreliable due to either a paucity of supporting evidence, the presence of confounding variables, a misconception and undermined by the larger data. Opinion pieces are worthless compared to large-scale studies. Unless a relationship is replicable beyond one scenario, it’s ‘truth’ is unlikely replicable beyond that case. There are sometimes exceptions to the rules, but these are often predictable and accounted for.

anecdotal argument hearsay

An ‘anecdotal argument’ places the opinions of once over an entire evidence base. Image courtesy of Flickr.

8. An ‘Appeal to Emotion’ (playing on emotion, ‘for the children’.)

You may have heard the term ‘won’t someone think of the children’, usually used in jest within comedy. But this approach, often used in good faith by well-meaning individuals, can be used by politicos to manipulate the public into supporting their personal causes. It may be used in conjunction with the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy, as it disregards logical discourse in favour of moral judgement.

You are forced to agree because not doing so give you the appearance of being callous, evil or worse. It essentially asks for the ‘rules to be bent’ because of a real or fabricated ‘special case/’

Simply put;

  • Appeal to emotion: If we don’t do ‘A’ then ‘B’ will happen (B being something negative, emotional or pulling on heartstrings.)
  • Correction: The relationship between ‘A’ and ‘B’ isn’t logical, defined or likely.  Emotional ploys are being used to manipulate and divide people.

And a common example;

  • If you don’t allow this person to travel to a different hospital then you want him to die, you Nazi.

This is a common medical scenario. But this argument makes faulty assumptions about a persons moral standpoint and intentions. It also appeals to the common sensibility of ‘wanting people to live (which we all do.)’ It then goes a step further to assert that ‘you wanted a person to die.’ This is just one example, but others could include discussions about criminal activity, euthanasia (if criminal,) abortion or other contentious topics.

Now, this one is difficult. As people will genuinely believe what they are saying, and be saying it in perceived good faith, this cannot always be taken as intentional manipulation. These are very hard to debate, as the emotive aspect is so powerful and the accusation so strong. I have seen many doctors pushed to breaking point debating the finer points of decisions around life and death. Furthermore, you make yourself the fictitious enemy of an often justified moral crusade.

Look for words like ‘children, women, forced, infringement, fascism etc’, or emotive images and one-sided opinion pieces being used.

So, aside from leaving it to the official authority involved, you could say;

This is a very difficult situation. But before we make quick judgements about what may be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it is important to get a full picture of what is going on.  You may very well be right, but there may be information that you are not aware of that complicates things.’

But when it comes to this one, less engagement is more. Personally I only debate subjects where avoiding the argument puts others at risk.

appeal to emotion

An ‘appeal to emotion’ makes you consider fear over logic. Image courtesy of Flickr.

9. The ‘Ad Hominem’ (abusive, name calling)

Personally, the use of personal insults or use of character traits within academic discourse is enough cause for me to withdraw from debate. An ‘ad hominem’ is where someone begins either casting aspersions on their opponent (he is x or y,) or bringing up past actions (he used to do x, he once y) to try and undermine their argument. The insult or characterisation may be completely unrelated, but infer some blanket moral judgement.

Of course, there are cases where someones character or past actions may predict the validity of their argument, but to assume so is foolhardy.

Often the nature of the person is irrelevant to the argument, where the approach insists that a ‘bad’ person cannot make a ‘valid or true’ statement because of their nature;

  • Ad hominem: ‘A’ must be wrong because he did x
  • Correction:  The likelihood of being wrong must be taken on the evidence presented, not his character.

This is easier to present with a common example;

  • The surgeon-general says that burgers are unhealthy, but he is really fat so whatever.

In this example an ‘ad hominem’ attack is made to question the validity of the surgeon-generals advice based on his appearance. It infers that if burgers were really unhealthy, then he/she wouldn’t be fat. Therefore, he/she is lying and he/she is a bad person. Worse still, it presents being overweight as some kind of moral shortcoming.

This usually signifies that the argument has been lost and may reveal something about the character of who you are dealing with. On a personal note, often these ‘trolls’ thrive on attention, so don’t waste your time beyond one response. You are not convincing them, you are convincing bystander readers.

The important point missed is that burgers are unhealthy if even to extreme, regardless of who says it. This is an easy one to spot, just look for adjectives or insults.

i.e ‘Crooked Hillary.’ 

So what do you say?

A person’s character or personal attributes must be taken second to the evidence presented. To use insults to undermine an argument or person is both a departure from debate and an underhanded manipulative tactic. It suggests to me that you cannot provide a reasoned refutation of the point.

ad hominem

This guy is a total loser, so ignore what he says. Image courtesy of Chloe Howard.

10. ‘Personal Incredulity’ (argument from astonishment, misunderstanding.)

Not to be  confused with an ‘argument from ignorance’ (where someone is simply unaware of the facets of their argument,) this approach portends that the complicated nature of an idea renders it false. Basically, it says that because something is complicated, or beyond someones understanding, it can be dismissed either in favour of something more simple or not solved at all;

  • Personal Incredulity: ‘A’ seems too complex to be true, so it can’t be.
  • Correction: The complexity of an idea has no bearing on its validity, and a personal misunderstanding does not change the truth.

A recent example, featured in my work on The Flat Earthis as follows;

  • I cannot see the curvature of the earth, so it must be flat.

The problem here is a misunderstanding of optics and what can be expected. As well as being a ‘common sense’ fallacy, you may also treat it as an ‘argument from ignorance’ if you were to appraise what might be common knowledge. But here I am addressing the somewhat complex idea of the evolutionary limitations of human vision and the fractional curvature defined by distance.  Look for words like ‘complicated, nonsense, made up, theory and elite.’

In response you can say;

The truth of this matter is inherent in its complexity, which is understandably beyond many people’s comprehension. But to assert that the statement is wrong because you don’t understand it is erroneous. Simple is not always correct.’

personal incredulity

A ‘personal incredulity’ fallacy asserts that the truth is wrong if too complicated. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Moving forward

So there we are, our top 10 common fallacies and how to fight back. You may have noticed a common theme, which is either the misrepresentation of information, assumption of terms and intention, or glossing over the finer details in favour of emotive manipulation. Each is obvious once spotted, but in the sphere of social media often it is not the most logical who wins, but the most emotive.

And unfortunately, on the battlefield of ideas, this does cost lives. The public understanding of concepts directly influences our behaviours, so people refuse medication, avoid vaccination and place others at risk. This can often be traced back to the poor argument or dishonest actions of a charlatan or ‘influencer’ whom uses these tricks to confound and manipulate others.

But I wish to offer you one more retort, which you can use almost anywhere. Whenever someone makes an unsubstantiated claim, for example ‘vaccines cause autism’ or ‘flu shots cause Alzheimers’ you can respond with what I call the Sagan-Hitchens Razor, as it combines the aphorisms of two great logicians. I have added my own pithy knockdown at the end, but I feel it arrogant to place my name amongst the greats’;

‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. So put up, or shut up.’

So let me know how you fare, and if you come across any spectacularly poor arguments let me know in the comments or social media.

What’s next? Join our wonderful community!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

Ten Incredible Pearls of Wisdom From Great Minds

ten wisdom dawkins

The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.

Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.

So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.

1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour

‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.

As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.

ten wisdom dawkins

The nature of life is conservative, selfish and driven by unconscious forces. Dawkins’ understands that to ‘be good’ you must understand our basic urges. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.

What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival.  So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.

2. On The Power Of Words

‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.

Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.

A man’s words may make beautiful the macabre. Russell relied on logic to unify humanity toward a common good. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering.  You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.

We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.

3. On The Risks Of Virtue

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.

As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.

wisdom nietzsche

Nietzsche warned us not to become monsters in the pursuit of greatness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.

And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.

4. On The Importance Of Responsibility

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.

Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.

wisdom star ten star

Satre  believed that with action comes responsibility, and with freedom comes the same. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.

Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.

5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge

The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.

Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.

wisdom pearls gladwell quote

Gladwell has exposed and explained the hidden reasons behind cultural success and individual power. To question convention is as useful as it is risky. Image courtesy of Flickr.

His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.

We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.

6. On The Insights Given By Friendship

‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.

Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.

A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.

wisdom harris quote ten

Sam Harris is a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and their numerous abuses. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.

So if  you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.

7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.

‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.

The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.

wisdom goldacre bad science

Ben Goldcare makes it his mission to challenge misleading beliefs, expose bad science and explain the misunderstood. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.

And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.

8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.

‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and  Science Communicator.

Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.

Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.

feynman physics quote wisdom

Feynman studied and revealed some of the most hidden secrets of our universe, but in doing so realised that was is unknown is our greatest teacher. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong,  revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.

We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.

9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility

‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.

If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.

gawande life wisdom

As a surgeon, Gawande not only saves lives, but has taken it upon himself to understand what the true value of life is. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.

We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.

10. On The Size Of Our Influence

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan,  Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.

Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.

sagan quote wisdom science

Carl Sagan was not just a pioneer of knowledge, but arguably one of humanity’s greatest teachers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.

Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.

And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.

So Much Left To Learn

Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.

So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great  above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.

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