The Zero Effect Fallacy: problems with modern knowledge and the mechanized self

Two friends are talking about crazy medical treatments. The first one, Freddy, is full of enthusiasm and energy, saying "I bet if you rub carrots on your eyeballs, it will fix your near-sightedness!" Seeing Freddy caught up in yet another flawed pharmaceutical fad, the second friend, Nelson, adjusts his glasses and responds disdainfully: "No way, idiot. Rubbing carrots on your eyes does literally nothing to fix myopia. It’s totally useless!" Who’s right, and which attitude is more scientific?

In modern pop-science culture, positive statements ("carrots help your eyes") receive scrutiny and criticism while negative statements ("carrots don’t help your eyes at all") are given a free pass. But negative statements of the form "X does literally nothing" are extremely difficult to prove. The problems is that modern industrialized science tend to be highly reductionist, taking complex problems with millions of dimensions and reducing them down to a mere handful for the sake of testability and convenience. However, whatever works for convenience in application isn’t sufficient to give us a true and final answer in theory. It just means that, according to the dimensions that we chose to investigate, at that particular time, with those particular instruments, and with these methods and caveats, we weren’t able to measure an effect. It isn’t a conclusion to our investigation at all.

Most reasonable pop-science fanboys will agree with the previous paragraph in theory, but in practice, we still see this attitude, which I will call the "zero effect fallacy," show up very often in contemporary conversations. Here are some examples of what I mean by the "zero effect fallacy":

"Showing scary movies in the classroom has no influence on kids’ behaviors."

"Eating animal testicles does literally nothing to improve your health."

"Repeatedly kicking trees with your shins doesn’t do anything to strengthen your bones."

The zero effect fallacy is the false idea that you have proven the null hypothesis to be true. But this is an irrational leap of faith. A failure to prove an alternative hypothesis doesn’t mean you’ve successfully proved the opposite. This false equivalency has led to a disaster of moderate severity for truth-lovers in our generation.

Why is the zero effect fallacy so common among middle-class, white collar, moderately-educated science fans? Part of it is due to specific metaphysical assumptions of the human self which have become popular in our modern age: primarily the idea of the human as a stony, machine-like, atomized, modular Cartesian soul that is hardly influenced by its external environment. In this view of the human self, the human is always an active agent, never a passive receiver, and hardly changes or is affected by anything other than what it rationally chooses for itself. Any influencing power requires strong forces that are always consciously recognized. Mental and bodily phenomena are reduced to a rational, mechanistic processes of cause and effect, and these causal chains are very short, easily detected, don’t influence each other, and terminate quickly.

This mechanized view of the human self, as well as a general lack of imagination and inability to conceive of events outside of what is common, has led to the popularization of the zero effect fallacy in our times. But where were we before this? Can we conceive of a view of selfhood that is different from what we have now?

Our medieval ancestors did not believe in the mechanized self. The pre-modern idea of the human was very spongey, holistic, with causal chains that could span years, decades, and centuries. The pre-moderns possessed an attitude that the material phenomena in our lives may have been caused by distant actions far beyond our knowledge and conception. Perhaps a mental problem in your life was caused by something awful that your grandparents did; or maybe when you glanced at a stranger with an evil look, he responded by casting a spell on you which caused your later suffering. Perhaps you met a beggar and gave him a gold coin, and his prayers were responsible for curing you of illness many years later.

I am not saying here that magic spells and evil ghouls are necessarily real things that you need to worry about. Such a belief isn’t essential to the point of this article. My point is that overly-confident, absolutist scientism is a product of the mechanized metaphysics of our modern age, while cautious holistic humility was the characteristic of attitudes from pre-modern times. In my opinion, our generation (the techno-modern, western Anglophone society) greatly suffers from a lack of metaphysical humility, and we will eventually suffer some serious consequences from these false beliefs.

The modern man thinks so highly of himself as an isolated island that he can watch Hollywood movies with grotesquely violent and evil themes without suffering any damage to his own subconscious. In contrast, the pre-modern man was cautious, careful, and withdrawn, knowing himself to be like a radio antenna for many unknown forces, and he refused to smell, touch, or even glance at events which could later cause his own misfortune.

Let’s go back to the zero effect statements that I mentioned earlier.

  1. "Showing scary movies in the classroom has no influence on kids’ behaviors." –> Why would this be the case? We know from our own experiences that kids imitate what they see on television. We also know that the human imagination is often limited by what it has not seen. It therefore follows that showing new ideas to kids will allow their imaginations to become larger, increasing the search space for their future thoughts and actions, obviously leading to potential changes in their lives. Children are like plant that absorb the nutrients from their surrounding soils and waters. Anyone who says "children are NEVER influenced by X" is under the spell of such highly-questionable selfhood metaphysics that they should be laughed out of the room before being allowed to speak.

  2. "Eating animal testicles does literally nothing to improve your health." –> Replace the animal testicles with any sort of snake oil that you want to test out. This question is the subject of ongoing controversy in the online broscience community at the time of this writing (2023). Does noshing on nutritious nutsacks help us to achieve our fitness goals? As usual, there are plenty of people claiming that this does "literally nothing" and then later saying "the effect is too small for it to count." Well, which is it? Is it a zero effect or a small effect? It is trivially obvious that bovine balls contain at least some protein, and protein is a necessary component of human health. We also know that not all protein is created equal, and there are many various amino acids that differ between plants and animals. There are probably at least 1,000 different molecules contained in animal testes, so how could it be true that has zero effect? Did we isolate and test all 1,000 of these various chemicals? If you take one milligram of powdered mushrooms, you could literally die, start hallucinating, or have a delicius meal depending on which mushroom you chose. So how it is so obvious that eating something does literally nothing? People should never say "this medicine does literally nothing" but should rather say "I am unwilling to give this a try" or "I suspect it doesn’t do much."

  3. "Repeatedly kicking trees with your shins doesn’t do anything to strengthen your bones." –> I chose this one because it’s actually empirically true that bone strength is something that humans can actively train using their own actions. I put it here to show some of the absurd things that are possible with the human body that may be beyond imagination. We could easily imagine this idea being "debunked" by pop-scientists several decades ago, but we know these days that it’s empirically observable that human bones gain additional strength when they’re kicked around. Modern mechanized humans are so obsessed with the idea of genetic determinism that they think nothing can be trained, everything is set in stone, but we really don’t know and can never know this.

There are no flawless experimental frameworks, and every investigation has its caveats. No two humans are the same, not even twins. What kind of thing are you testing? What time of day did the test occur? Was it taken on an empty or full stomach? Were the subjects exercising or not exercising? Was the study conducted over a year or just a few months? Occasionally, we see "scientific research" which becomes popular in the media, claiming to completely "disproving" certain folk remedies as being absolutely untrue, and yet, upon closer examination, we see that the "science" simply involves testing one or two compounds that they extracted from the remedy, not the remedy itself. With these flawed and reductionistic methods, it is impossible to conclusively prove that something really does nothing at all.

The zero effect fallacy fits like a glove with the needs of contemporary industrialized science. Those who believe in the mechanized view of the human self are the perfect target demographic to be sold various solutions that destroy the external symptoms of physical, mental, and social diseases without conclusively addressing any of the holistic, multi-variable, multi-decade root causes. False pseudo-skepticism has become a weapon of empiricist dishonesty, a sword used by modern scientistic crusaders to annihilate disagreeable hypotheses, not for the sake of intellectual honesty, but for outright conquest in the world of ideas. "Skepticism for thee, but not for me" has become the anthem of the knowledge of our generation. But scientism — and pop-skepticism in general — should not be immune to its own claims, and all good intellectual theories need to test themselves under their own principles, or else they fall apart as inconsistent and useless. So, my friends and fellow-soldiers, we must take up the defense of good knowledge and honest truth-seeking, applying skepticism to its own judgments, understanding the holistic truths of the world from start to finish, or else we will suffer to see many good ideas wiped away by the scientistic philistines and their barbarian hordes.


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