Humans generally tend to not simply take what we find asis, but also often can’t resist the urge to tweak and improve things, and apparently the Nigerian 419 guys are not immune to that urge. To illustrate that, here is a rather enjoyable variation on the old theme designed to snare the gullible. You just know that anything that starts “Dear Mr Sir” is going to be a gem …
Now least you wonder, yes, I do suspect that this just might be a scam.
That example above is of course hilariously funny because it is (I would truly hope from your viewpoint) rather ineptly crafted to deceive in a manner that fails at almost every single level. However, it is not always so obvious, and even if you are a critical thinker you can still be potentially lulled into a false sense of security. The “I’m Smart, I simply can’t be conned like that” is often a thought that proceeds many a downfall, because the reality is that anybody, and I really do mean anybody, can be fooled.
Would anybody be truly daft enough to buy into the idea of a Nigerian astronaut trapped up in space since 1990?
Well you should perhaps also remember that we do live in a world peopled with many who do quite sincerely believe some very weird things …
- We have mainstream Christian beliefs – bread and wine turns into the actual body and blood of Jesus, virgins giving birth, the world is only 6,000 years old, etc…
- But Christians have no monopoly – we have various Islamic claims that Mohammed flew into space on a magic winged horse, that Jinn are quite real, that the moon split in two, etc…
But we need not simply point to religion, other examples abound … lake monsters, aliens, big foot, ghosts, a vast and ever growing number of conspiracy beliefs, alternative medicine cancer cures, etc…
Are we truly that gullible?
Potentially yes, we all are to one degree or another, and so nurturing critical thinking skills is an important life-skill that could potentially save you rather a lot, both emotionally and also financially.
The BS Detection Kit … this is your gullibility immunisation shot
If wondering how you can go about making a start, then I can highly recommend Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World.
There is a great chapter in there that lays out some really good guidance on detecting BS (he called it baloney instead of BS to ensure it actually got published), for example …
- Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.
- Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.
- “In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts.”
- Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.
- Don’t get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
- Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses’ relative explanatory power.
- Every step in an argument must be logically sound; a single weak link can doom the entire chain.
- When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam’s Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.
- Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions.
Meanwhile up in space …
OK, yes I do confess that the Nigerian astronaut trapped in space is my favourite 419 variation, but have you ever wondered what happens if you actually respond to such emails even for fun?
Well wonder no more because others have been there before you and done exactly that. Here is a recent TED talk by writer and comedian James Veitch narrating a hilarious, weeks-long exchange with a spammer who offered to cut him in on a hot deal … enjoy.