Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests,
I like to think that my friends (both online and in real life) are a pretty special group of people. They are all perceptive and intelligent, but every now and then some of them do things that simply confound me. They will post urban legends on Facebook, or simply e-mail them to me. My friends should be smart enough to see right through this nonsense, but for some unfathomable reason, they don’t, and I’m quite concerned by their lack of critical thinking skills.
I am now going to deconstruct and analyze a popular urban legend, identify the errors in logic, and then explain why some people might be fooled by these stories – even when they’re smart enough to know better. By following these tips, and with continued practise, you too will be able to develop a Holmesian ability to detect these apocryphal tales.
During the late 1990s, an e-mail known as The Great Gas Out was making the rounds. Here is one of the early versions:
You’ve probably received something like this several times yourselves. The e-mail author complains about the cost of filling up at the pump and claims that s/he has discovered a way to force gasoline companies to lower their prices: don’t buy any gas on a certain date. If everyone can be convinced to participate through this e-mail campaign, then the consumer will have won a victory over the major oil companies.
The main argument in this e-mail is “It has been calculated that if everyone in the United States and Canada did not purchase a drop of gasoline for one day, and all at the same time, then the oil companies would choke on their stockpiles”. Let’s examine this statement:
> IT HAS BEEN CALCULATED THAT…
The message’s first phrase should make you suspicious, because it’s asking for our unquestioning acceptance of what is to follow, without offering any proof. This is a logical fallacy known as Begging The Question. There are no references or attributions, so who calculated this? Why should we believe their conclusion?
> THE OIL COMPANIES WOULD CHOKE ON THEIR STOCKPILES
The proper word is inventory, since stockpile implies a large accumulation of material goods to be used in an emergency or when there is a shortage. The oil companies are not going to choke on their inventory. It’s simply going to sit in the storage tanks for an additional day.
> IT WOULD HIT THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY WITH A NET LOSS OF OVER 4.6 BILLION DOLLARS
E10 gasoline (which is gas that contains 10% ethanol) has a storage life of 90-100 days, so there would have to be an extended boycott before profits are affected. Gasoline that doesn’t contain any ethanol can be stored for several years. A one-day boycott will have no effect on the value of their inventory. If you really want to bring an industry to its knees, then boycott a product with a shorter shelf life – don’t buy milk for two weeks!
Why The Gas Out Will Not Work
The thing that should arouse suspicion instantly is the “armchair activism” angle of the suggestion. If you want to change the world, then you have to actually do something measurable.
The reason this scheme won’t work is because we are being told to alter our buying habits (and only temporarily), but not our usage habits. To understand why this “strike” is ineffective (and may even backfire), it helps to take a broader view. Ignore your daily gas consumption, and look at your monthly consumption instead. You probably buy two or three tanks of gas per month, per car. If you wanted to fill up today and the stations were closed, then you would just fill up tomorrow. Your monthly usage would remain constant. Now imagine that all of the gas station across the country were closed on Christmas Day, forcing everyone to wait one day to fill up their tanks. The effect on the oil companies would be the exactly same as this 24-hour protest – nil.
Let’s compare this one-day boycott to breathing. During normal activities, my body’s oxygen consumption remains more or less constant. I can hold my breath for a few seconds, but it just means that my next breath will be bigger (and take in more oxygen) than the last one. Since we are not altering our gasoline usage habits, our monthly consumption will remain (more or less) the same. What we don’t buy on the day of the “gas out” (September 1st), we will simply buy the next day. The demand is not lessened, only shifted forward by one day. In fact, since we will still drive our cars on September 1st, our gas tank will contain a bit less fuel than normal, thus the September 2nd demand will be higher than usual.
Let’s assume that everyone followed this advice and didn’t buy gas on September 1st. If gas station owners received this e-mail, then they would realize that their sales on the following day will be about twice the usual daily average, and they will probably jack up their prices accordingly, to increase their profits, and perhaps even as a form of punishment for all of the armchair activists who thought that they could actually bring the oil companies to their knees by doing nothing for a day.
The Great Gas Out – The Revised Version
A couple of years later, a revised version of the gas out e-mail appeared in my Inbox. Rather than a one-day boycott, this one recommended that all consumers not buy any gas from a single gas station chain: Petro-Canada. Here it is:
To their credit, the author did admit that the original Great Gas Out message had no effect, and that the oil companies merely laughed at those who participated. Now let’s examine their principal argument: “We need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the marketplace, not sellers. Starting June 1 of 2007, DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from the biggest Company in Canada. Petro-Canada! If they are not selling any gas, they will be very quickly inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.”
> “Buyers control the marketplace”
Clearly, this person has not taken any courses in Economics. However, s/he is half right. Sellers control the supply, and buyers control the demand. In fact, in you’ve been shopping at any store, you’ll get the distinct impression that sellers are convinced that they control the marketplace. In fact, sellers will try to manipulate our buying behaviour by reminding us (in not-so-subtle ways) that they control the inventory, and the time during which certain items will be on sale.
To demonstrate the ridiculousness of this argument, imagine that you’ve just entered the electronics department at Best Buy and said to the sales associate “I’m the consumer, and the buyers control the marketplace! I want that flat screen TV, but I’m not going to buy it right now. I’m just going to stand here in your store and watch you choke on your stockpiles, until you reduce the price of that television to a level that I consider reasonable!” At this point they would probably do one of two things: laugh you out of the store, or call security.
> “DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from… Petro Canada! If they are not selling any gas, they will… reduce their prices [and] other companies will have to follow suit.”
The logic of boycotting a single gas station sounds reasonable on the surface, but this is yet another example of why “a LITTLE knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Let’s simulate this scenario and see how it plays out:
For the sake of simplicity, let’s suppose that there are four major gasoline companies in Canada; Petro-Canada, Shell, Esso and Sunoco. Let’s also assume that Canadians patronize each one equally, giving each company a 25% market share. Boycotting Petro-Canada will certainly mean less money in sales for them, but – just like in the first Great Gas Out example – since we’re not being asked to drive less, our gasoline demand will remain the same. Now our collective weekly or monthly purchasing will be divided among three gasoline companies instead of four.
Starting on the gas out day, the demand at the Esso, Shell and Sunoco stations has increased by 33%. Those gas station owners, having read the Great Gas Out e-mail and being no fools, will anticipate this increased demand and raise their prices to whatever the market will tolerate. Petro-Canada executives, being cut-throat capitalists themselves, will raise their prices too — to a level just below Esso, Shell and Sunoco.
The losers, of course, are the consumers
Why Was This E-Mail So Popular?
My friends are intelligent, and I presume that yours are too, so why was this e-mail forwarded so many times? Why couldn’t people see through this nonsense as easily as you and I? Here are some reasons:
- The message is in print. To a generation that grew up before the Internet and social media, print sources – books, newspapers and magazines – were considered authoritative. Their contents were written by professional journalists or writers, reviewed by fact-checkers and vetted by editors. While we all know that e-mail messages and social media posts can be written by anyone, there is still a lingering tendency (more prevalent among older people) to give more credence to printed messages, even if they are read on a screen instead of on paper.
- The entire message is in capital letters. Traditionally, using capital letters makes it seem like the writer is shouting, but the additional emphasis also carries with it, an air of authority. If something is printed in capital letters, then it must be important. If the entire message is in capital letters, then it behooves you to read it. Nigerian princes who have a pressing need to transfer millions of dollars out of the country often type their e-mail missives in capital letters. They understand the psychology at work here.
- It’s an excellent example of armchair activism. We can change the world without having to get up from our seats – all we have to do is forward an e-mail to ten friends. As in the grassroots campaign example, while we may not be willing to stage a sit-in or spend our days sitting in a park (since that requires a time and energy commitment), we can take five seconds to forward an e-mail and feel that we are “sticking it to The Man”.
- It’s a grassroots campaign. We, the little people, can finally do something to topple those evil oil industry executives. Anti-establishment sentiment has been a part of North American culture since the hippie days of the late 1960s. The Occupy Movement is the latest manifestation of this social force. Everyone likes a good David & Goliath story – we always root for the underdog. In this example, we are David and are encouraged to topple the mighty oil companies, by utilizing a computer mouse as our slingshot.
- We want it to be true. It’s such a good story, that we overlook the obvious logistical flaws. You will see this repeatedly in the media. There is a human interest story that’s so karmic or heart-warming, that everybody (including the reporter) embraces it and never bothers to do any fact-checking. Two recent examples are the high school student who played the stock market and parlayed a $1,500 investment into $72 million, and the elderly woman who killed her Knockout Game assailant.
- It appeals to our innate hunger for power – a desire so strong that we are willing to ignore the red flags and abandon critical thinking in order to possess it. Tears For Fears expressed this sentiment succinctly in their song Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Very few of us will rule anything larger than a hot dog cart, but the specious reasoning of The Great Gas Out e-mail makes us believe that we have the power to enact global changes and bring down entire industries.
- It quotes a likeable person. The revised version begins with “This was originally sent by a retired Coca Cola executive. It came from one of his engineer buddies who retired from Halliburton”. Everyone likes Coca-Cola, so we’ll automatically have a positive image of someone who works there. A retired executive evokes a kindly, fatherly figure – someone who would never lead us astray. This is the same tactic used in celebrity endorsements. Celebrities probably don’t know any more about the products they’re endorsing than the average consumer, but most of us are fond of celebrities and therefore are more inclined to believe whatever they tell us.
- It quotes an industry insider. Mentioning the Coca-Cola executive’s friend from Halliburton is also a clever ploy. As you know, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton before he became the U.S. Vice President under George W. Bush. This association implies that a retired Halliburton executive would certainly be well-connected and have a rarefied knowledge of the inner workings of the oil industry. This casual reference leads us to believe that we are the unintended recipients of this privileged insider information.
In conclusion, question everything you read. Anyone can post anything they like to social media – there are no barriers to entry. Reject anything that sounds like armchair activism; no one is going to change the world unless they actually get up off their tush and do something. Finally, never abandon your critical thinking skills, even if your analysis does ruin a nice story.