Airing out the draft | Edgars Lapiņš | TEDxRiga

Airing out the draft | Edgars Lapiņš | TEDxRiga


Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Ilze Garda I’m a skeptic. (Laughter) What is a skeptic? If I told my best friend
the day after his wedding that statistically, 100% of divorces
begin with a marriage, does that make me a skeptic? Well, not really. That makes me a cynic. No, the mantra of a skeptic
in the words of Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and the founder
of the modern skeptic movement, is simply that extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence. This is a story about what it means
to be a skeptic and why I think that healthy skepticism
is important for everybody. But first of all, the question
which is probably in all of your minds: why in the world will I be speaking
about air currents? So, draft. The Latvian word for draft is ‘caurvējš’, and that’s air currents
in an enclosed space, or as architects call it,
cross ventilation. Cross ventilation arises
from atmospheric pressure fluctuations due to differences in air temperatures, and I’m terribly sorry if there is
any Newtonian physicist in the room, flinching at my oversimplified
explanations. Latvian draft is responsible
for windows slamming shut, for candles being blown out, but more importantly, and why we are here, for potentially catching the flu or other potentially lethal
viral infections among other things. [Guns don’t kill people.
Caurvējš kills people.] Seriously, for most Latvians–
(Laughter) (Applause) most Latvians have either heard of
or believed in this alleged causal link which goes like this: you stand in the draft,
you catch a cold, and then you die. (Laughter) So I decided to research to either confirm
or deny my own hypothesis which was that this is bunk,
that these claims have no evidence. See, there is a popular belief
that Eskimos allegedly have somewhere from 1 to 17,
to more than 100 words for snow. If you do your reading, it turns out scientists
are still butting heads on this, and scientists butting heads
is all fine and well, we’ll get to that. But we, Latvians,
are a small but proud nation. Proudly, I thought that ‘caurvējš’
was our unique answer to Eskimo words for snow. I first sceptically thought about draft
possibly almost two years ago, at one of the informal events aimed
at promoting science and critical thinking which I co-organize. In a pub, I have to add – which is a model we borrowed
from international skeptics’ organizations who have been doing it
for more than 20 years. And our numbers are growing, but the particular evening’s topic
might have be astrology or quantum physics – I’m not sure anymore – but one guest approached me about an idea
to do an event on domestic myths, and among these, draft was mentioned. Now, I admit, occasionally,
I can get pretty self-righteous, and I thought, “Sure, I’ve heard
a lot of silly beliefs about draft, and I’ve seen no evidence.” My American friends found
the concept entirely unfamiliar; I thought it was being logical. I reasoned that it was next to impossible that we, mighty Latvians,
have discovered the natural phenomena which had for centuries alluded every other nation
and culture in the world. Draft was a story after all, and to be honest, skeptics seldom get to tell a story
rather than poke holes in one. I was psyched. Everything I knew about the topic – from air currents, pressure,
traditional and modern Latvian beliefs, mixed all together – I thought I knew all the turns
the story was going to take. Latvians mostly were familiar
with the concept of draft myths, foreigners would find
something quirky about our culture, and the locals possibly would get
to reflect critically upon possibly an unfounded belief
that they had had since childhood; I know that I did. Checkmate, all the rationality
everywhere, right? Well, obviously,
it wasn’t as simple as that, and I think you can see
where this is going. Soon after initiating
my research, it turned out that all I knew about the topic
was actually what little I had heard. I didn’t know much more, in fact,
than some of the silly beliefs that the elderly really disliked
draft for some reason, and that foreigners
are mostly clueless about it. It had been a very dogmatic approach
on my part from the very beginning. I was searching only for arguments
supporting my own initial position. In other words, it was a classic case
of confirmation bias. And it’s funny, because with all my promotion
of critical thinking for almost a decade, I really should have seen it coming. I was the one person
who was supposed to know that this kind of approach
can get you into trouble. I should have applied Occam’s razor; that’s a simple shortcut in logic which states that the simplest explanation
is usually the correct one. In my defense though, skeptics are used to applying
Occam’s razor to claims such as civil aircraft
or mere logical air balloons being mistaken
for UFOs and flying saucers. Furthermore, in defense of my initial belief
that the myth was unique to Latvia, some of our most deeply cherished poets
have toyed with the notion in their work, such as Imants Ziedonis or Māra Zālīte. For me, this just confirmed
the unique relation of the myth to Latvia. However, my hypothesis was turned
on its head by one central finding, which was that Latvians are not alone,
not by a long shot. It turns out that most European nations
have quite similar beliefs about draft causing
different sorts of illnesses, and actually it gets better
if you look towards the East. Or worse, if you’re feeling skeptical. In Romania, for example, the belief that drafts actually
kill people on a daily basis is so widespread that, according
to one article of 2005 in Telegraph, if one was to open a window
on a packed passenger bus on an extremely sweltering hot summer day, all the other passengers would go nuts and ask for the window to be closed,
probably not too politely. But it turns out it’s the South Koreans who bring
air ventilation myths to the next level. There is a widespread belief
in South Korea that if one was to go sleep
in a room with a spinning fan, then that pretty much means
likely or instant death. There are several theories. One is that the breathable air
gets circulated towards the ceiling, the other is that the airs gets ionized. Well, all these angry Newtonian physicists
that we have in the room will tell you that it isn’t,
and it doesn’t. Most of the Korean fan myths
say that people die from asphyxiation, so what happened? The Korean fan manufacturers
started producing fans which automatically switch [off]
after some 15 minutes or so, and obviously, they charge
a premium for it, so they made
a considerable profit off of it. It actually went as far as the country’s
consumer protection agency mandating that all fans are to be sold
with a warning label on them. (Laughter) At this point, obviously,
somebody might ask, “So what? Nobody takes
draft seriously anyway, and all the really weird,
potentially harmful beliefs exist only in South Korea.” Well, actually, my other hypothesis
was also turned on its head by the finding that air currents
are not entirely harmless. I had a consultation with a neurologist – seriously, I had a consultation
with a neurologist about it – and it turns out
that prolonged air currents, – especially to the head
and the neck region, like the ones you get from driving a car
with an open window – can actually lead
to severe nerve inflammation. Some drivers have actually been known
to wake up the next day after a long drive paralyzed on a half
of their face, for months. Then again, we have to take a step back and realize that domestic drafts,
however strong they might be, can’t really be compared to air currents which you get from an open window
going 50 plus kilometers per hour, right? So, yeah, it could be argued
that draft really is all fun and games, and I mean when I’m sitting
on the front porch in my family’s summer cottage
in Garciems, reading a book, and from inside the house
my grandmother shouts at me, “Edgars, close the door!
There is ‘caurvējš’!” I smile, and I close the door. One might say, “Wait a second!
In the case of draft myths, the traditional beliefs,
all these weird, quirky myths – they were right,
where the skeptic was wrong, right?” And yes, I personally was wrong, but then again,
skepticism isn’t a group of people, it’s a method of evaluating evidence. And a method
can’t really win or lose, right? Personally, I didn’t pretend
to have all the answers. Then again, I’m not doing
a 180 degree flip and in a post-modern fashion acknowledging that everybody is entitled
to their own truth, or that the truth is at middle ground. See, isn’t there a reason why stork experts or cabbage farmers
aren’t invited to hospitals to give consultations on giving birth? To promote the stork theory
or the cabbage child hypothesis? (Laughter) Similarly, this is why we, skeptics, didn’t offer
anti-vaccination activists a panel spot in our recent panel discussion
on vaccines, because maybe everybody might be
entitled to their own opinion, but nobody is entitled to their own facts. If someone wants to evaluate the validity
of some traditional Latvian beliefs, I’d really love to see
some ethnographic research on it. Obviously, for some of these beliefs,
myths, call them whatever you want, talk about self-evident, right? What I’m getting at
is that in this particular case, it’s the method that’s the winner,
not a group of dogmas, regardless if it’s dogmatic skepticism,
dogmatic anti-vaccination sentiment, or a dogmatic belief
that drafts cause the flu. It was the method
of the arriving at the conclusion only after carefully evaluating
the evidence that was available which helped me identify
my own cognitive flaws. And if I’ve learned a valuable lesson,
then I call that a winning. Don’t we all have grandmothers with their black cats crossing the street
giving them bad luck, or with horoscopes that they read which foretell them the week
that they’re going to have, along with the 1/12
of the entire population? (Laughter) Don’t we all have relatives and friends
whom we want to protect from health treatments that don’t work
or online lottery scams? Obviously, what I’m getting at is,
what I’m saying is, we are all skeptics. I am not unique. And obviously, what I’m also saying is that the human brain
is far from perfect: we think much less
than we think we think. I know I do – I definitely didn’t think I was capable of committing
such errors in judgment when I initially approached the topic. And also, we know more
than we know we know. Deep down, in the very beginning,
I knew I was no expert on drafts, but then again, I inquired,
I interviewed people, I researched, and along the way,
I learned a lot implicitly. So even though I didn’t find anybody else, right now I just might be
the resident expert on drafts. (Laughter) We’ve established that drafts,
the domestic drafts, really might just be all fun and games, but this is probably why scientists
don’t butt their heads on drafts, right? Instead, they’re doing something
a lot more worthwhile, such as tackling world hunger,
GMO research, or trying to find health treatments
that do actually work, such as developing the HIV vaccine. Meanwhile, remember that extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence, the Carl Sagan quote. Well, this is what skeptics do: we tackle
the extraordinary claims of everyday, from consumer protection against products
that don’t work as advertised – or at all, in fact – to myths about your kids’ health,
and about the environment. If I told you
that I could deliver you a product, an investment product which would give you
100% return on your investment in a year, wouldn’t you be skeptical about it? Similarly, my only wish is
that people are skeptical about somebody trying to tell you
that they can foretell your future, or for example, some
of the alleged myths about vaccines. Thus, I invite everybody to challenge your own beliefs
and convictions by a simple curiosity. Dare to question, afford to be skeptical,
afford to be unsure, and be more than that,
be more than the cynics. Be investigators. The skeptics aren’t likely to say
they have the whole truth; instead, we don’t merely tell others, we inquire and try to spread
what we’ve learned, just like the people at TEDx, because in doing so, the greatest rewards,
the lessons that you’ve learned, will be and remain your own. Thank you. (Applause)

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