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The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking

Necessary cognitive fortification against propaganda, pseudoscience, and general falsehood.

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) was many things — a cosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic, and brilliant philosopher. But above all, he endures as our era’s greatest patron saint of reason and critical thinking, a master of the vital balance between skepticism and openness. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Sagan’s timeless meditation on science and spirituality, published mere months before his death in 1996 — Sagan shares his secret to upholding the rites of reason, even in the face of society’s most shameless untruths and outrageous propaganda.

In a chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” Sagan reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” (Cue in PBS’s Joe Hanson on how to read science news.) But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.

Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:

The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools:

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.

He admonishes against the twenty most common and perilous ones — many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:

  1. ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
  2. argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
  3. argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
  4. appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  5. special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
  6. begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
  7. observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
  8. statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
  9. misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
  10. inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
  11. non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
  12. post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
  13. meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
  14. excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
  15. short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
  16. slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
  17. confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
  18. straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
  19. suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
  20. weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)

Sagan ends the chapter with a necessary disclaimer:

Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

The Demon-Haunted World is a timelessly fantastic read in its entirety, timelier than ever in a great many ways amidst our present media landscape of propaganda, pseudoscience, and various commercial motives. Complement it with Sagan on science and “God”.

BP

The Baloney Detection Kit: A 10-Point Checklist for Science Literacy

How to assess the believability of claims without succumbing to cynicism.

After last month’s vintage-inspired short films on critical thinking for kids comes this “Baloney Detection Kit” for grown-ups from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer — a 10-point checklist for assessing the believability of a claim, covering everything from telling the difference between science (e.g., SETI) and pseudoscience (e.g., UFOlogy) to detecting personal agendas.

You want to have a mind that’s open enough to accept radical new ideas, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

The above sentiment in particular echoes this beautiful definition of science as “systematic wonder” driven by an osmosis of empirical rigor and imaginative whimsy.

The complete checklist:

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

The charming animation comes from UK studio Pew 36. The Richard Dawkins Foundation has a free iTunes podcast, covering topics as diverse as theory of mind, insurance policy, and Socrates’ “unconsidered life.”

Open Culture

BP

The Charter of Free Inquiry: The Buddha’s Timeless Toolkit for Critical Thinking and Combating Dogmatism

“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor…”

The Charter of Free Inquiry: The Buddha’s Timeless Toolkit for Critical Thinking and Combating Dogmatism

Two millennia before Carl Sagan penned his famous Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, another sage of the ages laid out a similar set of criteria for sound logical reasoning to help navigate the ideological maze of truth, falsehood, and dogma-driven manipulation. Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, formulated his tenets of critical thinking in response to a question by a tribal clan called the Kalama — the inhabitants of the small village of Kesaputta, which he passed while traveling across Eastern India.

The Kalamas, the story goes, asked the Buddha how they could discern whom to trust among the countless wandering holy men passing through their land and seeking to convert them to various, often conflicting preachings. His answer, delivered as a sermon known today as the Kalama Sutta or the Buddha’s “charter of free inquiry,” discourages blind faith, encourages a continual critical assessment of all claims, and outlines a cognitive toolkit for defying dogmatism.

buddha

Included in the altogether fantastic Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye (public library), it reads as follows:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” But when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.

But the most heartening part of the Buddha’s sutta is that implicit to it is a timeless measure of integrity — it is the mark of the noble and secure intellect to encourage questioning even of his own convictions. The Buddha was, after all, just one of the holy men passing through the Kalamas’ land and he was urging them to apply these very principles in assessing his own teachings.

Complement with Galileo on critical thinking and the folly of believing our preconceptions, Michael Faraday on how to cure our propensity for self-deception, and Maria Konnikova on why even the most rational of us are susceptible to deception, then revisit the great Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki on what freedom really means and the 1919 manifesto Declaration of the Independence of the Mind.

BP

Wonder and the Sacred Search for Truth: Ann Druyan on Why the Scientific Method Is Like Love

An invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”

Wonder and the Sacred Search for Truth: Ann Druyan on Why the Scientific Method Is Like Love

“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet / Traveling through casual space / Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns / To a destination where all signs tell us / It is possible and imperative that we learn / A brave and startling truth…” So begins Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, one of the most beautiful and poignant poems ever written — a poem that flew to space, a poem that came from space: a poem inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot — his lyrical meditation on the landmark photograph of Earth, which the Voyager spacecraft took in 1990 as an afterthought upon completing its unprecedented photographic survey of our Solar System, and which Sagan spent years petitioning NASA to permit.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

The Voyager, which had sailed into space thirteen years earlier, carried alongside its instruments The Golden Record — a visionary, intensely poetic effort to capture the essence of Earth in sounds and images that would convey to another planetary civilization across spacetime, and, perhaps even more vitally in the middle of the Cold War, mirror back to us who and what we are: a single symphonic species.

Tasked with the impossible, inspired work of distilling that essence was the project’s creative director, Ann Druyan. In the course of composing the record, Sagan and Druyan, to their own wonder-stricken surprise, found themselves composing a stunning love story with their lives. They spent the remaining two decades of Sagan’s life fathoming and figuring the universe together — writing poetic inquiries into the origin of comets, dreaming up children’s book ideas, collaborating on the iconic 1980 television series turned book Cosmos, which The Library of Congress listed among 88 books to have shaped the country’s conscience, alongside epoch-making triumphs of courage and vision that have changed the course of culture and the understanding of nature — books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Two decades after Sagan’s death — decades coruscating with dazzling scientific discoveries that have disquieted us into shedding more myths and beholding more of reality — Druyan picked up the thread of wonder to write and produce a continuation of Cosmos, starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and soaring into these new frontiers of our ever-evolving understanding of space and time. In the companion book, Cosmos: Possible Worlds (public library), she extends an invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”

Tracing our cosmic story — from the cyanobacteria through which life first bloomed on our rocky world billions of years ago to our search for life on possible worlds many lightyears away; from the cave walls on which early humans first mapped their spatial coordinates to the Rube Goldberg machine of discoveries that led to the lasers with which these caves are now studied; from the symbiotic evolution of plants and the pollinators that feast on them to the Russian scientists who starved to death in a murderous dictatorship to protect their precious collection of seeds ensuring our planet’s biodiversity far beyond their lifetimes — Druyan takes up the mission not as a scientist herself but as a lifelong student and steward of the scientific mindscape, a self-described “hunter-gatherer of stories”: stories that begin with the human, with individual scientists or teams of scientists, and beget the cosmic, parting the curtain to let in a few more golden rays of reality, chiseling some precious fragment of knowledge from the immense monolith of the unknown.

At the center of her expansive reach into past and future is a lucid, luminous look at the realities and responsibilities the present is calling us to rise to — an inquiry into what it would take for us to transcend our human limitations and foibles so that we may endure as stewards rather than destroyers of this irreplaceable planet. In a testament to the fundamental fact that science is “a truly human endeavor,” Druyan writes:

Science, like love, is a means to that transcendence, to that soaring experience of the oneness of being fully alive. The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: Love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other’s reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.

This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching. It is a never ending lesson in humility. The vastness of the universe — and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable — is out of reach to the arrogant. This cosmos only fully admits those who listen carefully for the inner voice reminding us to remember we might be wrong. What’s real must matter more to us than what we wish to believe.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Learning not to confuse the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence is, of course, one of the greatest, most difficult triumphs of our growth — as individuals, as societies, and as a species. In consonance with the tenets of Sagan’s timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, Druyan offers her simple, elegant formula for telling the two apart:

Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority. Do these things and the cosmos is yours.

She opens and closes the book with the words of Albert Einstein, spoken at the 1939 World’s Fair, where he had gone to leave a time-capsule of wisdom for posterity:

If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of the people.

I am reminded — by Einstein’s words, by Druyan’s endeavor — of John F. Kennedy’s miraculous defense of poetry: “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” The man whose unassailable vision had landed the first human foot on another celestial body understood that in the poetry of reality, every portal of wonder, be it art or science, is a portal to truth. Sometimes — if our passion and persistence are great enough, if chance rolls its impartial dice suitably enough — it is a portal to “a brave and starling truth.”

What emerges from Druyan’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a rosary of such shimmering sometimeses. Complement it with poet Marie Howe’s stunning ode to the singularity of our cosmic belonging, then revisit physicist Brian Greene on wresting the poetry of existence from an aloof universe and Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown.

BP

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