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

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Necessary cognitive fortification against propaganda, pseudoscience, and general falsehood. A brilliant read and a humbling read.

THEMARGINALIAN

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

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

themarginalian.org

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The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) was many things — a cosmic sage, voracious reader,

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 con...

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 fa...

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 of...

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 m...

CARL SAGAN

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

CARL SAGAN

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

CARL SAGAN

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.

CARL SAGAN

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 resi...

CARL SAGAN

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,...

CARL SAGAN

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...

CARL SAGAN

If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

CARL SAGAN

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.

CARL SAGAN

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...

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 t...

Sagan admonishes against the 20 most common and perilous of these fallacies of logic and rhetoric— many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:

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

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...

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 me...

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...

… 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 ...

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 pr...

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 kill...

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.

e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence.

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 a...

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 alter...

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.

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.

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”).

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 p...

Related to (14) 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...

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 ...

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 do...

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 w...

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 ...

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 o...

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