Ideas from books, articles & podcasts.
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.
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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...
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 ...
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...
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:
The claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa.
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...
Considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities.
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.
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., 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 ...
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:
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.
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...
A subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention.
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...
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...
e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence.
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I will always want to know what is beyond our planet. Hopefully, at some point, humanity will be able to travel and see other worlds.
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