As per our earlier discussion, here is Carl Sagan. He argues having a finely honed bullshit detector 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.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark has Sagan sharing nine of these tools:

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.

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.


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

Category: Science, UnGuru

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8 Responses to “Carl Sagan’s Bullshit Detection Kit”

  1. ironman says:

    Closely related: How to Detect Junk Science, which we’ve used like a checklist on a number of occasions.

  2. Frilton Miedman says:

    To –

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

    I would add – “Pay attention to counter-arguments that invoke insult or perceived authority over empiricism.”

  3. Crocodile Chuck says:

    This is great; have never seen it before.

    Esp. the Karl Popper point on falsification in Item 9

    To the list above, may I suggest including one more item re: ‘Articulate all assumptions, & challenge these’

  4. Petey Wheatstraw says:

    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.

    Exactly how large is a fiat particle? How large fiat universe?

    QE = the big bang. A whole lotta’ somethin’ outa’ whole lotta’ nothin’, only to be instantly swallowed by the black hole of debt (the other side of which is a portal to a Cayman Islands account).

    My hypothesis is that it has reached critical mass (as defined by fiat), and is self sustaining.

  5. peachin says:

    If you need a magnificent read – A book Sagan wrote with his wife, Ann Druyan “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” a discussion of 4.5 Billion years – their discussion – turning points in the evolution of Man – sex, violence, rape and dominance – the mistakes and errors along the way that led to Man

  6. Daffyorbugs says:

    If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have a good bullshit detector. Tell him you’re a good driver, smarter than average, and your job is the hardest.

  7. rd says:

    Examples below of how the financial media provide confusing and/or mis-leading information (BS) to the small investor:

    A couple of months ago, this journalist wrote a column about how Target Date funds are “broke” and dangerous for investors because they hold too much in stocks during the years close to retirement.

    Today he writes an article about a study that shows that investors who get advice (this includes investors in Target Date Funds which are presumed to be equivalent to advice) do better than investors who don’t get advice. The reason these investors do better is because they hold a lot of their 401k in stocks (his preferred range of holdings would be “majority or most of 401k in stock” which presumably is the range that typical Target Date fund would have in their last decade or so.

    So after, reading two columns written by the same person three months apart, it is still unclear if his recommendation would be to have less than 60% in equities or more in the last decade or so before retirement. This confusion appears to match the range of options between different companies that offer Target Date funds.