The Baloney Detection Kit

In science we may start with experimental results, data, observations, measurements, 'facts'. We invent, if we can, a rich array of possible explanations and systematically confront each explanation with the facts. In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. 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.

What's in the kit? Tools for sceptical thinking.

What sceptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and, especially important, to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premises or starting point and whether that premise is true.

Among the tools:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the 'facts'.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) - not just most of them.
  • 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.
  • 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 sceptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.


Bullet points for the baloney detection kit according to Carl Sagan.

Folksonomies: science skepticism scientific process empricism

/science (0.495916)
/business and industrial (0.419094)
/business and industrial/advertising and marketing/marketing (0.380979)

baloney detection kit (0.912592 (negative:-0.630135)), sceptical thinking (0.636120 (negative:-0.644340)), Detection Kit Bullet (0.619440 (negative:-0.740437)), sceptical thinking boils (0.614413 (negative:-0.569874)), \'multiple working hypotheses\ (0.588381 (positive:0.653951)), idea (0.527171 (positive:0.111852)), new idea (0.527018 (positive:0.714640)), reasoned argument (0.522299 (positive:0.427173)), Carl Sagan (0.521349 (negative:-0.740437)), experimental results (0.520848 (neutral:0.000000)), fraudulent argument (0.520470 (negative:-0.518725)), grand idea (0.516157 (positive:0.422939)), rich array (0.512949 (positive:0.508556)), hypothesis (0.512801 (positive:0.407605)), possible explanations (0.512412 (positive:0.508556)), consumer-tested method (0.512257 (positive:0.290896)), knowledgeable proponents (0.512160 (positive:0.934744)), independent confirmation (0.511469 (positive:0.301762)), different ways (0.510088 (neutral:0.000000)), new ideas (0.509519 (positive:0.623603)), substantive debate (0.506917 (positive:0.934744)), little weight (0.506687 (negative:-0.325972)), Darwinian selection (0.506066 (positive:0.653951)), better way (0.502645 (neutral:0.000000)), bigger Cosmos (0.501760 (neutral:0.000000)), right answer (0.500123 (positive:0.856353)), qualitative issues (0.499049 (positive:0.291960)), better chance (0.498307 (positive:0.856353)), numerical quantity (0.497166 (neutral:0.000000)), convenient rule-of-thumb (0.496620 (positive:0.743952))

Carl Sagan:Person (0.820066 (negative:-0.740437))

Scientific method (0.960255): dbpedia | freebase
Critical thinking (0.905669): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Theory (0.640587): dbpedia | freebase
Carl Sagan (0.613094): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Falsifiability (0.543083): dbpedia | freebase
Thought (0.511873): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Empiricism (0.488290): dbpedia | freebase
Hypothesis (0.462895): dbpedia | freebase

 The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Sagan , Carl and Druyan , Ann (1997-02-25), The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books, Retrieved on 2011-05-04
Folksonomies: science empiricism rationalism


03 APR 2011


Memes on seeing the world as it really is.