Maria Popova writes in her fascinating blog , Brain Pickings, the fond story of Carl Sagan the scientist and philosopher. We all could not just use Carl’s 8 bull detectors but his thoughtful approach to our vocations.
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.(Baloney Detection)
In one chapter of his book, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” Sagan laid out his method, proposing what he called “A Baloney Detection Kit,” a set of intellectual tools that scientists use to separate wishful thinking from genuine probability. Sagan presents the contents of his kit as “tools for skeptical thinking,” which he defines as “the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and—especially important—to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument.” You can see his list of all eight tools, slightly abridged, below. These are all in Sagan’s words:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…. 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.( Carl Sagan)
“Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detection Kit”: 8 Tools for Skeptical Thinking.” Open Culture. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
“The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking.” Brain Pickings. 03 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.