A Crash Course in Critical Thinking-Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit”

A few years back, I read in interesting book by Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

To be honest, it was a long, challenging read. I’m not sure that I agreed with everything I was saying,heck, I don’t know that I understood all he was saying. The most interesting part of the book was a checklist designed to cut through “dogma” and unchallenged arguments. He called it the Baloney Detection Kit.

Here it is, cut and pasted from CarlSagan.com.

Baloney Detection Kit

Warning signs that suggest deception. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World. The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

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 (in science there are no “authorities”).

Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.

Quantify, wherever possible.

If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.

Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.

Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are:

Conduct control experiments – especially “double blind” experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.

Check for confounding factors – separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric

Ad hominem – attacking the arguer and not the argument.

Argument from “authority”.

Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an “unfavorable” decision).

Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

Special pleading (typically referring to god’s will).

Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).

Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).

Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).

Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)

Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not “proved”).

Non sequitur – “it does not follow” – the logic falls down.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc – “it happened after so it was caused by” – confusion of cause and effect.

Meaningless question (“what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).

Excluded middle – considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the “other side” look worse than it really is).

Short-term v. long-term – a subset of excluded middle (“why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?”).

Slippery slope – a subset of excluded middle – unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).

Confusion of correlation and causation.

Caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack.

Suppressed evidence or half-truths.

Weasel words – for example, use of euphemisms for war such as “police action” to get around limitations on Presidential powers. “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”

(excerpted from The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer Coordinators Prepared by Michael Paine )

3 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Critical Thinking-Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit”

  1. Sagan was a tool. But now at least you’re looking into alternatives. Don’t trust logic, philosophy or what passes as empirical evidence these days. A wise man once told me, “Nobody really knows anything. If they say they do, they are an infinite degree of idiot.” Truer words were never spoken…

    1. I think there is a quote by Aleister Crowley-“Do what thou wilt.”

      Sometimes it seems people just go with their natural desires and then call it a philosophy, I don’t know…..

      And should I seem “erudite” by name dropping an obscure man, I learned about him from Ozzy Osbourne 😉

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