Let’s face it, there is more baloney, or bad information, than ever before. We’re swimming in it and there could be more to come. From politicians to citizens who refuse to believe facts, baloney is having its time in the sun.
The question becomes: what can we do? What can we do to fight back against misinformation or disinformation? It’s a difficult question to answer. In my work as an explainer, I use clear communication and understanding as a weapon in the fight, but it’s not enough.
A problem is that all of us suffer from biases and difficulty in separating fact from fiction. When presented with new information, it’s a challenge to evaluate it and decide whether it’s trustworthy or not. That’s why Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” is so powerful. It equips people with the intellectual tools that scientists use to separate fact from fiction. In his 1996 book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he wrote:
“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.”
Here are the points in the kit:
- 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 skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
Thanks to Brain Pickings for highlighting the kit. Read the full article for a list of Sagan’s fallacies of logic and rhetoric that accompany the points above.