Friday, October 23, 2015

Learning! Carl Sagan's baloney-detector


Carl Sagan was, in my opinion, super awesome.  He was a mighty fine scientist AND he had a fascination with and respect for religion and mythology.  He also inspired a lot of young folks to be scientists (including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, also a very cool person), and he helped both regular people and scientists understand the universe better.

In his book, The Demon Haunted World, he included a tool kit for detecting bull corn from media and scientists alike.  He called it his Baloney Detection Kit.  I think it would be great if everyone used this for all the scientific articles we read online about things like GMOs and microwaves and vaccines and, well, everything else.

Here is Carl Sagan's 9-step test:

  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.
Okay, that talk was pretty science-y.  Here's my dumbed-down version:
  1. Did someone besides the person who wants you to believe it test and confirm the facts?
  2. Get into it with people who have different points of view (and some knowledge) on the subject.
  3. Don't trust someone just because they are an "authority" - there's got to be more to it than that.
  4. Think of as many different explanations as you can.
  5. Check yourself: are you just arguing for it because it was your idea?
  6. Use whatever objective measures you can to quantify the idea.
  7. If it's a chain of ideas strung together, make sure every link in the chain is solid.  Every single one!
  8. Keep It Simple Stupid.
  9. Can the hypothesis be disproved?  If not, it's not a very good (scientific) hypothesis. 
If the thing you're reading about or the idea someone is giving you passes all 9 steps, then according to Sagan, you are to welcome it with "warm, albeit tentative, acceptance."  I like the idea of a tentatively warm hug of welcoming.

Of course, I think there's more than just cold, hard, scientific logic to life.  Some ideas are valuable and don't need to be proven - they are there to connect to us in different ways.  If it's at all science-y though, hold it up to the baloney detector and see if it bleeps.  (But first decide if it bleeps for things that pass or fail so you know what the result actually means.)


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