A large fraction of the information that we come across online is quite possibly bullshit. The internet has made it very easy for us to access and disseminate unreliable information, transforming the society into an echo chamber of misinformation. Democratization of publishing and social media have resulted in opinions being marketed as facts. In this era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts, the ability to cut through bullshit and get to credible information has become an essential social skill.
Although the internet and social media have catalyzed the spread of falsehood, our relationship with bullshit is not new. We’ve encountered it time and again in science, politics, religious philosophies and social practices; however, the current state of affairs warrant the use of skepticism and critical thinking for busting bullshit more than ever.
The art of systematically and logically challenging the socio-political claims and getting to the logical conclusions was perfected by one of the brilliant philosophers of his time – Carl Sagan. In his marvelous book about the philosophy of scientific thought The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan dedicated a chapter to ‘The Fine Art of Baloney detection’. In this chapter, Sagan advocates the need for critical thinking and maintaining a balance between acceptance and skepticism.
In Sagan’s own words, “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”.
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This approach of baloney detection used by scientists is equally effective in the hands of the general population and can help us fortify our minds against propaganda, falsehood and manipulation. Sagan emphasizes the indispensability of healthy skepticism in everyday life by saying, “when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic”.
In his baloney detection kit Sagan proposed 9 tools to recognize the fallacious or fraudulent arguments, and to reach to conclusions which follow a true premise. The 9 tools from the kit are as follows:
“Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts’.”
Facts are the foundation of any argument or claim. When you are presented with an argument, try to gather facts related to it. Something that you read on social media does not qualify as a fact, because it may just be someone’s opinion and hence may be biased. Check for the credibility of your sources. Make decisions based on verifiable evidence and not gut feelings or opinions.
“Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.”
Debate allows for all point of views to be expressed and relative strengths of evidence, for and against the claims, to be evaluated. A healthy debate challenges the nature of the evidence, methods of data collection, inherent biases in study design, logical progression of thought and the validity of conclusions. Limit the debate to the evidence on the table without introducing personal opinions.
“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.”
If your boss tells you something is true, it is not actually so unless data supports it. Evidence is superior to all opinions irrespective of rank, position or authority of the person.
“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.”
This one is my favorite. It essentially means stringing up multiple hypotheses in front of you and trying to poke holes in each one of them based on the theoretical evidence and experimental results. This approach makes you think unconventionally and out of the box. You have the opportunity to put forward your craziest and the most counterintuitive hypothesis. If it stands the rigorous scrutiny of the evidence, it may emerge as the right answer. Approaches like this result in paradigm shifts in science.
“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.”
Keep an open and fair mind and do not try to keep a hypothesis alive in the face of contradictory evidence. Try to avoid personal bias. We learn something new when a hypothesis is shot down by evidence, seek that knowledge.
“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.”
Quantification produces a standardized way of measurement and allows for measurements made by different individuals or groups to be compared using statistical tools. It increases precision and minimizes ambiguity, guesswork and prejudice. By relying on quantitative data, you will be able to make more informed decisions.
“If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.”
A chain is as strong as its weakest link. Similarly, if your argument has multiple points, each one of them should stand up to scrutiny, else the whole argument may fall apart. You should carefully analyze the argument and try to strengthen the weakest link.
“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.”
A simpler theory is preferred over more complex ones because simple theory can be tested relatively easily.
“Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.”
If a hypothesis can be tested and can be refuted in light of evidence, it is called a falsifiable hypothesis. And a falsifiable hypothesis is a good thing. An untestable hypothesis is one which cannot be practically or ethically explored with controlled experiments. Falsifiable hypothesis allows you to learn something new when disproved whereas unfalsifiable are not worth much.
Sagan further writes, “In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric”. He warns against the 20 most common fallacies and examples for each.
This timeless wisdom by Carl Sagan has been guiding scientists and nonscientists in their pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking for the past two decades. I hope it will help you cut through the culture of bullshit and reach the knowledge you seek.
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