CARL SAGAN'S BALONEY DETECTION KIT
Based on the book The
Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
2 Oct 11: Carl Sagan's books, including this one, are now available as ebooks from Kindle - but only for residents of the USA :(
The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and
fallacious or fraudulent arguments:
Additional issues are
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable
of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there
- Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first
caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because
- Quantify, wherever possible.
- If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must
- "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the
well choose the simpler.
- Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be
to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is isttestable?
Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric
- Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind"
the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control
- Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.
- Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
- Argument from "authority".
- Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the
by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavourable" decision).
- Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of
- Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
- Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the
- Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the
- Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from
- Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President
astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans
have below average intelligence!)
- Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case
but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored
they are not "proved").
- Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls
- Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it
by" - confusion of cause and effect.
- Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force
- Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range
(making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
- Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why
science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
- Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted
of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).
- Confusion of correlation and causation.
- Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make
- Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
- Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as
to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art
of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old
have become odious to the public"
Above all - read the book!
- The Critical Thinking
- CSICOP/Skeptical Inquirer
- Australian Skeptics
- The Annals of Improbable
Research - with the Ignobel Awards and the AIR Teachers Guide.
- Carl Sagan Productions
comment on this web page:
"I have no problems whatsoever with your efforts to spread the word
on critical thinking. It was Carl's dream and mine that each and
everyone of us would have that baloney detection kit inside our
I salute your efforts in this direction.
With best wishes,
- 12 Nov 2000 Project
Voyager: OneCosmos represents
the realization of a shared lifelong hope to organize and lead a team
will deliver the vision of Cosmos through every available screen:
living Internet, engaging television and cinematic works of art.
the role of think tanks by Sharon
Beder, Engineers Australia, November 1999.
Reasoning - Scientific American June 2001. In one case [global
the president invokes uncertainty; in the other [missile defence], he
it. In both, he has come down against the scientific consensus.
- Scientific American, Nov 01: Baloney
Detection: How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience,
- Scientific American May 02: The
Exquisite Balance - It seems to me what is called for is an
balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of
hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great
to new ideas.... If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it
to you.... On the other hand, if you are open to the point of
and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot
the useful ideas from the worthless ones - Carl Sagan, 1987.
- The Skeptic's Dictionary
Robert T. Carroll.
Science Network - new TV service dedicated to science.
- 21 Feb 06 New Scientist: Algorithm
detects Canadian politicians' spin - Spin, in this case, is defined as “text or
speech where the apparent meaning is not the true belief of the person
saying or writing it”...
- 9 Mar 06 National Geographic: Was Darwin Wrong?
- 11 May 05 Karl Kruszelnicki: Mysterious Killer Chemical - We live under the illusion that we understand the world around us...Dihydrogen Monoxide FAQ - a common household compound can be hazardous
- 27 May 06 SciAm: Up the Lazy Creek
- "motivational deficiency disorder"...numerous news outlets picked up
the BMJ press release and ran it without a hint of skepticism. That's
just motivationally deficient journalism. BMJ abstract: Scientists find new disease: motivational deficiency disorder + People are easily duped about new diseases, conference is told.
- 27 Jun 06: By coincidence, I received the 24 June copy of New
Scientist and July copy of Scientific American on the same day. In New
Scientist Richard Koch and Chris Smith ask "why is science under attack like never before?". They suggest that the rest of society is now much more
critical of science, which has revealed a darker side such as atomic
weapons and "poisoning of the planet". There is another, more likely
reason for the demise of science that is revealed in the article "The Political Brain"
by Michael Shermer in Scientific American. He describes MRI studies of
the brain that have revealed how the brain suppresses the rational,
reasoning portion of the brain in favour of emotions that reinforce
confirmation bias - "whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in
support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret
Science, of course, is built on that rational, reasoning function of
the brain and is founded on skepticism. This does not bode well for
politicians, religious fanatics or marketers of consumers products who
utilise emotional responses to ply their trade. Is it any wonder that
that science and skepticism are discriminated against when these same
groups now have a huge influence on the media?
- 6 Oct 06 New Scientist (subs): Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales (see 27 June item above)
- Ig Nobel prizes for 2006!
- 9 May 07: Perpetual Motion and the Big Wither.
- 25 Feb 08 New Scientist ($): Interview: The man who would prove all studies wrong
- "People aren't willing to abandon their hypothesis. If you spend 20
years on a specific line of thought and suddenly your universe
collapses, it is very difficult to change jobs." + Comment: Why peer review thwarts innovation
- 25 Feb 08 SciAm: Adam's Maxim and Spinoza's Conjecture
- "...we should reward skepticism and disbelief and champion those
willing to change their mind in the teeth of new evidence. "
- Jun 08 Kids.net.au: Scientific method.
- 21 Feb 10 New Scientist: CERN on trial: could a lawsuit shut the LHC down? - Social
scientists have identified a number of phenomena that can skew attempts
to reach objective assessments of risk. For instance, cognitive
dissonance describes the tendency of people to seek information that is
consistent with their beliefs and to avoid information that is
inconsistent. "Groupthink" describes a process by which intelligent
individuals, working in a group, can reach a worry-free outlook that is
not justified by the facts. And the phenomenon of confirmation bias -
the tendency to filter information so as to confirm working hypotheses
- was cited by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as one
explanation for why space shuttle programme managers ignored sure signs
- 14 May 10 New Scientist: Special Report - Living in Denial
- 4 Dec 10 SciAm: The Conspiracy Theory Detector - How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories + Michael Shermer’s video on Baloney Detection.
- 27 May 11: This page now copied at the official Carl Sagan website - thank you
- 27 Aug 11 SciAm: What Is Pseudoscience?
- 2 Oct 2011: Carl Sagan's books are now available from Kindle - but only for residents of the USA :(
- 20 Dec 12 SciAm: The Mind’s Compartments Create Conflicting Beliefs
- 25 Jun 13 SMH: Why superfoods are not so super after all
- 9 Sep 14 Atheist TV - provide a counter-balance to the myriad of religious (and psuedo-science) programming available on television.
- 11 Sep 14 American Atheists: AN INTERVIEW WITH DOUGLAS ADAMS + Recovering From Religion.
- 13 Jan 16 Lawers Weekly: Research reveals the problem with ‘overwhelming evidence’
- A new study has suggested that total agreement between witnesses or
overwhelming evidence in a court case should raise suspicions of bias
and lower confidence in a result.
- 25 Jan 17 ScienceAlert: The internet is freaking out over this spooky prediction by Carl Sagan about the future.
- 23 May 17 SciAm: Revamped "Anti-Science" Education Bills in U.S. Find Success.
Less serious sites:
- Journal of
- Dihydrogen Monoxide FAQ
- a common household compound can be hazardous
Prepared by Michael
The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer
Created 27 January 1998.