It’s probably no stretch to say that mass disinformation campaigns and rampant anti-intellectualism will constitute an increasing amount of our political reality both today and in the future. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the political lie has always been with us. But its global reach, particular vehemence, and blatant contempt for verifiable reality seem like innovations of the present.
Given the embarrassing wealth of access to information and educational tools, maybe it’s fair to say that the first and last line of defense should be our own critical reasoning. When we fail to verify news—using resources we all have in hand (I assume, since you’re reading this), the fault for believing bad information may lie with us.
But we so often don’t know what it is that we don’t know. Individuals can’t be blamed for an inadequate educational system, and one should not underestimate the near-impossibility of conducting time-consuming inquiries into the truth of every single claim that comes our way, like trying to identify individual droplets while getting hit in the face with a pressurized blast of targeted, contradictory info, sometimes coming from shadowy, unreliable sources.
Carl Sagan understood the difficulty, and he also understood that a lack of critical thinking did not make people totally irrational and deserving of contempt. “It’s not hard to understand,” for example, why people would think their relatives are still alive in some other form after death. As he writes of this common phenomenon in “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” most supernatural beliefs are just “humans being human.”
In the essay, a chapter from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan proposes a rigorous but comprehensible “baloney detection kit” to separate sense from nonsense.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…. 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.
Calling his recommendations “tools for skeptical thinking,” he lays out a means of compensating for the strong emotional pulls that “promise something like old-time religion” and recognizing “a fallacious or fraudulent argument.” At the top of the post, in a video produced by Big Think, you can hear science writer and educator Michael Shermer explain the “baloney detection kit” that he himself adapted from Sagan, and just above, read Sagan’s own version, abridged into a short list (read it in full at Brain Pickings).
Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”
This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.” It’s a scary scenario that may not have completely come to pass… just yet, but Sagan knew as well or better than anyone of his time how to address such a potential social epidemic.