Monday, November 07, 2005

Baloney Detection Kit

How can we tell the difference between rational claims and baloney claims? In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark the late Carl Sagan writes:

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

* 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 (in science there are no "authorities").
* Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
* Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
* Quantify, wherever possible.
* If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
* "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
* Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are

* Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.
* Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric

* Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
* Argument from "authority".
* Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavourable" decision).
* Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
* Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
* Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
* Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
* Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
* Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)
* Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
* Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
* Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.
* Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).
* Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
* Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
* Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation 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 it easier to attack..
* Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
* Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public"

(I copied the text from this website, but it's a pull from the book.)


CyberKitten said...

"Science as a Candle in the Dark"

We really need to keep THAT sucker lit.... Quick, everyone... light more candles......!

Mis-nagid said...

To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology

dbackdad said...

Wow. I was already a fan of Sagan but this takes it to the next level.

Using his bullshit detector (err ... I mean baloney), there are more than a few people that have engaged you that would fail miserably. Oops, sorry, did I just do an ad hominem attack? He-he. I think we're all guilty of that sometimes.

But seriously, these are all things that we should by striving to follow. The highlights for me:
- don't get attached to a certain hypothesis
- every link in the chain must work
- is something testable?
- don't appeal to ignorance
- understand the meanings and differences of cause and effect, correlation, causation
- don't use Orwellian double-speak

Great post JA. I'm definitely going to have to get that book.

asher said...

Carl Sagan was impossible to understand while he was alive but this attempt at logic really blows me away.

There is a quote from Churchill which goes something like "An expert is someone who thinks they know something about something and refuses to change the subject".

Billions and billions Carl.

July Al said...

For an essay that sharply disagrees with this post, check out...