The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

I feel like a separate dedicated post to Baloney Detection Kits are useful right about now. It has been a disturbing 6 – 7 years – ever since the presidential election started heating up for the 2016 cycle, we have been living in a state of dubiety (The state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty).

We have grown used to being lied to, we are more divided than ever before, and the versions of the truth fluctuate wildly depending on which network or newspaper reports it, it is increasingly hard to determine what the truth is. 

Just a simple search for ‘Media Bias Charts 2020’ is enough to drive home the point:

media bias chart 2020

These problems have always been there. 2000 years ago, the world’s greatest democracy of the times, modern day Italy, then the Roman Empire, witnessed turmoil and breaking of the largest democracy. But with accelerated advances in technology linking us faster than ever to ‘breaking news’ and social media amplifiers for everyone, the waters have become noisier and murkier.

The book, Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, has an essay on the Fine Art of Baloney Detection.

Read also: Candles in the Dark

The essay starts off empathising with the human condition. Why are we, as humans, willing to believe in things whether or not ‘there is any sober evidence for it.’? 

It isn’t unheard of to believe in things supernatural, or falling for false advertising campaigns with exaggerated claims, or believing models wearing Doctor’s coats, or blindly believing religious zealots who spout hypotheses with confidence. As human beings we have been doing this for centuries, and in most probability will continue to fall for some sort of questionable practices. 

As long as there are those who are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable with little or no consequence, these will persist.

For those who wish to read the whole essay, it is here. Or it can be found in the book, Science as a Candle in the Dark – By Carl Sagan

While we enjoy the occasional myth or fib, it is important to know the difference. For an adult to attack Harry Potter for instilling witchcraft is worrisome for this very reason. As part of growing up, we want children to outgrow the myth of Santa Claus. Knowing to distinguish fantasies from reality is a necessary tool for survival. 

Which brings us to why we must have a version of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for us to use. 

The complete essay can be found here:

It has been a saddening realization to find that Science has not been embraced when it is needed the most. I was reading a book on the Greatest inventions of mankind in the past 2000 years. It is a book collating the answers from philosophers, researchers, and professors from various fields. One of the answers given was the framework of Science. I could not agree more. The ability to think, weigh, design experiments with control and test groups, and sift empirical evidence has resulted in the very least at :

  • Saving millions of lives, that in previous generations, succumbed to disease
  • Figuring out how to feed a planet that grew from 1 billion to over 7 billion within a generation

For those who would prefer a straight jump to the Baloney Detection Kit, here it is:

  • 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. 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.*
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.

Candles in the Dark

I remember talking to a man who was our van driver in the Yucatan peninsula. His theories were astounding, and he seemed to have scoured the internet for the plausible and marvelous, completely ruling out the possibilities of evolution and what science proved to us. He was obviously a man whose love for the marvelous made him an interesting story-teller, and was probably well-received  at parties.

Here is a clip from his conversation:
’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver. ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

aliens_theory

I felt sorry for the man. His mind was after all curious, and he was obviously in awe of the marvelous. He wanted to know what happened to the dinosaurs, he wanted to know how we came to be. A Science education, half-heartedly imparted in the faraway days of his youth were hardly enough for him to find and keep the wonder in Science. Moreover, Science was a demanding master. Every hypothesis required proofs, validation by peers. It all proved too much for the man. He was happy enough believing that an alien race came and bombarded Earth with their nuclear missiles when they felt dinosaurs were of no use to them. We could do the same to another planet, couldn’t we?

I am currently reading Science as a Candle in the Dark – In a Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.

In his usual manner Carl Sagan had hit the problem on its head:
We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly  depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.  ”

I found myself nodding along as I read: One the one hand, while we know about Machine Learning and how it is used to change our ways  of life, we do not always understand all the variables involved and how each value affects the outcomes. We do not really know the chemistry behind the medicines we take and why they work  on our biological systems, and so much more.

On the other hand, somebody had shared yet another spurious discourse given by a religious figure. This time, the man spoke glibly – his half baked theories about the nature of the Universe had his audience enthralled. The man spluttered forth a jumble of high-sounding words, and the audience cheered and applauded.

Again, the audience was looking for nothing more than understanding a complex world. A world made more complex everyday with our technologies and applications.

The truth is the world is a complicated place. Grants determine research, enabling rich businesses and corporations to drive and set the tone for research (Remember the studies where the Sugar industry completely misguided the population by funding research related to Fats instead? ) Big money corporations also have the ability to have their own research facilities, and they are not always going to watch out for the common man. (Privacy concerns by Ethicist Tristan Harris – the  former employee at Google)

More than ever, we need to find a way to incorporate Science as a way of life, and equip ourselves with Baloney Detection Kits as Carl Sagan named them. We need to enlighten ourselves – maybe light ourselves a candle in the dark.

Books: Science  as a Candle in the Dark – Demon Haunted  World – By  Carl Sagan

 

Hero-Worship, Nicomacean Ethics & Baloney Detection Kits

I have heard friends rave about Dune by Frank Herbert many times over the past few years. I finally got to read the book, and I feel richer in mind and thought for it. The book was long and at times hard to keep track of (especially in the beginning). This is one of those times when I realize how my mind flutters with attention spans that drive calm butterflies to frenzy. But slowly, steadily, I settled into the book, and there were multiple moments when I felt like I must grab a pen and start writing (but that stern butterfly gave me a look, and kept me at my the task of reading). This, is probably the reason I have forgotten half the things I wanted to write about (This is where I glare back at the butterfly guardian who kept me reading)

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
First Edition Cover – Image from Wikipedia

One of the many things that appealed to me in the Dune was the fact though there were vague references made to technology and the number of technological devices used by those living at the time, it is not a mainstay.

The book is a multi-layered piece of literature with over-arching themes of ecology, the art of war, religion, philosophy and politics. There is a particular quote that stuck with me in the Prologue written by Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, about the dangers of hero worship.

Quote:

As Liet Kynes lay dying in the desert, he remembered the long ago words of his own father: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

Having studied politics carefully, my father believed that heroes made mistakes…mistakes that were simplified by the number of people who followed such leaders slavishly.

In many ways, hero worship is what leads people to choose leaders who then turn into despots and dictators. Adulation affects everyone, and those with fragile egos are the most prone to its lure.

Towards the end of the book, Paul Atreides recognizes that he is being hailed as the Messiah and regardless of his acceptance of the title, there is a holy jihad in his future. He can either lead to the best of his abilities like his able and excellent father, Duke Leto or simply be the mascot of a movement that has already gathered momentum – a force that is much larger than him. This sort of trusting faith in one human being is never a good sign, and is a malady that has affected us for centuries. 

I quite agree with how Aristotle describes the nobility required of politicians: he opines that politicians should take an oath, almost as sacred as a Hippocratic oath, to remain fair and mete out justice. From the Nicomachean Ethics – By Aristotle. 

The lecture on Aristotle and Socrates on How Does One Live The Good Life? From 36 Books That Changed The World (Chapter 8) is an excellent listen.

 

There are no initiation courses for politicians. No training. Though, I have a suggestion to have every politician complete the Butter Battle Course, it is unheeded. (The Butter Battle Course is an excellent course consisting of childrens’ books not more than a few pages each, and should only take a few moments of every leader’s time):

butter_battle

However, till politicians start taking their careers to truly be in service of humanity, we need to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s excellent Baloney Detection Kit from the book: The varieties of scientific experience : a personal view of the search for God / Carl Sagan ; edited by Ann Druyan. This book contains the Gifford lectures given by Carl Sagan in 1985.

The_Varieties_of_Scientific_Experience
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28513011

When someone asked Carl Sagan after his lecture what we can do when the governments do not act in our best interests, he advised us to have Baloney Detection Kits handy.

Quote:

“I would say that the first thing to do is realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie. And some of them do it all the time – some of them do it only every second statement-but, by and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office.

And if we are ignorant of what the issues are and can’t even ask the critical questions, then we’re not going to make much of a difference. If we can understand the issues, if we can pose the right questions, if we can point out the contradictions, then we can make some progress. There are many other things that can done, but it seems to me that those two, the baloney detection kit and use of the democratic process where available are at least two things to consider.”

This seems to be age old wisdom: our oldest myths write about flaws in heroes, what brings about the downfall of the most powerful tyrants  etc; and yet, the reminder for our own Baloney Detection Kits is a timely one.

Books:

  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Varieties of Scientific Evidence  – Carl Sagan 
  • Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
  • 36 Books That Changed The World – Lectures on Great Courses
  • Butter Battle Book – Dr Seuss