MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Carl Sagan was a giant in critical thinking and has inspired many, including myself. His book THE DEMON HAUTED WORLD is a classic. In it, he published his ‘BALONEY DETECTION KIT’. As it relates to SCAM and so much more that troubles us today, I today take the liberty of citing it here.

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

As I said, this is a good book; I warmly recommend it to you.

6 Responses to The Baloney Detection Kit

  • It was one of the books that really turned me into a sceptic. The other was Robert Park’s `Voodoo Science’.

  • “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

    Carl Sagan

  • In chapter ten, Carl tells the story of “The dragon in my Garage”.

    This masterly parable describes the vacuous beliefs of many friends of ours who come by here and try to convince us of their own invisible “dragons” 🙂

  • @Bjorn

    I’ve been reading this blog everyday for 15 months now, and most of the comments also.

    I have yet to witness anybody respond in a post about being convinced to stop treatment therapy using CAM, homeopathy, naturopathic medicine, or herbal medicine, or Reiki … etc.
    I think there may have been a few that left those practices after arriving at their own conclusions.

    You haven’t convinced anybody of anything. Stick with whatever medicine it is that you’re selling. As P. T. Barnum said, ” there’s a sucker born every minute”.

  • Promotion of critical thinking is one important aspect of this fantastic book.
    Even more inspiring for me was the continuous encouragement to learn more about reality and our place in it, especially outside of our current field of expertise.
    A major thing that I took away from this book was the feeling that it is better to know at least a little bit about a subject than nothing, and that it is never too late to start learning about things.
    For me this meant to at least give it a try to understand some basic aspects of quantum mechanics, and the few things that I think I more or less understood so far are so weired and fascinating that I appreciate the inspiration to go into it.

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