Quickhit: Michael Shermer video version of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit

This video was published by the Richard Dawkins Foundation in June this year.

The original kit was published as Chapter 12: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection in Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (ISBN 0-394-53512-X / ISBN 0-345-40946-9). This site from the Australian Volunteer Coordinators for The Planetary Society has a neat summary, and the whole chapter is excerpted here. I like Sagan’s conclusion:

Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

While I’m recommending material that promotes rational thinking, I’ll put in a plug for the 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay. The chapters on economic bubbles should be mandatory readings for all bankers and stockbrokers, just for a start.

Categories: culture wars, education, ethics & philosophy, Science


4 replies

  1. Science is great, and it’s my first go-to when trying to understand something. But there are some things science can’t explain. And I’ve tried, I really have tried. The only way of explaining these things is to say that someone that means the world to me is delusional or mad, or that I’m delusional or mad. I know those aren’t true. I know what I’ve experienced and this does not make me irrational. I can’t prove it to anyone, but that doesn’t bother me.
    I just hate being told I’m irrational all the time because I believe in something more than what hard science can explain.

    • I like to make a distinction between non-rational and irrational myself – such as my belief that my kids are the best kids in the world – that’s non-rational (how could it be measured?) but I bristle at it being described as irrational because that word has acquired a stigma that its etymology does not justify.
      But strictly speaking, many/most human emotions are irrational. Love especially. That doesn’t make love a bad thing, far from it. It just makes it a non-rational thing.

  2. I liked the video overall, but I was rather bothered by the point about superstition and false learning being illustrated by some old footage of Amazon Indians (I think) dancing (at 0:55 – 1:00). We have more than enough superstition and false learning in our own culture that it doesn’t need to be treated as something “savages” are more prone to.

    • @Aqua of the Questioners,
      Good point – that could have been easily demonstrated by some shots of a newspaper zodiacal astrology column, sitting next to the advice-from-angels column, or someone very obviously not stepping on the cracks in the pavement or not walking under a ladder (although that at least does have some Occ. Health & Safety justification).

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