In 1995, scientist and educator Carl Sagan published a book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is a manifesto of clear, rational thinking. If you’re at all interested in understanding the physical world or, more importantly, understanding how to understand the physical world, you really need to read this book.
Seriously. I mean you. Go get a copy.
One of the many brilliant things in The Demon-Haunted World is the Baloney Detection Kit. In a chapter titled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Sagan lays out an excellent set of rules for determining whether or not you’re being hoodwinked by pseudoscience–luncheon meat masquerading as knowledge.
I am not and never will be as brilliant as Carl Sagan. However, he lived in a time when pseudoscience, and specifically conspiracy theories about science, were not nearly as endemic in the public discourse as they are today.
So I would modestly like to propose an update to the Baloney Detection Kit.
Here’s the updated version:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- 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.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise).
- When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.
- Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
- Do not continue to make arguments that have already been discredited.
- Do not trust a hypothesis that relies on a conspiracy to conceal the truth.
- Arguments that rely on anecdotal evidence or have not been subject to peer review are not reliable.
- While scientific consensus is not always correct, a hypothesis that contradicts the general consensus should be treated skeptically.
- Correlation does not imply causation.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.