Thursday, March 7, 2019

Considering Sagan's actual Baloney Detection Kit

A couple weeks back when I reviewed Steele's What’s Natural? column regarding Carl Sagan’s advice, I took Steele’s quotes at face value, though I had some doubts.  Since then I've done some checking and the differences are striking and worth sharing.

One thing worth pointing out is that Jim ignores that the Baloney Detection Kit was about how scientists view problems and that laypeople could learn from that.  One thing that bothers me about Steele's take, is that he's always implying spectators and dilettantes are as smart as actual trained experienced experts. 

Here I simply want to allow Carl Sagan's own words to speak for him, though with an introduction from Maria Popova:

Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:
The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. …


But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools:
  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.

Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. 
It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.
He admonishes against the twenty most common and perilous ones — many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:
  1. ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument.
  2. argument from authority.
  3. argument from adverse consequences.
  4. appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa.
  5. special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble.
  6. begging the question, also called assuming the answer.
  7. observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses.
  8. statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection.
  9. misunderstanding of the nature of statistics.
  10. inconsistency.
  11. non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow”.
  12. post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by”.
  13. meaningless question.
  14. excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities.
  15. short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention.
  16. slippery slope, related to excluded middle.
  17. confusion of correlation and causation.
  18. straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack.
  19. suppressed evidence, or half-truths.
  20. weasel words.
1. Carl Sagan -  Do: Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view. 
Jim Steele comments - (Saying there's no more debate triggers the Baloney alert.) 
2. Don’t: Avoid arguments from authority. They carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. 
(Unable to refute Einstein's ideas, his antagonists claimed authority via consensus and published 100 against Einstein." Evoking the mythical "97 percent of all scientists agree" is a similar tactic.)   
3. Don't: Don't attack the arguer, attack the argument. 
(mud-slinging dominates politics. Dismissing valid arguments by calling the arguer a "denier" {or "obsessed internet sniper" or distract by opining about their "wretched life"} -  muddies the science.)

UPDATE: Ironically when someone does want to debate the good Jim Steele, this is what he comes up with: 

Revealingly Jim Steele wrote to editor Fredrick
"Since learning I have the What's Natural column he keeps emailing me all sorts of dishonest BS so I am no going to block all his emails. So I will no longer be privy to his attacks that he emails you. He is simply an obsessed internet sniper. Sniping at me somehow gives purpose to his wretched life."
4 Do: Spin more than one hypothesis. Think of all the different ways in which something could be explained. Think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. 
(Climate change is extremely complex and governed by many variables. The aim of the What's Natural column is to delve into all those complexities. Detailing natural climate change is not denying a greenhouse effect.) 
5. Don’t: Don't get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting your favored hypothesis. If you don’t, others will. 
(no comment offered)
6. Do: Ask whether a hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. 
(Unfortunately, predictions generated by climate change theory cannot be falsified or verified by simple experiments or short-term weather events.) 
7. Don’t: Don't argue via adverse consequences. 
(Claiming we will be 'under-water in 70 years" or the world will be "irreversibly destroyed in 12 years," are common adverse consequences; scare tactics that set off a Baloney alert.) 
8. Don’t: Don't "appeal to ignorance." In other words, don't claim that whatever has not been proved false then must be true. 
(The earliest claim that 97 percent of all scientists agree, was an appeal to ignorance. It was assumed if authors did not explicitly disagree with CO2 driven climate change theory then they must all agree. In subsequent surveys, only 22 to 32 percent of scientists ever replied. Of those responding, only+9 percent believed humans are causing more than 5o percent of observed climate change. That means only 16 percent have actualIy agreed.) 
9. Don't confuse correlation with causation. 
(A recent extreme weather event happening when CO2 concentrations are high, may or may not have been worsened by high COz. Far worse weather events happened over the past thousand years.) 
10. Don't use straw man arguments - caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack. 
(A common straw man attack I encounter has been Jim Steele ignores the effect of rising CO2 only pointing out other possible reasons for climate change.'I do indeed point out natural causes to provide a greater climate perspective. But I never ignore the greenhouse effect. Clearly climate has been changing since the 1800s. CO2 concentrations are unprecedentedly high and CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Those are undeniable facts on which we ail agree. 
But there is absolutely NO scientific consensus regards
how "sensitive" the earth is to a doubling of CO2 concentrations. IPCC estimates of how global temperature will respond to a doubling of CO2 range greatly from 1 to 5 degrees centigrade. To accurately determine the earth's sensitivity to higher levels of CO2, we must accurately assess natural climate change.) 
11. Don't just count the’ hits" and forget the "misses" when evaluating a hypothesis. 
(There are many hits, yet many misses by both CO2 global warming theory and natural climate change theories. The science is not settled and the time for rigorous debate has not passed.) 


Rigorous debate.  How about a constructive debate Steele?

How about a debate where the goal is for citizens to acquire a better understanding of why scientists tell us what they do?

All Steele offers is fast talk and distractions from the real down to Earth geophysics we are facing these days.  I find it hideous, working so hard to keep so many people willfully ignorant about what’s unfolding right under their noses.  

How can we prepare for our future when so many pretend nothing is changing out there?  It’s a malicious abuse of our free speech rights and a crime again humanity.  

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