"The Fine Art of Baloney Detection"
"What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct,
and to understand, a reasoned argument and, especially important,
to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The
question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of
a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the
premises or starting point and whether that premise is true.
Among the tools:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of
- 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 sceptics must be given the chance to follow your
reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the
"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. Among
these fallacies are:
- Ad hominem - Latin for 'to the man', attacking the arguer and
not the argument (e.g., the Reverend Dr Smith is a known
Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not
be taken seriously).
- Argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon
should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war
in Southeast Asia - but because it was secret, there was no way
for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument
amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake,
as it turned out).
- Argument from adverse consequences (e.g., a God meting out
punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society
would be much more lawless and dangerous - perhaps even
ungovernable. Or: the defendant in a widely publicized murder
trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement
for other men to murder their wives).
- • Appeal to ignorance - the claim that whatever has not been
proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., there is no
compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth;
therefore UFOs exist - and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the
Universe. Or: there may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but
not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so
we're still central to the Universe). This impatience with ambiguity
can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not
evidence of absence.
- Special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical
trouble (e.g., how can a merciful God condemn future
generations to unending torment because, against orders, one
woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you
don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: how can
there be an equally godlike Father, Son and Holy Ghost in the
same Person? Special plead: you don't understand the Divine
Mystery of the Trinity. Or: how could God permit the followers
of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - each in their own way
enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion - to
have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: you
don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in
- Begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g.,
must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But
does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is
imposed? Or: the stock market fell yesterday because of a
technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors. But is there any
independent evidence for the causal role of 'adjustment'
and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this
- Observational selection, also called the enumeration of favourable
circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it,
counting the hits and forgetting the misses* (e.g., a state boasts of
the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers).
- Statistics of small numbers - a close relative of observational
selection (e.g., 'they say 1 out of 5 people is Chinese. How is this
possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese.
Yours truly.' Or. 'I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't
- Misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President
Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on
discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average
- Inconsistency (e.g., prudently plan for the worst of which a
potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific
projections on environmental dangers because they're not
'proved'. Or: attribute the declining life expectancy in the former
Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but
never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States
(now highest in the major industrial nations) to the failures of
capitalism. Or: consider it reasonable for the Universe to
continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the
possibility that it has infinite duration into the past).
- Non sequitur - Latin for 'it doesn't follow' (e.g., our nation will
prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends
this to be true; the German formulation was 'Gott mit uns').
Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply
failed to recognize alternative possibilities.
- Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - Latin for 'it happened after, so it
was caused by' (e.g., Jamie Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of
Manila: 'I know of... a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she
takes [contraceptive] pills.' Or: before women got the vote, there
were no nuclear weapons).
- Meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible
force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as
an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and
- Excluded middle, or false dichotomy - considering only the two
extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., 'sure, take his side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong.'
Or: 'either you love your country or you hate it.' Or: 'if you're
not part of the solution, you're part of the problem').
- Short-term v. long-term - a subset of the excluded middle, but
so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., we
can't afford programmes to feed malnourished children and
educate preschool kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on
the streets. Or: why explore space or pursue fundamental science
when we have so huge a budget deficit?).
- Slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., if we allow
abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to
prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: if the
state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be
telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of
- Confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., a survey shows
that more college graduates are homosexual than those with
lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of
the planet Uranus; therefore - despite the absence of any such
correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter - the
latter causes the former.
- Straw man - caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack
(e.g., scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by
chance - a formulation that wilfully ignores the central Darwinian
insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and
discarding what doesn't. Or - this is also a short-term/long-term
fallacy - environmentalists care more for snail darters and
spotted owls than they do for people).
- Suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., an amazingly accurate
and widely quoted 'prophecy' of the assassination attempt on
President Reagan is shown on television; but - an important detail
- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: these government
abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette
without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a
revolution in which far more people are killed than under the
previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions
suggest? Are all possible revolutions against oppressive regimes
desirable and in the interests of the people?).
- Weasel words (e.g., the separation of powers of the US
Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a
war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand,
Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct
of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves
re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore
be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and
calling the wars something else - 'police actions', 'armed
incursions', 'protective reaction strikes', 'pacification', 'safeguarding
American interests', and a wide variety of 'operations',
such as 'Operation Just Cause'. Euphemisms for war are
one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political
purposes. Talleyrand said, 'An important art of politicians is to
find new names for institutions which under old names have
become odious to the public')."