Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Fine Art of Baloney Detection


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

by Carl Sagan

My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I  still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are  -- really and truly -- still in existence somewhere. I wouldn't ask very  much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren,  to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There's  a part of me -- no matter how childish it sounds -- that wonders how they  are. "Is everything all right?" I want to ask. The last words  I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were "Take  care."

Sometimes I dream that I'm talking to my parents, and  suddenly -- still immersed in the dreamwork -- I'm seized by the overpowering  realization that they didn't really die, that it's all been some kind of  horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making  wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the  weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of  mourning all over again. Plainly, there's something within me that's ready  to believe in life after death. And it's not the least bit interested in  whether there's any sober evidence for it.

So I don't guffaw at the woman who visits her husband's  grave and chats him up every now and then, maybe on the anniversary of  his death. It's not hard to understand. And if I have difficulties with  the ontological status of who she's talking to, that's all right. That's  not what this is about. This is about humans being human. More than a third  of American adults believe that on some level they've made contact with  the dead. The number seems to have jumped by 15 percent between and 1988.  A quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation.

But that doesn't mean I'd be willing to accept the pretensions  of a "medium," who claims to channel the spirits of the dear  departed, when I'm aware the practice is rife with fraud. I know how much  I want to believe that my parents have just abandoned the husks of their  bodies, like insects or snakes molting, and gone somewhere else. I understand  that those very feelings might make me easy prey even for an unclever con,  or for normal people unfamiliar with their unconscious minds, or for those  suffering from a dissociative psychiatric disorder. Reluctantly, I rouse  some reserves of skepticism.

How is it, I ask myself, that channelers never give us  verifiable information otherwise unavailable? Why does Alexander the Great  never tell us about the exact location of his tomb, Fermat about his Last  Theorem, John Wilkes Booth about the Lincoln assassination conspiracy,  Hermann Goring about the Reichstag fire? Why don't Sophocles, Democritus,  and Aristarchus dictate their lost books? Don't they wish future generations  to have access to their masterpieces?

If some good evidence for life after death were announced,  I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data,  not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better  the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling  it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.

The fundamental premise of "channeling," spiritualism,  and other forms of necromancy is that when we die we don't. Not exactly.  Some thinking, feeling, and remembering part of us continues. That whatever-it-is  -- a soul or spirit, neither matter nor energy, but something else -- can,  we are told, re-enter the bodies of human and other beings in the future, and so death loses much of its sting. What's more, we have an opportunity,  if the spiritualist or channeling contentions are true, to make contact  with loved ones who have died.

J.Z. Knight of the State of Washington claims to be in  touch with a 35,000-year-old somebody called "Ramtha." He speaks  English very well, using Knight's tongue, lips and vocal chords, producing  what sounds to me to be an accent from the Indian Raj. Since most people  know how to talk, and many -- from children to professional actors -- have  a repertoire of voices at their command, the simplest hypothesis is that  Ms. Knight makes "Ramtha" speak all by herself, and that she  has no contact with disembodied entities from the Pleistocene Ice Age.  If there's evidence to the contrary, I'd love to hear it. It would be considerably  more impressive if Ramtha could speak by himself, without the assistance  of Ms. Knight's mouth. Failing that, how might we test the claim? (The  actress Shirley MacLaine attests that Ramtha was her brother in Atlantis,  but that's another story.)

Suppose Ramtha were available for questioning. Could we  verify whether he is who he says he is? How does he know that he lived  35,000 years ago, even approximately? What calendar does he employ? Who  is keeping track of the intervening millennia? Thirty-five thousand plus  or minus what? What were things like 35,000 years ago? Either Ramtha really  is 35,000 years old, in which case we discover something about that period,  or he's a phony and he'll (or rather she'll) slip up.

Where did Ramtha live? (I know he speaks English with  an Indian accent, but where 35,000 years ago did they do that?) What was  the climate? What did Ramtha eat? (Archaeologists know something about  what people ate back then.) What were the indigenous languages, and social  structure? Who else did Ramtha live with -- wife, wives, children, grandchildren?  What was the life cycle, the infant mortality rate, the life expectancy?  Did they have birth control? What clothes did they wear? How were the clothes  manufactured? What were the most dangerous predators? Hunting and fishing  implements and strategies? Weapons? Endemic sexism? Xenophobia and ethnocentrism?  And if Ramtha came from the "high civilization" of Atlantis,  where are the linguistic, technological, historical and other details?  What was their writing like? Tell us. Instead, all we are offered are banal  homilies.

Here, to take another example, is a set of information  channeled not from an ancient dead person, but from unknown non-human entities  who make crop circles, as recorded by the journalist Jim Schnabel:

We are so anxious at this sinful nation spreading lies  about us. We do not come in machines, we do not land on your earth in machines  ... We come like the wind. We are Life Force. Life Force from the ground ... Come here ... We are but a breath away ... a breath away ... we are  not a million miles away ... a Life Force that is larger than the energies  in your body. But we meet at a higher level of life ... We need no name.  We are parallel to your world, alongside your world ... The walls are broken.  Two men will rise from the past ... the great bear ... the world will be  at peace.

People pay attention to these puerile marvels mainly because  they promise something like old-time religion, but especially life after  death, even life eternal.

A very different prospect for something like eternal life  was once proposed by the versatile British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who  was, among many other things, one of the founders of population genetics.  Haldane imagined a far future when the stars have darkened and space is  mainly filled with a cold, thin gas. Nevertheless, if we wait long enough statistical fluctuations in the density of this gas will occur. Over immense  periods of time the fluctuations will be sufficient to reconstitute a Universe  something like our own. If the Universe is infinitely old, there will be  an infinite number of such reconstitutions, Haldane pointed out.

So in an infinitely old universe with an infinite number  of appearances of galaxies, stars, planets, and life, an identical Earth  must reappear on which you and all your loved ones will be reunited. I'll  be able to see my parents again and introduce them to the grandchildren  they never knew. And all this will happen not once, but an infinite number  of times.

Somehow, though, this does not quite offer the consolations  of religion. If none of us is to have any recollection of what happened  this time around, the time the reader and I are sharing, the satisfactions  of bodily resurrection, in my ears at least, ring hollow.

But in this reflection I have underestimated what infinity  means. In Haldane's picture, there will he universes, indeed an infinite  number of them, in which our brains will have full recollection of many  previous rounds. Satisfaction is at hand -- tempered, though, by the thought  of all those other universes which will also come into existence (again,  not once but an infinite number of times) with tragedies and horrors vastly  outstripping anything I've experienced this turn.

The Consolation of Haldane depends, though, on what kind  of universe we live in, and maybe on such arcana as whether there's enough  matter to eventually reverse the expansion of the universe, and the character  of vacuum fluctuations. Those with a deep longing for life after death  might, it seems, devote themselves to cosmology, quantum gravity, elementary  particle physics, and transfinite arithmetic.

Clement of Alexandria, a Father of the early Church, in  his Exhortations to the Greeks (written around the year 190) dismissed  pagan beliefs in words that might today seem a little ironic:

Far indeed are we from allowing grown men to listen to  such tales. Even to our own children, when they are crying their heart  out, as the saying goes, we are not in the habit of telling fabulous stories  to soothe them.

In our time we have less severe standards. We tell children  about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy for reasons we  think emotionally sound, but then disabuse them of these myths before they're  grown. Why retract? Because their well-being as adults depends on them  knowing the world as it really is. We worry, and for good reason, about adults who still believe in Santa Claus.

On doctrinaire religions, "Men dare not avow, even  to their own hearts," wrote the philosopher David Hume,

the doubts which they entertain on such subjects. They  make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity,  by the strongest asseverations and the most positive bigotry.

This infidelity has profound moral consequences, as the  American revolutionary Tom Paine wrote in The Age of Reason:

Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving;  it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible  to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying  has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted  the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things  he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.

T. H. Huxley's formulation was

The foundation of morality is to ... give up pretending  to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible  propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.

Clement, Hume, Paine, and Huxley were all talking about  religion. But much of what they wrote has more general applications --  for example to the pervasive background importunings of our commercial  civilization: There is a class of aspirin commercials in which actors pretending  to be doctors reveal the competing product to have only so much of the painkilling ingredient that doctors recommend most -- they don't tell you  what the mysterious ingredient is. Whereas their product has a dramatically  larger amount (1.2 to 2 times more per tablet). So buy their product. But  why not just take two of the competing tablets? Or consider the analgesic  that works better than the "regular-strength" product of the competition. Why not then take the "extra-strength" competitive  product? And of course they do not tell us of the more than a thousand  deaths each year in the United States from the use of aspirin, or the roughly  5000 annual cases of kidney failure from the use of acetaminophen, chiefly  Tylenol. Or who cares which breakfast cereal has more vitamins when we  can take a vitamin pill with breakfast? Likewise, why should it matter  whether an antacid contains calcium if the calcium is for nutrition and  irrelevant for gastritis? Commercial culture is full of similar misdirections  and evasions at the expense of the consumer. You're not supposed to ask.  Don't think. Buy.

Paid product endorsements, especially by real or purported  experts, constitute a steady rainfall of deception. They betray contempt  for the intelligence of their customers. They introduce an insidious corruption  of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity. Today there are even  commercials in which real scientists, some of considerable distinction,  shill for corporations. They teach that scientists too will lie for money.  As Tom Paine warned, inuring us to lies lays the groundwork for many other  evils.

I have in front of me as I write the program of one of  the annual Whole Life Expos, New Age expositions held in San Francisco.  Typically, tens of thousands of people attend. Highly questionable experts  tout highly questionable products. Here are some of the presentations:  "How Trapped Blood Proteins Produce Pain and Suffering." "Crystals,  Are They Talismans or Stones?" (I have an opinion myself.) It continues:  "As a crystal focuses sound and light waves for radio and television"  -- this is a vapid misunderstanding of how radio and television work --  "so may it amplify spiritual vibrations for the attuned human."  Or here's one "Return of the Goddess, a Presentational Ritual."  Another: "Synchronicity, the Recognition Experience." That one  is given by "Brother Charles." Or, on the next page, "You, Saint-Germain, and Healing Through the Violet Flame.'' It goes on and on,  with plenty of ads about "opportunities" -- running the short  gamut from the dubious to the spurious -- that are available at the Whole  Life Expo.

Distraught cancer victims make pilgrimages to the Philippines,  where "psychic surgeons," having palmed bits of chicken liver  or goat heart, pretend to reach into the patient's innards and withdraw  the diseased tissue, which is then triumphantly displayed. Leaders of Western  democracies regularly consult astrologers and mystics before making decisions  of state. Under public pressure for results, police with an unsolved murder  or a missing body on their hands consult ESP "experts" (who never  guess better than expected by common sense, but the police, the ESPers  say, keep calling). A clairvoyance gap with adversary nations is announced,  and the Central Intelligence Agency, under Congressional prodding, spends  tax money to find out whether submarines in the ocean depths can be located  by thinking hard at them. A "psychic" -- using pendulums over  maps and dowsing rods in airplanes -- purports to find new mineral deposits;  an Australian mining company pays him top dollar up front, none of it returnable  in the event of failure, and a share in the exploitation of ores in the  event of success. Nothing is discovered. Statues of Jesus or murals of  Mary are spotted with moisture, and thousands of kind-hearted people convince  themselves that they have witnessed a miracle.

These are all cases of proved or presumptive baloney. A deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, sometimes with cynical premeditation. Usually the victim is caught up in a powerful emotion -- wonder, fear, greed, grief. Credulous acceptance of baloney can cost you money; that's what P. T. Barnum meant when he said, "There's a sucker born every minute." But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic -- however sympathetic we may be to those who have bought the baloney.

In science we may start with experimental results, data, observations, measurements, "facts." We invent, if we can, a rich array of possible explanations and systematically confront each explanation with the facts. In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. 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. If you're so inclined, if you don't want to buy baloney even when it's reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there's a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

What's in the kit? Tools for skeptical thinking.

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 premise or starting point and whether that premise is true.

Among the tools:
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation  of the "facts."
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.*
* NOTE:  This is a problem that affects jury trials. Retrospective studies show  that some jurors make up their minds very early -- perhaps during opening  arguments -- and then retain the evidence that seems to support their initial  impressions and reject the contrary evidence. The method of alternative  working hypotheses is not running in their heads.

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 skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning,  to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

The reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments  is key, as I tried to stress earlier. We will not learn much from mere  contemplation. It is tempting to rest content with the first candidate  explanation we can think of. One is much better than none. But what happens  if we can invent several? How do we decide among them? We don't. We let experiment do it. Francis Bacon provided the classic reason:

Argumentation cannot suffice for the discovery of new  work, since the subtlety of Nature is greater many times than the subtlety  of argument.

Control experiments are essential. If, for example, a  new medicine is alleged to cure a disease 20 percent of the time, we must  make sure that a control population, taking a dummy sugar pill which as  far as the subjects know might be the new drug, does not also experience  spontaneous remission of the disease 20 percent of the time.

Variables must be separated. Suppose you're seasick, and  given both an acupressure bracelet and 50 milligrams of meclizine. You  find the unpleasantness vanishes. What did it -- the bracelet or the pill?  You can tell only if you take the one without the other, next time you're  seasick. Now imagine that you're not so dedicated to science as to be willing  to be seasick. Then you won't separate the variables. You'll take both  remedies again. You've achieved the desired practical result; further knowledge,  you might say, is not worth the discomfort of attaining it.

Often the experiment must be done "double-blind,"  so that those hoping for a certain finding are not in the potentially compromising  position of evaluating the results. In testing a new medicine, for example,  you might want the physicians who determine which patients' symptoms are  relieved not to know which patients have been given the new drug. The knowledge  might influence their decision, even if only unconsciously. Instead the  list of those who experienced remission of symptoms can be compared with  the list of those who got the new drug, each independently ascertained. Then you can determine what correlation exists. Or in conducting a police  lineup or photo identification, the officer in charge should not know who  the prime suspect is, so as not consciously or unconsciously to influence  the witness.

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);
* NOTE: A more cynical formulation  by the Roman historian Polybius: Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they  must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well,  therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.

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 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 mysterious ways.) 

begging the question,  also called assuming the answer (e.g., We 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 purported explanation?); 

observational selection,  also called the enumeration of favorable 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); *

* NOTE: A My favorite example is this story,  told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought  face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers.

So-and-so is a great general, he was told. What is the  definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked. I guess  it's a general who's won many consecutive battles. How many? After some  back and forth, they settled on five. What fraction of American generals  are great? After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing  as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning  a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle  is one out of two, or 1/2, two battles l/4, three l/8, four l/16, and five  consecutive battles 1/32 -- which is about 3 percent. You would expect  a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles -- purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles ...?

statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "They  say 1 out of every 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 lose."); 

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  intelligence); 

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 of 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., Jaime 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); 

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 vs. 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 programs to feed malnourished  children and educate pre-school 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 conception); 

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); *

*  NOTE: Children who watch violent TV programs tend to be more violent when  they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children  preferentially enjoy watching violent programs? Very likely both are true. Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish between  television and reality. But Saturday morning children's programs now average  25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes young  children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults  can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting  in our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before  they graduate from elementary school?

 Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies  rounds out our toolkit. 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.

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