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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.1 > An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection!

An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection!

Hello!

In this special issue of Junior Skeptic we’ll learn many valuable tricks for sorting truth from nonsense. We need them!

We’re bombarded by claims every day of our lives. Friends tell us stuff. Labels and advertisements make claims about products. Books and websites make claims about the world. TV and YouTube channels show us amazing sights and tell us astonishing stories. But some of the things we hear sound too good to be true. How do we tell the difference between fact and baloney?

Let’s find out!

Sagan’s “Fine Art of Baloney Detection”

There was once a famous astronomer, book author, and TV star named Carl Sagan. He spent much of his life trying to teach the public about science— not just the cool things scientists have learned, but also the methods scientists use to find things out.

Sagan loved science, saying, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” He thought every person deserved to share in the wonder of great scientific discoveries.

But Sagan was also frustrated to see people “bamboozled” by false claims. He didn’t like seeing people get cheated by scammers or taught things that weren’t true. He was convinced that people would get fooled less often if we all learned more of the thinking habits scientists use to solve problems.

To learn more about Carl Sagan’s life and work in skepticism, see Junior Skeptic #50

He shared some of those methods for scientific thinking 30 years ago in an article called “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” then expanded his thoughts in his book The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan wrote,

In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out… whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. … What’s in the kit? Tools for skeptical thinking.

Today we’re going to put together our own baloney detection kits, starting with Sagan’s top ten tips for thinking like a scientist. We’ll learn what questions to ask when we hear weird things. We’ll learn how to avoid getting fooled by sloppy or slippery arguments—and also learn how to avoid fooling ourselves!

Sagan’s Ten Tools for Detecting Baloney (adapted for younger readers)

1 “Facts” Need Double-Checking

Sometimes when we look closely at a supposed “fact,” it vanishes in a puff of smoke. That’s because people make mistakes and assumptions—and sometimes make stuff up. Other people may repeat what they hear without checking. That’s not a good idea. “Wherever possible,” Sagan wrote, “there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts.’ “

In some jobs it’s super important to get the facts right. For example, several hospital workers may check and re-check a patient’s name before they’re wheeled in for surgery. It wouldn’t be good to operate on the wrong person! Nurses, reporters, spies, and scientists all learn the habit of double-checking. Does that unusual radio signal come from deep space, or perhaps only from a nearby satellite? Scientists double-check!

2 Encourage debate

“Making an argument” doesn’t mean squabbling, but “presenting a case”— explaining why we think a certain thing and trying to convince others that we’re right. But it’s hard for most people to evaluate arguments about science or other complicated subjects. We just don’t know enough to have informed opinions. We need people who do.

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About Skeptic

SPECIAL SECTION Skeptic’s Science Dialogues: Bill Nye in Conversation with Michael Shermer on Climate Change, Travel to Mars, Artificial Intelligence, Nuclear Power, GMOs and more… ARTICLES Miracle Water: Why Zamzam Water is Not a Valid Medical Treatment; Lone Wolf Terrorism: The Convergence of Mental Illness, Marginality, and Cyber Radicalism; Torturing Data; Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism; What Would it Take to Change Your Mind?; ET v. Earth Pathogens; Trouble in the Multiverse; Science v. Subjectivity: Football Playoff Teams Selecting College Football Playoff Teams as a Case Study COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Functional Medicine; The Gadfly: The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice REVIEWS The Stealth Determinism of Westworld—a Review of the television series Westworld; Back to the Future and Forward to the Past—a Review of Time Travel: A History; Cosmic Consciousness and the Ptolemaic Principle—a review of You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why it Matters; Science International—a review of Courting Science: Securing the Foundation for a Second American Century; Conjuring Magic—two books on the history of magic: Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World and Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World JUNIOR SKEPTIC An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection
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