Carl Sagan’s Crash Course in Critical Thinking

Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin, The History of Pranks

This could hardly be more timely, so we’re revisiting Maria Popova’s Brainpickings review of “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” a chapter from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which the legendary scientist distills his years of professional skepticism into a primer for recognizing and calling BS in everyday life. H/t Dino.

“The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking”
By Maria Popova
January 3, 2014

Sagan reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” (Cue in PBS’s Joe Hanson on how to read science news.) But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.

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. 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.

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. Read more.