Vail Daily column: Fine art of baloney detection
May 20, 2014
Ours is an information age.
The advent and widespread use of the Internet has brought profound changes to all our lives and has also brought a significant new purpose for education. Where once the acquisition (often through memorization) of facts, dates and figures in any number of academic areas was the goal of education, much of this effort becomes a downright silly and time-wasting exercise in the era of the Google search.
Instead, education has been undergoing a major transition that focuses on students gaining broader and (arguably) more important competencies including creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
This is, of course, not to say that education didn't teach these concepts previously. Most of us can probably remember demonstrating each of these skills in the course of our education. However, it is to say that there has been a seismic shift underway in education to focus much less on the memorization of content (aka "facts") and much more on being able to demonstrate key competencies (aka "skills").
CRITICAL THINKING KEY IN DIGITAL AGE
The instantaneous access to all sorts of data, coupled with the ability for anyone to self-publish anything at any time, makes the skill of critical thinking of incredible importance for both citizens and students. We are under a constant barrage of "facts," claims and persuasion and need some way of sorting through what to believe and what to ignore.
Just before his untimely death in 1996, scientist Carl Sagan published an incredible work called "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." While Sagan's brilliance was taken from us too soon, his indomitable spirit of foresight and insight remains relevant today. One chapter of the book was called "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" and contained a nine-point primer on sorting quality information from that other substance, often colloquially referred to as "B.S."
In this era of Jenny McCarthy's emergence as an "expert" on child vaccinations, furnace-like blasts of hot air from windbags on both sides of the political aisle and semi-anonymous community crusaders masquerading as journalists, Sagan's nine points become all the more important. I present an annotated version of Sagan's list for your review and consideration.
• Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the "facts." Data and statistics are tossed around all the time. However, more often than not, the goal of the writer is persuasion or propaganda and not learning. A healthy and critical questioning of anyone's "facts" is the foundation of baloney detection.
• Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view. The founding fathers, in their wisdom, enshrined the important concept of a free market of ideas in our Constitution for a reason: Through open discussion and exchange, the best ideas emerge. But this is not to say that all "opinions" are created equal. We should be critical of the qualifications, credibility and possible motives of anyone making a claim.
• Arguments from authority carry little weight. Sagan stressed that authorities have made mistakes in the past and will do so again in the future. In science, there are no "authorities," only experts — and experts are only as good as the soundness and quality of their thinking. Titles, power and positional authority does not make one an "expert."
• Spin more than one hypothesis. Rather than running with the first idea that catches your fancy, consider that there might be a variety of possible explanations, contexts or approaches. Considering and critically evaluating a number of different ideas will more likely result in an accurate determination.
• Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. In other words, don't believe everything you think. Every one of us has been guilty of grabbing on to some notion or idea that we were absolutely certain of … that turns out to be absolutely wrong. Recognize that we are all fallible creatures and that we can be (and frequently are) wrong.
• Quantify. Wherever possible, seek empirical data to validate any claim. While qualitative ideas, opinions and beliefs are important — they are also more difficult to determine if they are valid (if not impossible in some cases).
• If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them. As humans, we have a propensity toward complex conspiracy theories and developing grand explanations for how things work (or should work). When presented with some "big idea," we should be critical of every aspect of it to determine if its baloney or not.
• Occam's Razor. This principle holds that the simplest explanation is also the most likely to be right. Similar to this, Albert Einstein once said "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."
• Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. The notion of "falsification" is a central tenet to science. It means that for a claim to be scientific, we must be able to imagine some instance or test to determine if it is false. Proclamations, propositions or grand theories that are untestable can lead us to make really bad decisions and at a really large scale.
Sagan's wisdom is as sage today as it was nearly 20 years ago. Not just our students, but also every one of us, need to be on guard for when we are being sold a bill of goods that turns out to be just a bunch of baloney.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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