Baloney detection

Wanted to share this great article from Psychology Today on how to be an intelligent consumer of media and how to get beyond our own biases/ beliefs to access what is actually true. If I were still posting on Facebook, I would share it there, but would likely be told by at least one or two people that it is offensive and to take it down, so I will post here instead.

An excerpt from the above article:

“A USC study found that challenges to political beliefs, like religious beliefs, activate the same brain areas as when you see a snake or fast-approaching car. You feel threatened, unable to hear rational evidence against your beliefs. You lose cognitive flexibility, becoming rigidly defensive.

News articles rarely paint the entire picture; the news you get comes in fragments based on the leaning of the media you get it from. If you get your news from social media, like 62 percent of US adults, you get information from like-minded people so it isn’t balanced. This increases conviction and misinterpretation, especially when you read news counter to your beliefs.”

Another good resource is the Baloney Detection Kit by Carl Sagan.  The following is pulled directly from here.

Warning signs that suggest deception. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World. The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

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 (in science there are no “authorities”).

Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.

Quantify, wherever possible.

If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.

Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.

Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are:

Conduct control experiments – especially “double blind” experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.

Check for confounding factors – separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric

Ad hominem – attacking the arguer and not the argument.

Argument from “authority”.

Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an “unfavorable” decision).

Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

Special pleading (typically referring to god’s will).

Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).

Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).

Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).

Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)

Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not “proved”).

Non sequitur – “it does not follow” – the logic falls down.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc – “it happened after so it was caused by” – confusion of cause and effect.

Meaningless question (“what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).

Excluded middle – considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the “other side” look worse than it really is).

Short-term v. long-term – a subset of excluded middle (“why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?”).

Slippery slope – a subset of excluded middle – unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).

Confusion of correlation and causation.

Caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack.

Suppressed evidence or half-truths.

Weasel words – for example, use of euphemisms for war such as “police action” to get around limitations on Presidential powers. “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”

(excerpted from The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer Coordinators Prepared by Michael Paine )

My 17-year-old daughter, Mia, had a professor last term who took it upon himself to teach his English class how to detect bias in the media.  Mia, being pretty educated in this area, was able to do so with ease; however, she reported that none of the other classmates were able to do so at the beginning of the session.  With a little training, however, she reported that most of her classmates were able to detect bias at the end of the session. I wonder how many other teachers in the country are teaching this important skill?

How many educated adults do not know how to detect bias and find truth? Based on observation, I would hypothesize that the majority of us do not know how to do this.  Honestly, I was not very good at this even a year ago. Over the last year it’s been an area I focused on growing, and have changed a lot as a result and have abandoned many of my previously held beliefs. Now I find myself rejected by many of my peers, simply because of expressing opposing viewpoints, present different facts, or ask questions that are viewed as offensive. I have just about completely left the Democratic Party, and have my feet firmly planted in the center and am leaning right. It’s drastic change from where I’ve been for a very long time. It’s been a very eye-opening experience.

The herd mentality is just how the Nazi regime took hold, right? A flock of sheep blindly believed and followed its leader without questions, shutting down and even killing anyone who didn’t agree. Critical, independent thought is the foundation of freedom. The pendulum has swung so far to the left that many have forgotten the value of freedom. My hope is that the pendulum begins to swing toward the middle again and we can all strive to see things from a place of reason and regained the capacity for respectful conversations.

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