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Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit!

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1Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! on Sat Aug 02, 2014 12:17 pm


This is a link to Carl Sagan’s extremely thoughtful – and surprisingly personal – essay “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”:

Below are the tools in his 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

2Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty Re: Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! on Sat Aug 02, 2014 2:18 pm


Thanks for uploading this!!  Very Happy 



3Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty Re: Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! on Mon Aug 04, 2014 8:37 am


From an ELT perspective, perhaps the most interesting thing here is “Quantify”? Measuring the effectiveness – in a quantitative way – of a new teaching tactic or strategy can be a challenge!

4Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty quantify on Tue Aug 26, 2014 6:22 am


Hi Graham,

I completely agree with the difficulty of quantifying English proficiency.  It has been a problem as long as there has been ELT.  TOEIC score?  Subjective assessment?  I think the lack of good measures is what has held the field back compared to other more scientific ones.

5Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty Re: Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! on Fri Sep 05, 2014 11:41 am


Hi Curtis!

Other fields have their difficulties, too, of course. I was struck by these comments by Stanislas Dehaene (in Sousa's Mind, Brain, and Education): "Calculation is easy to test, but what does it mean to master the concept of 'number'? When can a child be said to 'grasp' a mathematical notion?"

6Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty conceptual understanding on Sat Sep 06, 2014 3:46 am


I see that same logic applying to my own children's performance.  Both of them could read their names and say the letters in it at an early age, but was that reading?  No, of course not. They just had what is called iconic learning, a memorizing of a certain pattern.

7Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! Empty Re: Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit! on Mon Sep 08, 2014 12:36 pm


You could apply the same logic to a lot of things...? Eg, people that build fMRI scanners make use of quantum mechanics, but does that mean they understand it? Not really – in the famous phrase, they just "shut up and calculate"!

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