The Watering Hole; Thursday May 7 2015; Baloney Detection Kit

Election season is upon us. It might still be eighteen months away before the votes are counted, but no matter, the Republican clown car is filling up as we speak. Cruz, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, even Carly Fiorina — five candidates announced already with who knows how many more waiting in the wings. Eighteen months. How much B.S., how much baloney, how many lies both bold-faced and subtle will they toss out over the next eighteen months? And how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the fiction, the horse hockey from the B.S.? After several weeks of careful thought, I’ve decided to do the right thing and — in the absence of truth serum — provide the means to view the best tool set known to the civilized world that enables the separation of shreds of fact from immense piles of fiction. So here it is: the late Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit!a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods.

In his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” — published only a few months before his untimely death in 1996 — Sagan shared his ideas on how to use reason and logic to overcome the barrage of untruths and outright lies which each and every day assault every corner of the “civilized” world. That which follows is from his chapter entitled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” where Sagan writes:

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:

1. Ad Hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously);

2. Argument From Authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out);

3. Argument From Adverse Consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives);

NOTE: A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius: Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.

4. Appeal to Ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

5. Special Pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)

6. Begging The Question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?);

7. Observational Selection, Also Called The Enumeration of Favorable Circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers);

NOTE: A My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers.

So-and-so is a great general, he was told. What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked. I guess it’s a general who’s won many consecutive battles. How many? After some back and forth, they settled on five. What fraction of American generals are great? After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2, two battles l/4, three l/8, four l/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 — which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles — purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles …?

8. Statistics of Small Numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”);

9. Misunderstanding of The Nature of Statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);

10. Inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);

11. Non Sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;

12. Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons);

13. Meaningless Question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)

14. Excluded Middle, or False Dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”);

15. Short-term Vs. Long-term — a Subset of The Excluded Middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);

16. Slippery Slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);

17. Confusion of Correlation And Causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former);

NOTE: Children who watch violent TV programs tend to be more violent when they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children preferentially enjoy watching violent programs? Very likely both are true. Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish between television and reality. But Saturday morning children’s programs now average 25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes young children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting in our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before they graduate from elementary school?

18. Straw Man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)

19. Suppressed Evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)

20. Weasel Words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others. ~Carl Sagan

So there it is, there you have it: the tool set which enables moments of truth to be separated from all those months of spoken, written, preached, shouted, and whispered political baloney. Use it in good health!

And thank you over and again, Carl Sagan.



62 thoughts on “The Watering Hole; Thursday May 7 2015; Baloney Detection Kit

  1. Ben Carson: Federal Government Doesn’t Need To Recognize Gay Marriage SCOTUS Ruling

    Yesterday on Newsmax TV, Ben Carson said that the federal government does not need to recognize a Supreme Court decision on gay marriage because the president is only obligated to recognize laws passed by Congress, not judicial rulings.

    “First of all, we have to understand how the Constitution works, the president is required to carry out the laws of the land, the laws of the land come from the legislative branch,” Carson said. “So if the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibly to carry it out. It doesn’t say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law.”

    So, Obama can ignore the rulings about the ACA preventing withholding Medicaid funds unless states expand the program? He can ignore any upcoming ruling regarding selectively enforcing immigration laws?

    What else could Obama do if this concept were valid?

    • Using Baloney Detection, that’s gotta be at the very least an “Appeal to Ignorance,” probably also “Begging the Question” (and probably several others as well). Carson has already proven that he’s a ranking expert on the technique of using baloney to make his point — but not much of an expert on anything else.

  2. A few points I would add about the above:

    (1) re the argumentum ad hominem: the issue is not really whether the claim is against the person, but whether it is against the person AND is either false or irrelevant. If I say, “You can’t trust Al Gore’s climate change claims because he’s a liberal,” that is an ad hominem, because Gore’s political leanings have nothing to do with his ability to accurately report the science. If I say, “You can’t trust The Viscount (Christopher) Monckton’s climate change claims because he’s an habitual and demonstrated liar,” I’ve committed no ad hominem, because what I’ve said is both true and relevant to the issue of the trustworthiness of Monckton’s statements.

    (2) re the argumentum ad vericundiam: the issue is not about whether a person or group of persons are arguing from authority, but whether they are arguing from false or misleading authority. Thus, the “Oregon Petition” lists over 30,000 “scientists” who dispute the claims regarding the reality &/or severity of global warming. But a glance at their own published stats indicates that 2/3’s of the signers are MD’s or DVM’s. Such people are not scientists OF ANY type. (Medical doctors are not scientists, they are technicians.) Over half the remaining numbers only claim a Bachelors degree in a non-declared discipline, so not only are they entirely lacking in any research background that would qualify them as scientists, there’s no effort to establish the relevancy of their discipline to the study of global warming. In contrast, the 97% consensus number published by Cook (and now, independently, many others) is specifically referencing climate scientists.

    (3) “Excluded middle” is a very sloppy choice of terms for the false dichotomy and slippery slope fallacies. EM (“tertium non datur”) has a very well, and long established meaning in formal logic, and the above is not it. EM states that, given a meaningful proposition “p”, either “p” or “~p” is true. False dichotomy is an equivocation that says “p or q” — where “q” is not logically equivalent to “~p”! — is equivalent to “p or ~p”. Now, there are debates in the philosophy of logic about whether EM is really a law, or merely a heuristic ideal, as EM is essentially equivalent to the princicple of bivalence, that every proposition is either true or false, and it is just and only these. But bivalence and EM are not what are going wrong in false dichotomy.

    • I suspect Sagan would agree with you on all points. His “Baloney Detection Kit” was obviously aimed at those on the lower rungs of the fallacy ladder rather than up top and his parenthetical examples were simplified examples that common folks could grasp and say something like “Oh, yeah, now I get it.” Sort of like his line in Cosmos when he mentioned that we’re all made of “star stuff.” Not chemically precise, but a nice way to expand imaginations, to suggest that this little “Pale Blue Dot” does not define the universe, as he noted in his 1994 public lecture at Cornell:

      “We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

      “The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. . . .”

  3. Is the Gish Gallop a legit part of the list? Or just a way to serve any and all of them up, really fast, without taking a breath.

  4. Federal Appeals Court Says NSA Phone Records Program Illegal

    A federal appeals court has ruled that the National Security Agency’s program of collecting billions of telephones records is not permitted by the Patriot Act.

    The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in ACLU vs. Clapper, said a lower court was wrong in ruling that the Patriot Act, as written, precluded a court from reviewing the NSA program.

    “Because we find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized, we vacate the decision below dismissing the complaint without reaching appellants’constitutional arguments,” Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for the court.

    The court did not address the question of whether the program violated peoples’ rights ,because the issue was made moot by the finding the program was not allowed in the first place.

    Now we’ll see what the Fascist Five have to say.

    • Fascist Five will make up some bullshit about the Constitution permits, nay, demands that gummint must keep people safe, even if it means being Big Brother.

      • I wonder if we should sovle all the world’s mysteries of history – this is the third now – Richard the 3rd, the Franklin Expedition now Kidd’s treasure….

        It is interesting to keep history alive if the legends can be proven out… and maybe there are as many mysteries remaining.

  5. Or, you can just whip out your RUC-LyingBastardometer and not have to memorize all those logical constructs.

  6. Federal judge dismisses Nebraskan’s suit against all homosexuals

    A federal judge will not allow a Nebraska woman to be a legal spokeswoman for God and his son, Jesus Christ.

    Judge John Gerrard dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday filed against all homosexuals.

    Sylvia Driskell, 66, of Auburn, Nebraska, had asked the court last week to decide whether homosexuality is a sin.

    In a strongly worded opinion, the judge said it is not up to the court to decide whether homosexuality is sinful.

    Whew! That was a close one! 😉

    • What a cheap fucking god only giving Ben the answers when what he’s lacking is understanding.

    • The real question here is whether Gawd changed all Benny’s answers after he got them wrong.

    • Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. Climate change = desertification.
      And that’s not increasing the amount of calories you intake after supper desertification. Fertilization is what your nonsensical argument does to the intellectual conversation around climate change and global warming.

    • Inhofe is actually more stupid than I imagined him to be. And believe me, that’s saying something!

      I wish the dumb shit would stay home in Oklahoma and enjoy the climate change-enhanced tornado season. He gets carried away so often on climate change in DC, might as well try it at home and give new meaning to that old “fart in a tornado” meme.

  7. Speaking of Carson-level stupid:

    Dobson: Gay Marriage Will Be ‘The Death Knell Of Religious Liberty In America’

    . . . parents will supposedly no longer be able to teach their children that homosexuality is a sin because public schools will be teaching the opposite.

    “It has implications for the school. Textbooks are going to have to be re-written and re-illustrated to comply with the law,” he warned. “It reaches every corner, every dimension of society. We are talking about the death knell of religious liberty in America”

    Sin. Whazzat? In order for there to be sin there has to be a god, right? Since there’s no god . . . etc.

    Why don’t these hate- and fear-filled god dudes ever offer even a shred of evidence that it has ever even existed? Why do they expect everyone to lie down in front of their god train and believe all of their shriveled theology? Why can’t they just shut up and do their thing and leave the rest of us alone, allow us that same privilege?

    • I have yet to see a law proposed that would require same sex marriage. Until you see THAT law, this is all religiously bigoted bullshit.

      • I’ve always said that if laws MANDATED same sex marriage and/or abortion, I’d fight them to the death. But they don’t. Obviously their only goal is to force others into believing in their personal version of the FSM (or equiv.), and that’s as WRONG as the first option.

    • This guy is an idiot. If one values marriage as a faith-based institution, nothing has changed. Every church can decide whom they feel should be married. My own church refused to marry my husband and I as he was divorced, which is odd as I am pretty sure the Episcopal church was pretty much founded on the idea of divorce. If one considers marriage a purely religious institution then make it so. Surrender all the legal benefits we currently confer on participants in the union.

  8. Ted Cruz finally gets some vocal support:

    Only Ted Cruz Can Save America From The Marxists In Government

    Trevor Loudon, the New Zealand conservative activist who has devoted himself in recent years to exposing President Obama as an “enemy within,” joined Gun Owners of America’s Larry Pratt on his radio program last month to discuss his upcoming movie, which he hopes will help get Ted Cruz elected president next year, thus saving America and the world. . . .

    “If the Democrats get elected again, they’re going to dissolve the southern border, they’re going to legalize all the illegals, they’ll turn Texas blue, they’ll give them the vote, and basically you’ll have a one-party state in America,” he warned.

    “Ted Cruz or a comparable patriot has to win the next election,” he said. “That is not a negotiable.”

    Sounds like wingnuttery is not wholly an Amurkkkan trait. I look forward to a Cruz Senate bill to allow New Zealanders to vote Republican here. Wouldn’t be any more farfetched than the other bills he’s introduced.

    • “Ted Cruz or a comparable patriot has to win the next election,” he said. “That is not a negotiable.”
      And just who is New Zealand negotiating with regarding who the next POTUS might be?
      (ELM = Ever Loving Mother)

    • That’s right comrades, out here on my collective farm we share access to the interweb, this is my 5 minutes right here.

  9. I wondered where that rumor came from. Guess I should have known.

    Rep. Gohmert: Obama To Blame For Jade Helm 15 Conspiracy Theories

    Gohmert, who revealed that he recently met with military officials about the exercise, told the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins that the president incited anti-government sentiment because of the administration’s role in the Little Sisters of the Poor case, which involves a Catholic group that does not want to sign a waiver to become exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate.

    Yep. That’s gotta be it. Fucking Obamacare.//

  10. This should remove all doubt. Obama-Jarrett conspiracy, yep. Gotta be it.

    BarbWire Pundit: Jade Helm 15 Final Stage Of Obama Takeover

    Sher Zieve took to BarbWire today to warn that the upcoming Jade Helm 15 drill might just be “the final exercise before the Obama-Jarrett team install Martial Law nationwide,” citing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to order the National Guard to monitor the training exercise as evidence that people should be worried about the drill.

    Criticizing “the daily barrage of the Obama-Jarrett ‘Articles of Enslavement,’” Zieve predicted that the government “may censor and/or remove conservative websites” and use “leftist-run sheriffs’ and police departments” to “engage in break-ins and warrantless searches” of “the homes of Christian conservative homeschooling parents.”

    “Obama is now bypassing Congress more and more as he solidifies his dictatorship,” Zieve said. “It’s not just the Democrats that Obama and his syndicate can count on. There are many Democrat plants who have infiltrated the Republican Party and who vote fairly consistently with the Dems to enact Obama’s and the NWO’s polices.”

  11. Can anyone shed light on the elections in the UK? Terry the Turtle?

    I turned on MSNBC and all they’re worried about is Tom Brady’s balls.

    • Fortunately for Tejasicans everywhere, Jade Helm 15 will most likely throw ISIS out as they take over come July. It’ll all turn out OK though, cuz they’re at least white and prolly lots of them are Christian. So pass the word to Brat — no worries.

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