Baloney, bunk, B.S. Whatever you want to call it, it's probably been with us since the dawn of humanity. But these days, it feels like we're living in a golden age of bull.
Between politicians' cries of "fake news," fact-free partisan shouting, and the explosion of intentionally misleading information online, we all run a greater risk than ever before of falling for someone else's half-baked ideas or artfully spun untruths. If you're looking to base your opinions on actual reality (and not Russian bots), how can you protect yourself?
The answer, of course, is skepticism and logic, two areas in which scientists generally excel. But you don't need to understand the details of quantum mechanics to weigh claims and flag up B.S., according to Carl Sagan. All you need are a few pointed questions to evaluate the reliability of any claim.
In his book The Demon-Haunted World, the renowned astrophysicist helpfully suggested questions to ask to detect baloney, science writer Michael Shermer points out in the extremely useful video below (hat tip to Jason Kottke for the pointer). Check out Shermer's short talk for a more in-depth explanation of each question:
- How reliable is the source of the claim? "Who said that? Is this some 'fake news' alternative site thing?" asks Shemer. If so, beware. When it comes to evaluating claims, the source matters. A lot.
Does the source make similar claims?
Have the claims been verified by somebody else? "Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much," Sagan wrote in his book. "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?"
Does this fit with the way the world works?
Has anyone tried to disprove the claim? "The question is not, what do your supporters think? But, what do the people who don't agree with you think? That's what I want to know," explains Shermer.
Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
Are personal beliefs driving the claim? "We all have personal beliefs and opinions," notes Shermer. "It doesn't make it wrong, but it's good to know if somebody has an agenda."
If you spend a lot of time hankering for a world with less B.S., these questions will certainly help you root out and banish baloney, but it's worth doing some soul-searching.
Most of us hate other people's bull, but actually participate in a fair amount ourselves, either to avoid confrontation or smooth our way through life. It is possible to swear off B.S. Those who have tried it suggest you'll see a lot more positive results than you expect, and a lot less negative blowback than you fear.