Sunday, March 2, 2014

Just too late for PDAC, here's Carl Sagan's "Baloney Detection Kit"

Brain Pickings - Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit. Being smart and clever is worthless unless you also know the basics of philosophical reasoning and the scientific method, and are able to apply both of them in daily life. Carl Sagan was one of the few people who could bring the two together and explain them in a way that any clown could understand.

And believe me, anyone who doesn't understand philosophical reasoning and the scientific method is nothing but a fucking clown.

Read these points and think about each of them:

1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

Don't believe what anyone says. Look up the data yourself. Lots of people out here are lying through their teeth, lots of people are spouting off second-hand bullshit without checking the data themselves.

Me included. I literally don't fucking care. Check my facts too.

Once you've fact-checked for a while, you'll learn who to not even bother listening to because every single "fact" they've spouted off in the past has, upon your time-wasting research, been proven to be as much a lie as every other "fact".

Because if they're not even bothering to get the facts right, they aren't trying to figure out the truth. If they don't have the truth, why are you reading them?

2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

In my case, it means reading wider than the little goldbug world. And sometimes allowing comments on my blog. But only listening to the people who are knowledgeable.

Frankly, you waste your time if you listen to "other points of view" simply because they disagree with you. Sagan is not asserting that he should also listen to the foaming-mouthed ramblings of a Fundamentalist preacher.

Don't waste your fucking time: you're going to be dead or senile in a few decades.

3. 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.

Over at Fark, there's presently a thread that includes the statement that "Stephen Hawking thinks we don't need philosophy". I pointed out that this is the fallacy of appeal to authority, but the author wouldn't have known that because he never studied philosophy.

Also, William Shockley, inventor of the transistor, believed blacks were intellectually inferior and shouldn't be allowed to breed.

In any case, know who your experts are. In the goldbug world, 95% of newsletter writers are not experts in anything, and the remaining 5% know some things but are utterly useless at others.

A corollary to this: don't listen to anyone who doesn't tell you specifically what he's not an expert at.

4. 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.

Spin more than one hypothesis. Think of other explanations for the data. The first explanation you come up with yourself, or read on the internet, is almost certainly the wrong one.

Also, look at each piece of data. Try to understand what each piece of data means, what it represents, and whether it is referring to a what you think it's referring to.You have to know what it is that you're measuring, and you have to understand both the phenomenon that produces the data, and the mechanism you're using to measure the data. Without that knowledge, you're fucking hopelessly lost at sea.

5. 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.

That's funny - "ask yourself why you like the idea" is very Nietzschean.

But beyond that, there's another bit of wisdom in here: try to figure out what new data could come in that would prove to you that your theory is wrong and it has to be jettisoned. Then watch for that data, and see if the machine reacts to it the way you predicted it would.

This is vitally important in investing, and can be as simple as "the fucking stock is still going down so obviously it's not a great value", or as complex as "when the Chinese shadow banking collapse comes, I'm going to watch the price of gold for weakness, and if I see it flagging I'm going to sell everything and get out because there's a flood of 1000 tons about to get puked onto the market as collateral gets liquidated, and that'll be it for the gold market's confidence in a Chinese support to the gold price."

6. 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.

Again, the data. Know what the fuck it is that was measured, and how the system of measurement affects the data. Know how and why you can expect that data to change over time.

7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

Nobody learns basic reasoning. We should make debate club mandatory. We should teach reasoning and argumentation starting in grade 7.

A dick like me can also simplify this to "I don't care if some goldbug asshole was even right about one thing if his argument is based on wackaloon libertarian chickenshit".

But they normally don't get that far, because they don't even know how to construct a coherent argument. If they do try, they often have the most idiotic premises underpinning it.

8. 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.

Meh. I don't like this one. I prefer conspiracy theories.

9. 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.

This is another more science-specific thing.

Though I guess you could interpret it for investors as "know when something's a moot point".


There are better books to read on this topic, but there's no reason why you shouldn't also read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Amazon's got the paperback right now for $10, buy it.


  1. Great! This sector is full of so many blatant lies and poor reasoning that news letter writers and press releases often make for a good piece of coffee humor. When it comes to investing, far to many people are ready, nearly anxious, to take the word of a so called expert because the idea of making easy money is just to seductive to allow them to think for a moment that they be wrong.

    In post secondary they made students take a number of arts/humanities electives in an effort to assure that all their graduates were not only smug assholes, but well rounded smug assholes at that. Anyways, after years of listening to "so called experts" use their under graduate classes as personal forums for their own rejected ideas, failed self ambitions, or what ever was pissing them off that week, I did come across a little guide called Understanding Scientific Reasoning by Ronald N Giere (and some other guys).

    One doesn't need a science degree to exercise critical thinking and a bit of common sense, but many need to at least be shown why their typical execution of common sense is not sensible in the least. Just another recommendation.

    Disclaimer: I am not an expert in common sense, I bought into CXB and held on until the bitter end...they are doing some new trenching though....