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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How To Slay Demons

If there is one book that I wish everyone (or at least, a great number) would read, it would be Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.

Carl Sagan, with a model of the Viking lander 
I visited several bookstores a few months ago looking for a copy, but I did not find any. The bookstores I visited all had prominent displays of those “Shades of Grey” books, and many, many editions and translations of the Bible (you really can’t miss those two), but no Carl Sagan books, unfortunately. 
Or any other sciencey books, for that matter. 

Carl Sagan was an American astrophysicist who popularized science and promoted scientific thinking in his books. Published in 1995, “The Demon-Haunted World” is one of those books that the rather trite expression “eye-opener” applies perfectly. The book promotes critical thinking to be applied in everything, to help people avoid being bamboozled by charlatans and crackpots (like the people on this list) who deceive and hoodwink others.
It helps us know the difference between valid science and pseudoscience, between casuistry and sound reasoning, and keeps us from being gullible and to have a healthy dose of skepticism. 
Critical thinking enables us to escape the gravity pull of superstition that keeps us mired in stupidity and ignorance.

Carl Sagan's “Baloney Detection Kit” comes highly recommended and is very useful in slaying "demons" (don't leave home without it!):

§  Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.
§  Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.
§  "In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts."
§  Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.
§  Don't get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
§  Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses' relative explanatory power.
§  Every step in an argument must be logically sound; a single weak link can doom the entire chain.
§  When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam's Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.
§  Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions.

The book also has a list of common logical and rhetorical fallacies:
    • 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 (Majority of people in Manila die in hospitals; therefore stay out of hospitals! )
    • Inconsistency (When two propositions are asserted that cannot both possibly be  true).
    • 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.
    • Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack.
    • Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
    • Weasel words - Broadly, any word or words used with the intention to mislead or misinform (e.g., using words like, "many people say...", "according to experts...", etc.). 
If you’ve ever engaged in any debate (especially online), you’re already familiar with some of the concepts on the list above.
I’ll provide examples on each one on my next post on this blog.  

In the meantime, I wish you a world free of demons and full of light.

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