There have alwa…

There have always been those who will try to deceive or persuade others to accept their particular philosophies, treatments and products. Sometimes all it needs is a charismatic presentation or some simple conjuring tricks to draw in the gullible, desperate or innocent minded.

Don’t get me wrong, at times I can have said to fit into each of those categories in my life. I’ve read my star signs, been ear-candled, , taken echinacea and glucosamine sulphate, and tried local honey to ward off hay fever. None of these have medically, or otherwise scientifically tested, repeatable benefits, yet many of us have tried them. Why is that?

We can put the blame on ourselves, medical profession, popular press, celebrities, pharmaceutical industry and governments, as well as ‘the merchants of woo’. We get so much conflicting information from sources that we trust, it can be hard to see where the truth might be. Even ‘experts’ in the field (and here I discount all actors, singers, artists, politicians and authors of fiction) still get it wrong or mislead us. I would no more believe Julia Sawalha on her use of homeopathy for malaria protection, than I would Stephen Hawking on hair care products.

So, what to do?

Well this is where the Baloney Detection Kit is useful. It comes from Carl Sagan’s excellent book ‘The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark’. These nine points are useful when considering any idea (new or ancient), particularly if there will be implications on your health, wealth or well-being. Here is my summary:

• Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts’.

• Encourage detailed 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. In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

• Think of all the different ways an idea could be explained. Then think of tests you can do that might systematically disprove each alternative. What survives has a much better chance of being the right answer.

• Try not to get overly attached to an idea just because it’ yours. It’s only a step in the pursuit of knowledge. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. Others will.

 • If whatever you are explaining has some numerical quantity , you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing ideas. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.

• If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work – not just most of them.

• When faced with two ideas that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.

 • Always ask whether the idea could be falsified. Propositions that are untestable are not worth much.

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About bensagan

Co-founder of the West Cumbrian Skeptics

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