VI. Logic and Reason

You may have asked yourself by now, as indeed I hope you have, how one goes about the business of deciding whether something in particular is, in fact, bullshit or not. For my own part, like most scientists and rational thinkers, I am a skeptic, meaning that I test the reliability of any particular claim by subjecting it to a systematic investigation based on empirical evidence and fact-based observation. These observations are then explored with logic and reason. I now present the following tools to help you seek out and destroy any bullshit claims you may encounter in your daily life:

Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit

This list of guidelines for examining the validity of a claim was taken from the book, Demon Haunted World by the late Dr. Carl Sagan (American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and popular spokesperson for science).

1) Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.

2) Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.

3) “In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts.”

4) Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.

5) 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.

6) Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses’ relative explanatory power.

7) Every step in an argument must be logically sound, a single weak link can doom the entire chain.

8) When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam’s Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.

9) Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions.

Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit

Based on the work of Sagan and adapted by Dr. Michael Shermer, (the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American), this list is especially useful for investigating pseudoscientific claims like Intelligent Design and Flood Theory, and paranormal claims like alien abductions and religious miracles. Click here and here (for part 2) for a more in-depth two-part article and here for a brief but awesome youtube video with Dr. Shermer, both including specific examples relating to each of these 10 questions.

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?

2. Does this source often make similar outrageous claims?

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

4. How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works?

5. Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only supportive evidence been sought?

6. Does the preponderance of evidence point to the claimant’s conclusion or to a different one?

 7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others that lead to the desired conclusion?

8. Is the claimant providing an explanation for the observed phenomena or merely denying the existing explanation?

 9. If the claimant proffers a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation did?

10. Do the claimant’s personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?

Logical Fallacies

Taken from the standard rules of rhetoric and debate, if someone challenges you with any one of the following sneaky tactics on this list, be sure to call them out on their bullshit. (Click here for a great article about these common logical fallacies with excellent examples of each.)

1) Red herring- an attempt to change the subject to divert attention from the original issue.

2) ad hominem– attacking the person instead of the argument.

3) Argumentum ad populum– concluding an argument is true simply because lots of people think it’s true.

4) Appeal to authority- concluding an argument is true because a person holding authority asserts it is true.

5) Appeal to emotion– instead of appealing to reason, the arguer uses emotions such as fear, pity, and flattery to persuade the   listener that what he says is true.

6) Appeal to motive- a conclusion is dismissed by simply calling into question the motive of the person or group proposing the conclusion.

7) Appeal to tradition- concluding an argument is true because it has long been held to be true.

8) Argument from silence- reaching a conclusion based on the silence or lack of contrary evidence.

9) Reductio ad Hitlerum- comparing an opponent or their argument to Hitler or Nazism in an attempt to associate a position with one that is universally reviled.

10) Strawman- an argument based on a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.

11) Appeal to hypocrisy- an argument that an opponent’s position is wrong because their opponent does not act in accordance with that position.

12) Slippery slope- when a person asserts that a relatively small step will lead to a chain of events that result in a drastic change.

13) Cherry Picking- when a person only uses data that confirms a particular position, while ignoring contradictory data.

14) Begging the Question- when the conclusion of an argument is assumed in one of the premises, often called circular reasoning.

15) Post hoc ergo propter hoc– Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” it occurs when someone reaches a conclusion of causation because an event followed another event.

16) False Dilemma- when two conclusions are held to be the only possible options, when in fact there are other options.

So there you have it, everything you need to know to combat bullshit in your daily life. Please take a few extra minutes to really familiarize yourself with all of these different rules of logic and concepts of healthy skepticism, and use them to take a hard look with keen eyes at the world around you. Remember, we wouldn’t have things like democracy, electricity, freedom from slavery, the Judicial System, modern medicine, iPhones and space travel if the people who built this country didn’t subscribe to these very same ideals.

So remember, keep it logical. Be a skeptic. Live Long, and Prosper.

“I’m sorry Captain, but that’s just not logical.” “No Mr. Spock, you’re absolutely right. That’s F’d up.”

Prev: Mad As Hell                                                                Next: The Big Picture

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~ by christhehumanist on January 2, 2012.

2 Responses to “VI. Logic and Reason”

  1. I like that part on logical fallacies, interesting….I think I might use some of that info to post on my blog

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