Friday, January 18, 2013

Red flags to beware of

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt begins his treatise, On Bullshit, with an observation about the amount of baloney out there and how we take for granted our ability to detect it.
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.
I agree with this sentiment. While most people think that they can easily spot a con artist, few (at least in the United States) have highly calibrated baloney detectors. Like it or not, your neighbors and your loved ones have probably been snowed by at least a few charlatans. If you think I am exaggerating, please look at the alarmingly large number of people who are taken in by baseless occult and paranormal beliefs.

I, however, do not think the battle against nonsense is lost. Critical thinking can be learned and we can make our baloney detectors more highly calibrated. A great first step towards for anyone who is trying to become a better critical thinker is to learn the warning signs that usually accompany baloney. While spotting these red flags does not guarantee that a claim is false, they should make you skeptical of whatever is being sold or proposed.

  1. Appeal to illegitimate authority. You can hardly turn on the tv without seeing an add with men in lab coats endorsing a male enhancement product. Likewise, almost every strange claim on the internet is seemingly backed by the late electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla. These appeals, however, are worthless. A product's soundness can only be judged by the supporting evidence, not by appealing to a man in a commercial in a lab coat or a figure in the history of science. If we do not know enough about the claim to say something intelligent, then the proper authority to consider is the consensus held by the contemporary, relevant experts.  
  2. Appeal to political correctness. Many claims argue that you should accept them because it is the moral or or politically correct thing to do. For example, many have charged that it is immoral to accept the theory of evolution because it means that we are apes. It is irrelevant, however, how warm and fuzzy these ideas are. All that matters is if the preponderance of evidence supports them. If it does, then you are simply denying reality by dismissing them. It should be noted that it is equally wrong to accept a claim because it is politically incorrect or considered shocking.
  3. Appeal to ancient wisdom. Whenever anyone appeals to the wisdom of ancient people in an effort to seal their claim off from scrutiny, be skeptical. Despite their deep desire to learn, the most advanced ancient people only knew a fraction of one percent of what we know today. Their knowledge about medicine, engineering, and astronomy was limited at best and they were completely oblivious to fields like virology. Even worse, they practiced things that we know to be a waste of time like astrology and feng shui. While an idea they proposed may be correct, they cannot be excused from a critical examination. 
  4. Appeal to nature. Many proponents of alternative medicine try to promote their ideas by appealing to the fact that they are natural. They say things like "holistic medicine is better for you because it consists of all natural ingredients." The problem with this is that while there are many natural things that are good for you, there are just many that are harmful. Jellyfish neuro-toxins and botulism are both natural. So are poison ivy and e. coli. The only way to know if a natural remedy is good or bad for you is to examine the evidence and look at what the relevant medical experts have said about the issue.
  5. Appeal to energy. One of the favored ideas of New Age proponents is using the word energy to describe some sort of supernatural force or entity. The problem with this is that, scientifically speaking, energy can be defined as "the ability of something to do work." If you substitute this definition into sentences about how energy somehow has something to do auras, ghosts, and telepathy, these claims become nonsensical or meaningless. Whenever someone uses energy in a way that bucks against this traditional usage, be skeptical. 
  6. Forgetting the misses.  Many psychics want you to believe that they can talk to the dead because they can accurately predict many details about your life (an accurate prediction is called a hit). When they are trying to convince you, however, you need to also keep track of how many inaccurate predictions they made (misses). Since mankind is predisposed to want to believe, we tend to forget to do this and end up being stunned that a psychic could get twelve hits out of seventy probing guesses. When these are factored together, we need to ask ourselves "is this any better than if someone was just making educated guesses based on previous information and my physical appearance?" 
  7. Shotgun method. This is a popular debate tactic employed by hucksters (the most notable being creationist Duane Gish). The shotgun method is used when one makes more claims than you could possibly ever refute in a given time period. When you fail to sufficiently address 30 claims in 30 minutes, the huckster states that their claim must be right because you have not word-for-word refuted them. Stacking baloney, however, does not make a claim true. Only solid evidence that is skeptically examined, not parlor debating tricks, can  support to a claim. If the huckster really wants their claims to be taken seriously, then they have to submit them for sustained scrutiny by experts.
  8. Appeal to the absence of evidence. It is a favored tactic of hucksters to argue that the lack of evidence for their claim makes it more plausible. This is seen when UFO proponents hold up documents with big black lines through it or charge that the government is "covering it up." The problem with this is two-folds: First, it eliminates the ability for a claim to be tested because "the evidence is being covered up" can be used to get out of almost any objection. (testability is also a key property of science and lacking it makes a claim less plausible). Second, not having evidence gives you no positive reason to accept something. After all, if we had to accept claims with no evidence, we would have to believe in Santa Claus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the invisible, undetectable dragon in Carl Sagan's garage, and Bertrand Russell's Teapot. Since this is absurd, the burden is on the believer to provide positive evidence.    
  9. Appeal to the middle road. A typical line used by people who hold centrist positions is that they must be right because they are in the middle of two extremes. "Evangelical Christians and atheists are both fundamentalists. I, on the other hand, hold the moderate position of being spiritual." Being in "the center", however, does not automatically make something correct. (Keeping with our example,) if Christianity or atheism were shown to be very plausible, then the spiritualist would be wrong to hold their position because the evidence would go against it.
  10. World salad. Whenever you hear words like quantum consciousness, poststructuralism, quantum entanglement, and hermeneutics used to defend some sort of anti-scientific or spiritual belief, your baloney detector should immediately go off. This is because postmodernist philosophers and proponents of Quantum Mysticism tend to use words like these to make their ideas sound more sophisticated. While this may sound impressive to the lay person, their use of these words is almost always nonsensical or semantically meaningless. They are doing nothing more than randomly inserting words into sentences to make them sound complicated. This is attested to by the Deepak Chopra generator and the postmodern generator. Both of these websites run on engines that randomly assemble words into sentences that are impressively sounding, but meaningless.  
This list is certainly incomplete, but it is an excellent starting point for those learning how to think critically. When you memorize these and other red flags, you will notice that your baloney detector will start to go off all the time.  If you are having a conversation with someone who is trying to convince you of a natural remedy or that one of Oprah's guests have psychic powers, pointing them out will help you explain to your family and friends why they should not waste their money and time on supporting hucksters.  


  1. Nice - valuable.. Complements a good "fallacy" list.

    The appeal to ancient wisdom is most interesting and might be responsible for more mischief and lack of progress in human history than any other, particularly in the form of scripture.

    What's the appeal of looking backward to move forward??????

  2. I have problems with 1 and 5.

    Appeal to authority is a fallacy, period. If you say something is true because an authority said so (legitimate or not) the argument is invalid (though not necessarily the conclusion). Things are true according to evidence not pronouncements of authorities.

    Energy definitely has something to do with mental states. A human is just a collection of fundamental particles which are packets of energy. Unless you believe mental states magically arise out of nowhere when these packets interact, energy has primitive mental states. This is not a traditional usage of energy thus proving that traditional thinkers are often magical thinkers.