The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking


Public Domain: Pioneer 10 plaque designed by Carl Sagan

In consideration of the nature of myriad interests of Disinfonaughts, and the possibility of nefarious sources. I offer this upon the alter of grounded, personal, and collective progress.

via Brain Pickings

Necessary cognitive fortification against propaganda, pseudoscience, and general falsehood.

Carl Sagan was many things — a cosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic, and brilliant philosopher. But above all, he endures as our era’s greatest patron saint of reason and common sense, a master of the vital balance between skepticism and openness. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Sagan’s timeless meditation on science and spirituality, published mere months before his death in 1996 — Sagan shares his secret to upholding the rites of reason, even in the face of society’s most shameless untruths and outrageous propaganda.

In a chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” Sagan reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” (Cue in PBS’s Joe Hanson on how to read science news.) But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.

Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:

The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools:

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  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.
  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.


  • Liam_McGonagle

    Google the following terms together:

    1. ‘Tretyakov’
    2. ‘Nuclear Winter’
    3. ‘Carl Sagan’
    4. ‘Hoax’

  • AManCalledDa-da

    Given All the Pretty Agendas out there, science is now, at best, just another guttering candle.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Nice turn of phrase, though I couldn’t disagree more with the underlying statement.

      Unless it’s a conscious exagerration for the sake of emphasis. It’s true that we’ve gone off the deep end with materialism as a philosophy, but I think it requires a complement rather than a replacement.

    • ah s

      Scientism or buyience…

  • Lysa Franklin

    altar. you can’t put relics on an alter. thank you for the story!

    • Independent Tom

      But you CAN alter the configuration of those relics once they ARE on the altar 😉

  • Independent Tom

    Independent confirmation of facts? Oh, that’s easy, just pay off a bunch of frauds like those at the IPCC to say… “it’s settled science.”

    • Simon Valentine

      confirmation of confirmation of facts ad divinitatis et tu sine hoc

  • fizmath

    The worst baloney today is coming from the Shermer and Randi cultists.

  • Rhoid Rager

    I like how dogs pooping in line with the Earth’s magnetic field is the story right before this one.

    • Matt Staggs

      “No damn cat, and no damn cradle.” – Kurt Vonnegut

  • Andrew

    Passes what?

    • echar

      The tithing plate?

      • Rhoid Rager


  • gustave courbet

    This was off the first page of results ( I pulled it off an LDS discussion thread, so you might want to research further): According to senior SVR officer Sergei Tretyakov, the KGB “created the myth of nuclear winter”. Tretyakov says that during the 1970s the KGB wanted to prevent the United States from deploying Pershing II cruise missiles in Western Europe. The KGB, directed by Yuri Andropov, fostered popular opposition to Pershing II through false scientific reports from the Soviet Academy of Sciences and by funding European peace groups opposed to arms proliferation. (In fact, US government agencies had discussed the possibility of a nuclear exchange causing atmospheric cooling before the deployment of Pershing II.) The Soviet Peace Committee, a government organization, spearheaded the effort by funding and organizing demonstrations in Europe against US bases. Soviet propaganda was distributed to peace groups, the environmental movement and [ Ambio], a publication of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which carried a key article on the topic in 1982. “Nuclear Winter” then entered the mainstream with the help of popular scientist Carl Sagan, co-author of a study of the consequences of nuclear war. Claims of KGB involvement have existed since the mid 1980s, fueled in part by the strange disappearance of Vladimir Alexandrov, the co-author of a mathematical model of Nuclear Winter

  • DeSwiss

    ”It is my firm belief that it is a mistake to hold firm beliefs.” ~Robert Anton Wilson

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Really? That’s amazing! I should be charging Google millions for this sh*t!!!

    But more likely it has to do with Google’s customizing searching application and your own browzing patterns.

    Anyhow, Sergei Tetryakov’s book ‘Comrade J’ discusses how the Soviet intelligence agencies set up a dummy report under the name of an obscure Russian academic to suggest the idea for Nuclear Winter. Tretyakov observed, if he was not directly involved, the process of putting Sagan in contact with that academic, and spread disinformation about it as a way of raising opposition to American nuclear installations in Germany during the Cold War.

    • Andrew

      Assuming Tretykov wasn’t lying.

  • Matt Staggs

    You’re starting to get the idea…

    • ah s

      Is the idea to flaunt disinfo? or try avoid?…A more thorough look @ site needed, via me.

  • Cortacespedes

    Mormons are a very perspicacious people when it comes to casting aspersions upon anyone deemed remotely antagonistic to their rather confined weltanschauung.

    Astrophysicist, cosmologist. Hmmm. He might incite the “flock” to questioning.

  • echar

    Performs miracles should be the the first indications, but the real show stopper is coming back from the dead. Then there is of course no physical proof at all that Jesus existed. Don’t you dare mention the Shroud of Turin.

    Nor the James, Brother of Jesus ossuary. Allegories exist, and that is totally cool. I doubt there is a person who has killed in the name of Allegorical Jesus.

    • ah s

      “the real show stopper is coming back from the dead” classic line!

  • Andrew

    I’ll give you #2 and possibly #8. You’ll have to explain how it passes the rest, though.

  • echar

    Seems like circular reasoning to me.

    • Miguel de la Pena

      Seems more like someone is misusing some new vocabulary!

      • Simon Valentine

        try turning that other other cheek

  • Simon Valentine

    kk they’re not mutually exclusive, but then again neither is any word exclusive from any meaning, so conversation is actually a moot waste of time :/ perhaps work is meaningful?

  • Simon Valentine

    keep the important where it belongs as part of a place for everything and that other thing~ :)