Build Your Own Baloney Detector

A tool-kit for avoiding being fooled

Friday, July 10, 2009

Prominent Use of Title

I’m sure we’re all aware that one fairly common form of logical fallacy is the argument from authority. In this fallacy, it is assumed that because some person in authority says something, that thing must be true. We’ve all encountered this in it’s obvious form, especially as children. (“My dad says….”) But there are more subtle ways to exercise this technique without giving it away. Some of these are even legitimate things to do. Use of a title is one such example.

By “use of title” I mean titles like “Doctor” or “Professor”. Titles that carry weight with most people, titles that make you suspect that the person at least has some experience or a clue as to what they’re talking about. (Of course, many would argue that this just means that the general public hasn’t met enough PhDs to realize that we don’t have the faintest notion most of the time.) It’s fair to be proud of these titles. They take a lot of work and at least some talent to earn, after all. But they can also be abused. I’m actually a little bit guilty of this myself: when I’m writing annoyed letters to customer support, I’ll usually select “Dr” just in case that gives my complaints more weight. (Forgive me?)

More pernicious is when people use “Dr.” or “PhD” to introduce themselves before selling you on an idea or, worse still, a product. I first noticed this pattern when reading a book on health that I’ll discuss later. One thing that immediately concerned me was that the author’s name on the cover read, “XXXX XXXXXXX, PhD”. I hadn’t really thought about including the “PhD” before then. I realized suddenly that what bothered me was the fact that usually people don’t include the title in such works. For a popular work, it doesn’t really matter if the author has a doctorate or not, just that they know enough to explain the material clearly. For scholarly work, it’s pretty much assumed that the author has an advanced degree. So really, any time I see “Dr” or “PhD” right in the by-line, I start to wonder why the author is touting that.

If you’re inclined to delve further, check what the degree or title actually applies to. It’s pretty common for people to point to their PhD and try to stay quiet about what it’s in. But if you think about, a PhD in Astrophysics (say) is not really any more qualified to make medical claims than a car mechanic or a grocery clerk. So it is quite important to know what the degree is in. (Or what kind of professor someone is. Or what field of medicine an MD specializes in, even.)

Of course, it’s true that an advanced degree in the relevant discipline (or being a professor in the field, or a doctor of that specialty, or whatever) means you probably should give at least some extra attention to what the person is saying. They’ve most likely learned more about the topic than you have, after all, thanks to years of dedicated study. But that doesn’t carry over to other fields. Titles like “doctor”, “professor”, or “PhD” indicate a high degree of specialization in a topic and it’s exactly this that means that we need to ensure that the specialty matches the claims.

In the end, titles are dangerous and you’re probably better regarding people who use theirs with caution, at least until you can verify that it’s the right title for the claim. And remember, when dealing with factual claims, there are no authorities, only experts. And experts, even in their own discipline, are wrong every day.

posted by John Weiss at 21:44  

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What a Baloney Detector Is Not

It’s worth thinking about what a Baloney Detector (BD) is and what it isn’t before really getting started.

One thing it is not is fool-proof. While your BD can tell you to worry or even to turn down an offer, it’s not the same as knowing something isn’t right. To really determine if an idea is correct (at least to current evidence), you need to fully research the idea and data pertaining to it. This is a time-consuming processes, however. Often, life doesn’t give us the chance to do do this before making a decision. Even when we do get that kind of time, we have to pick and chose what we research. Hence the BD.

A BD tells you to ask more questions. To be wary of claim. In a pinch, it may warn you say “No.” However, just because your BD doesn’t detect anything fishy, it doesn’t follow that nothing is wrong. A clever shyster can evade any set of rules you use to catch them, so don’t get overconfident.

In many ways, a BD is like a wrist-watch. Sure, there are clocks that keep more accurate time and there are clocks with many more features (like weather indicators). But a watch has a singular redeeming feature: it can go everywhere with you and is there when you need it. Your BD is the same way: it’s not as good as peer-reviewed research or being an expert in the field, but it is portable and easy to use with a variety of topics.

posted by John Weiss at 21:25  

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Welcome to Build Your Own Baloney Detector!

First of all, welcome to Build Your Own Baloney Detector. I hope you find this blog interesting, useful, or at least entertaining. I’ll try to make it all three, although I cannot make promises on the latter.

Of course, you’re probably wondering what this blog is all about. I’ll tell you. In A Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan talked about a “baloney detector kit” as a set of tools to figure out when something isn’t on the level. This could be because someone is lying to us or that they’re just confused themselves. It doesn’t matter, many of the tools carry over, regardless of whether the source means to mislead us.

That’s what this blog is about: tools you can use to at least begin to determine when you should be extra critical. (Sure, we should question everything, all the time. But practically speaking, that doesn’t work well. And it tends to offend friends and family when we ask for confirmation that they had tuna for lunch. Man, that’s a dinner conversation I’m glad I don’t have to repeat!)

There are a few types of posts I expect to be making:

  • Flags — Flags are warnings that something may be amiss. They’re not proof, they’re just little things that should cause concern.
  • Questions to Ask — Questions we can ask, either of others or of ourselves, to help us determine if a given idea is reasonable.
  • Examples — Examples of skepticism at work. I suspect many of these will be drawn from my own life, but I welcome hearing about your experiences.
  • Building Blocks — Some basic facts, figures, and science that may help you evaluate ideas you encounter.

Apart from that, we’ll have to see how this beast evolves. I may not have enough material to keep this up for a long time, but as long as I do, I hope you keep coming back.

posted by John Weiss at 16:33  

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