Build Your Own Baloney Detector

A tool-kit for avoiding being fooled

Sunday, September 13, 2009


One of the most common examples of baloney is the conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory is a claim that someone or some group of people is trying to effect change, hide the truth, or spread a falsehood, usually maliciously. (The latter point may seem silly, but there are all kinds of benevolent reasons to hide the truth from people, starting with birthday surprises.)

The trouble here is that conspiracies do happen. They happen all the time, in fact. History is full of examples: Caesar’s assassination. The Pazzi Conspiracy (to assassinate the Medici brothers). Guy Fawkes. The conspiracy that put Jane Grey on the throne of England for about nine days. There are scores more. If you read about the reign of almost any king or queen you care to name (certainly before the modern era) and you’ll find that no matter how popular and how capable they were, there were conspiracies against them or their governments.

But here’s the key thing about this abundance of conspiracies: you’ve probably never heard of more than a few of them. Why is that so important? You’ve never heard of most of them because they didn’t succeed. In quick (admittedly not scientific) look at conspiracies and history suggests that the vast majority of conspiracies fail. Often, they fail before the conspirators have a chance even to try their plan.

Why do conspiracies generally fail? Because most conspiracies are a built on two demands: secrecy and resources. Conspiracies, by their natures, are clandestine. In order to work, they almost always are required to surprise their targets. This is because the target is usually someone in a position of greater power, necessitating surprise to level the field.

Unfortunately, conspiracies also need resources. Resources range from time to plan and make arrangements to materials, to people in the right places to make things happen. And here’s where the intrinsic tension in conspiracies comes in. All of these resources are at odds with the secrecy requirement. Gathering materials draws notice. The more people you involve, the more likely someone will leak the information. And the more time the secret is kept, the more chances there are for leaks or discoveries. So every conspiracy has to balance its need for surprise against its need for resources. Getting the balance right (and since each situation is unique, it has its own balance) is difficult. Most conspiracies either fail to gather enough resources to succeed or are found out before they can move effectively.

OK, so most conspiracies fail. But they don’t all fail, right? Sure. But when you hear about a supposed conspiracy, ask yourself a few question:

Is it likely that the would-be conspirators have the resources to pull this off?
Can the secret be kept for as long as is claimed?
Most conspiracy theories that have gained traction claim conspiracies lasting decades.
Are the people who would be able to check on the conspiracy and have the motive to do so the ones claiming that the conspiracy exists?
Conspiracy theorists often overlook that the people with the most to gain from exposing the conspiracy (and are most able to expose it) are not doing so. If the US never landed on the Moon, why didn’t the Russians or the Chinese point it out?
Is it likely that no one on the inside is talking?
Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people were involved in the Apollo missions, many of whom would have known if the missions were fake. What are the chances that none of them has spoken out? Bear in mind that the United States can’t even keep its nuclear secrets (under higher security than NASA musters) secret for very long.

So while conspiracies happen, if someone tells you that one is happening and succeeding, that’s a warning flag and it’s time to ask more questions. (more…)

posted by John Weiss at 10:31  

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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