Category Archives: Critical Thinking

American education needs a revolution

UnHerd, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali,  11/11/2021

Perhaps I was naïve, but when Brandeis University offered me an honorary degree in 2014, I accepted it in good faith. Brandeis’s motto, after all, is “Truth, even unto its innermost parts”. Yet what followed proved the very opposite: that, at Brandeis, the innermost parts of truth don’t count.

After a bit of encouragement from my usual critics, the Council of Islamic Relations, followed by a petition from a motley array of faculty members, Brandeis rescinded their offer. Frederick Lawrence, who was then the university’s president, rang me just hours before the university issued a public statement.

At the time, I dismissed it as a one-off incident; an anomaly that could simply be brushed off. How wrong I was. That same year, a group of Muslim students tried to cancel my study group on the political theory of Islam at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, part of the Kennedy School. First, they complained to the university’s administration. When that didn’t work, they sent a letter to the funders of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. Then they suggested that I should install an imam in my class to counter my arguments. Unlike at Brandeis, the university authorities didn’t capitulate.

In both incidents, the challenge to academic freedom and free speech was posed by Islamists. But that didn’t disturb me: as an apostate who has spent many years criticising them, and received death threats in return, I was used to their antipathy.

Fast forward to 2021, however, and it seems I was wrong to dismiss this censorious attitude as an Islamist impulse. Hardly a week goes by without reports of a professor being protested, disciplined, and sometimes fired for violating the new and stringent norms of academic discourse. We read of scholars such as Kathleen Stock being driven to resign from their positions after constant hounding and threats. We read of a lecturer being no-platformed for daring to suggest that evaluations should be based on academic merit. We read of a Native American student being forced to apologise by a Yale University diversity tsar for making a harmless joke in an email.

Suggested reading

Critical Race Theory’s new disguise

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

And that’s just in the past month. We have reached a point where grace and forgiveness are extinct on American campuses; where reputations built over decades can be destroyed in a week. Some people still describe the phenomenon as “political correctness”. But this is much more like a religious movement. It’s hardly surprising that the Islamists’ opportunity to piggyback on existing illiberal and intolerant forces is now even greater.

Social justice, critical race theory, diversity, equality and inclusion — such terms are difficult to object to when taken at face value. And as a consequence, they have grown and spread like weeds in almost every institution. By the time we recognised the deeply illiberal notions that lurked behind these bland phrases, it was too late; they had already taken over whole departments, embedding their extensive roots into the fabric of academic institutions.

I didn’t see this coming. Seven years ago, I considered those who sounded the alarm to be engaged in histrionics. But today it is impossible to deny that the alarmists were right.

After the Brandeis cancellation, I published my intended remarks, stating that “we need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged”. At the time, I was hopeful. Yet every passing year, free discourse increasingly became the exception in academic settings.

And while countless academics have been crucified for daring to speak out, it is ultimately their students who have suffered most in this tragedy. Our education system is failing them: rather than being a place of learning, universities have transformed into a place of fear. They demand safe spaces and a life free from all forms of aggressions: micro and macro. They graduate ill-prepared for the future, no longer equipped with the critical skills needed to thrive in a society where safe spaces, trigger warnings and preferred pronouns are not the norm. Their lives as students have been stripped of opportunities to overcome challenges and adversity, to develop inner-strength and confidence.

Faced with such a toxic climate, riddled with the weeds of intolerance, one might think the solution is to simply give up. But to do so is not only cowardly; it ignores the fact that there is cause for optimism in the future. There are seedlings sprouting that point to renewal.

This is partly because America’s markets remain strong and reactive, bringing supply to wherever there is demand. The American market is hungry for a new approach to education. Demand is high for a university that delivers on academic freedom, merit-based recruitment of students, and is a safe space for people to learn and exchange ideas, not imagined injuries. And the supply is coming.

This week, I joined an intellectually diverse and curious group of professors and scholars in launching the University of Austin (UATX). It is an institution that stands, above all, for the pursuit of truth. It will offer a rigorous, liberal education from leading experts in their fields; a place that will teach students how to think, not what to think; a place where they will be intellectually challenged and, at times, made to feel uncomfortable.

Professors will be able to explore ideas and topics that are taboo elsewhere, without threats to their reputation, livelihoods or well-being. Unlike nearly a fifth of universities, we will not require statements of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. All we are looking for is a commitment to learning. And that doesn’t seem to be in short supply: within 12 hours of announcing the University of Austin, more than 900 academics submitted inquiries seeking a position.

Their students, once applications open, will be accepted on the basis of merit, based on an admissions exam. The university states: “UATX will not arbitrarily factor in race, gender, class or any other form of identity into its decisions. UATX stands firmly against that sort of discrimination in admissions.” Of course, none of this matters if spaces are only reserved for a wealthy elite. So we are working on a financial model that will help lower tuition costs and provide scholarships or bursaries, providing an equal opportunity for students, regardless of their financial background.

Starting a new university will no doubt be challenging, but the truth is that this is only the beginning — the first of many new educational institutions. American parents all over the country are in revolt against the increasingly divisive educational opportunities available to their children (witness the results of the Virginian gubernatorial elections). In the coming decade, it is not inconceivable that the market will deliver new grade-school opportunities for students, as well as other new institutions of higher education.

There are those who fear that the political extremes of the Left and Right may one day destroy the republic. But the only way to destroy America is to destroy our market system. As long as individuals have choice and the market self-corrects, we will continue to thrive. Where there is demand — and the result in Virginia prove there is demand — the supply will follow.

This is what the University of Austin symbolises: a new choice for all those disillusioned with the established institutions. For too long we have looked on as universities have been disfigured, blissfully unaware that all we needed to do was create our own. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new Renaissance.[0]=18743&tl_period_type=3&mc_cid=538aba52e2&mc_eid=0ff3e7ea29


Biden and Nothingness

WSJ 10/14/2021  By Daniel Henninger

Meet Joe Biden, existentialist philosopher.

Another of the world’s famous existentialist philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote a book called “Being and Nothingness.” Extending Sartre’s ideas on nothingness, Mr. Biden recently said:

“Every time I hear, ‘This is going to cost A, B, C or D,’ the truth is, based on the commitment that I made, it’s going to cost nothing.”

Overnight, Mr. Biden’s belief that his $3.5 trillion spending bill will “cost nothing” became what fellow intellectuals call a “meme,” a thought adopted and repeated by other people.

The most notable Biden “cost nothing” meme was created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who while repeating it days later held up her hand to form a zero. Some journalists then wrote elaborate explanations of how Mr. Biden was correct that his trillions in new spending would “cost nothing.”

Our purpose here is not to refute the president’s assertion that spending $3.5 trillion is cost-free. Instead, we want to recognize the Biden statement as a tipping point in the way Americans conceive reality, or what philosophers like Mr. Biden call consciousness.

All the time now, one hears people say, “I don’t know what’s going on anymore.” Or: “Maybe it’s me, but I just don’t get it.” They don’t mean only in Washington. They mean everything. We’re in a crisis of consciousness.

Let me explain.

The reason many have come to feel cut off from reality is that so many others spend their days creating alternative realities.

Washington, to be sure, has become a round-the-clock supplier of manufactured realities. Many Americans, for instance, watch scenes on television of thousands of migrants crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States. Nonetheless, Mr. Biden’s secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, says the border is “closed” and “no less secure than previously.”

Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said in August the evacuation of Kabul couldn’t be called “anything but a success.” Ms. Psaki’s skill at reordering reality for Mr. Biden is mesmerizing, and I say without irony that she will be seen as an important figure in the transformation from believing what is real to believing what we’re told is real.

Reality resets have become commonplace. In Chicago some days ago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx declined to prosecute any of the gang members who staged a broad-daylight shootout in a residential neighborhood. Among the reasons her office gave for not bringing charges was that the gangs were engaged in consensual “mutual combat,” like in the movie “Fight Club.”

The relevant point here is that in our time more and more people—and not just in politics—think they can say anything. We’re living in a Peter Pan world: “You just think lovely wonderful thoughts and they lift you up in the air.” The credibility cost is zero.

Read More Wonder Land

The political class, a lagging indicator, is assimilating changes in the general culture, which has been transitioning for years from old-fashioned lies (“I didn’t do it”) to self-delusion (“What’s your problem?”). Donald Trump inhabited both worlds.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram enabled people to assemble personal alternative universes, which became “real” when their friends embraced the fake persona. A similar manipulation away from plain reality has happened to politics on Twitter.

At Facebook’s scale, these reality-shifting habits and forces are unprecedentedly powerful. Conspiracy theories proliferate, from QAnon to the Russia-collusion narrative.

Euphemisms are an important tool for asserting alternative realities. Two of the most important are “reframe” and “reimagine.”

The New York Times’s “1619 Project” said its purpose was to “reframe the country’s history.” Reframing is about displacing a proven reality with mere assertion, something previously difficult but now normalized.

Wokeness, in its many manifestations, says it is about “reimagining” the status quo. It has reimagined sex by asserting new pronouns; reimagined race as a national “DNA” problem (“1619” again); reimagined merit in college admissions; and reimagined crime control from Seattle to New York.

Most recently, the Art Institute of Chicago fired its staff of 82 volunteer docents because most of them are older white women. The museum is going to reimagine the docent function through “an income equity-focused lens.”

Can the constant assertion of alternative realities on such a scale endure? Maybe. They got this far. But cracks in this facade are starting to appear.

We began with Joe Biden because he is president—the object of nearly universal focus by the public and as such a constant national referendum. His statement that $3.5 trillion will cost zero may have been born in the plausible view that many people today think anything is possible. But let us agree: What he said did test the limits.

The most striking number in the recent, bleak Quinnipiac poll on Mr. Biden was the 23% support for his border policy. He says the border is “closed.” But virtually everyone in America says, “No it isn’t.”

All those people who today say they just don’t get it may—in reality—be a majority. And they do get it.



The Lab-Leak-Theory Cover-Up – James B. Meigs, Commentary Magazine

July/August 2021

‘Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here,” a writer named Apoorva Mandavilli recently posted on Twitter. It would have been easy to scroll right past the comment—Twitter is full of people ranting about COVID and calling everyone racist—but for the writer’s Twitter bio: “Reporter @nytimes on mainly #covid19.” Later that day, the Times reporter took down her tweet, saying it had been “badly phrased.” The day in question was May 26, 2021. The mounting evidence that the COVID-19 coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, rather than spontaneously emerging from nature, had become the hottest topic in journalism and potentially the most consequential science story in a generation.

If researchers had manipulated the SARS-CoV-2 virus to be more virulent, and then that virus had escaped the lab, it would mean the pandemic was arguably the worst manmade disaster in history. (A slightly less creepy—but still horrifying—possibility: COVID-19 is caused by a naturally occurring virus that happened to leak while being studied at the Wuhan Institute.) Many observers have compared the accident to the Chernobyl meltdown, another high-tech screw-up compounded by government deceit. But, with a global death toll likely to approach 4 million, a Wuhan lab leak, if it did in fact occur, would be perhaps 10,000 times deadlier than the Ukraine nuclear accident.

For a science journalist, helping figure out the true genesis of this catastrophe would be the opportunity of a lifetime. And yet here was one of the New York Times’ top pandemic reporters fretting that too many people were interested in the question. In a way, you can understand her frustration. Elite institutions and media outlets had been trying to get people to “stop talking about the lab leak theory” for over a year. From their perspective, the issue was raised by the wrong sort of people—including Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton and President Donald Trump—and giving the story oxygen might mean lending credence to conservative talking points. Moreover, focusing on China’s sloppy research practices and possible cover-up would distract the public from the media’s preferred COVID narratives: Trump’s incompetence, racial injustice, and red-state recklessness. Desperate to avoid those risks, media outlets, health organizations, government agencies, even the scientific community labored seemingly in concert to discount the lab-leak possibility and discredit anyone who raised it.

But, to the frustration of gatekeepers like Mandavilli, evidence that COVID-19 did originate at the Wuhan Institute of Virology keeps getting stronger. In recent months, there has been one bombshell disclosure after another. Even some scientists who initially pooh-poohed the idea are now demanding an investigation.

The dam is breaking. And with the surging floodwaters, comes a stunning realization: Almost across the board, our elite institutions got the most important question about COVID wrong. Worse, they worked furiously to discourage anyone else from getting it right. The leading scientific experts turned out to be spinning the truth. Our public-health officials put their political agenda ahead of any scientific mandate. And the press and social-media giants eagerly played along, enforcing strict rules about which COVID topics were acceptable and which had to be banished from the national conversation.

During the Trump years, we heard a lot of hand-wringing about the public’s unwarranted “distrust” of our society’s designated experts and leaders. But to be trusted, people and institutions have to be trustworthy. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a profound corruption at the heart of our expert class. The impact of that revelation will reverberate for years to come.

Interestingly, the idea that the virus might have leaked from a lab wasn’t particularly controversial in the early weeks of the pandemic. Initially, no one thought it was “racist” to note the coincidence that a disease caused by a virus similar to ones found in Chinese bats just happened to emerge at the doorstep of the world’s top laboratory devoted to studying…Chinese bat viruses. But once Senator Cotton brought up the possibility in a January 2020 Senate hearing, the lab-leak notion had to be squelched.

Our country’s most esteemed media outlets moved as one. First, they twisted Cotton’s question. He had said we should investigate whether an accidental leak had occurred. But the Washington Post suggested that Cotton had called COVID-19 a deliberately released bioweapon. It was all downhill from there: Politifact labelled that idea a “pants-on-fire” lie. The Post accused the senator of “fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has already been debunked by experts.” Slate attributed the notion to “good old-fashioned racism.”

Overnight, the self-appointed fact-checkers all agreed that the lab-leak question was “a lunatic conspiracy theory,” as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting put it last year. Of course, that meant anyone who raised the question couldn’t simply be searching for the truth—such a person had to have a political agenda. When Trump mentioned “the theory from the lab,” last April, CNN’s John Harwood concluded that the president was “looking for ways to deflect blame for the performance of his administration.” In an interview on CBS, China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, showed a surgical deftness in manipulating elite American opinion: He cagily warned that pursuing lab-leak questions “will fan up racial discrimination, xenophobia.”

Our leading institutions took their cue, universally declaring that the Wuhan theory wasn’t just incorrect but dangerous and malicious. The World Health Organization called the spread of the idea an “infodemic” of misinformation. Social-media platforms tweaked their algorithms to ensure that these dangerous notions wouldn’t infect the defenseless population. When a New York Post opinion writer raised the possibility of a lab leak, Facebook slapped a “False Information” alert on the piece and made it impossible to share. Facebook also warned it would throttle the accounts of any users who persisted in spreading such wrongthink, ensuring that any dissenters from the approved COVID talking points would fade into the social-media background.

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It almost worked.

For nearly a year, mainstream news outlets barely mentioned the lab-leak hypothesis (except to ridicule it). The scientific community, too, largely banished the topic. In February 2020, a group of 27 eminent virologists had published a statement in the influential medical journal the Lancet, soundly rejecting the idea that the virus might have emerged from a lab rather than passing to humans from bats or some other animal. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the scientists wrote. One of the organizers of that letter was Peter Daszak, an epidemiologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a group that helps distribute federal grant money to researchers studying viruses. Not surprisingly, discussions about a potential lab leak tapered off dramatically. Working scientists’ careers depend on getting their papers published and winning research grants. How many want to contradict the biggest names in their fields? Only later did it emerge that Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had funneled some U.S. government research money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak’s efforts to shut down debate on the question of that lab’s role in the disaster entailed a massive conflict of interest.

Perhaps most disturbing was the response of the U.S. intelligence community. Two different teams in the U.S. government—one working out of the State Department, the other under the direction of the National Security Council—were tasked with examining the origins of the outbreak. According to a blockbuster investigation by Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban, those researchers faced intense pushback from within their own bureaucracies. Four former State Department officials told Eban they had been repeatedly advised “not to open a ‘Pandora’s Box.’”

In particular, they were urged not to reveal the role the U.S. government might have played in helping fund the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s controversial “gain-of-function” projects. Gain-of-function research involves manipulating potentially dangerous viruses to see if they might more easily infect human cells. Advocates, including Peter Daszak, say the process can help scientists anticipate future outbreaks and possibly develop vaccines. Critics say, “It’s like looking for a gas leak with a lighted match,” as Rutgers professor of chemistry and chemical biology Richard Ebright told Eban. Either way, the possibility that U.S. research grants might have helped finance the creation of a super-virus was a revelation some members of the intelligence establishment were loath to see exposed.

Despite the resistance, the State Department team uncovered some stunning intelligence supporting the leak hypothesis. In particular, researchers discovered that three WIV scientists studying coronaviruses had fallen ill in November 2019 and had gone to the hospital with COVID-like symptoms. The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 began erupting around Wuhan less than a month later. In the chaotic last days of the Trump administration, the State Department released a vague statement about its Wuhan finding, but the news didn’t gain much traction at the time. Then the incoming Biden administration promptly disbanded the State Department’s Wuhan team.

The whole investigation into COVID-19’s origins might have petered out at that moment. The story of why the line of inquiry survived is not an account of leading scientists and health organizations dutifully parsing the evidence. Instead, it is largely the story of little-known researchers—many working outside the bounds of elite institutions—who didn’t let the political implications of their findings derail their efforts. Much of what we know today about the Wuhan Institute’s risky research is thanks to these independent skeptics who challenged the institutional consensus. Some risked their careers to do so.

One key group was an international assortment of independent researchers—few of whom were established virologists—that self-assembled on the Internet. The group called itself the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19, or DRASTIC. The name made them sound like a band of online gamers, but the group diligently uncovered a series of damning facts. Defenders of the Wuhan Institute often describe the lab as a virtually fail-safe Biosafety Level 4 facility. But one DRASTIC researcher discovered that much of the work at the Wuhan lab was performed at lower levels—BSL-3 or even BSL-2, a degree of protection similar to that in a dentist’s office. Another showed that SARS viruses had previously leaked from China’s top research labs with alarming regularity. “The DRASTIC people are doing better research than the U.S. government,” a State Department investigator told Vanity Fair.

Alina Chan, a young molecular biologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, was particularly fearless in challenging the premature consensus laid down by the elders in her field. She zeroed in on the virus’s genetic structure. If the virus had gradually evolved to target humans, those changes should have left traces in the genome. Instead, SARS-CoV-2 appeared “pre-adapted to human transmission,” she wrote in May 2020. Other researchers confirmed that the virus contains a particular genomic sequence that doesn’t typically occur naturally in this family of viruses but that is commonly inserted during gain-of-function research. By early 2021, these sorts of revelations were building into a compelling argument that the virus emerged from the Wuhan lab. Meanwhile, researchers trying to find the natural “reservoir” of the virus—in bats or some other animal—were coming up shockingly empty.

Throughout the pandemic we’ve often heard admonitions to “follow the science.” Looking back we can see that few scientists—and even fewer journalists—really did. 60 Minutes, which aired a skeptical report on the WHO’s milquetoast COVID-origin investigation, was a rare exception. But most journalists who aggressively pursued the Wuhan story tended to work slightly outside the mainstream. In January 2021, Nicholson Baker—a novelist, rather than an established science writer—published “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis” in New York magazine. In May, former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade published a massively detailed argument for the theory on the self-publishing website Medium. Wade (who has faced criticism on the left for his writings on genetics and race) quoted Nobel Prize–winning microbiologist David Baltimore saying that a specific genetic modification at the virus’s “furin cleavage site” was “the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.” Two weeks later, Donald G. McNeil Jr.—who was humiliatingly forced out of the Times last year due to his perceived violations of woke etiquette—posted on Medium a piece entitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab-Leak Theory.”

Notice the irony here: While two refugees from the New York Times were publishing deep, well-reported articles on an alternative outlet, the Times itself was still mostly ignoring the Wuhan-lab story. And one of its current pandemic specialists, Apoorva Mandavilli, was on Twitter urging everyone to “stop talking about the lab leak.” Fortunately, people didn’t stop talking. The lab-leak hypothesis had moved into the mainstream. Scientists and journalists could finally discuss it without fear of excommunication. Facing mounting pressure, the Biden administration reversed course on May 26, announcing it had asked U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the “two likely scenarios” for the virus’s origin. But so much damage had already been done.

When the pandemic hit last year, we were all urged to fall in line and listen to the authorities. Scientists and bureaucrats were elevated to near-divine status. “Let us pray, now, for science,” Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote last February. “Pray for reason, rigor and expertise…. Pray for the N.I.H. and the C.D.C. Pray for the W.H.O.” Now the public is waking up to the fact that, prayers notwithstanding, those institutions largely failed us. The WHO kowtowed to China’s deceptions. Anthony Fauci trimmed his public statements to fit the prevailing political winds. Some of the nation’s top virologists didn’t just dismiss the lab-leak possibility, they appeared to be covering up their own involvement with Wuhan gain-of-function research. Journalists and social-media companies conspired to suppress legitimate questions about a disease that was killing thousands of Americans each day.

We may never get complete confirmation that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute; certainly, China will never allow an honest investigation. But the idea that the virus resulted from scientific research—and that some U.S. scientists then tried to hide their involvement—is already gaining acceptance with the public. How will Americans react to this perceived betrayal? Not well, I’m afraid. “We may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger,” writes Thomas Frank. The financial crisis of 2008 triggered widespread suspicion of elite institutions and free markets, burning over political ground that eventually became fertile for both Bernie Sanders and Trump. If the public concludes that COVID-19 was, in effect, an inside job, the political fallout could last a generation. I don’t mean people will believe the virus was deliberately released—although far too many will embrace that idea—but that they will see the disease as a product of an elite power structure that behaves recklessly and evades responsibility.

It would be tempting to cheer on a populist uprising against elite expertise and institutions. But that would be a tragic mistake. The vast majority of scientists, health-care institutions—even many public officials—did vital heroic work during the pandemic. Just look at those miraculous vaccines! Moreover, we can’t survive in a complex and dangerous world without expertise. Replacing today’s expert class with conspiracy theorists, anti-vax charlatans, and populist mountebanks might satisfy the public’s anger for a time. But it would only make our society more vulnerable—to domestic unrest, pandemics, you name it. Can we reform the institutions that failed us? Can they reform themselves, perhaps to be more humble, more attuned to facts and less focused on power? I wish I could say I’m optimistic.


The Baloney Detection Kit

Brain Pickings, originally published January 5, 2014.

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) 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 critical thinking, 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.

Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.

He admonishes against the twenty most common and perilous ones — many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:

  1. ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
  2. argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
  3. argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
  4. appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  5. special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
  6. begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
  7. observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
  8. statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
  9. misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
  10. inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
  11. non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
  12. post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
  13. meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
  14. excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
  15. short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
  16. slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
  17. confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
  18. straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
  19. suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
  20. weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)

Sagan ends the chapter with a necessary disclaimer:

Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

The Demon-Haunted World is a timelessly fantastic read in its entirety, timelier than ever in a great many ways amidst our present media landscape of propaganda, pseudoscience, and various commercial motives. Complement it with Sagan on science and “God”.