Category Archives: Personal Development

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”.

https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-baloney-detection-kit-carl-sagan-s-rules-for-bullshit-busting-and-critical-thinking?utm_source=pocket-newtab

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No Excuse

I get Jared’s wire. Some who might read this will know the punch-line. I agree 100% with Jared on this one. mrossol

10/14/2020. Jared Dillian, in The Daily Dirtnap [TDD]

Just a quick story from the old Academy days.  As a fourth class cadet (freshman), you only had three possible responses to a question.

1. “Yes, sir”

2. “No, sir”

3. “No excuse, sir”

That was it. You really weren’t allowed to say anything else.

So if an upperclass cadet asked you why you were late to formation, the answer was “no excuse, sir.”

It didn’t matter if you actually had an excuse. It didn’t matter if your grandmother hijacked a school bus full of penguins. You still had to be at formation on time.

This introduced a sense of accountability into 18-year-olds that can be found nowhere else in society.

I only got chewed out one time the whole time I was at Lehman Brothers. It was the time that I got picked off on RTH and Sears Holdings. It’s a fascinating story, which I think I’ve told in the past, but may tell again. Anyway, my boss sat me down, clearly annoyed (after losing $1mm) and said that we wanted to be on the right side of those trades, not the wrong side. Now, the trade was incredibly complex, and me with my 31- year-old level of sophistication was not going to be able to figure that out. But I simply said, “no excuse,” and resolved not to get picked off again. And I didn’t.

Maybe it’s just my conservative Generation X makeup, but I really would like to live in a world where “no excuse, sir” is the only acceptable response. I was an adjunct professor for five years–I made it clear in the first class of the semester that excuses were not going to be tolerated.

I had a policy that papers had to be handed in on the front table at 6pm, as class started. There was a student who forgot his paper at home. Before the class, I said, can you go print it out? It was on his home computer. He was totally stuck. He had that look. I said, I know how you’re feeling right now, and I know you did the paper, but I can’t make an exception in your particular case. The kid had an A in the class, and ended up with a B.

Won’t make that mistake again. Not in school, and not in life, either. Probably the most valuable thing he learned in class.

My wife constantly complains about students and their excuses. There are legitimate excuses–death in the family, illness, for which you have to provide documentation. If you lead people to believe that there is some wiggle room, they will exploit the wiggle room.

I learned a few things from being in the Coast Guard. That was one of them. The other one is time management. There was one point at the Academy where I was taking 22 credits, on top of athletics and all the military stuff. You get very adept at fitting a lot into a 24 hour day. And if I ever fail to send out an issue of TDD [this is Jarad’s daily market wire], you know what the next issue is going to say: no excuse.

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don't start with "at least…"

WSJ 4/10/2020By Jessie Stuart

A friend posted on Facebook that her son’s college had closed for the rest of the year: “He and his friends are devastated.” I scrolled down to the comments. “At least he’s not a senior!” someone offered. “My daughter will never get to go back to campus.”

Later I read a tweet from a stranger about how he still had to go to work as a garbageman and was scared he’d get sick on the job. Someone replied: “At least you still have a job, man.”

With the coronavirus shaking the world and forcing us into isolation, I’ve found myself reflecting on how the things we say can bring us closer together or drive us further apart. As a physician, I’ve received training in the art of empathic communication. The job is defined by people coming to us with “complaints,” which we navigate and support them through. I’m still in training and have a lot to learn, but one lesson that’s stuck with me is that it is never helpful to start a sentence with “At least . . .”

We’ve all said it. The intention is almost always good. I can imagine someone reading the garbageman’s tweet thinking it could be helpful— comforting, even—to remind him how lucky he is. It doesn’t work that way.

One of my favorite speakers on this subject is Brené Brown, a professor of social work who has spent the past two decades studying empathy. In her talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” she says: “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic statement start with ‘At least.’ . . . Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Ms. Brown’s words came to mind recently as I was staffing the oncology service at the hospital where I work as a resident. A patient, recently diagnosed with leukemia, was there for chemotherapy, which, as it killed her cancer, was also destroying her immune system. The patient lay in bed watching CNN report new coronavirus statistics.

“How could this be happening now?” she said. “I have no immune system. I’ll be the first to go.” She turned to us, her breathing heavy. “I’m just—I’m paralyzed with fear.” No answer could allay her concerns.

A colleague was the first to speak: “I can only imagine how scared you’re feeling right now. It’s unfair that you’re dealing with leukemia and now this. I don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Her response wasn’t perfect, but that’s the point. It’s impossible to relate to the precise circumstances that is causing someone distress. Yet we’ve all felt despair. It’s OK— and even helpful—to admit that you can’t imagine what someone is going through. But you can tell her you care and you’ll be with her through it all.

It can be hard as a doctor to keep my “empathy tank” full. I’ve had bad days when I diagnose a 25year-old with a terminal illness, and later find I have trouble caring when a friend calls to complain about a snack-stealing roommate. I worry that the coronavirus era will strain our collective ability for empathy, but I also have hope that we will rise to the challenge.

On tough days, I find it helpful to pause, take a deep breath, and let myself be present for the person in distress. Sometimes we have to silence the small voice in our head that says, “At least you weren’t diagnosed with a horrible disease today”—or “At least you still have a job.” Whether suffering is big or small, it’s all-consuming and it isn’t relative.

Dr. Stuart is a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

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Billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s best advice

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/31/billionaire-investor-warren-buffetts-best-advice.html?utm_source=pocket-newtab

This one is for my children. This is good, good advice.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO and self-made billionaire Warren Buffett turned 89 on Friday, August 30. He’s also celebrating his 13th wedding anniversary with his wife, Astrid.

In honor of the Oracle of Omaha’s big day, CNBC Make It rounded up seven of his best pieces of life advice.

Marry the right person

1 Buffett made his fortune through smart investing, but if you ask him about the most important decision he ever made, it would have nothing to do with money. The biggest decision of your life, Buffett says, is who you choose to marry.

“You want to associate with people who are the kind of person you’d like to be. You’ll move in that direction,” he said during a 2017 conversation with Bill Gates. “And the most important person by far in that respect is your spouse. I can’t overemphasize how important that is.”

It’s advice he’s been giving for years. As he said at the 2009 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting: “Marry the right person. I’m serious about that. It will make more difference in your life. It will change your aspirations, all kinds of things.”

Premium: Warren Buffett Astrid Menks 20120312

Warren Buffett and his wife Astrid Buffett arrive to a state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obam at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 14, 2012.Andrew Harrer | Getty Images

Invest in yourself

“By far the best investment you can make is in yourself,” Buffett told Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer earlier this year.

First, “learn to communicate better both in writing and in person. ” Honing that skill can increase your value by at least 50%, he said in a Facebook video posted in 2018.

Next, take care of your body and mind — especially when you’re young. “If I gave you a car, and it’d be the only car you get the rest of your life, you would take care of it like you can’t believe. Any scratch, you’d fix that moment, you’d read the owner’s manual, you’d keep a garage and do all these things,” he said. “You get exactly one mind and one body in this world, and you can’t start taking care of it when you’re 50. By that time, you’ll rust it out if you haven’t done anything.”By far the best investment you can make is in yourself.Warren BuffettBerkshire Hathaway CEO

Associate yourself with ‘high-grade people’

Who you associate with matters, Buffett told author Gillian Zoe Segal in an interview for her 2015 book, “Getting There: A Book of Mentors.”  “One of the best things you can do in life is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are,” he said.

If you’re around what he calls “high-grade people,” you’ll start acting more like them. Conversely, “If you hang around with people who behave worse than you, pretty soon you’ll start being pulled in that direction. That’s just the way it seems to work.”

Work for people you respect

“Try to work for whomever you admire most,” Buffett told Segal. “It won’t necessarily be the job that you’ll have 10 years later, but you’ll have the opportunity to pick up so much as you go along.”

While salary is an important factor when thinking about your career, “You don’t want to take a job just for the money,” said Buffett.

He once accepted a job with his mentor and hero, Benjamin Graham, without even asking about the salary. “I found that out at the end of the month when I got my paycheck,” he said.

Premium: Benjamin Graham investment advisor 550311

Benjamin Graham in 1955Bettmann | Getty Images

Ignore the noise

Investing can get emotional, and it doesn’t help that you can see how you’re doing throughout the day by checking a stock ticker or turning on the news.

But no one can be certain which way the financial markets are going to move. The best strategy, even when the market seems to be tanking, is to keep a level head and stay the course, Buffett says.

“I don’t pay any attention to what economists say, frankly,” he said in 2016. “If you look at the whole history of [economists], they don’t make a lot of money buying and selling stocks, but people who buy and sell stocks listen to them. I have a little trouble with that.”

Success isn’t measured by money

Buffett is consistently one of the richest people in the world, but he doesn’t use wealth as a measure of success. For him, it all boils down to if the people you’re closest to love you.

“Being given unconditional love is the greatest benefit you can ever get,” Buffett told MBA students in a 2008 talk.

“The incredible thing about love is that you can’t get rid of it. If you try to give it away, you end up with twice as much, but if you try to hold onto it, it disappears. It is an extraordinary situation, where the people who just absolutely push it out, get it back tenfold.”

Don’t miss: 11 of Warren Buffett’s funniest and most frugal quirks

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