No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Using your Baloney Detection Kit properly

Most of you know I spend quite some time battling the forces of ignorance and wrongitude in weird corners of the Internet. Young Earth Creationists, antivaxxers, climate change denialists, COVID-19 denialists, flat earthers, conspiracy theorists, Obama birthers, etc.

Often when I report on these shenanigans, I'll point out the errors in fact and inference that people are making, and make some comment like, "Haha, I know that you, Dear Reader, would never fall into such folly. Because, by virtue of being on my friends list, haha, no doubt you are right thinking and virtuous, and would never make such errors."

But I can't say that any more. Because it turns out some of you suck at critical thinking, and I'm here to call you out.

Maybe you were always a dunderhead, or maybe it's a symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome, or Russian disinformation, or the very nature of social media. But if the goal is to get to the Truth, you're not helping when you push falsehoods, even if you are on 'the right side'.  

But I do have a solution to offer. You can learn how to think critically. And you can practice it and get better at it, until it becomes second nature. 'Oh sure, I know how to critically think', you assert. That's just what the flat earthers say who pick away at the arguments of the globetards. So the first, and possibly most important, lesson is this:

The baloney detection kit is not a weapon to be used on occasion to defeat the arguments of people you disagree with, it is a defense that should be always on to protect you from accepting something as true without sufficient evidence. Possibly even a statement you have already accepted, but should reconsider.

If you only pull out your baloney detection kit when you're trying to find some niggling detail in someone else's argument so you can safely ignore it and go on with your life, you are using it wrong. That's exactly what science deniers do. It's just a defense mechanism. Confirmation bias in action.

It's what conspiracy theorists do. Conspiracy theories are a short-cut to proper thinking. The real world is complicated; conspiracy theories are usually quite simple. But there is no short-cut to proper thinking.

The Baloney Detection Kit was the catchy (and work-safe) coinage of Carl Sagan in his book, The Demon-Haunted World. So you don't have to learn some aspects of critical thinking from me, you can learn them from him, either the full text of that passage, or this excellent condensed summary. But allow me to quote and amend a bit here.

These are all cases of proved or presumptive baloney. A deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, sometimes with cynical premeditation. Usually the victim is caught up in a powerful emotion—wonder, fear, greed, grief.  [to which I would add anger] Credulous acceptance of baloney can cost you money; that’s what P. T. Barnum meant when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic—however sympathetic we may be to those who have bought the baloney.

...In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. [my emphasis, it is always on] If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. ...

What’s in the kit? Tools for skeptical thinking.

What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and—especially important—to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true. [we should be particularly careful of our own biases]

To add to Sagan's kit of tools, I would suggest the related ideas of 'reserve judgment' and 'keep a long memory'. You don't have to decide right away if something is true or false. If the evidence is ambiguous or scant or of poor quality, you can just reserve judgment. But if it's an important issue, keep it in mind, and look for follow-up evidence.

Anyway, before I get to some cases where some of you fucked up and pissed me off, I'll describe my own fuckup.

Jussie Smollett. A gay black man says he is assaulted by "
two men in ski masks who called him racial and homophobic slurs, and said "This is MAGA country""

As a Trump-hating SJW, the story punched all my buttons and I was incensed. I don't know that I can accurately remember how much I believed the story, but I expect it was very close to 100%. It would seem to be (and has proved to be) a very stupid thing for someone to lie about. And we do want to not-ignore victims, if not quite automatically believe them. But despite my justifications, I believed something false. That's a mark in the loss column. I suck.

The usual racists and homophobes on the Christian Forums were more dubious straight from the get-go. I could have gotten huffy and not listened to them and called them racists and homophobes. But instead, I played the long game of 'keep a long memory'. Keep an eye on developments and see what transpires. And as I did so, strange details appeared, and I started tending back toward reserving judgment (because remember what Sagan said -- we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. My tentative acceptance was being challenged by new information. Once Smollett identified two black guys as the attackers, the needle had flipped in my mind. 99% one way had now moved to 99% the other.

OK, now to you dummies.

Case 1: Umbrella Man is an object lesson in 'reserving judgment' and 'keep a long memory'. No not this Umbrella Man. That's a totally different conspiracy theory. This one was the guy instigating rioting in Minneapolis in the wake of the George Floyd killing at the end of May. Early on, there was wild social media sharing of this fucking bullshit, I mean baloney. Anonymous texts from an anonymous person, posing as the ex-wife of Umbrella Man identifying him as a member of police. This is crap evidence. Did I get any thanks for pointing out that this is crap evidence? Of course not. It's just like telling a young earth creationist that Mount Saint Helens is crap evidence that the earth is 6000 years old. They don't thank me either.

As they say, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. This lie about wicked policeman guy flew for most of two months, until we found out the truth, that Umbrella Man was a white supremacist asshole. Even when we knew that the particular policeman pointed out in the bullshit had an alibi, the believers implausibly sidled over to "well, it wasn't him, but it was some other cop". How can that even make sense, you chowderhead? Your bullshit evidence fingered a particular cop by name. How does he suddenly morph into a random cop based on the same evidence? If OJ didn't do it, it doesn't mean some other NFL running back did it. It only makes sense if you've been infected by some kind of conspiracy theory. A simplification of a complex world. Something like ACAB.

Now let's get something straight. Just because I don't believe All Cops Are Bastards, doesn't mean I believe All Cops Are Beneficial. Both are simplifications of a complex reality. To presume I do would be to commit the fallacy of a false dichotomy

Case 2: Lynching in Palmdale?

in the middle of June, Robert Fuller, a black man, was found dead hanging from a tree in Palmdale, California. It was initially considered by the city as "an alleged death by suicide."

My initial response was "A terrible thing, but I hope the initial determination of suicide holds up, because the alternative is horrible."

So because I hoped this was right, I went looking only for evidence that confirmed this opinion. WRONG!!!

I reserved my fucking judgment, and (because this was an important issue) I kept a long memory.

Meanwhile, other similar cases emerged in the news, possibly because the media became sensitive to the topic, including that of Malcolm Harsch which had happened even earlier in Victorville. And soon, the story was being spread through social media -- by some of you, my lamebrained friends, that these were lynchings being perpetrated by or at least covered up by the police. Medical examiners are practically police, so we shouldn't listen to them either. Ultimately the unsourced information that spread like wildfire was that 5 black men hanged from trees had been ruled suicides. As snopes notes, it's not even clear who these 5 men are supposed to be. But for some that can be identified, further evidence has come to light, and they are in fact almost certainly suicides.

In the case of Harsch, video evidence of the event emerged and the family was satisfied. “On behalf of the family of Malcolm Harsch unfortunately it seems he did take his own life.”

Robert Fuller had a history of suicidal ideation. 

This one left a note.

I confess I know less about the NY case than the CA ones, but as far as I can tell, the family has quietly accepted it as suicide.

So what was the evidence that these were lynchings in the first place? It seems to me that the only 'evidence' that they weren't suicides was the fact that the police said they were suicides. That's some fucked up conspiracy theory bullshit right there.

Case 3 Oh god the stupid thing about anarchists is too stupid to even talk about. But suffice it to say my comments received as warm a welcome as I usually get from flat earthers. AAABastards/Beneficial is just as terrible a short-cut to thinking as ACABastards/Beneficial.

But for all these cases, the truth finally got its shoes on weeks, even months, later. So please stop spreading bullshit based on poor evidence. Even if. ESPECIALLY IF it punches your buttons. Because that's where you are vulnerable. Sometimes there is a conspiracy. Those Russian disinformation specialists are not imaginary. Their job is to punch your buttons. 

Work on that baloney detection kit.
Tags: insanity, news, politics, science, skepticism, tldr

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