Tools from Carl Sagan’s BS Detection Kit

We are in an age of hyper-information/persuasion/spin about all aspects of our lives, from what we eat, to what we buy, to what we attend, to whom we choose as leaders.  Now, as always, we can benefit from screening the inputs to our lives, and weighing our beliefs on a scale of clarity, and verity.  Carl Sagan gave us some sage tools to evaluate and detect fallacies of arguments, and false claims.  After the quote, I will try to translate, without bias, his precise language, and references, into reasonably understandable terms.

A. Evaluate Ideas to Approach the Truth:

  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 dataequally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, 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.
  1. Avoid Common Pitfalls of Common Sense

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 calledthe 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”)

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.”

 

Part 3 of 3: Common Mistakes – Do Not Be Fooled

I want to give Shannon Thrasher, The Tactical List Contributor credit for these ideas.  https://www.policeone.com/police-products/firearms/training/articles/7391346-10-common-mistakes-in-self-defense-firearms-training/

A gun owner can be ignorant, inexperienced, misguided, or naïve & still pass the requirements for a concealed carry license. Another scary thought. Mistakes & misunderstanding interfere with responsible carrying of guns.

The last thing we want is a bumbling gun owner in a deadly, public encounter.  Those who choose to carry a gun should avoid the most common training errors that professional instructors point out.

Not Pre-Qualifying Instructors

You do not want to master any bad habits, or make serious mistakes about firearms.  Find competent, knowledgeable instructors. Check instructor’s references. Talk with people who have taken the class you’re thinking of attending.  Training others is a separate, special skill beyond owning guns or being a police officer.

High Student-Teacher Ratio

Individual training & coaching is ideal but expensive. Taking group courses is the most cost effective path.  They can be valuable if there are enough assistants to provide a safe, effective learning environment. If there are 20 or 30 students in the class should have 5 or 6 assistant instructors or range safety officers present.

Wrong Training

Soldiers & police train for specific deadly environments. Being an armed citizen is different. Civilians need tactical training for the types of situations they might encounter in an otherwise safe, peaceful life; they need to know exactly what constitutes a threat that warrants lethal force, & how to responsibly employ that force when needed. This is not marksmanship training; it is situational combat training.

Wrong Gun or Caliber

Determining the right gun requires assessment of factors including body size, hand size, experience, & most importantly, your intentions.  Expert advisors will go through all the variables & arrive at a range of choices to try out before you choose.

Not “Dry-Firing”

Save money & learn safely, without the distraction of extremely loud noises & recoil you experience at the range.  “Dry-Firing,” uses dummy bullets with no potential harm to let you practice your techniques at home.  Live firing is aversive because of the unconscious anticipation of an explosion about to happen in your hand.  Strictly range shooting can cause you to develop flinches, jerks, & eye clinches that diminish accuracy. Dry-firing lets you learn how to hold & fire a gun correctly & smoothly without the trauma.  It also saves numerous outings that could cost $20 – 40 of ammunition plus range fees, each time.  Most expert instructors recommend 85% dry-fire & only 15% live fire.

Stuck with Narrow Training

One class with one instructor may leave you with just a few things to practice.  It is good to put those things in “muscle memory” with rigorous practice.  But what about the other things you do not know that you need to know to progress as a gun-carrying citizen?  Do not get stuck in the first grade.  Shop around for other qualified trainers who can teach you something new.

Target Shooting vs. Lethal Force Encounter

Shooting at stationary targets at the range cannot prepare you for adrenaline charged situations where the threat will be trying to hurt or kill you; you may never get the chance to learn & practice your response, if you’re not prepared beforehand. Continue learning & practice the skills you would need in the real world, like running away, moving laterally, taking cover, concealment, drawing fully clothed, multiple targets, reloading, tactical shooting, weak-hand shooting, & using life-like targets.

No Force-on-Force Training

You should never see anything in a gunfight you have never seen before.  “Force-on-force” training is kind of like paintball fighting, using non-lethal Airsoft guns & gear.  This way you can experience shooting at bad guys who shoot back.  Force-on-force training will teach you to move, take cover, deal with different distances; it will also show you how important it is to avoid being shot & what to do if you do get shot.

Carrying only a Gun & a Holster

Think for a minute what else you would need in a gunfight:

  • At least one spare magazine.
  • A cell phone to call the police & your lawyer.
  • At least one less lethal weapon such a knife, pepper spray, or a TASER. You probably would not use them in a life-threatening situation, but prosecutors might claim you needlessly shot the criminal who attacked you because you had no other options.
  • A good flashlight will help with positive target identification. Most shootings occur in low light.

Not Carrying Your Weapon as Much as Allowed

 Unless you are psychic, you cannot predict when you will face criminal violence.  Once you are properly trained, wearing your gun should be “normal.”  You chose to be armed for self-defense of yourself, your family, & anyone who is threatened with deadly injuries.  You do not want to find yourself in an “oops,” situation without your weapon.

Proper training & rigorous practice is a must for gun owners.

 

Part 2 of 3: Become an Expert – Lives Are on the Line

I am a supporter of the rights of Americans to arm themselves.  I believe that the presence of legal guns will reduce violence & the effectiveness of illegal guns. Without professional training & practice, though, a person with a gun is like a baby with a hammer.

Owning a car does not make a person a good driver; neither does getting a driver’s license.  It takes training & years of regular practice to become a good, safe driver.  Otherwise, a car is a dangerous, deadly weapon. Gun ownership is similar.  I believe that no one should carry a gun until they are experts in avoiding violence & experts in using a gun when needed.

I wonder, how many well-meaning fathers give their daughters a deadly weapon & think they are protected from malicious perpetrators?  Such a gift, without extensive training, could do just the opposite.

One of the greatest common errors is believing you will be able to use a gun effectively, if the situation arises.  Not likely.  Life-threatening situations trigger the body’s fear responses, flooding your body with adrenaline.  Without training and practice, you will more than likely freeze. Your thinking ability & motor skills will go to zero.  Even if you get to the gun, if it is not loaded, you will not be able to load it; if it is loaded, you will probably fumble the gun; if you are able to fire it, you will miss.  The assailant could then grab the weapon and use it to attack you.  Scary, isn’t it.

The first question is why own a gun?  Hunting, marksmanship, collecting, & self-defense are all good reasons.  All require the same basic knowledge & practices.  Many critics of the National Rifle Association fail to note that safety & training are major elements of their purpose.  Below is an excerpt from their website on gun safety.

NRA Gun Safety Rules

The fundamental NRA rules for safe gun handling are:

  • ALWAYS keep the gun POINTED IN A SAFE DIRECTION.
    •  This is the primary rule of gun safety. A safe direction means that the gun is pointed so that even if it were to go off it would not cause injury or damage.
    • The key to this rule is to control where the muzzle or front end of the barrel is pointed at all times.
    • Common sense dictates the safest direction, depending on different circumstances.
  • ALWAYS keep your finger OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL READY TO SHOOT.
    • When holding a gun, rest your finger on the trigger guard or along the side of the gun. Until you are actually ready to fire, do not touch the trigger.
  • ALWAYS keep the gun UNLOADED UNTIL READY TO USE.
    • Whenever you pick up a gun, immediately engage the safety device
    • If the gun has a magazine, remove it before opening the action
    • Look into the chamber(s) which should be clear of ammunition.
    • If you do not know how to open the action or inspect the chamber(s), leave the gun alone & get help from someone who does.

When using or storing a gun, always follow these NRA rules:

  • Store guns so they are NOT ACCESSIBLE TO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS.
    • Many factors must be considered when deciding where & how to store guns. A person’s particular situation will be a major part of the consideration.
    • Dozens of gun storage devices, as well as locking devices that attach directly to the gun, are available.
    • However, mechanical locking devices, like the mechanical safeties built into guns, can fail & should not be used as a substitute for safe gun handling & the observance of all gun safety rules.
  • Never use ALCOHOL OR OVER-THE-COUNTER, PRESCRIPTION OR OTHER DRUGS before or while shooting.
    • Alcohol, as well as any other substance likely to impair normal mental or physical bodily functions, must not be used before or while handling or shooting guns.
  • Wear EYE & EAR PROTECTION as appropriate.
    • Guns are loud & the noise can cause hearing damage.
    • They can also emit debris & hot gas that could cause eye injury.
    • For these reasons, shooting glasses & hearing protectors should be worn by shooters & spectators.
  • Use only the CORRECT AMMUNITION FOR YOUR GUN.
    • Only BBs, pellets, cartridges or shells designed for a particular gun can be fired safely in that gun.
    • Most guns have the ammunition type stamped on the barrel.
    • Ammunition can be identified by information printed on the box & sometimes stamped on the cartridge.
    • Do not shoot the gun unless you know you have the proper ammunition.
  • Know your TARGET & WHAT IS BEYOND.
    •  Be absolutely sure you have identified your target beyond any doubt.
    • Equally important, be aware of the area beyond your target. This means observing your prospective area of fire before you shoot.
    • Never fire in a direction in which there are people or any other potential for mishap.
    • Think first. Shoot second.
  • Know HOW TO USE THE GUN SAFELY.
    • Before handling a gun, learn how it operates.
    • Know its basic parts, how to safely open & close the action & remove any ammunition from the gun or magazine.
    • Remember, a gun’s mechanical safety device is never foolproof.
    • Nothing can ever replace safe gun handling.
  • Be sure the gun is SAFE TO OPERATE.
    • Just like other tools, guns need regular maintenance to remain operable.
    • Regular cleaning & proper storage are a part of the gun’s general upkeep.
    • If there is any question concerning a gun’s ability to function, a knowledgeable gunsmith should look at it.
  • Be aware that certain types of guns & many shooting activities require additional safety precautions.
  • Cleaning
    • Regular cleaning is important in order for your gun to operate correctly & safely.
    • Taking proper care of it will also maintain its value & extend its life.
    • Your gun should be cleaned every time that it is used.
    • A gun brought out of prolonged storage should also be cleaned before shooting.
    • Accumulated moisture & dirt, or solidified grease & oil, can prevent the gun from operating properly.
    • Before cleaning your gun,make absolutely sure that it is unloaded.
    • The gun’s action should be open during the cleaning process.
    • Also, be sure that no ammunition is present in the cleaning area.

Be Safe – Use Your Mind

Estimates vary, but it would be fair to say that Americans own 300 million guns.  About 13 million citizens have licenses to carry a concealed firearm.  I believe Texas leads the nation in both.

In recent months, I have read about several instances involving licensed concealed carry gun owners; some good, some not.  The key element in each case was judgement. Poor judgement yielded poor, sometimes tragic results.  To me, a lack of training & practice was a big part of the things that went wrong.  Staying safe is everybody’s responsibility, armed or not.

Use Your Mind

The mind is the ideal concealed self-defense weapon.  All weapons, especially the mind, require knowledge, training, & a lot of practice to be safe & effective, & to function when your body is flooded with adrenaline.  In many cases, common sense precautions will reduce the chances that a criminal will choose you as a target.

Be aware that you are most vulnerable when you are in transit from one place to another.  You must be especially alert when driving, riding, walking, jogging, biking, etc.

Your cell phone can be your worst enemy or your best friend.  If you are absorbed in your cell phone, you are extremely vulnerable.  Criminals choose the least aware, most distracted people because it gives them the advantage of surprise.  If you remain alert & use the features of your cell phone, you can avoid being an easy target.  If you are armed, you can avoid situations that could require lethal force.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Have 911 programmed on your cell phone.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Pay attention to people & vehicles you encounter.
  • Wait until you are safely at your destination to take or make phone calls.
  • Trust your instincts if a person or a group of people disturbs you.
  • Notice people’s appearance as if you were planning to describe them to the police.  If need be, record your descriptions on your cell phone.
  • Use your cell phone to take pictures of anyone or any vehicle that seems suspicious or out of place.
  • Distance is your friend, put as much space as possible between you & those that concern you.  Cross the street or just turn around & go another way.
  • Choose where you go & when you go there.  Some areas are safe in the daytime, & not safe after dark.
  • Invite a friend or partner to go with you.  Two or more people are less attractive to criminals.
  • Keep your valuables concealed.  Leave your cellphone in your pocket or purse until your reach your destination
  • If you think someone is following you, move quickly to any open store or restaurant or public building.
  • If you feel threatened, yell “fire, fire, look out!” instead of “help,” & run to safety.
  • Lock your car immediately when you get in it.
  • Take whatever time is needed to find a well-lighted place to park your car at night.  Use valet parking when available.
  • Do not talk to anyone you do not know in the parking lot, especially if they approach you for help.
  • If you are near your car, use the alarm button on your car key remote, or at least push the lock or unlock buttons several times to flash the lights & beep the horn.
  • Always lock your car, & keep your keys in your hand as you walk away from & return to your car.
  • If someone robs you, give up your property—don’t give up your life.
  • Carry a “throw away” wallet with a small amount of cash & old or expired credit cards.  If you have the opportunity, throw it behind the robber or drop it out of reach & escape.