Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baloney Detection Kit

The Baloney Detection Kit is described in a 14 minute video from the producers of Skeptic Magazine.

According to the authors, the kit is a 'scientific' guide to encountering new information. Here are the suggested questions to guide an investigation before acting on information.

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar type claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by someone else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence (or just negative evidence)?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?
These all add up to the need to look thoughtfully at information from a variety of objective perspectives. 

I find that there are other ways to group these questions:

  • Who is the author?
  • Has the author written on this topic before?
  • Are personal beliefs driving the claim?  (evidence of bias)
  • How does this information fit with the way the world (and rules of science) works?
  • Where does the majority of evidence point?
  • Is the evidence all negative?
  • Does the new theory explain as much as the old theory?
External References:
  • Have the claims been verified by someone else?
  • Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
If you are examining information that is not purporting to be a new theory or scientific claim--e.g., a request for money from a friend who's allegedly been robbed while traveling in a foreign country--then most of these questions are no longer relevant (or helpful).

In the case of the email scam, two questions remain important:

Who is the alleged author (identified by name) and where does most of the evidence point?  You have to know the individual pretty well in this case, including the likelihood that person is out of the country.  

The question about the way the world works isn't helpful since there's always a first time for everything.  If this is the first time you've heard from this friend about this type of situation, then question two--by itself--would help support the request for funds.  I'll leave you to think about the remaining questions.

Simply asking questions is insufficient. Some research is required. When I got a similar message from a daughter-in-law, I did two things: I wrote to her to see if she would confirm  the message, and (not waiting for an answer) I searched online for similar emails (question 3 above: has anyone else made the same claim?). I got the answer to the latter before I heard back from my daughter-in-law. Plenty of people were getting similar emails from friends and relatives.

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