In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan presented a partial list of “tools for skeptical thinking” which can be used to construct & understand reasoned arguments and reject fraudulent ones.
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
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.
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.
I found this via Open Culture, which remarked on Sagan’s prescient remarks about people being “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”.
Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”
This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.”
Update: After I posted this, a reader let me know that Michael Shermer has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate & predatory behavior and rape at professional conferences. I personally believe women, and I further believe that if Shermer was actually serious about rationality and his ten rules for critical thinking listed above, he wouldn’t have pulled this shit in the first place (nor tried to hamfistedly explain it away). I’ve rewritten the post to remove the references to Shermer, which actually made it more succinct and put the focus fully on Sagan, which was my intention in the first place (the title remains unchanged). (via @dmetilli)