Saturday, March 15, 2008

Detecting Baloney

Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I do like conspiracy theories though, so it might be said that I am a fan of conspiracy theories without being a straight out fanatic about them.

What most intrigues me about conspiracy theories is the quest for knowledge and understanding exhibited by the theorists. It could be argued (and often is) that such quests are misguided, a waste of time and effort better spent on more ‘productive’ endeavors.

Who is to say? According to Professor Joseph Campbell in his study of comparative mythology, quests are not chosen but rather quests chose their ‘questers’. Campbell’s own quest was to discover and understand the links between the various myths of the world. Admiral Perry’s was to reach the Pole. Jake and Elwood’s was to save the orphanage. Whether great or small, grand or petty, quests are not to be ignored.

The source of the incentive, the drive to research and postulate theories about conspiracy is not solely a metaphysical one. Undoubtedly, there is an intellectual impetus to discover the truth about the world we inhabit. The search for truth is inherent in the postulations of conspiracy theorists.

The question must be asked: why are the postulators of conspiracy theories not satisfied with the accepted explanations given for enormously complicated event? Here is the nub that irritates many detractors. Why can’t conspiracy theorists accept at face value explanations such as the Warren Commission Report or the 9-11 Commission Report?

The answer to that query can easily be discerned if one reads over the arguments and examines the material presented by many conspiracy theorists. Whenever the generally accepted explanation of an event or phenomenon begs the question (whether it is regarding a terra-centric universe, WMDs or a ‘magic bullet’) there are questions which beg to be asked. In a conspiracy theorist’s postulation, one invariably finds a check list of questions about the event which have either gone unanswered, ignored, glossed or are answered in a less than satisfactory manner hence raising further questions. Here we find the same motivation that has initiated all of the great scientific discoveries and uncovered all of the scandals throughout history: the search for truth amid what are perceived as falsehoods and failing that, the search for acceptable answers.

Unfortunately, too often conspiracy theorists rely on specious arguments, tautology and emotionally driven thought processes rather than finely honed critical thought. (This is hardly over-stating the general situation.) Exacerbating the effect of these general deficiencies of argument, the fans of conspiracy theories too often accept these deficient arguments at face value. The result is well-known: the theorists and fans are roundly denounced as ‘crackpots’. Quite often this denunciation is deserved.

Nevertheless, points raised by conspiracy theorists challenging accepted explanations are very often thought provoking. These should not be brusquely dismissed as spurious even if in a many cases the points raised are very emotionally charged, taboo or politically unpopular. Interesting points should be examined and weighed critically for merit, substance and validity. Too often the treasure is tossed with the trash.

Here the failure to think critically is shared by theorists, fans and detractors.

So, in an effort to rectify that situation, here is a link to a crash course on critical thinking; Carl Sagan’s ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ as it was presented in his book,’The Demon-Haunted World’.

For a more complete treatment of the ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse, here is a link to where it can be purchased in a booklet form.

The ability to detect baloney will well serve us all when we are presented with dubious information and explanations from our governmental representatives, corporate leaders, their agents and functionaries. Perhaps if more members of the US Congress and the citizens of the United States had learned to think critically, the US would not have been suckered into going to war in Iraq. Or Vietnam. Or Nicaragua. Or Guatemala. Or Haiti. Or Panama. Or Grenada. Perhaps the ability to think critically may even allow us to detect the baloney that is leading us into armed conflict with Iran.

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