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More Baloney Detection

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates@home.com>
Date: Tue, 20 Nov 2001 02:13:44 -0500
Fwd Date: Tue, 20 Nov 2001 02:13:44 -0500
Subject: More Baloney Detection


More Baloney Detection

How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience,
Part II

By Michael Shermer

[Michael Shermer is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine
  (www.skeptic.com) and author of The Borderlands of Science.]

When exploring the borderlands of science, we often face a
"boundary problem" of where to draw the line between science and
pseudoscience. The boundary is the line of demarcation between
geographies of knowledge, the border defining countries of
claims. Knowledge sets are fuzzier entities than countries,
however, and their edges are blurry. It is not always clear
where to draw the line. Last month I suggested five questions to
ask about a claim to determine whether it is legitimate or
baloney. Continuing with the baloney-detection questions, we see
that in the process we are also helping to solve the boundary
problem of where to place a claim.

6. Does the preponderance of evidence point to the claimant's
conclusion or to a different one? The theory of evolution, for
example, is proved through a convergence of evidence from a
number of independent lines of inquiry. No one fossil, no one
piece of biological or paleontological evidence has "evolution"
written on it; instead tens of thousands of evidentiary bits add
up to a story of the evolution of life. Creationists
conveniently ignore this confluence, focusing instead on trivial
anomalies or currently unexplained phenomena in the history of

7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and
tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of
others that lead to the desired conclusion? A clear distinction
can be made between SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence) scientists and UFOlogists. SETI scientists begin
with the null hypothesis that ETIs do not exist and that they
must provide concrete evidence before making the extraordinary
claim that we are not alone in the universe. UFOlogists begin
with the positive hypothesis that ETIs exist and have visited
us, then employ questionable research techniques to support that
belief, such as hypnotic regression (revelations of abduction
experiences), anecdotal reasoning (countless stories of UFO
sightings), conspiratorial thinking (governmental cover-ups of
alien encounters), low-quality visual evidence (blurry
photographs and grainy videos), and anomalistic thinking
(atmospheric anomalies and visual misperceptions by

8. Is the claimant providing an explanation for the observed
phenomena or merely denying the existing explanation? This is a
classic debate strategy--criticize your opponent and never
affirm what you believe to avoid criticism. It is next to
impossible to get creationists to offer an explanation for life
(other than "God did it"). Intelligent Design (ID) creationists
have done no better, picking away at weaknesses in scientific
explanations for difficult problems and offering in their stead
"ID did it." This stratagem is unacceptable in science.

9. If the claimant proffers a new explanation, does it account
for as many phenomena as the old explanation did? Many HIV/AIDS
skeptics argue that lifestyle causes AIDS. Yet their alternative
theory does not explain nearly as much of the data as the HIV
theory does. To make their argument, they must ignore the
diverse evidence in support of HIV as the causal vector in AIDS
while ignoring the significant correlation between the rise in
AIDS among hemophiliacs shortly after HIV was inadvertently
introduced into the blood supply.

10. Do the claimant's personal beliefs and biases drive the
conclusions, or vice versa? All scientists hold social,
political and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant
their interpretations of the data, but how do those biases and
beliefs affect their research in practice? Usually during the
peer-review system, such biases and beliefs are rooted out, or
the paper or book is rejected.

Clearly, there are no foolproof methods of detecting baloney or
drawing the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Yet
there is a solution: science deals in fuzzy fractions of
certainties and uncertainties, where evolution and big bang
cosmology may be assigned a 0.9 probability of being true, and
creationism and UFOs a 0.1 probability of being true. In between
are borderland claims: we might assign superstring theory a 0.7
and cryonics a 0.2. In all cases, we remain open-minded and
flexible, willing to reconsider our assessments as new evidence
arises. This is, undeniably, what makes science so fleeting and
frustrating to many people; it is, at the same time, what makes
science the most glorious product of the human mind.

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