|Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit
In your groups, discuss each of the following items. Afterward, groups will share their conclusions with the colloquium.
Part I. Falsifiability (testability):
• Determine whether each of the following hypotheses is falsifiable or non-falsifiable.
• If it is falsifiable, what observations would be required to falsify it? • If it's non-falsifiable, can it be reworded into a falsifiable hypothesis? (Frequently, this can be accomplished by expressing a positive statement as a negative, or vice versa.)
1. An isolated fossil hand from a small coelurosaur (a type of dinosaur) is found in rocks of Alberta, Canada. An isolated fossil foot from a small coelurosaur is found elsewhere in the same formation.
Hypothesis: The foot and hand are from the same species of dinosaur.
2. Materials used in some public schools emphasize the contribution of Ancient Egypt to human culture by attributing some of the cultural advances of ancient Greece to Egyptian influence. Some sources cite the Library of Alexandria (constructed in the 4th century BC) as a source of this knowledge.
Hypothesis: The accomplishments of Classical Greece (c. 5th Century B.C.) were derived from material obtained in the Library of Alexandria.
3. Hypothesis: A large (2.5 - 3 m) tall upright primate survives in the wilds of the temperate rain forests of the Northwest and/or in the Himalayas.
4. Hypothesis: No multicellular animal existed prior to Cambrian Period (545 million years ago).
5. Hypothesis: A democratic republic (with free elections) will perpetuate continuously and never change into another form of government.
6. Karl Marx, the founder of communism, considered himself the founder of the "science" of history. Indeed, Marx's writings are full of predictions. Here is an example:
Hypothesis: The proletarian revolution that will inaugurate communist society will occur first in advanced, industrialized societies.
7. Hypothesis: Extremely violent TV programs are sure to produce a society with a high level of violence and crime.
8. Hypothesis: Life exists below the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.
9. Humans are the only technological species on the planet. Hypothesis: All technological species in the universe will have human forms.
10. Hypothesis: An alien machine of great complexity and sophistication lies hidden underneath the crust of the third planet of the star Epsilon Eridani.
11. Nearly every culture on the planet has a folkloric tradition of giant-sized humans (giants, Titans, etc.). Hypothesis: a race of giant-sized humans co-existed with normal-sized folk sometime in prehistory.
12. Hypothesis: HIV is not the causative agent of AIDS.
13. Hypothesis: It is possible to travel backwards in time by piloting a spacecraft along a particular curved path around an infinitely long tube of rapidly rotating neutronium.
14. Hypothesis: A large asteroid will collide with the Earth in 35,772 A.D. (on a Wednesday in June), killing all life on the planet.
15. Hypothesis: There are diseases as dangerous or more dangerous than AIDS and Ebola waiting among animal populations that may yet infect humanity.
Part II. The Toolbox:
Each of the following hypotheses could be improved by the application of one or more of the items in Sagan's tool kit. Which "tool" would you use, and for what purpose?
1. Folklore has it that animals behave strangely prior to an earthquake.
Hypothesis: Animals have some means of knowing when an earthquake is about to occur.
2. Simple telescopes show oval- or whirlpool-shaped nebulae in the sky. Standard models of solar system formation predict an early stage of oval- or whirlpool-shaped cloud of debris.
Hypothesis: these oval- or whirlpool-shaped clouds are solar systems in the early stages of their formation.
3. During the 1930s, a plant geneticist named Trofim Lysenko got Stalin's attention by advocating a theory of genetics markedly different from standard mendelian genetics. He claimed that his theory was more consistent with Marxist ideology and would make it possible for Soviet farmers to harvest an extra crop of winter wheat annually. With Stalin's support, he quickly became the president of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, silencing his opponents. In fact, Stalin had several of them imprisoned. After thirty years, Soviet authorities admitted that Lysenko's theory was incorrect.
4. Circles of flattened crops appear in the fields of Great Britain overnight. These patterns began as simple structures, but became more complex overtime. A pair of performance artists has shown that any form of crop circle can be made using very simple tools in a very short period of time: these artists claim to have made the majority of the crop circles.
Hypothesis: Although these artists may have made most of the circles, that doesn't mean that some of them weren't made by aliens seeking to communicate with humanity.
5. Hypothesis: Walking underneath a ladder causes bad luck.
6. Hypothesis: Failing to pass along a "chain letter" causes bad luck.
8. A small community in the steppes of Siberia is famous for individuals with very long life spans. Hypothesis: A diet and lifestyle like those of these Siberians will let people live a lot longer.
9 Hypothesis: Crime rates increase during a full moon.
10. Hypothesis: Famous people always die in threes.
11. In 1979, an energy crisis occurred, resulting in long lines at US gas stations. Many explanations were proposed for this crisis. Some simply held that market forces had caused petroleum producers to cut production. Other, more exotic ideas were floated, as well:
Hypothesis: A secret cabal of politicians, scientists, businessmen, and media tycoons have made a pact with the aliens of Zeta Reticuli to save themselves and their families when the nasty reptiloid aliens attack; however, these powerful individuals have used their influence to convince the world that there are no aliens. In 1979, the reptiloids absconded with a large quantity of raw petroleum, resulting in the energy crisis.
Part III. Logical Fallacies:
Each of the following arguments suffers from at least one of the common logical fallacies listed by Sagan. See if you can identify them.
1. Greg Paul's ideas about dinosaur metabolism really can't be taken seriously. After all, he is a known disciple of the eccentric Robert Bakker. Furthermore, his only degree is in studio art.
2. By finding letters spaced at equal distance within the text of Moby-Dick, you can find clues referring to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Yitzhak Rabin, Abraham Lincoln, and Indira Gandhi, and the death of Princess Diana.
Hypothesis: Herman Melville had some precognitive power, allowing him to foresee the future and encode secret messages in his text.
3. Florence Henderson (Carol Brady on "The Brady Bunch") appeared on a series of commercials for Wesson cooking oil in the 1970's. At the time, Ms. Henderson was the ultimate maternal figure in the media. You should, therefore, buy Wesson.
4. The following passage is from Life - How did it Get Here? By Evolution or Creation? by Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. As you read it, keep this cladogram in mind.
"Strenuous efforts have been made to link the amphibians to some fish ancestor, but without success. The lungfish had been a favorite candidate since, in addition to gills, it has a swim bladder, which can be used for breathing when it is temporarily out of water. says the book The Fishes: 'It is tempting to think they might have some direct connection with the amphibians which led to the land-living vertebrates. But they do not; they are a separate group entirely.' David Attenborough disqualifies both the lungfish and the coelacanth 'because the bones of the skulls are so different from those of the first fossil amphibian that one cannot be derived from the other.'"
5. Oh, yeah, well everyone knows you're stupid and dress funny!
6. If Santa Claus isn't real, who's going to bring you Christmas presents?
7. John Horner of Montana State University, in his book The Complete T. rex, argues that Tyrannosaurus was a scavenger rather than a predator. Its forelimbs were too small to be used in active prey capture, and Horner writes that he just can't visualize a bipedal predator unable to use its arms.
8. During the Salvadorian civil war of the 1980s, El Salvador's president Napoleon Duarte was regarded as a "moderate," capable of reconciling the leftist and right wing elements of Salvadorian society. He failed because both sides looked at him, saw that he wasn't one of them, and assumed he was one of the enemy. A television documentary of the time featured an interview with the wife of the right-wing Roberto d'Abusson, patiently explaining that the idea of a "moderate" was nonsense, since "if you aren't with us you have to be against us."
9. Many large monuments built in prehistoric or early historical times
throughout southern Asia, Africa, the Americas, the South Pacific, etc.
No one know exactly how these structures were built, so, they must have been built by (or with the help of) extraterrestrial civilizations.
10. Might there be a new chemical element with an atomic number in between that of Carbon (6) and Nitrogen (7)?
11. A web designer couldn't possibly make a good president of the United States. After all, there have been 41 presidents and none of them has been a web designer.
12. In the 1980's, a number of heavily-publicized cases came to light suggesting that large numbers of children were being subjected to bizarre ritual abuse in day-care centers. These cases included allegations of sexual abuse, murder, and cannibalism. More recently, psychologists have strongly questioned the reliability of the testimony obtained from very young children, and no corroborating physical evidence was obtained in the vast majority of such cases. Nevertheless, some have remained loyal to their belief in a worldwide conspiracy of people who lead these cults, and their way of dealing with contradictory evidence shows us special pleading: "Catherine Gould ... puzzled over the idea of cult members catching AIDS. She said that no one can figure out why the offenders are not 'dropping like flies, because we know they don't practice safe cult sex.' With all the blood, cannibalism, and unprotected sex, they ought to be catching a lot of sexually transmitted diseases. Therapist Jerry Mungadze offered a unique explanation. He suggested that mind-control programming boosts the immune system, making the victim resistant to the HIV virus, and that is why children in day care ritual abuse cases do not have elevated levels of sexually transmitted diseases." (from http:www.csicop.org/si/9609/conspiracy.html, written by Evan Harrington)
13. I witness an unusual object in the sky. It's not anything I recognize, so it must be an alien starship.
14. Drs. Havey, Mooi, and Gosliner recently criticized a study of the evolutionary history of nautiloids by Drs. Ward and Saunders. Dr. Ward, in the November 1999 issue of Journal of Paleontology replied to their criticism, noting, among other things, that Harvey et al. ought to recall that their conclusions were reached "after our two decades of work on the living and fossil nautiloids."
15. Merck remembers an ad campaign for Eastern Airlines that featured the slogan "You've gotta believe! You've gotta believe! Fly Eastern!" These ads didn't last long. Apparently he wasn't the only one who was uncomfortable with the idea that he was making a leap of faith when he stepped onto an Eastern flight. The point, though, is that Eastern committed a logical fallacy. What was it?
16. A strong positive statistical correlation exists between the monthly average of the volume of the New York Stock exchange and the weight of Merck's pet leopard gecko. Both events must, therefore, be manifestations of some deep underlying process.
17. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president. Since then, the volume of pornography available on the internet has risen drastically. Clinton's election is responsible for internet porn.
18. In 1984 the Canadian documentary film "If You Love The Earth" came out. It dealt with the topic of nuclear war, condemning it strongly. The film was denounced by the Reagan White House as "dangerous foreign propaganda," but quickly became part of the knee-jerk liberal catechism. One of the slogans it punched was that in the event of full-scale nuclear war, "life would be worse than death for the survivors." Not long after its debut, Merck found himself at a night-club with some supposed friends. The question arose, "If there were to be a nuclear war, would you rather survive or die?" He violated the films credo by choosing survival. (I mean, COME ON. If only one bomb goes off, who wants to be under it? But, I digress.) He was immediately denounced as a "Reaganite" and "advocate of winnable nuclear wars." (Note: There's an element of ad hominem in this, but we're really looking for something else.)
19. An ad for a pain killer from the 1980's featured a popular soap-opera star: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television. And when I get a headache, I take Brand X."
20. During the Civil War, the Confederacy suffered from two big problems: an acute manpower shortage and the negative PR that slavery generated among potential foreign allies such as Britain and France. By late 1863, when things were beginning to look really bad, Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburn suggested that both the Confederacy's manpower problem and the slavery-related international P.R. problem be solved in one stroke by the freeing of slaves in exchange for their military service. It might have worked except for one small problem: A major reason that the Confederacy existed was to defend the institution of slavery. Confederate congressman Howell Cobb, himself a major slave holder, rejected the possibility that slaves could serve effectively by noting that "If slaves will make good soldiers then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."
21. Neo-Nazi extremists frequently go to great lengths to refute evidence for the Nazi Holocaust (which is, after all, bad P.R. for the fascist position.) An odd side-show is their effort to discredit The Diary of Anne Frank. Author Deborah Lipstadt describes one such attempt by writer David Irving:
"He [Irving] repeated the Levin charge but went on to label Anne a sex fiend and the book 'the first child porno.' (Some of his chapter titles are indicative of his approach: 'Sexual Extravaganza' and 'Anne's Character - Not Even a Nice Girl.'"
22. In the 1950's, a strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer became apparent. Experimental evidence strongly indicated that tobacco derivatives are strongly carcinogenic, but some tobacco companies tried to argue the opposite: that cancer causes smoking. Some people, they argued, would develop "pre-cancerous lesions" that would irritate the lungs and drive them to smoke.
S. J.. Gould describes this in his essay "The Smoking Gun of Eugenics" in Dinosaur in a Haystack)
23. If we make condoms available to minors in order to prevent the spread of disease, then it won't be long before elementary school children will be sexually active.
24. If the state allows private individuals to own rifles for target practice, it won't be long before people insist on being allowed to shoot off howitzers.
25. The extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs was either entirely the result of an asteroid impact or it was entirely the result of volcanism.
26. Either alien flying saucers are routinely visiting Earth or humanity is the only intelligent species in the universe.
27. You scientists claim that whales evolved from a hoofed mammal ancestor. How can you expect us to believe that a cow changed into a whale?
28. In 1796, Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination of a human patient for smallpox, using serum of the less virulent cow-pox virus. Although successful, the procedure was at first denounced by established physicians who proclaimed that a person could not be cured of any disease by being injected with the blood of sick cows. (see http://www.acponline.org./journals/annals/15oct97/smallpox.htm)
29. "Dr. Holtz, I didn't do very well on this test. Are you going to curve the grade?"
30. Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Fred Hoyle thinks that the feathers on the early bird Archaeopteryx were placed there as part of a hoax, so Archaeopteryx must not be legitimate.