The Scientific Baloney Detection Kit
published in What’s Natural? column of Pacifica Tribune February 20, 2019
Politicians from all sides manufacture “crises” and “demons” to promote their agendas superficially designed to fight those crises. In his book “The Demon Haunted World”, Carl Sagan famously published his Scientific Baloney Detection Kit; a “do and don’t” list to guide honest scientific inquiry. Sadly, climate science has been too politicized. But Sagan’s advice can help separate the politics from honest science regards claims of a “climate crisis”.
The very foundation of scientific inquiry demands a vigorous skeptical challenge to every hypothesis. Several different hypotheses can explain the same phenomena. Anyone, scientist or layperson, can make assertions and models. But claims are not reliable science until rigorously tested and well vetted. Based on this understanding, our oldest scientific society, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledgethat Sir Isaac Newton once presided over, made “Nullius En Verba” its motto. It means take “no one’s word for it’.
We are all naturally blinded by our beliefs. To overcome our biases and strive for a greater scientific truth, our discussions will be well served if guided by Sagan’s principles. Below I paraphrase the most pertinent points in Sagan’s Scientific Baloney Detection Kit. (I add my comments in parentheses)
1. Do: Encourage substantive debate on the evidenceby knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
(Saying there’s no more debate triggers the Baloney alert)
2. Don’t: Avoid arguments from authority. They carry little weight - “authorities” have made mistakes in the past.
(Unable to refute Einstein’s ideas, his antagonists claimed authority via consensus and published “100 against Einstein”. Evoking the mythical “97% of all scientists agree” is a similar tactic.)
3. Don’t: Don’t attack the arguer, attack the argument.
(Mud-slinging dominates politics. Dismissing valid arguments by calling the arguer a “denier” muddies the science.)
4. Do: Spin more than one hypothesis. Think of all the different ways in which something could be explained. Think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
(Climate change is extremely complex and governed by many variables. The aim of the What’s Naturalcolumn is to delve into all those complexities. Detailing natural climate change is not denying a greenhouse effect.)
5. Don’t: Don’t get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting your favored hypothesis. If you don’t, others will.
6. Do: Ask whether a hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
(Unfortunately, predictions generated by climate change theory cannot be falsified or verified by simple experiments or short-term weather events.)
7. Don’t: Don’t argue via adverse consequences.
(Claiming we will be “underwater in 70 years” or the world will be “irreversibly destroyed in 12 years”, are common adverse consequences; scare tactics that set off a Baloney alert)
8. Don’t: Don’t “appeal to ignorance”. In other words, don’t claim that whatever has not been proved false then must be true.
(The earliest claim that 97% of all scientists agree, was an appeal to ignorance. It was assumed if authors did not explicitly disagree with CO2 driven climate change theory, then they must all agree. In subsequent surveys, only 22 to 32% of scientists ever replied. Of those responding, only 49% believed humans are causing more than 50% of observed climate change. That means only 16% have actually agreed.)
9. Don’t: Don't confuse correlation with causation.
(A recent extreme weather event happening when CO2 concentrations are high, may or may not have been worsened by high CO2. Far worse weather events happened over the past thousand years.)
10. Don’: Don'ttuse straw man arguments — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack.
(A common straw man attack I encounter has been ‘Jim Steele ignores the effect of rising CO2only pointing out other possible reasons for climate change’. I do indeed point out natural causes to provide a greater climate perspective. But I never ignore the greenhouse effect. Clearly climate has been changing since the 1800s. CO2concentrations are unprecedently high and CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Those are undeniable facts on which we all agree.
But there is absolutely NO scientific consensus regards how “sensitive” the earth is to a doubling of CO2concentrations. IPCC estimates of how global temperature will respond to a doubling of CO2range greatly from 1°to 5°C. To accurately determine the earth’s sensitivity to higher levels of CO2, we must accurately assess natural climate change.)
11. Don’t: Don't just count the “hits” and forget the “misses” when evaluating a hypothesis.
(There are many hits, yet many misses by both CO2 global warming theory and natural climate change theories. The science is not settled and the time for rigorous debate has not passed.)
Jim Steele authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism