Online Tools that Aid Thinking Skeptically

Introduction posted a short piece“Rethinking Critical Thinking With the Help of Carl Sagan”. They mentioned Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World”. The alluded to Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” from the section “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”.  One good summary can be found at the rationalwiki entry. Sagan wrote his nine tools using the language of science. I propose some reformulations in the context of social media, criticize some tools in the context of social media, propose some others and discuss online tools.

The essay spends some time discussing how to detect bad logic in arguments. It is a restatement of rules of rhetoric that any critical thinker should utilize. I will not discuss them here.

Rules restated and tools mentioned.

Each rule is presented in Italic. If the rule is in quote marks it is a direct quote. Otheres are restatements.

Doubt claims until they are verified. Rumors are often reported as facts. Unnamed sources are cited. Quotes are taken out of context or are incorrect.

  1. Find sources that are careful to distinguish what is known from what is assumed.
  2. Find independent confirmation of claims. Claims are widely repeated, often without mentioning the source. Especially with claims about ongoing events, it is important to not trust a claim if it only has one source.
  3. Find the original quote. Al Gore is often ridiculed for claiming he invented the internet. His statement was “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” His language is sloppy but he did take the lead in supporting the modern widely available internet.
  4. Find the original context. Gore made the statement “When asked to describe what distinguished him from his challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination” during an interview.

There are tools that will help you do that. Two of my favorites are Snopes, the source of the quote in the last item above, and Politifact. They do the heavy lifting in debunking bogus claims. Your favorite search engine is another good tool.

“Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.” Probably the most common interaction in social media is arguments. The problem is determining who is knowledgeable. Most of the arguments are exchanges of assertions and insults. Debates will feature references that support or refute claims. Often the same exchange will involve both argument and debate. It is frustrating to weed through the exchange and discover the debate.

Determining if a proponent is knowledgeable can be difficult. In a recent exchange I saw someone who claimed to have a law degree argue with someone who wrote the standard textbook on the field of the debate. I am unaware of internet specific tools that help you determine how knowledgeable is a person. Sometimes searching for the person will turn up evidence; but often they are using a pseudonym and can’t be tracked.

“Arguments from authority carry little weight”  Douglas Adams wrote

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

It is the quality of the argument that matters, not the role of the proponent.

Consider alternatives. It is easy to assume that there is only one choice. This is rarely true. Always ask yourself whether there is a better choice.

Don’t put more weight on an idea because you thought of it. Avoid thinking that it must be better because it’s yours.

The rest of the toolkit is specific to science and doesn’t seem relevant to thinking critically about other things.

An aside about Occam’s razor

Sagan lists it as one of his tools, but I omit it. The version most frequently taught to people is confusing resulting that it is often misapplied. It is not a law, it is a rule-of-thumb. It seems to me that it is more likely to be unusable.

Other tools

Cultivate trustworthy sources. We don’t always have time to do all of the steps.  Sometimes we must rely on sources that are consistently accurate and do the heavy lifting. Evaluate potential sources using critical reasoning, but pay attention to how often they are credible. Rely on those that have a history of being routinely credible over time.

Avoid confirmation bias. Apply critical reasoning to information that would confirm your own position.

Avoid the echo chamber. “Repeating A Lie Does Not Make It True” has a good discussion of this. Filter out any repetition of a claim.

Seek out knowledgeable people with a different point of view than yours. They are a good source of alternatives to consider. They don’t always have to hold a position contrary to yous. They do provide you an opportunity to improve your understanding.

Update: Further reading

Thanks to Sarah Kendzior on twitter for pointing me to “Some Comments on Critical Thinking and Expertise, Part 1: How Not to Approach RussiaGate on Social Media” by Christopher Stroop.



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