Developing Your Nonsense Detector • How to Recognize fraud, woo-woo, BS, baloney, and Pseudoscience

Developing Your Nonsense Detector • How to Recognize fraud, woo-woo, BS, baloney, and Pseudoscience


How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh
Perspective Podcast. We are, each of us, bombarded every day by
the nonsensical claims of advertisers, alternative-medicine gurus, the news media, conspiracy theorists,
cult leaders, politicians, and so on. What can we do to sense nonsense before it
gets past our defenses? Can we improve our individual powers of nonsense
detection? In this episode, we will go over a few things
you can do to tune, sharpen, and develop your personal nonsense detection kit, a set of
critical thinking skills that allow you to better recognize fraud, woo-woo, BS, baloney,
and pseudoscience for what they all really are. This program is brought to you by the contributing
members of the Free Thought Initiative. We help those in need of an inclusive, supportive,
and free-thinking community by hosting public discussions on moral philosophy, healthy living,
and science, to improve the cohesion, health, and scientific literacy of our society. Everyone is welcome, (regardless of personal
background, religious belief, political leanings, etc.) to participate (in-person) in these
open and civil discussions each week. To find a Free Thought Forum meeting near
you, to start your own local group, or to support this program through monthly donations,
please visit freethoughtforum.org. While you’re there, be sure to check out
our online store – now with freethought t-shirts, mugs, and other smart-looking swag! Open-mindedness is an important virtue for
a Freethinker. If you are not open to new ideas, then you
may be trapped by your own false presuppositions or foolish beliefs. A close-minded person may be unable to see
the flaws in their current philosophy or accept better answers as they come along. On the other hand, skepticism is also an important
virtue for a Freethinker. If we carry a predominately credulous perspective
and are all-too-eager to believe everything we hear, then we make ourselves fools and
easy prey to those who would take advantage of our gullibility. We would soon find ourselves holding tightly
to flawed ideas that betray our ignorance, stupidity, or illogic to the world. The real trick is finding the proper balance
between open-mindedness and skepticism. This is an ongoing quest for the Freethinker,
Skeptic, Rationalist, or Truth-Seeker. The good news is that you have tools that
can aid you in this quest. A legendary hero may be given a magic sword
or special armor. Likewise, your inventory will hopefully house
a number of tools such as a stack of good books, an understanding of logical fallacies,
solid scientific literacy, a group of friends with whom you can freely discuss any and all
important issues, and what I like to call a fully-functioning Personal Nonsense Detector. A nonsense detector can be compared to an
EMF meter or metal detector. If it is working, a metal detector will alert
you to when something metallic is nearby, even when it is out-of-sight. If it is not working, then it may fail to
alert you or alert you randomly and waste your time. Everyone has a so-called “Nonsense Detector.” It is that line we have. When a claim crosses that line, something
like an alarm sounds in our minds and we respond with doubt and distrust. The idea begins to “smell fishy.” It is the skill that allows us to sense when
someone is likely lying or spreading an ignorant position. It saves us from falling for a scam and stops
us from believing in something nonsensical. However, just because we all have one, doesn’t
mean that it is calibrated correctly. In other words, our personal sense of skepticism
may be engaged at incorrect times, blocking our minds from important information that
is factually accurate and consistent with reality. Therefore, reality should be the goal. Reality should be our baseline, the reset-point
to which all detectors should be configured. A well-functioning nonsense detector will
cause someone to raise suspicion when something is not realistic. A poorly-functioning nonsense detector will
cause you to be suspicious in error, much like when your body develops an intense allergy
to things that are perfectly harmless. Perhaps the first sign that your detector
is faulty is that you have to constantly make excuses (and engage in special pleading) for
why your beliefs don’t match experienced reality. At that moment when you feel like you have
to be dishonest, pause, and ask yourself why you feel compelled to stretch the truth, cover,
or compensate for someone or something else. The following five suggestions on how to develop
and improve your personal nonsense detector represent some general principals in science
and in formal logic. This list is also inspired by similar ones
proposed by Carl Sagan, Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette, and others. These suggestions can also be thought of as
five tests, challenges, or gateways passable by only the best of ideas! 1. CONSIDER HOW BADLY YOU WANT THE IDEA TO BE
TRUE There is a critical natural flaw in human
thinking. No matter what we are trying to learn, we
always have at least a little hope that the truth will end up being exactly what we want
it to be. We really want the doctor to tell us that
we are perfectly healthy. We really want people to see us as successful,
clever, or beautiful. We really want our plans to work, and we really
want the last gallon in our car to last for a few more miles. There is nothing wrong, per se, with strong
desire. Sometimes it is a good thing like when we
need the motivation to push ourselves or to take on challenges. However, when we are trying to find out what
is real, our wants act like a wrench in the machine. It is like giving ourselves blinders or shooting
ourselves in the foot. This is one way to understand the distracting
and disruptive effects of “bias.” Bias is a real problem. When we deeply want, hope for, or need one
idea to be right, above all others, we are showing a form of cognitive bias. This can lead us to show favoritism to one
idea, even in the face of evidence against it. Our deep wants and desires change the way
we look at things and change the way we try to find answers. It corrupts our experiments and blurs our
ability to see reality as it really is. So here is a reality check: The act of wanting
something to be true itself doesn’t affect how true the thing actually is. Just because you may really want the girl
in your English class to have a crush on you, for example, that doesn’t mean that she
does! Reality doesn’t care about what we want. You can wish something as hard as you like,
but that does not make it true. This kind of desire (to be right or to have
one’s beliefs confirmed) represents a kind of “default factory setting,” in the human
mind. It is something that we have to learn to put
aside. We need to be comfortable with learning and
believing in reality, as it is, warts and all. Now, this may lead to the acceptance of facts
that are not pleasant, impressive, or intuitive, but that is ok. We can’t always get the kind of answers
we like and we should be totally fine with that. A good scientist will accept the results of
a properly structured experiment, even if the results are unpleasant, disappointing,
boring, frustrating, or counter-intuitive. So the next time you find yourself desperately
wanting something to be true, recognize that as a sign to tread carefully. When you hear someone pandering to your passions,
prejudices, or desires, that should also send up a mental red flag. Scammers will try to flatter you and trick
you into thinking that they are on your side. That pandering sounds something like this:
“Would you like to quit your job, spend more time with your kids, and make a million
dollars from home?” “Are you tired of spending so much money
and time on this or that?” “Welcome enlightened one! For you are one of the few people smart enough
to have found our brotherhood who knows the real truth about the conspiracy!” “What do they know about it anyway? Don’t listen to the so-called experts. You know, you were right all along!” Rather than let ourselves be led by comfortable-sounding
falsehoods, we should try to be open to all possibilities, even those we don’t necessarily
like or want, especially when they don’t support our present views. 2. WHAT ARE THE BEST ARGUMENTS AGAINST IT? If you are convinced that an idea doesn’t
only have merit because of your personal desires, then it is time to see how well it measures
up to the most rigorous scrutiny. Has anyone tried to disprove the idea? If so, what was their strongest argument? We shouldn’t just turn to the weak caricatures
of the counter-argument. We need to give sincere consideration to the
best case presented by the opposition. One way to do this is to go to the source
of the counter-argument, rather than relying on a second-hand or third-hand version. Now that you have looked at all sides of the
debate, it can also be telling to consider how the original claimant responded to the
refutation. Were all naysayers smeared and branded as
heretics, or was their rebuttal considered seriously? Whatever the case, it is a good sign if your
idea comes from a source that allows for things like peer review, disagreement, debate, and
open discussion. To get to the true nature of reality, we must
often rely on more than just one mind. Ideas should be sent out to be tested in an
intellectual gladiatorial arena, stripped of all external protections. It must be allowed to rise or fall based on
its own merits. You can think of it this way: Answers to important
questions are like players on two dodgeball teams. They all must be submitted to the most brutal
game of testing, of arguments and counter-arguments. The last idea standing, the one that outlasts
its rivals, is then declared the winner until a more capable challenger comes along. We can’t just ignore what the “other side”
says. We shouldn’t only surround ourselves with
yes-men, lest we find ourselves in the same place as the emperor with no clothes. We must be able to entertain more than one
hypothesis, let each one be challenged, and be willing to drop good ideas for better ideas. 3. DOES THE IDEA SHOW SIGNS OF LOGICAL FALLACIES? A good idea will be coherent and internally
consistent. If there are several steps to an argument,
each step must be valid, work on its own, or “support its own weight.” But here is the problem. At first, all ideas may look like they meet
these high standards. They all have a claim to fame. So, much like the judges in a competitive
talent show, we can ask each contestant to show us what makes them so special. The great majority of ideas out there claim
to be more reasonable and logical than they really are. But you can develop the skills needed to accurately
spot and dismiss the pretenders. With practice, it can be like catching those
participants in a talent show who did not actually dedicate enough time and effort in
preparation for their performance. They are elevated and popularized mostly by
pretense. These pretenses that make ideas sound more
palatable, harmless, rational, scientific, reasonable, or more logical than they actually
are called, “logical fallacies.” If you have been listening to this podcast
for a while, then you already know that we have a few episodes completely dedicated to
common logical fallacies, explored one-by-one. They are some of our most popular podcasts,
so if you haven’t yet given them a listen, I’d highly recommend it! 4. OCCAM’S RAZOR
Here is a general rule in logic and philosophy: If two explanations seem equally valid, then
the simpler one is usually correct. Look for the explanation that has the fewest
steps and makes the fewest assumptions. It is not a perfect or fool-proof rule, but
it is a very good test through which you should send any important idea. It is known as Occam’s Razor, named after
a Franciscan friar who said something like, “more things should not be used than are
necessary.” The concept that, with all things being equal,
the one of two explanations that uses fewer steps is preferred, makes sense to me. When we lie, for example, we tend to add unnecessary
steps and complications to what would otherwise be a straight-forward retelling of plain reality. Fraudsters usually claim that their ideas
are exceptions to the norm that deserve special treatment. Anyone can make a convoluted word salad to
make any idea sound impressive, but all it takes is a critical look below the surface
to see the, often simpler, truth. Did a man in a black hat really jump through
the window, steal the cookie, and run off laughing? Or did your four-year-old simply make up a
story after they stole from the cookie jar? Are you really being contacted by a Nigerian
Prince, or did a scammer just send you some spam? Connected to this preference for simplicity,
in my mind, is a preference for normality. We would do well to ask, “does this idea
fit with how the world usually works?” While surprising and rare things do happen,
they are surprising and rare for a reason. We can be all-too-willing to accept something
that is out-of-the-ordinary. While we may be easy to convince, hopefully,
we all know others who generally skeptical and are hard to convince. Therefore, especially for young people, it
helps to wonder, “well, what would my parents think?” or “What might my teacher say,
if they were here?” before believing, doing, or buying something
suspicious. When faced with something that is not normal,
or seems unnecessarily overcomplicated, I think that an appropriate response is to start
asking questions. Even if they are dumb questions, or “kill
the mood” ask them anyway until you are satisfied. Ask as many questions as you want. When a scam artist or fraud is trying to pull
a fast one on you, forcing everyone to slow down and address your questions is a great
way to protect yourself. Before you agree to anything, especially if
it strikes you as odd or complicated, you owe it to yourself to demand that it is properly
explained. You owe it to yourself to only go along with
what you can understand. 5. DOES THE IDEA FOLLOW THE RULES OF SCIENCE? With all this talk about developing your nonsense
detection skills, we haven’t yet tried to look at how these important concepts are utilized
on a larger scale. How can a community, country, or humanity
itself be protected from bad ideas? Well, Humanity does actually have a powerful
nonsense detector called MODERN SCIENCE! This is science at its best! This is one of its most important jobs. When we think of science, we may think it
is just a list of strict academic rules that people in a lab must follow. But scientific thinking is something you can
implement in everyday life. It is a process that filters-out nonsense
and falsehoods, leaving only the best answers behind. We can use this process to make wiser choices
about how we handle our money, get a more accurate picture of the nature of our interpersonal
relationships, see political arguments and advertisements in a more clear light, live
healthier, and more. Here are some questions you can use to think
more like a scientist: Can the idea be quantified, tested, and proven wrong by anyone? How reliable are its sources? Does it actually follow where the preponderance
of evidence actually points? Is it the best answer we have so far with
the most explanatory and predictive power? The more of these kinds of tests an idea can
survive, the more likely it is to be true. If you have enjoyed this conversation or have
learned something from it, please leave a like, subscribe, and share it with other open-minded
people. All of those small things really do make a
big difference and help others find our group and our podcast. Thank you! That is all I have for you today, but the
conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? What feedback or ideas do you have for this
program or our organization? Feel free to share your perspective. A Special Shout-Out goes to Shayne Wissler,
Lance Freeman, and Brooke! Your monthly support makes this all possible. To check out our awesome donor rewards starting
at one dollar per month, please visit: freethoughtforum.org/donate.

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