Thursday, March 08, 2007

A "Baloney Detection Kit" for the spectacularly mistaken

These days, a stream of nonsense flows from a handful of keyboards connected to persons who ought to know better. Personages no less prominent than the President of the United Churches of Christ and the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches write and speak patent nonsense and outright mistruths about the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). I consider myself qualified to judge the utter folly of many of their accusations, since my own activities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are among those so sorely mischaracterized.

These prominent Christian leaders, who ought to show more responsibility if not simple integrity, get steaming hot material from Talk2Action, a seething hotbed of conspiratorial paranoia and mistruths lodged in a blog. There, breathless writers such as Frederick Clarkson and John Dorhauer wax slanderous about “a war of attrition” being fought “to disrupt and divide the NCC and its major member denominations.”

Why, we scoundrels at the IRD stoop to such scurrilous activities as openly attending public meetings or writing informative letters to churches. This must occur when we become distracted from our usual routine of torturing kittens or shaking down the White House for fresh bales of unmarked currency.

Today, however, my brilliant wife found on a co-worker’s office door the perfect tool for these writers, so mindlessly proud of their hypothesis of the IRD’s evil wrecking-ball dominion. The tool is Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit.”

As a public service, I commend the kit to anyone with a full-blown delusion such as Talk2Action’s. I’ll apportion it out line by line in italic, with my comments about Talk2Action (T2A) in Roman. Here goes:

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts. Confirmation? What confirmation? T2A advances wild hypotheses about IRD’s purposes, motivations, and actions, but refuses to provide documentation from any source to confirm its bizarre accusations.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view. T2A allows people to comment on its blog only if they first sign a statement that they agree to the purposes of T2A. Only one point of view is allowed, in other words, and anyone else is considered a troll. “People who do not share the purposes of this site but join anyway, are trolls,” scold the site guidelines. “Trolls and trollish behavior will not be tolerated.” It’s a sweet set-up for an autocrat, but it tends to produce baloney.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities"). T2A writers play on the supposed authority of the extensive “research” they say they do. But their outlandish claims and wild conspiracies belie actual scholarly rigor and make Senator Joseph McCarthy appear to be a veritable fount of knowledge and fairness by comparison.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy. Hoo-boy! This is the big T2A problem. There is but one hypothesis with this crowd: Evil rightwing political outsiders are conspiring through the IRD to split and destroy unsuspecting churches, stealing their resources and silencing their voices. Any other hypothesis is further evidence of the evil conspiracy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. This would require a measure of humility for T2A writers. Don’t count on it.
  • Quantify, wherever possible. This would ential producing actual facts and documentation. That’s a no-can-do for T2A.
  • If there is a chain of arguments, every link in the chain must work. But what about T2A’s chain, where none of the links works?
  • "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well. choose the simpler. Perhaps there should be “Clarkson’s razor”: If there are two hypotheses that attempt to explain the data, one being openly and consistently propounded by IRD and one being maliciously assumed by T2A, choose suspicious speculation every time.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is it testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result? The case is that such groups as reputable members of the press and even fellow progressives scoff at the tinfoil-hat rantings of T2A. Most ignore T2A's wild claims. This perplexes and frustrates T2A writers, who usually chalk up how the “news media perpetually miss one of the biggest religion stories of our time” to the purported extraordinarily pervasive influence of the IRD.

I would certainly find it refreshing if Talk2Action and a couple of Christian “statesmen” would employ Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” before deploying their own baseless blather. It would spare them from committing the sin of bearing false witness. And it would spare the rest of us from being fed a constant diet of their baloney.


Blogger Neil said...

Excellent points.

I found a link to your blog from Doug Hagler's site. I just read the Spring 2007 copy of IRD's Faith & Freedom and was going to mention the excellent article I read their about the NCC - then I realized it was your article! Nicely done. Keep up the good work. I really appreciate what you and the IRD do.

1:11 PM, April 25, 2007  

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