The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

With social and traditional media burning up with all kinds of questionable information and messages, it’s a good time to make sure you’re targeting your communications to the people you want to reach. Can you visualize that person, understand his or her needs and frustrations, and address them? If so, you’ll have a much better chance to connect and they’ll be willing to listen.

But in today’s hyped-up media world, you also have to address and overcome the fine art of baloney detection, a term coined by the late, great public scientist Carl Sagan, who shared his thoughts about upholding reason in the face of shameless untruths and propaganda.

Scientists, said Sagan, are equipped with a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools that fortify the mind against the penetration of falsehoods. But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it helps everyone maintain a healthy skepticism that can apply to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation.

A relevant sample of the kit:

• Wherever possible, there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
• Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future.
• If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work — not just most of them.

This kind of healthy skepticism is particularly endemic to millennials (the influential generation who reached adulthood around 2000). Having been inundated with propaganda all their lives, they:

• Don’t automatically trust the leader (president, CEO, dean, etc.) just because he or she is the leader.
• Sniff out observational selection. When communicators count the hits and ignore the misses.
• Reject false dichotomies (“You’re either with me or against me.”) It may be easier to understand villains vs. heroes, but reality is more complex.
• Search for causation, not just correlation. Example: As ice cream sales increase, the rate of drowning deaths increases sharply. Therefore, ice cream consumption causes drowning. This is correlation, not causation.
• Scorn weasel words. Example: calling war “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.”

In short, the challenge to communicators today is to resist the “bull” and keep it straight, in order to win hearts and minds. And if you do, you can achieve something that lasts and pays dividends for years – loyalty and trust. This is one important way I’ve managed to serve my clients for nearly three decades. It works.

Don Heymann

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