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“Baloney Detection” in the era of “fake news”

In attempting to help my students (and extended family) recognize these categories more responsibly — preferably before they share them — I think it’s useful to remember Carl Sagan’s chapter on “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” from 1996.

Much has been written recently about the explosion of so-called “fake news” — much of which is, unlike real fake news such as that generated by the Onion or Andy Borowitz — falls somewhere on the spectrum between “snake-oil” pieces that generate income via advertising (“clickbait”), to shrill scare pieces about the evil doings (e.g., vaccines cause autism), to full-out political propaganda by politicians or their supporters.

In attempting to help my students (and extended family) recognize these categories more responsibly — preferably before they share them — I think it’s useful to remember Carl Sagan’s chapter on “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” from 1996. His beginning point included the following “tools,” paraphrased below (I have bolded key elements that I think are particularly a problem in 2017):

See also:  David Seipp on Themes of the Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric of Privacy

Sagan also runs through the more common logical fallacies, such as:

See also:  New-Fashioned Quarantine (from 1916)

There are many, many more, and all deserve more examples, particularly in today’s media climate. The whole book is worth reading

 

Kristopher Nelson, JD, MA (ABD)

I'm currently a PhD Candidate in History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. I provide legal assistance to the TRE Legal Practice. formerly, I was a developer/sysadmin at a biotech non-profit. For more about me and my work, see krisnelson.org or my Google Profile. Note: This is not legal advice. I am not licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

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