Politics, Tactics, Marketing, and… Carl Sagan?

Carl Sagan
| October 28, 2016
Categories: Learnin'


Politics, Tactics, Marketing, and… Carl Sagan?

Dave Merrill

As of today, the next American Presidential election is under two weeks away. The 2017 SHOT Show officially starts rolling in just a couple months. And people argue tactics on the internet always. Probably many people reading this look toward to the first two aforementioned events with dread, and perhaps the third with eye rolling and annoyance.

What does this have to do with Carl Sagan? Read on…

For a very brief overview on Sagan, let’s take the introductory quote from every undergraduate’s favorite resource, Wikipedia:

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences. He is best known for his work as a science popularizer and communicator. His best known scientific contribution is research on extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. 

Sagan was intelligent, well spoken, and an excellent critic. In his book Demon Haunted World Sagan debunked many conspiracy theories, paranormal activities, and other short circuits of the human brain with a healthy dose science and rationality. What’s more, he wrote an entire chapter on how you can do this all for yourself. While there’s probably not a whole lot of UFO abduction talk in politics, tactics, and marketing, there is still a whole lot of bullshit. Though religion was often the bullseye for Sagan’s ire, you shouldn’t let that turn you off to this method outright; the beauty of the tool kit Carl Sagan outlined for us is that it can be used for almost anything.

Anything, like: an uber-defensive ammunition load being pimped without empirical testing. Endorsements by famous people. Questionable things (at best) from the mouths of political leaders. The terrible tactics you see pushed on derpy Facebook pages. Flashy advertising. And so on.

Without further ado:

Carl Sagan’s Tools for Skeptical Thinking (AKA The Baloney Bullshit Detection Kit):

In science we may start with experimental results, data, observations, measurements, “facts.” We invent, if we can, a rich array of possible explanations and systematically confront each explanation with the facts. In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance.

1) Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

2) Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

3) Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

4) Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

5) Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

6) Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

7) If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

8) Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

9) Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.


Further in the chapter Sagan also reminds us of common logical fallacies so we can more easily identify and avoid them–both in the arguments of others and in our own. You can read the complete chapter online (and I strongly suggest you do) here. You may not remember Carl Sagan fondly, and there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with some of his conclusions. But you don’t have to agree with everything he ever said to take his rules of critical thinking to heart. Actually taking the time to examine and verify claims made in politics, tactics, and marketing will make you a better informed person. Or, you can be the lowest common denominator.


Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!

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About the Author: A combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Dave “Mad Duo Merrill” is a former urban warfare and foreign weapons instructor for Coalition fighting men. An occasional competitive shooter, he has a strange Kalashnikov fetish the rest of the minions try to ignore. Merrill, who has superb taste in hats, has been published in a number of places, the most awesome of which is, of course, here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He loves tacos, is kind of a dick and married way, way above his pay grade. You can contact him at Merrill(at)BreachBangClear.com and follow him on Instagram here (@dave_fm).


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