How many times have you heard the following...
"I have the panacea for all your ills!"
"My spirituality will make all your problems go away!"
"My scientific theory will change everything we know about the world!"
"I have the TRUTH, unlike those brainwashed sheeple!"
How many times do you hear claims like that? How often do you find yourself thinking, "I'd like to believe that, but I'm not sure... how can I be sure?"
This is a guide to help you.
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Step 1: Know the Signs of Cult Thinking and Brainwashing.
One thing you'll want to do is assess the behaviors of the proponents and believers. If they fit the behavior of a cult, you'll want to proceed with caution. The Orange Papers has a huge list of symptoms to watch out for.
Here are some hot ones:
-Proponents/believers make personal attacks against you if you don't accept their claims and/or declare that you're morally/spiritually inferior.
-Proponents/believers claim that critical thinking and examination is bad and tell you things like "that's just your ego talking!", or "Satan's influencing your mind!", or "You only feel/think this way because you're not pure enough!" when you ask too many questions or express doubt.
-Proponents/believers call you derogatory names if you question them or express doubt - EG, "sheeple," "corpse muncher," "fur fag," "dirty hippie," "treehugger," "scoffer," or "doubter."
-Insist that their way is the only way.
-Deny or badly explain away new discoveries that don't fit their ideologies.
-See everything in black and white - if you're not with them (and therefore one of the "good guys"), you're an enemy and one of the "bad guys."
-Won't tolerate criticism and sweep bad experiences or failures under the rug.
-Vehemently deny being brainwashed and/or give a bizarre and illogical explanation as to why they aren't brainwashed despite displaying a great number of symptoms.
Step 2: Learn to Recognize Logical Fallacies.
You can take the wind out of a lot of bull if you know how to recognize logical fallacies. This site has some good information.
Here are some common ones:
Ad Hominem: Instead of attacking an argument or claim, the person attacks the person making the argument. ("You're just a closed-minded meanie! Why should we listen to you?")
Begging the Question: Drawing a conclusion from a premise that is not demonstrated to be true. ("Fairies ate my tomatoes, so I should set fairy traps!" or "Using red flyswatters makes people more violent, so we should outlaw red flyswatters!")
Slippery Slope: Claiming that one thing will lead to another, even though there's no good reason to assume thus. ("If we legalize gay marriage, bestiality will be next!")
Appeal to Antiquity: Claiming that something is superior because it's what we've always had or the way it's always been done. ("We've always worn fur. Why should I stop doing something we've always done?")
Appeal to Novelty: Claiming that something is superior because it's new. ("Ugh, doing it that way is for old fuddy-duddies. You're not going to be an old fuddy-duddy, are you?")
Appeal to Nature: Claiming something is desirable because it's natural, or undesirable because it's unnatural. ("Don't take that unnatural synthetic insulin! Try my all-natural snake oil instead!")
Bandwagon Fallacy: Claiming that something is superior because everyone's doing, using, or trying it. ("Try Super-Sugar-Cola! The new soft-drink everyone's chugging! ")
Straw Man: Misrepresenting your opponent so that his or her argument appears so absurd, it's easy to destroy. ("Evolutionists think cells appeared when lightning struck a rock!")
Appeal to Authority: Quoting someone famous when A: he/she isn't a credible source, B: he/she was joking, or C: what he/she said doesn't actually support the view you think it supports. ("Stephen Hawking just said he believes in alien life. This makes my theory that mice came from outer space more believable!")
False Dichotomy: Presenting only two options or solutions when in reality three or more are available.
Step 3: Arm Yourself With the Baloney Detection Kit.
Michael Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit has a lot of great tips to help you detect... well, baloney. Just in case anything happens to the video, here's the gist of it:
How reliable is the source of the claim?
--Are mistakes in the data random, or do they slant toward a particular bias or belief?
----If YES, then suspect an agenda.
Does the source make similar claims?
--Does the source make claims that are part of a larger 'package' - IE, does a believer in UFOs also believe in crystals, telepathy, etc.
----If YES, you might have someone so open-minded their brains have fallen out.
Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
--Has anyone else confirmed, or verified the claims, or tested them and got the same results?
----If NO, something else is probably going on.
Does this fit in the way with the world works?
--If aliens built pyramids, we should find no trace of *human* tools and trash, but possibly traces of alien tools. We find Egyptian trash.
----If NO, the claim is suspect.
Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
--Positive claims require tests to make sure that something else isn't going on, or that there isn't a better explantion. A responsible researcher does this.
----If NO, then you don't have a responsible researcher.
Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
--Does the bulk of actual evidence point to the theory the claimant is proposing, or does it fit another theory better?
----If NO, suspect whackjob.
Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
--Are they using logic, reason, empirical evidence, and testing, or are they just trying to make a case for their particular claim?
----If NO to the first and YES to the second, then suspect crackpot.
Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
--It's not enough to have negative evidence against the opposing theory; you must have positive evidence for your own theory.
----If NO, then pseudoscience.
Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
--A new model of physics that doesn't explain as much as Newton or Einstein's theories is simply useless.
----If NO, then the theory is no good.
Are personal beliefs driving the claim?
--Examples including Big Business being skeptical of global warming, or YECs being skeptical of evolution.
----If YES, suspect an agenda.
Step 4: Check Out Other Points of View.
See what the critics and skeptics have to say about something, or see what people who abandoned the idea or belief have to say, and why they say it. Be prepared to spend not hours, but even days or months doing research. Always keep an eye out for new information that could enlighten you.
Remember: Not everyone's opinion carries the same weight! The opinions of a highschool dropout who doesn't believe in evolution because A: the Bible says everything was created in six days and B: can't imagine how the diversity of life could be here without being specially created does not carry the same weight as a biologist who has spent years doing research on the subject.
Warning 1: Be aware that some people who call themselves skeptics are in fact denialists and reactionaries who simply brush things off or attack them because they don't fit their current ideas of how the world works or would interfere with their current way of life, not because they've truly examined the claims and evidence for the claims in any great depth.
Warning 2: Studies funded by special interest groups tend to be rather unreliable - IE, the tobacco industry's study "proving" that smoking doesn't really cause lung cancer. Also, some groups may quote documents out of context to make it appear that someone said something that supports their position when they didn't, or take selected remarks to make it appear that someone would have supported a position they may not have. For example, extreme animal rights activists love to quote Ghandi's pro-vegetarian remarks, but ignore his rather scathing comments on veganism that comes at the cost of human health. (Scroll to the bottom of this step to read it.)
Warning 3: Some "experts" may be anything but. There are a lot of pseudoscientists out there. It helps to research the expert to help determine if he/she has a religious, moral, or political axe to grind or is being paid by someone who does.
The crores of India today get neither milk nor ghee nor butter, nor even buttermilk. No wonder that mortality figures are on the increase and there is a lack of energy in the people. It would appear as if man is really unable to sustain life without either meat or milk and milk products. Anyone who deceives people in this regard or countenances the fraud is an enemy of India." - Mohandas Ghandi, 1946
Step 5: Don't Get So Stuck on One View That You Can't Change Your Mind.
Be willing to revise your current picture on the world based on what you learn in the future. Don't get an idea of how you think the world is or ought to be and insist that it's the truth forevermore. If you do, you're no better than the people whose baloney you were trying to avoid in the first place.
When looking for answers, try no to be an ass to those who disagree with you, no matter how tempting it is. Even if they're asses to you. Especially if they're asses to you.
Don't dismiss ideas just because they don't jive with what you're certain would make the world a better place. A problem with many peoples' utopias is that the steps to get there just aren't doable.