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If Youth Knew, If Age Could 13 — Sifting Sense and Nonsense: B.S. Detector, the Baloney Detection Kit


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/03/06

Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).

Here we talk about critical thinking.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: People lie. That’s obvious. The interesting thing is what they lie about in life. Big lies can persist and overtake large hunks of a population. Carl Sagan and others developed something of a B.S. kit or some mental tools, considerations, for detecting nonsense posed as sense. What are some basic tools of critical thinking? Some first pass filters.

Herb Silverman: When making decisions, we should be careful about putting too much trust in our feelings or our observations. A recent study looked at judges who decided which criminals to let out on parole and which to imprison, and then fed relevant information about the criminals into a computer. The computer could not see whether the criminal showed remorse, acted reformed, whether the family showed up for support, or countless other observations the judge made. Based on the paroled subjects’ subsequent recidivism rates, it turned out that the computer did a better job than the judges.

We tend to think people are being honest if they give a firm handshake, look us in the eye, and sound authoritative. But con men and con women know this, and have perfected such skills. There are also shy people who look down when they talk, have a limp handshake, and seem nervous. They are probably honest, despite how we might read or misread their visual cues.

When trying to decide whether someone is lying or giving us fake news, keep in mind the phrase made popular by Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Before that, the 18th century mathematician Laplace said, “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportional to its strangeness.” Also, David Hume in 1748 wrote, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” and “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

These phrases are central to the scientific method, and a key to critical thinking, rational thought, and skepticism. If someone told me he had a letter from George Washington that said, “Send more troops,” that might sound plausible, but if he told me the letter from George Washington said, “Buy Amazon stock in 1995,” I would ignore him unless he had extraordinary evidence.

Many people believe or pretend to believe ideas for which there is no evidence, and repeat details beyond the possibilities of knowledge. This happens almost all the time in religion.

Some basic tools in critical thinking include constructing and understanding a reasoned argument, and recognizing a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether the premise is true. Don’t get too attached to a conclusion you like, where you may only look at evidence that supports your conclusion and reject or ignore contrary evidence. This is known as confirmation bias.

If possible, see if you can find independent confirmation of “facts.” Don’t rely exclusively on what so-called “authorities” say. See if you can find good reasons to reject an idea. If you can’t, it is more likely to be true. Don’t assume, without evidence, that if one event followed another, the first event must have caused the second. Remember Occam’s Razor: When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler hypothesis, and you’re more likely to choose right.

Jacobsen: James Randi compared charlatans to whack-a-mole. Of those who get exposed, they just pop up again, and again, and again and again and again, in other circumstances and similar guises with the same ‘powers,’ i.e., Uri Geller. Is this going to be a perpetual project of critical thinking and exposure of bad actors?

Silverman: Yes, we can’t prevent bad actors from continuing to be bad actors. We must continually try to expose them, but people will continue to believe charlatans. As P. T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Jacobsen: Finally, have you ever seen any charlatans or frauds ever learn from their bad ways and correct course?

Silverman: What I’ve learned is that some followers of charlatans get upset when the charlatan is exposed because they want to continue to believe the charlatan. I’ll give some personal examples.

I do yoga for flexibility, and once went to a yoga retreat where some of the leaders also performed activities far beyond what I had expected. One leader claimed to regress several participants to their past lives. Most had impressive backgrounds as former kings, queens, and warriors. When the professional regressor told us we all had many past lives, I asked him how that could be when more people are born each year than die. He was unfazed, saying matter-of-factly, “You didn’t take into account life on other planets.” He was right, I hadn’t. I think a better explanation (though still imaginary) would have been, “You didn’t consider other species. Some of you were once mosquitoes or cockroaches.” At least we know there are other life forms on this planet, but those at the retreat likely preferred thinking of themselves as former royalty than as former garden pests.

After the session, I talked to a couple of the regressed, trying to discover if they had been plants (in the ringer sense, not in the past-life sense). They all said they believed their past life experiences were real.

Another leader was an aura specialist, a clairvoyant who drew inferences about a person’s emotional state based on his or her supposed aura color. She would put a person on stage and say something like, “He has a blue aura. Can you see it?” After several such demonstrations, many at the retreat became confident about their aura-reading abilities. Then I said to the clairvoyant, “To test how good we’ve become, why don’t we write down the aura color we see before you tell us what you see?” The clairvoyant must not have been psychic, because she didn’t see my question coming and felt insulted by it. Some of the others were also upset with my proposed “test” for the professional clairvoyant, in which she refused to participate.

Years later, I had a similar experience in South Carolina at a group reading organized by “internationally-renowned channeler” Darlen-De, who claimed to be an intermediary for a dead guy who would answer questions about the future. The deceased was like your typical fortune teller, only dead. Darlen-De went around the room soliciting questions. She would repeat each question, be silent for a minute, and then answer in a funny voice attributed to the dead guy. People seemed happy with the answers.

When my turn came, I said, “I’ve been worried about Calvin. He doesn’t apply himself. Will he go to college?” The dead guy answered, “Don’t worry. He’ll go to college, but perhaps not the school you like.” I then asked, “Do you know which college my cat Calvin will attend?” This time Darlen-De didn’t ask the dead guy, though I expect “obedience school” would have been an appropriate answer. Again, the wrath of the participants was directed toward the exposer rather than the exposed. Apparently, people enjoy being gullible as long as their gullibility isn’t pointed out to them so blatantly.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Previous sessions:

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 1 — Freethought for the 21st Century

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 2 — Freethought for a Multipolar World

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 3 — Coming of Age in an Ever, Ever-Irrational World

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 4 — Bridges are the Rainbows

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 5 — We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, No-Time Soon: Supernaturalistic Traditions and Naturalistic Philosophies in the Future

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 6 — Age is Numbers, Youth is Attitude

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 7 — The Nature of Nature in the Nature of Time

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 8 — Serendipity, Luck, and Love

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 9 — Guidance Without Expectation of Reward: or, Thus Saith the Landlord

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 10 — Nature’s on a Roll, or a Rigamarole, or Somethin’: Plural Processes, Dynamic Dynamos, and Good Enough

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 11 — Morrow’s Fantasia: My Tomorrow’s ‘Tomorrow’

If Youth Knew, If Age Could 12 — By ‘Soul,’ We Mean Psyche: The Complete Human Being


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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