Article by Ken Kilgore
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
─ Derek Bok
I majored in Biology in college, but it wasn’t till I read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996) years later that I consciously developed a consistent and rigorous critical thinking process that applies to life in general. In his book, Sagan devotes a chapter to equip readers with a “baloney detection kit” that contains tools for evaluating new ideas and discriminating between accurate reflections of reality and false deceptions.
Some of the tools included in the kit are (as quoted directly from the book):
- 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 (including the premise)—not just most of them.
- Quantify. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.
Nearly every day, I use one or two baloney detection tools when critical thinking is needed to make a decision. But I had the opportunity to use several tools at once a couple years ago when a neighbor enjoying his walk saw me working in my front yard and came over to chat. My family had recently moved back to our old neighborhood in Utah after having lived in Japan for five years, and the neighbor and I hadn’t had the chance to catch up on each other’s lives since our return.
My neighbor noticed that I had lost weight, so I told him that I was treated for acute leukemia in Japan and while I am doing fine now, it will be another two years before I’m considered cured. In the meantime, I exercise, watch my diet, and take about a dozen meds daily to maintain a delicate balance of my immune system. At this point, my neighbor’s eyes lit up as he excitedly said he had just the thing for me. He ran home and then returned to my yard with several pamphlets and a two-page stapled paper print out.
“Now, you’re half Japanese, right? Have you heard of Kangen water?” my neighbor asked. When I confessed that I hadn’t, he explained that the Kangen water process was invented by a respected Japanese scientist and that drinking this water will surely provide me with amazing health benefits, as stated in the colorful marketing pamphlets. Hoping to appeal to my scientific bias, the print out was a copy of a medical paper describing how the permeability of a certain tissue in a human subject increased when water with a basic pH was transfused, or something like that.
In short, the Kangen water process claims to rearrange water molecules into hexagonal structures that more easily permeate hard-to-reach thirsty tissues, and the water’s alkaline pH reverses all the supposed damage caused by the acidity of our body. These benefits come from just drinking a reasonable quantity of Kangen water every day.
When I expressed fear that such powerful stuff might affect the meds I take and upset my immune system, my neighbor assured me that “it’s still only water” and there will be no side effects or interactions with drugs. “It’s just clean, healthy water.”
As a neighborly gesture, I agreed to review the literature and check into the product over the next couple of days, but using critical thinking tools and skills, it took less than ten minutes to realize that the Kangen water process is a fraud.
The pamphlets contained only anecdotal declarations of the benefits gained from drinking the water, without any control subjects or independent, 3rd party confirmation of the claims. The factual errors and misunderstanding of basic water chemistry in the literature would be obvious to even a high school science student. The print out’s medical article seemed legitimate, but it described a situation of infusing alkaline water into a specific body tissue via an IV or hypodermic injection and says nothing about whether such water taken orally will survive the acidic environment of the stomach and reach specific tissues.
Normally, it’s enough I figure out for myself that such a product is mere baloney. But when I learned that this particular Kangen device (basically a filter, an electrolyser and a mixer for adding alkaline chemicals to ordinary water) costs $6,000, I felt sorry for my neighbor who had invested his limited time and resources in his sincere but false hope of making money and improving the wellness of his friends and neighbors. Had he employed basic critical thinking skills and the baloney detection kit, he might have been spared from being so rudely conned financially, intellectually, and morally.