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Baloney Detection
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One of my favorite books is Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, and one of my favorite parts of that book is his Baloney Detection Kit.

It states general guidelines for detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments, including:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").

I was thinking about the DNA-free food I blogged about yesterday, and also about various news stories one might come across on the internet, and was wondering if there were a specific need for an Internet Baloney Detection Kit.

Perhaps the original does the job...I don't know.

Let's take a case study, from yesterday's post at Electrolite, regarding a report from the Scotland Sunday Herald about uranium oxide for sale in a Basra marketplace.

Now then, when I come across a piece like this, especially with a headline like "Looted and for sale in Iraq: the deadly core of nuclear weapons", it seems like a big story, a very significant story. So naturally, since I read and listen to a lot of news, and this was printed on Sunday, I think, "Why haven't I heard about this?"

Skepticism is important, right? I mean, you don't want to believe everything you read, especially on the internet. But you also want to keep a fairly open mind, so as not to exclude things that might actually be true. So what criteria would you use to either validate this story or proclaim it a load of bunk?

Well, for one, I did a little Googling. "Uranium oxide Basra". The first two hits are the only ones actually referring to the story, and they're both links from CommonDreams and IndyMedia. The link to the actual story is hit #9. Maybe it's unwarranted prejudice, but I do not consider CommonDreams and IndyMedia to be valid, legitimate sources of news. Besides, they were both just reposting the original story, not independently confirming it. Should I take into consideration the political leanings of these websites, and their virulent opposition to the war and to Bush, when determining their credibility?

And even though the story's been out for a week, I can't find a single independent confirmation of it. So am I willing to say it's bullshit yet? Well, not quite. It could just be an independent exclusive that mainstream media just hasn't followed up on, right?

So then I look up some information about uranium oxide (note that the headline talks about the "deadly core of nuclear weapons", but I thought nukes were made from enriched uranium...).

Turns out uranium oxide is basically uranium ore. That doesn't mean that it's not radioactive or not dangerous, or that, as the story states, it couldn't be used in a dirty bomb.

But the story says stuff like this:

The Sunday Herald source, who cannot be named for fear of reprisals, was approached by black marketeers in Basra and asked if he would help sell the material. He said: “The cylinders are about a foot long, grey in colour with a red band around the top. The skull and crossbones warning logo, and the label ‘pure uranium oxide’ are clearly marked in English.”

So they've got an unnamed source who says he was approached by people who had this stuff, not marked with radioactive warning signs, but a "skull and crossbones" and labeled "pure uranium oxide". Hmm...does this sound kosher to you? When you see listings for chemical compounds, their purity is often listed as a percentage (e.g. 77.8% Uranium oxide), not "Pure Uranium Oxide).

But then the story quotes a guy named John Large:

John Large, a leading independent nuclear consultant, said the size and description of the cylinders “suggests this is enriched uranium”.

Well, by now my bullshit detector is beeping pretty loudly. A cylinder marked with skull-and-crossbones, reading "Pure Uranium Oxide" suggests that it is really enriched uranium? Huh?

So am I ready to call the story bullshit yet? Yeah, I'm pretty comfortable with that assessment.

A conspiracy theorist can always cook up an excuse to explain away shitty reporting, if they really want to believe something. The big newspapers and networks don't really want you to know about it, see? It's a cover-up. Or they're too afraid to criticize Bush.

Um, no. The fantasy of a lone, brave Scottish reporter breaking the story of black market WMD is perhaps appealing, but there are just too many red flags.

Anyone here actually find this story credible? If so, what standards, if any, do you apply to what you read or hear, in terms of deciding whether or not to believe it?

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