The Fine Art of Baloney Detection: In honour of Dr. Carl Sagan

Dec 20, 2006 / By Paul Vallee

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Carl Sagan is a personal hero of mine. His writings were formative in my approach to my work, and even more than that in my sense of wonder and awe at the natural universe that I live in. When I held my son in my arms five days ago, and looked up to the sky to see if we might find the Gemenid’s shooting stars, and again last night when I explained that we can’t see the moon tonight because it is even higher than the clouds, that’s partly Pale Blue Dot influencing me.

Ten years ago today this gifted communicator, this awe- and wonder-inspiring man who was in some ways the very finest advocate and ambassador for science the world has ever known, died of cancer. And so today the community of bloggers that loved and admired Carl Sagan, inspired by an idea from Joel Schlosberg, is having a spontaneous blogathon in his memory.

You might ask, what does Carl Sagan have to do with being a good DBA? Believe it or not, a lot. Yes, really. I’ll use, as an example, another hero of mine Jonathan Lewis (who as a side note said something nice about Pythian recently). You might remember the numerous evidentiary battles championed by Jonathan? Not to mention yesterday’s article in the same vein on Recognizing Myths and, more importantly, recognizing when so-called myths are actually true?

All of the skills he’s put to work in there, and more, are in essence the application of the scientific method. Any good scientist must be able to spot what Carl Sagan called “baloney”, and that’s exactly what Jonathan is doing in those articles: detecting, and calling, “baloney!”.

How does he do it? Well it’s no secret, and in fact Jonathan goes to great lengths to explain exactly what his approach is. However, there is a phenomenal document on this subject that should be required reading for production engineers of all stripes, written by Carl Sagan himself. Sagan was not writing about database engineering, but his writings apply all the same.

All of us, as database production engineers, should strive to make our decisions on as solid a foundation of fact as possible. Detecting baloney, in our own assumptions, in existing processes, in instructions or advice from others is an integral part of our jobs, and I would go so far as to say differentiates the good from the great database engineers.

For your reading pleasure, and in memory an admirable man, please enjoy Carl Sagan’s The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.

And in closing, I quote from Pale Blue Dot:

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

We miss you Carl.

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