Calling BS Read-Along Week 1: Intro to BS

Welcome to the Calling Bullshit Read-Along based on the course of the same name from Carl Bergstorm and Jevin West  at the University of Washington. Each week we’ll be talking about the readings and topics they laid out in their syllabus. If you missed my intro, click here.

Well hello hello and welcome to Week 1 of the Read-Along! Before we get started I wanted to give a shout out to the Calling Bullshit Twitter feed, and not just because they informed me yesterday that they are jealous of my name. They post some useful stuff over there, so check them out.

We’re kicking off this thing with an Introduction to Bullshit.   Now you may think you and bullshit are already well acquainted, but it never hurts to set some definitions up front. The first reading is a quick blog post that explains what is commonly known as either “Brandolini’s Law” or “The Bullshit Asymmetry Principle”, which states that “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”. 

Even if you didn’t know there was a name for this, you know the feeling: you’re in a political discussion when someone decides to launch in to something absolutely crazy about “the other side”. Feeling defensive, you look up whatever it is their talking about to find evidence to refute it. Even with a smartphone this can take a few minutes. You find one source disagreeing with them, they declare it biased. You find another, it’s not well sourced enough. One more, from a credible person/publication who is normally on “their side” aaaaand…they drop it with a shrug and mumble that it wasn’t that important anyway. That’s 5-10 minutes of your life gone over something it took them less than 30 seconds to blurt out. Ugh.

Okay, so we all know it when we see it…..but what is bullshit? The obvious answer is to go with the precedent established in Jacobellis vs Ohio and merely declare that “I know it when we see it“, but somehow I doubt that will get you full credit on the exam. If we’re going to spend a whole semester looking at this, we’re going to have to get more specific. Luckily since bullshit is not a new phenomena, there’s actually some pre-existing literature on the topic. One of the better known early meditations on the topic is from 1986 and is simply called “On Bullshit“. For all my readers who are pedantic word nerds (and I know there’s more than one of you!) I recommend this, if only for the multiple paragraphs examining whether “humbug!” and “bullshit!” are interchangeable or not. That discussion led me to the transcript of the 1980 lecture “On the Prevalence of Humbug” by Max Black, which is not in the course but also worth a read.

Now “humbug” isn’t used commonly enough for me to have a real opinion about what it means, but Frankfurt uses it to set an important stage: “humbug” is not just about misrepresenting something, but also about your reasons for doing the misrepresenting. In Black’s essay, he asserts that “humbug” misrepresentations are not actually so much about trying to get someone to believe something untrue as about making yourself look better. This isn’t the “yeah I have a girlfriend, but she’s in Canada” version of looking better either, but a version of looking better where you come across as more passionate, more dedicated and more on board with your cause than anyone else. The intent is not to get someone to believe that what you are saying is literal truth, but to leave them with a certain impression about your feelings on some matter, and about you in general. In other words, there’s an inherently social component to the whole thing.

After the humbug meditations, Frankfurt moves in to the actual term bullshit and how it compares to regular old lying. The social aspect still remains, he claims, as we possibly would remain friends with a bullshitter, but not a liar. In Frankfurt’s view, a lie seeks to alter one particular fact, bullshit seeks to alter the whole landscape. A liar also has some idea about where truth is and is trying to veer away from it, but bullshit is just picking and choosing facts, half facts, and lies as they fit or don’t fit a purpose. In other words, bullshit is not necessarilyan intent to subvert truth, but an indifference to truth. He also looks at why bullshit has been proliferating: we have more chances to communicate, and more topics to communicate about. Even if our percentage of bullshit stays steady, today’s communication overload means there will be more of it, and the number of complex topics we’re confronted with encourage us to bullshit even further. The essay ends on a fairly philosophical note, concluding that bullshit proliferates the more we doubt that we can ever know the objective reality of anything.  Well then.

I liked the essay overall, as I hadn’t really thought of the social component of bullshit in these terms before. The idea that there’s some sort of philosophical underpinning to the whole endeavor is a little interesting as well. But bullshit in the regular world has been around for forever, and we mostly know how to cope with it. What happens when it moves in to academia or other “higher” sources? That’s the subject of the next essay “Deeper in to Bullshit” by GA Cohen. Cohen takes issue with Frankfurt’s focus on the intent of the talker, and wants to focus on the idea of things that are pure nonsense. In his world, it is not the lying/bluffing/indifference to truth part that is the essence of bullshit, but rather the lack of sense or “unclarifiable unclarity”. You know, the famous “if you dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” line of thought. Cohen also separates producers of this kind of bullshit in to two subcategories: those who aim to do this, and those who just happen to do this a lot. Fantastically, Cohen includes a little chart to clarify his version of bullshit vs Frankfurt’s:


So academia gets it’s own special brand of bullshit, but we’re not done yet. Going even further in to this topic, we get Eubanks and Schaeffer’s “A kind word for bullshit: The problem of academic writing“. Starting with the scholarly work of one Dave Barry, they point out the deep ambivalence about bullshit present in many parts of the academy. On the one hand, academics are acutely aware of the problem of bullshit and the corrosive nature of ignorance, but on the other hand, they are deeply afraid that much of what they produce may actually be bullshit. To quote Barry:

Suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. . . . If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English.

This of course is especially common in the humanities and social sciences due to physics envy.

Eubanks and Schaeffer go on to split bullshitters in to two categories of their own “prototypical” bullshitters, like the original type Frankfurt described, or academic bullshit. Academic bullshit does, of course, share some qualities with prototypical bullshit, namely that it aims to enhance the reputation of the author at the expense of clear communication. They point out that this starts infecting academics while they are still students, when they have every incentive to make themselves look good to the professor, and barely any incentives to make themselves intelligible to the average person.

So with these four essays, what are my major takeaways?

  1. Bullshit must be understood in a social context. To put it on the same level as “lying”  is to miss a major motivation.
  2. Due to point #1, challenging bullshit can take tremendous effort. You not only have to challenge the lack of truth, but also might be undermining someone’s sense of self-importance. That second part tends to make the first part look like a cake walk.
  3. Academia, which should be one of our primary weapons against bullshit, has succeeded in creating their own special breeding ground for bullshit.
  4. Undoing point #3 faces all the challenges previously stated in #2, but edit the sentence like this: You not only have to challenge the lack of truth clarity, but also might be undermining someone’s sense of self-importance <insert “and career”>.
  5. I need to start using the word “humbug” more often.

The points about academics are particularly well taken, as there seems to be a common misconception that intelligence inoculates you against bullshit and self deception. When I give my talk about internet science to high school kids, it’s almost always AP classes and I have to REALLY emphasize the whole “don’t get cocky kid” point. That’s why I love showing them the motivated numeracy study I talk about here.  They are always visibly alarmed that high math ability actually makes you more prone to calculation errors if making an error will confirm a pre-existing belief you find important. As we examine bullshit and how to refute it, it’s important to note that preventing yourself from spreading bullshit is a great first step.

That does it for this week. See you next week, when we move on to “Spotting Bullshit”!

Week 2 is up! Go straight to it here.

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