Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net
Of all scientific terminologies, "theory" is surely the most misunderstood. I've covered this before many, many times, but somehow I don't feel I've quite done it justice. Let me attempt to put this right. First the short version, the one you can link to if someone on the internet is shouting, "it's only a theory !!!" and you want them to shut up and go away.
Theory : Too Long Didn't Read Version
Sorry people, "theory" is ambiguous and has many meanings. It's context dependent. Yeah, I know, that's a right bugger for arguing on the internet. Alas, the notion that a theory has a very specific meaning to scientists (e.g. a model that's been especially well-tested) is simply not true at all, and even if it did, that wouldn't mean that everyone else is being an ignoramus by using it to mean something different.
A theory is a model that describes how the world works... but not all theories are equal. Sometimes it's fine to say "it's only a theory", sometimes it isn't. This depends on the degree of testing which the theory has survived. It's not about "theory", it's about the prefix "only". Rough guide :
"Anyway, the round earth / evolution / relativity / dark matter / is only a theory" - people who say this tend to be ignorant savages who live in huts and sacrifice goats to avoid angering the Great Duck. I've tried to place those examples in a rough order of how well-tested they are, but in all those cases, saying, "it's only a theory" is directly equivalent to saying, "I'm a pillock."
Something you or your mates just thought up of the top of your head. As in, "You know me mate Dave ? I've got this theory right, that he's actually, like, secretly a ninja. Just a theory though." That one mostly definitely is only a theory, because it isn't well-tested at all.
So, calm down people. Take your time and consider carefully how well-tested your theory is. If it gets a lot of things right - even if it also gets some things wrong - then you can't say "it's only a theory", because that ignores how well it does. In general, forget whether or not the theory makes any sense to you and concentrate on the results. But if the theory only explains a few things and not very well, and gets a lot of things wrong, or hasn't been tested at all... then you can absolutely say, "it's only a theory". Or better yet : it's only a model.
The only other detail is that someone might say, "it's only a theory" when what they really mean is, "it's not a fact". That's a bit tougher. Gravity isn't a theory, it's a fact - but models of how gravity works (like relativity) are very definitely theories, not facts. Similarly the spherical shape of the Earth is a fact, but we don't know its shape with infinite precision, so in that sense it's also a theory. And we know with certainty that evolution happens, even if much remains unknown about genetics. So if you want to say, "it's not a fact", it very much depends on which theory you're discussing.
That's really all there is to it. You may stop reading at this point if you like. But if a more detailed analysis is needed, read on. There's nothing new here for regular readers, I just want a go-to post. I've got this theory that collecting these ideas together may be useful...
Just before the election I wrote about how awful the UK political situation is. Four days later and nothing much has changed. If you're a Tory supporter, I'm afraid you're in a bad way. There isn't much I can offer to console you, except that for now, you've won. It's a bad win though, and very likely a Pyrrhic victory. Sorry about that. Actually, I might have been sorry with Cameron's government in charge, if only a little bit. But with May and her vicious screaming horde ? Not so much really, I was lying about that. Sorry. Actually that was a lie too. Sorry.
If you're anyone else (except for a few hard-right fringe parties) then I'm afraid, well, first of all...
The good news is that May is not long for this political world. May, as we've seen with increasing frequency in the last few weeks, is not a creature that does well under pressure. She has a habit of turning into a robot and giving wildly inappropriate answers to questions; not everything is about being strong and stable and very little of anything is about running through fields of wheat. Oh, she likes to talk tough, but actually being tough means giving sensible answers under pressure, not merely being able to deliver stock phrases without bursting into tears. That's just not good enough.
Pressure on May is about to increase dramatically. It's already ramped up because of the loss of the Tory majority. And as I said some time back, May called the election not merely out of opportunism, but out of desperate opportunism. She couldn't cope with the pressures of the reality of Brexit and the threat of indyref2 so instead of trying to negotiate her way out of it - the sign of a truly tough character - she went the way of the desperate and rolled the dice.
With strange irony, the election has indeed (unexpectedly) removed the threat of indyref2 - but it hasn't helped ease the pressure on May at all. Her slim majority has gone completely. This wouldn't necessarily be so bad except that the whole election campaign revolved around being "strong and stable"* and the farcical notion that the stronger the mandate of the UK PM to govern the UK, the better deal we'd get in a Brexit negotiation. Quite how that was ever supposed to work escapes me. And worse, virtually all of the other parties are now firmly opposed both to Tory ideologies - not merely policies but the deeper perception of what it is the Tories actually want - and May's personal dictatorial "strong and stable" style.
* May, they say, is a prisoner of number 10. Who's her jailer ? Easy : herself. She's a victim of her own sloganeering, constrained by her promise to be strong and stable when what's needed is to be intelligent and flexible.
That leaves the DUP, a bunch of awful people that no-one's ever heard of - and those that have heard of them rightly detest them. Even May, horrid character though she is, is only trying to deal with them because she has no choice. It may sound strange to suggest that a deal with the Tories and these archaic lunatics is a good thing for modern progressives, but it is. Everyone instantly hates the DUP, and already they're not kowtowing to the Tory machine as expected. May is a lousy negotiator and always has been.
Furthermore, if you're worried about the damage the DUP will do to British politics, don't be. Brexit succeeded only (in part) because there had been years (decades, even) of widespread far-right anti-foreigner rhetoric in the popular press. But climate change denial or promoting creationism ? There's no appetite for that. The worst they'll do is generate a debate in Parliament, and we'll quickly find that virtually everyone is opposed to their assorted insanities. Their policies have no support, and nothing will come of nothing. They are toothless non-entities*. All they'll do is make the Tories much more unpopular.
* Just for good measure, it seems that they won't be able to vote on most issues because of the recent decision on English Votes for English Laws, though this needs to be verified.
And then the Brexit negotiations start, wheee ! Or at least they're supposed to. If they're delayed then that further weakens May, ratcheting up the pressure. If they're not delayed than we still go into them with a bunch of undiplomatic morons in charge who think that diplomacy is about being "strong and stable" for some reason, only now we'll do so with far greater doubts that even the crazy British public actually want the hard Brexit that May loves so much. Again, ratcheting up the pressure. Compared to dealing with the tiny bunch of lunatics that constitute the DUP, dealing with the large and largely sane group of leaders of 27 other countries is going to be way, way, way more difficult.
May's going to break, whatever she says. My guess is sooner rather than later - certainly long before the DUP have any chance to destabilise the peace process. That situation is a self-limiting problem by virtue of its sheer awfulness. I hope you enjoyed that comforting message, for alas...
Everything I've said about Corbyn remains true and is even reinforced. Declaring that you're "the real winner" of the election doesn't make it true, any more than May's repeated professions of certainty and stability make them true. Moral winner ? Maybe. But you want to actually form a government ? Well when you and all the other parties combined still don't have enough to reach a majority, that's cute.
Doing better than expected doesn't equate to doing well. Labour lost this election and lost it badly. Yes, they gained seats. Yes, that gain was even respectable - but it was still, ultimately, modest. Cheering in celebration is plainly ridiculous. In any other situation the leader would have apologised and resigned. Guess what ? Exactly as I bloody well told you would happen, Corbyn won't go. He sees every minor gain as a resounding endorsement of his ideologies and simply ignores every setback no matter how difficult.
Nor does any deal with the DUP somehow exonerate New New Labour's links with the IRA. It makes the Tories hypocrites, yes. But it doesn't magically make it OK to hang out with your terrorist pals you blithering idiots - it just means everyone is equally awful. Or perhaps not equal, since the allegations against the Corbynites go back a long time and are somewhat personal, whereas the Tories are accused of doing a deal because they have no choice.
I know many of you would like to believe that Corbyn is a basically decent chap who's misunderstood, misrepresented by the media and occasionally makes a bit of a blunder. But he isn't. His mistakes are chronic and follow a predictable pattern : going on the warpath when threatened then doing absolutely nothing when secure; pig-headed stubbornness; a near-total refusal to admit mistakes and a total inability to compromise. Not to mention a complete blindness as to the importance of the biggest political issue of the day, an unbelievably sanctimonious attitude and far too many friends who seem like a toxic mixture of the stupid and the evil.
See, I would love to believe that Corbyn really is taking Labour in a bold "new" direction back to the 1970's. Or rather, I'd love to believe that Corbyn's New New Labour would really deliver a strategy that makes a real, significant difference to the poor and lower earners and just be a generally good thing. I would love to believe that cancelling Trident would magically make the world a better place. And I would really, really, really love to be wrong about Corbyn and his acolytes, I really would.
But being anti-establishment isn't automatically a virtue. And attacks from the Tories are not automatically wrong. The thing about science is - and I've said this bajillions of time - we try to attack results that agree with what we expected. Confirmation bias is very well known : not only do you criticise things you don't like more strongly, but you also don't criticise things you want to be true. Individual scientists don't always do that, but the scientific collective is pretty efficient at finding problems. Sometimes it takes a while to be noticed, but there's almost always someone prepared to say "nope".
Science doesn't have partisan elements, though for sure academia does. Politics, on the other hand, is almost entirely driven by partisanship and tribalism; bias runs rampant with barely any consideration for plausibility. So I implore you, for all the good it will do, forget what you want to be true and consider what might actually be true. Honestly, if Corbyn was a Tory, most of my readers would be demonising the hell* out of him right now.
* Makes sense, right ?
Prediction is a fool's game in politics, so here goes. May will quit, probably within 1-2 months, 3-4 maximum. I doubt she'll be forced out - the reason we didn't see any credible Tory figures at the last election contest was because they know how screwed we are thanks to Brexit, and fully realise that the premiership would not be a chance for glory right now. No, May will go because she'll break under pressure, and we'll get someone else of comparable idiocy to May instead. None of the saner Tories will step up to the gallows right now.
Corbyn won't quit because he too is a bloody fool who doesn't understand that being PM will neither be good for him or the country. Could he win the next election if May does quit ? I wouldn't assume so despite recent polls - Labour still have a mountain to climb. But if he does, then a lot of people are going to find out quite quickly just what a colossal mistake they've made. Disillusionment is going to be much bigger and more rapid than with Blair, as they realise that Corbyn's cabinet have neither the skills nor the motivation to actually enact any of their promises, much less any way to find the money to pay for everything.
And emerging from the cloudy fog of British politics comes the sea-cliff of Brexit; not one we'll fall off but one we'll crash headlong into, the ship of state dashed against the stony rocks of contempt for reasoned arguments as we're held in the grip of the ideologies of well-meaning intentions. Corbyn has shown great strength and stability in resolutely not caring about Brexit; May at least realised the seriousness of situation - Corbyn is either too stupid not to understand what's happening or simply doesn't care. All those arguments we've heard about the dangers of Brexit - like it or not, they're still there. All the election has done is made us all ignore them for a while and live in the happy cloud cuckoo land of blissful ignorance where we pretend it doesn't really matter. Well it does matter, and having an apathetic idiot at the helm is not going to end well.
A Corbyn administration will be an absolute farce, far, far worse than the current government because it will be delivered not on a message of dreadfully dull stability and competence, but renewal and hope. Corbynites are going to have their dreams shattered. If the Tories are playing with fire by getting into bed* with the DUP, then Labour are in no better shape by playing with the fires of Marxism. * Pro tip : don't play with fire in bed.
So take heart, people - everything is still awful, and it shows no signs of getting better anytime soon. We aren't even going to get a halfway competent Tory, let alone a sensible Labour leader. One way or another, we're just going to keep getting screwed.
(Possible escape route ? It's just possible that the Tories might have a sudden flash of intelligence and realise that, since the country didn't vote for a hard Brexit, they should elect a more intelligent, competent Remainer who would at least understand that diplomacy is about more than carrying a big stick. Such a person could destroy Corbyn without much difficulty. As for Labour I'm seeing less room for optimism - when they come to their senses they'll realise that since Corbyn is an unmovable despot, they'll have no choice but to split. Eventually, something might emerge from the ashes, but it's a long dark road for Labour full of soul-searching and mixed metaphors. Woohoo.)
During most elections I like to stay up late into the small hours of the morning hoping to know the result as soon as possible. I rather enjoy watching all the various silly graphics, hyperbolic speeches (does anyone else remember Peter Mandelson's, when he threatened that his enemies would taste his "inner steel ?" that was amusing...) and trying to make mountains out of molehills as every new result comes in. It's fun because I have a stake in the result and a clear preference for the winner but, even in the worst case, I don't think things will get more than "quite a bit worse" whatever the result. Mostly.
I don't think I'll be watching the coverage this time, because there's no realistic possibility of getting a result which isn't utterly awful. In fact I've never been less eager to know the result of an election.
Not being a Tory voter and anticipating that my readership isn't either, I don't see much point in dwelling on just how awful I find the current crop of Tory leaders and their policies. In short :
But, if more is needed, austerity is stupid. I guess it's OK if there's a short-term budget shortfall that needs to be balanced quickly, but as a long term plan for economic growth it just plain sucks. Sure, let's cut all the services that are of most use to the poor, because that'll incentivise 'em to get off their lazy backsides. Let's force 'em back to work, because slavery's OK if it's done to poor people. Let's discriminate against immigrants from poorer European countries because wealth is how we measure virtue, and then, because this totally makes sense, let's also discriminate against skilled foreign workers just because they're earning less than £35,000 a year and then - and this is the really clever bit - let's claim we're not xenophobic idiots ! Spectacular. While we're at it, let's bring back fox hunting for a laugh, piss off the entire European political bloc, suck up to Donald Trump, ban encryption and make pornography illegal just because screw you, that's why.
Then we've got the Labour party. Never did I think there would come a day when I looked at Labour and thought, "yep, they're just as bad". Now, let me clear - most of their policies are a damn sight better than the Tories. I like their anti-austerity approach. I like their pledge to cut university tuition fees, introduce a corporation tax and re-nationalise the railways. I don't think all of these are entirely practical (in particular I think their economic approach consists largely of wishful thinking) or that they'd achieve all of their goals as well as stated, but if it was a case of voting purely on policies, Labour would win hands down. Unfortunately, it isn't.
The problem for Labour is trust and ability. I've said all this before several times. Since no-one is listening, let me just summarise because when the faeces hit the proverbial fan - and they will - I'll point to this post and say "I FRICKIN' TOLD YOU SO YOU DUNCE SEE THIS ANGRY RANT AND LINKS THEREIN FOR DETAILS YOU BLITHERING IDIOT !". So at least I'll have that moment of bitter pleasure as the country goes the way of Atlantis.
Corbyn's policies - leaving aside the (credible) prospect of returning too much power to the unions and threatening us with nationwide strikes every five minutes - are ideologically opposed to much of what we've seen in British politics for the last many elections. At last, those of us of the same leanings thought on his election victory, a chance for us to have a real voice, to start something really new. What did he do ? After the first leadership election, sod all. He continued doing sod all throughout the Brexit campaign. He had a fantastic, unprecedented opportunity to start building a real social movement for a new type and form of politics, and he completely and utterly wasted it. The current Tory crop were never popular, but instead of taking advantage he just sort of sat there, shuffling his feet and presumably growing amusing vegetables in his allotment.
In fact he did nothing much of anything except when his "power" was under threat. MPs were threatened with deselection, his own innumerable rebellions dismissed as matters of principle whilst insisting that the party follow his line, resorting to "I was elected with a mandate of blah blah blah" as though it were some kind of insanely powerful magical chant that could ward off evil spirits and awkward questions whenever the least bit threatened. That his own MPs were all democratically elected as well, and had principles of their own, he cared not a jot. Did he even challenge the naked xenophobic racism of UKIP during the Brexit campaign ? Not really. Even UKIP's own MP seemed to be more concerned than Corbyn did.
He won another election campaign but remained oblivious to his wider unpopularity. He ignored losing a vote of no confidence from his MPs as though somehow that would all just go away once he somehow won the election for them (which he later described as "rigged" but vowed to win anyway - oh, yay).
Well, it won't. You can't form a government from people who hate you. It doesn't matter how much you want to, or even why they hate you, you can't. What we'll get is a shambolic, impotent farce, and Corbyn won't care. What makes me think so ? Because he hasn't shown a glimmer of caring at all thus far in his leadership career. He didn't care about building up support in opposition - he cared only about his own position. If you think he's magically going to turn into some kind of Action Man as Prime Minister and start rallying the troops, you're going to be disappointed.
Except... maybe there are some troops he will rally : his own hardcore lunatic supporters. Corbyn is no socialist who cares about helping people, he's a Communist who cares about getting his own way. Every pattern of behaviour thus far indicates so. His similarities to Trump are, I believe, remarkable given his diametrically opposed style and policies.
Furthermore, Corbyn's initially novel approach of not always knowing what to say and being a bit socially awkward has long since given to way to, at best, just another form of classic political bullshit and often is just textbook-standard bullshit without anything the least bit interesting about it. He used to at least basically acknowledge that he couldn't answer questions; now he just answers different questions instead. Straight talking honest politics ? It looks oh so much like standard spin doctoring to me I find it hard to tell the difference. It isn't even straightforward honest bullshit, because with most politicians at least everyone knows they're just spewing political crap that you're not supposed to take seriously.
Everything about this man and his cabinet, to me, screams, "DANGER ! DANGER !". There are two possibilities. Either he's chronically incompetent and apathetic, in which case Labour really will be annihilated at the election next time if not sooner, or he's actually villainous. The latter possibility is something I give serious credit to. There are just too many associations with terror groups, too many admissions and - ironically - denials which are quickly refuted and sheer bullshitting about alleged and documented meetings, too many times of giving terrorists organisations far more than grudging respect but an open hand of friendship. Corbyn wasn't involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland at all, so why are we now expected to believe that he was ? He never had any role in the Middle East peace process either, so what's he doing calling Hamas his friends ?
I'd love to believe this was all just Tory propaganda on a par with the time the Daily Mail called Ed Milliband's father "the man who hated Britain". That instance was ludicrous. It was so outrageous it even got Ed "hell yes I'm socially awkward !" Milliband fired up, for crying out loud. But Corbyn and the IRA ? The man doesn't bat an eyelid. Similar accusations toward Diane Abbott - a woman who continuously seems like a high school student giving her first presentation with zero rehearsals but who somehow thinks the oratory isn't important in politics - and John McDonnell are met with similar pathetic denials. Getting them to admit that terrorism is wrong is possible, but by God it's like pulling teeth from a donkey*. This pattern of behaviour is too consistent and too broad-ranging among Corbyn's cronies to dismiss as entirely fanciful. The absolute best-case scenario is a widespread track record of massive, massive incompetence and really utterly shite judgement. The worst case scenario doesn't bear thinking about. In either case, the idea of straight talking honest politics is just so ludicrous it's becoming frankly offensive to common sense. *Likewise, you can read whatever Brexit policy you like best if you cherry-pick the right bits from Corbyn's occasional statements and don't care about statistics.
That's why, then, I don't think this election represents the clear choice it's being made out to be. Even between Milliband and Cameron, two relative centrists, the choice was far clearer. But now we've got the Nasty Party on the right and the impotent lunatic communist party of the left. Whoopdee-frickin'-doo-dah.
This is far worse than the situation of voting for someone I just don't like very much. Sorry people, but I'm not that stupid - I do recognise the difference between things I dislike and things I'm morally opposed to. And the current leadership of Labour scare the bejesus out of me - yes, every bit as much as the Tories. It's not a case of choosing the lesser of two evils or of voting for the Labour party so that the Tories don't get in. I despise the Tory party, but Labour have gone and made themselves into something just as bad. That it's a different kind of bad does not remedy the level of badness : I'm not voting for them, and you shouldn't either.
Suppose the associations of terrorist sympathies are just overblown fanciful nonsense, touch wood. Then you still have a track record of chronic incompetence in the shadow cabinet led by a man who pretty much ignored the biggest political issue of this generation because he has the lunatic idea that the EU is all about crushing people beneath the mighty boot of capitalism. You have someone in charge who was not the slightest bit interested in holding the government to account in opposition, i.e. in doing his frickin' job. What in the blazes makes you think this is going to end well ? It won't. Hasn't got a hope in hell.
Best case for a Labour majority : an incompetent shambles of such a scale that it will be child's play for the press to turn against them, yes, even if the Tory party remain as bad as they are now. You might be voting for them purely on the basis that you prefer Labour's policies and genuinely don't care about the leaders, but if you do that you are handing the Labour party its own destruction on a silver platter.
Best case for a Labour-led coalition government ? Scarcely much better. Corbyn doesn't even listen to his own MPs so there's not much reason to think he'll listen other parties. And, much as I respect certain members of the SNP, I'm not entirely convinced that people who think Scottish independence is a good idea could act as any real kind of moderating force anyway.
Best case Labour loss with a Tory victory (or somehow another coalition) ? The best outcome, not improbable, would be that the Tories get a very small minority that could be challenged by backbench rebellions so that they won't keep molesting the populace on a daily basis without some restraint. Corbyn could finally see sense and leave and hand the torch of party reform on to someone who's not a communist. Unfortunately that latter prospect won't happen unless Labour's loss is devastating (thus giving us five years of unopposed rule by the Grand High Witch), because Corbyn takes the smallest signs of approval as absolute endorsements by the whole country and has a long track record of refusing to leave when it's patently obvious even to members of the Monster Raving Loony Party that he needs to go. So that isn't going to happen.
Best case long term realistic solution ? Labour have to split. Take a lesson from the Simpsons :
But most likely, for the next five years everything political is just going to suck. Sorry people, but it will. We're screwed.
(Is there any ray of light at all ? Perhaps one. Now that he's got off his arse because his position is under threat, Corbyn has exposed the weakness and vulnerability of the Tory party. Austerity isn't popular and May doesn't look sensible. Left wing ideologies remain alive and well, but sadly, with tremendous irony, it looks very much as though Corbyn could inadvertently be the one to deal the death blow to left-wing politics.)
I'm currently following the University of Washington course, "Calling Bullshit", which is available online in its entirety. This course attempts to promote critical thinking by drawing attention to how people can "blind you with science" or more accurately, with data. I would strongly recommend this course to just about anyone. In my opinion, it does a good job of being impartial and genuinely encouraging people not to simply debunk anything that's thrown at them for the sake of it, but to make a sincere effort to get at the truth.
Bullshit, in the course professors' working definition, is essentially the manipulation and presentation of data in order to persuade without regard for the truth. That does not mean lying, though that can be part of it - you can use the truth to tell a lie all too easily. But data manipulation is not the only aspect of bullshit. Anyone who's ever participated in any online debate will know that responses can be total bullshit without using any data at all, and it has a distinctly different feel from simply telling lies or being misinformed. Often it doesn't even have any real objective at all.
I will offer the following simple definition that I think may encompass the full, glorious range of bullshit : missing the point. This can easily include data manipulation that disrespects the truth, since when the data contains an obvious conclusion but the presentation says something else, that's bullshit. It's not a lie, or at least not just a lie. It's a mixture of selective truths, half-truths and sometimes outright lies. It usually (but not always !) has a definite agenda, a conclusion that must be maintained regardless of what's thrown at it. It twists and manipulates any robust counter-arguments so that they appear to agree with whatever the bullshitter wants. Clear and obvious conclusions are attacked with unjustified doubt; genuine uncertainties are lauded as unquestionable facts. Alternatively, it can take the form of simply disagreeing with whatever statements are made regardless of the consistency or hypocrisy of doing so; all bullshitters disrespect the truth but the really extreme ones disrespect even their own position.
Merely missing the point isn't always bullshit. Someone who makes an honest mistake will say "oops !" when corrected, and possibly burst into song. A bullshitter simply doesn't care. Bullshit, then, may be taken as not caring about the essential point of a statement. All the various forms of bullshits are, I think, variations on this theme. Bullshitters may care deeply about winning an argument, but not at all about the truth. Or they may care about disrupting a discussion for the sake of disruption, but have no self-consistent position of their own. Having a sincerely held conviction is a very much optional extra for a bullshitter. Often, as we shall see, their surface level statements are almost meaningless camouflage for their deeper beliefs, but in other instances when you look below the surface you find nothing much at all.
It's very difficult to evaluate if someone is making a bullshit argument on the basis of a single statement; it's very context-dependent. It comes in varying degrees, of course, and can make for very effective humour - it's not always heartless or even nasty, though that's what I'll focus on here.
One other minor point before we start : the online course mentions the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, the well-known doctrine that the amount of effort required to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than what's needed to produce it. I suggest a slight modification to this. Often, refuting bullshit to an objective observer is trivial. The difficult part comes in persuading those who have either fallen victim to the bullshitting techniques or who are themselves bullshitters.
So while the university course offers an excellent guide to the pure-data side of bullshit (what items of bullshit look like), allow me to offer some insights into the emotional, psychological manifestation of bullshit (what the process of bullshitting looks like). Some of this I've covered before (and no doubt other people have done so elsewhere much better than me), but it's worth revisiting. So I will. The previous examination was more extensive, but with this post I want to take a more in-depth look at the major aspects of the issue. Without further ado, here are some examples of bullshitting techniques which are largely free of empirical data and why I don't like them.
Focusing on something insignificant
A time-honoured classic of the internet forum. Someone makes a profound statement that it's hard to disagree with or tells a hilarious joke. The bullshit response is to focus on some incredibly petty and irrelevant part of that. It was a joke about something in the Bible ? Go off on one about how God doesn't exist. It isn't done with any degree of tact of humour, it's simply a blunt statement that doesn't even comment on the main point of the original argument. The bullshitter will not back down when questioned, they will keep directing the discussion towards their point and usually personally attack anyone who points out what they're doing.
This is one reason why bullshit is distinct from simply lying or not caring about the truth. A bullshitter's argument with regard to a certain specific point may actually be both logical and correct, but by shifting the focus away from the main point they deny the original argument any progress.
A particularly insidious example : "but some of my best friends are racists !". Yes, let's just quietly ignore the fact that you've been speaking out against racism for years, suddenly now you're defending racists, so clearly you actually support them. You big phoney, you're not fooling anyone. Except the gullible, of course. Not responding directly to a (seemingly) straightforward question
One of my pet hates : people who don't respond to a simple question even when you directly state, "I want you to respond to this question". Now, if someone says, "I'm not going to answer that question and let me explain why" then that's more legitimate. At least they've acknowledged that the question was asked, and of course sometimes there are indeed excellent reasons for not answering questions (I'll get to that in the next point). It's those who dodge the question completely that are the real bullshitters.
There are numerous different ways to avoid answering questions. One is to answer a different question instead - this question has to be similar to what was asked but still isn't quite the same. Another is to talk only in terms of general principles rather than specifics. A fairly extreme variety, which I witnessed recently at a (pseduo)science lecture, is to pretend you don't actually have any opinions and that you're just presenting raw evidence. The speaker claimed they didn't have any preferred model to fit the data (which was already known to the entire audience to be false), making it impossible to have any meaningful dialogue or make any progress. In some circumstances this might be tenable, but not if you actually do a have a "scientific" idea and just want to avoid answering awkward questions because you know the other experts will see through it.
But a really first-class bullshit answer would be to make a statement that makes it seem like they've given a decisive yes/no answer without having done so - using a general principle to make it seem like they support/disavow the specific issue in question, presenting things as being mutually compatible/exclusive when in fact they are not. And very often the bullshitter will talk at great length as though their answer must be hidden in there somewhere, even though it isn't. Example : Q : Do you support a council tax rise to help pay for the restoration of Lincoln Cathedral ?
A : I'm fully committed to using public funds to support all of Britain's ancient public monuments, I've said so many times and my position hasn't changed. My voting record attests to this, unlike the opposition who just want to tear everything down and eat your children. Without the decisive leadership role that this government has played in the maintenance of some of our most valuable heritage, it's clear that this country would have witnessed the wholesale destruction of countless irreplaceable archaeological treasures and I'm proud to be a member of John Smith's progressive and forward-thinking cabinet...
Of course, it's quite possible to give a non-answer that isn't bullshit. That might be the following :
A : Well, as you know, I've always been strongly in favour of using public funds to support our ancient cathedrals. I do support a council tax rise in principle, however, there are specific issues with regards to Lincoln that need to be addressed. So to answer your real question, although I do support the idea, I can't yet guarantee that's the method we'll actually use to raise the funds.
Asking a bullshit question
As the previous point hinted at, it isn't only answers that are bullshit - a more overlooked aspect is that questions can be bullshit as well. Such a question forces an answer whereby the respondent will be perceived as negative (or indeed positive-!) no matter what answer they provide (so long as they answer it directly). Paradoxically they also tend to be vague, because the more vague the question the easier it is to give a woolly answer : "do you support publicly-funded veterinary services ?" versus, "will you increase taxes to help the abandoned kittens in Coventry ?".
Like all forms of bullshit, bullshit questions miss the point. They ask for politicians' personal moral views rather than what they actually plan to do in government. This is why probably 99% of questions about their sex lives are bullshit : "Mr Smith, you're the shadow transport secretary, so how do you respond to allegations that your partook in a Nazi-themed gay orgy-?".
How could Mr Smith respond to this in a sensible way ? He probably couldn't. Refusing to answer on the grounds that it was his personal lifestyle choice would indict him of a legal activity that most people profess to disapprove of - as would the response that his being transport secretary is not relevant. Answering in the affirmative - "oh, we all had a simply fabulous time, I went dressed as Eva Braun..." would be a frankly magnificent comeback*, but alas the general public probably aren't ready. And who would want to disclose their intimate personal activities to the world at large anyway ? Politicians aren't porn stars, thank God**. * I will give 100 internet points to anyone who actually does this. ** I'm sure there are interesting exceptions to both parts of this statement.
There are (of course) exceptions to personal questions being bullshit. If the accused may have used public money to indulge their personal vices, then the public deserve to know. If they're found to be grossly hypocritical, the public should know that too : "Mr Smith, you ran your campaign on a strong rhetoric of traditional family values and often claimed you were opposed to same-sex marriage, so how do you respond to these allegations ?". Conversely, being personally opposed to whatever sorts of debaucheries one cares to mention but accepting that other people's lifestyle choices are their own to make is not bullshit - it's hypocrisy to demand that others follow rules which you yourself don't obey, not if you yourself choose to live by certain standards which you don't force on others.
The prevalence of bullshit questions from journalists is a big and under-discussed issue. They seem to delight in asking questions that only permit a bullshit response. They confuse the importance of the specifics and the general : they ask for their moral views when they should be asking for their policies, and vice-versa so as to make the politician (or indeed any public figure) look foolish and/or inconsistent. They ask, "do you personally support policy X" when they should be asking, "will you commit to voting for policy X" and insist on asking, "did you make controversial statement Y - YES OR NO !" when they should be asking, "did you really make controversial statement Y and if so could you explain it ?". A yes or no approach does have value - sometimes tremendous value - but it can also be very easily and effectively used for leading questions. They can be woefully misleading and ignore vital wider context.
Consider things from the politician's point of view. They're fully aware of what journalists are doing, so there's really only one way they can respond : with bullshit. They know that whatever minor infraction they commit, the media will attack them with the ferocity of ravenous and rabid piranhas that have been subjected to random electric shocks and forced to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special on a loop. Far safer, then, to give a bullshit answer - hopefully a convincing one if they're really good - as not saying anything at all carries far less consequences than actually saying something of substance. Journalistic bullshit is even so prevalent that politicians usually have to be subjected to extreme force to give a yes or no answer even when that answer does them absolutely no harm whatsoever.
Q : Look, for the last time, please answer my question : do you like Walker's crisps ?
A : I'm generally in favour of the potato as part of a healthy balanced diet, but I have some reservations about the saturated fat content. That's why I'm launching my new healthy eating initiative that aims to educate people about the every-present danger of improperly cooked potatoes...
And so on. As with computer code : bullshit in, bullshit out. No-one can remain principled or honest in this maelstrom of an environment for very long - not when your only escape is to substitute genuine responses with utter crap. You want better politicians ? Then create an environment which doesn't grind people into a powder and feed them to cattle, because that has only one possible outcome. This isn't all the journalists fault, of course - politicians do come up with bullshit entirely of their own accord as well - but it is a large factor in why we have so much of it.
I'm strongly in favour of public figures being rigorously and intensely examined. But "examining" them with pure bullshit is not the right way to do it. Some suggested guidelines :
Ask them about what policies they pledge to enact, not what they do or believe in their personal lives except when the two may be in gross conflict.
Don't just ask, "did you say this ?", ask, "why did you say this ?". Allow them a chance to explain. If it's a complex issue, this may require some time - but that's far better than insisting they just say yes or no. If they cock up their response, then that's their fault.
If someone doesn't seem to be answering a question, ask them why not - sincerely, with genuine curiosity why they're not answering rather than as a way to force them to answer. Ask them directly if they thought the question was misleading. State the purpose of the question at the outset, as an effort to emphasise what the point is you're trying to get at to give them less room for maneuver.
Far more importantly - and far more difficult to do - stop treating every single response you disagree with as though it were evidence the luckless interviewee was the spawn of Satan. Unless this stops, the tide of bullshit will never fall.
Hopelessly impartial : a false balance
There's a subtler aspect to bullshit questioning than the question themselves : who you ask them to and how you deal with their responses. The problem arises here because there's a difference between being impartial and objective. A really impartial journalist would, for example, interview a Flat Earther and a scientist and quiz them with equal diligence as to their positions. They would offer no opinion of their own but simply report the interviews directly. An objective journalist, on the other hand, wouldn't even bother speaking to a Flat Earther because they know the whole concept is bollocks. Interviewing them at all would be legitimising their position; interviewing them with the same degree of rigour as a specialist in relativity theory would be tacitly assigning them equal credibility.
Juggling the two sides of the see-saw (to mix metaphors) is a genuine difficulty for journalists - one man's hero is often another man's villain. Not only is it hard to judge how much airtime (or word count in a paper, etc.) to give a politician, but even if their position is very clearly wrong, suppressing it can sometimes have the opposite effect. For example not playing music tracks on certain radio stations sometimes leads to them becoming far more popular as a result. On the other hand, I contend that the nature of the internet and social media has led to certain beliefs becoming popular that would have had no chance in an earlier era (Flat Earth and a whole bunch of ludicrous fake news stories, for instance).
Impartiality has value, of course : many (most) issues really are difficult to judge and do need debate. Being impartial and rigorously exploring opposing viewpoints is a great way to explore a complex issue in depth. It only becomes a problem when the absurd is raised to legitimacy of the plausible. Most of the time, it's far preferable to a one-sided examination of an issue.
While the very worst media is absolutely partisan and has clear double standards about everything, they are at least honest villains in the sense of being easy to spot (as is, for example, this blog). Media services presenting a false balance have a less obvious but no less dangerous effect. Not every choice is a valid, sensible option, but that's what excessive impartiality conveys : an attempt to be unbiased can actually lead to perversely biased result. The message here isn't, "the media should shut up about the things I don't like" so much as it is, "be aware that this is a problem, and that equal coverage doesn't mean the truth lies in the middle". The middle ground is always the tempting option but sometimes, as Richard Dawkins rightly pointed out, one side is simply completely wrong. Failure to recognise this and adopting the middle position can be absolutely disastrous, or, occasionally, hilarious :
While I'm trying to keep this post free from contemporary politics, the John Oliver piece is too good not to use. "Whataboutery" is actually a term from the Soviet era. This is a distraction technique used to shift attention from the topic at hand, and thus a variant of several of the above methods. Often, instead of dealing with the mistakes of one side, the mistakes of the other are highlighted - thus changing the topic at hand. To do this really well the mistakes should be similar and, if possible, worse than those originally up for discussion. That way it feels morally dubious to ignore them and the luckless interviewer has to defend their own questions (see below) from the interviewee.
It's bullshit, of course, because while those other issues might very well need discussing, they don't necessarily need discussing right now or at every possible occasion. Outright lies also work effectively here, especially quick-fire, en masse : "The fishing crisis ? Well what about the farming subsidies ? What about the whaling industry ? What about the Somalian pirates ? What about the sinking of the Titanic by the Germans ?"
That way the interviewer is caught off-guard and has to go away and fact-check however many crazy statements the bullshitter felt like blurting out. The other issues don't even have to directly relate to the original topic, though one way of apparently staying on target is to redirect priorities rather than issues. That is, instead of discussing what's going to be done about the current problem, talk about who was responsible for it in the first place. Nothing wrong with that at the appropriate time, but it becomes real bullshit if the problem is something that needs solving urgently.
Attacking straw men
The straw man fallacy refers to when someone attacks a statement that no-one actually made. It's often closely related to the Nirvana/slippery slope fallacies, wherein a moderate position is taken to represent something very extreme. So, "I think we should encourage more people to adopt kittens" gets the response, "But not everyone likes kittens ! Some people are allergic to cat fur !" whereas the original statement did not suggest that everyone should adopt a kitten. Politicians use this in interviews as a way of aggressive self-defence : preemptively attacking any criticism before it's even been made.
While I'm trying to avoid specific real examples here, I'll use one in this case. Ironically it never actually quite becomes a straw man fallacy, but it becomes interestingly close so I think it's worth mentioning. Stephen Sackur of the BBC interviewed New York Times editor Dean Bacquet, regarding his decision to publish secret police images of the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack :
SACKUR : It was all top secret, confidential.
BAQUET : Mmm, no. Actually it was not at the highest level of secrecy. It was at a level of secrecy that made it much more widely dispersed than people are acknowledging. It was not top confidential secret, our story was...
SAKCUR : As far as the police were concerned it was totally confidential.
BAQUET : But there are literal levels of classification and it was not at the top. Which is, the reason that's important - at the very top means very few eyes saw it. This was much more widely distributed.
Surely, though, the real issue is not how many people the police deemed could see the images at all - it's whether they intended it to be made public. "It wasn't the most secret" is a bit like saying that because celebrity sex tapes aren't classified military secrets, it's perfectly okay to publish them. In fairness, the interviewer makes the erroneous statement that the document was top secret, so Baquet isn't quite committing a straw man fallacy here. He is, however, completely missing the point, which is classic bullshit. Sackur continues to emphasise that the documents weren't intended for public release :
SACKUR : This is an ongoing investigation. 48 hours after 22 young people - including children - had been murdered, you chose to put on your front page pictures which the British police regarded as highly sensitive operational information.
BAQUET : And right after that the BBC and the Guardian put 'em on their front pages.
SACKUR : Well that's no justification, cos...
BAQUET : I'm not saying it is, I'm just pointing it out.
The last statement in particular is highly refined bullshit. It makes very little sense at all and completely clouds the issue. It's an aggressive form of defence in that it attacks the interviewer rather than trying to justify the editor's behaviour. His position is untenable, so what does he do ? He attacks someone else instead. Again, not quite a straw man, but perilously close.
Another example where an approach that's actually quite sensible in some situations can be easily perverted. Let's say a crazy T.V. show is preparing to literally jump a shark and, despite all possible safety precautions being followed to the letter and there are no equipment failures of any kind, it goes wrong and the stuntman gets eaten. Who's responsible in this case ? Ultimately it's the stuntman. There was no need to do this, his rights weren't being impeded, and the shark was just doing what sharks do. He can legitimately be blamed even though he was also the victim. Or similarly, people not following clear instructions on complex, dangerous equipment. Like the captain of the Titanic, you absolutely can be at fault but also a victim.
But this transmutes to bullshit if, in fact, someone else was responsible for instigating the problem. If (for whatever reason) you have to walk down a dangerous road and get mugged, you don't blame the victim. You blame the robber - they're not a force of nature, they're a criminal element that needs to be tackled. At best the victim can only be assigned a minority share of the blame, if they know of a better alternative route which would cause them no other penalty but actively choose to avoid it. The robber is still ultimately responsible, unless, perhaps, the "victim" walks around with a big sign around their neck saying, "I WILL PAY YOU MONEY IF YOU STEAL ALL MY THINGS !". The robber, in contrast, doesn't absolve themselves of blame even if they shout out, "I'M GOING TO MUG ANYONE WHO COMES NEAR ME ! DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU !".
Guilt is a non-physical concept, and as such its relationship to ordinary mathematical laws is highly ambiguous. Someone warning you they will do something horrible (say, an insane politician promising to murder anyone who votes for them) doesn't diminish their own responsibility when they go ahead and do it : they just create more blame. Now both voters and politician are guilty. The voters have guilt after the election whereas previously they had none, but - and this is the important bit - the politician doesn't lose any part of their share of the guilt. You can't spread the guilt around like that; don't think of it as something you can assess as a fraction, because it often doesn't work. That the victim might also be partially responsible doesn't make the criminal any less guilty even in proportional terms.
Victim blaming is another way of shifting blame and the focus of the issue. Yes, maybe the victim could have behaved differently and lowered the risk to themselves. Maybe they should have used a better bike lock, fair enough - but it's still the thieves who did the theivin'. Maybe they shouldn't have used online banking and instead should have stored all their money in a stuffed mattress... how far do you want people to go with this ? At what point do you say, "This horrible behaviour is inevitable, so people should just accept this reality and not try and prevent it at all. Let's completely give up fighting crime and criminality and just get better security measures, treating the criminals as mindless automatons who can't be influenced in any way."
The point is that yes, you can often assign some blame to multiple parties, but usually one of them deserves far, far more than the others. Varying crime rates across the world would seem to be pretty damn compelling evidence that while of course you can't prevent crime completely, you can greatly reduce it with the right policies and social environment. That immoral behaviour can be a systemic fault doesn't preclude it sometimes being an individual fault, where criminals choose to be criminals despite having better options. It certainly shouldn't mean that victims should have to put up with it - that is an excuse to avoid dealing with the problem.
I discuss the nature of crime and punishment in much more detail in my trilogy of posts on Plato's Laws.
Your evidence is no match for my anecdotes
The Nirvana and slippery slope fallacies, which I've covered before, are also forms of bullshit in that they miss the point. Cutting vehicle emissions won't save enough CO2 to stop climate change ? Better not do it at all then. Some people like scrounging off the state ? Better not increase benefits in case we all end up as drug-addled layabouts then. Gun regulation doesn't prevent all murders ? Better to give absolutely everyone a gun instead. These sorts of "arguments" pick individual examples as though it were statistically valid to infer anything from them.
Such responses are another classic technique for politicians to avoid giving a straight answer to a question. If they're asked about specific instances they can respond with statistics :
Q : Don't you think it's a problem that cockroaches were found in the canteen of the local high school ?
A : Under this government school canteen hygiene levels have risen four-fold in the last two years and we expect those improvements to continue, as part of our wider campaign of across-the-board social improvements...
Both the question and the answer are potentially bullshit here. Suppose that overall, the vast majority of school canteens are of objectively high hygiene standards. In that case the question is likely an attempt to force an unnecessary apology, because roaches are a thing and cannot be prevented with 100% efficiency - and ministers don't go around personally wielding bottles of bug spray. They can seldom be held accountable for individual incidents, though they can damn well take the blame for the overall trend. The anecdote in the question is no match for the minister's statistics - and yet the minister hasn't actually answered the question at all.
By the same token, politicians can claim credit for overall improvements. They shouldn't go into schools waving flags about how much better things are in that particular case though, any more than they should be blamed for the exceptions where things didn't work.
Furthermore, though this is straying into the world of data, the minister's claim of a four-fold improvement lacks any detail by which it can be verified (which is another form of bullshit I'll return to later). An improvement of a factor of four may be pathetic if standards are abysmal everywhere. And improvements are all well and good, but which schools have seen an improvement ? How many have seen hygiene standards drop and by how much ? Statistical data is very powerful, and used properly it makes mincemeat out of anecdotes - but it's open to all kinds of abuses. Anecdotes, usefully, are much more black and white. I saw this happening, therefore this is a thing. The problem - the fatal mistake that people so often make - is that they can't tell you anything at all about how often this thing is happening.
Both anecdotes and statistics can be used to bullshit. In general, it's best to respond in kind to each : if a question is about statistics, respond with statistics; if it's about anecdotes, at least begin by addressing that anecdote before employing statistics. Remember that humans naturally learn primarily by personal experience, not statistics. Concerns about individual experiences are entirely legitimate, and if you dive straight into the wider statistics - attempting to brush individual horrors under the carpet of what may well be a genuine wider improvement - without addressing those concerns, you're bullshitting. Conversely, the reverse situation is much simpler : if you attempt to counter statistics with anecdotes, you've almost certainly lost the argument.
The greatest difficulty comes in fighting statistics with other statistics. No such difficulty exists if you have anecdote-versus-anecdote, because it quickly becomes apparent that neither side has the upper hand and it boils down to trust. But who has the most valid statistics ? There's no easy answer to this, but consider the following : unless you've had some degree of statisticaltraining, you're leaving yourself wide open to manipulation. This happens to politicians too, who sometimes have to resort to the crude dismissal, "I dispute those findings" - an information-free, impossible to refute statement that stymies the debate. I'll return to that sort of bullshit later.
Not admitting or apologising for mistakes
This one occurs everywhere. In an ideal world, when incontrovertible evidence is presented to someone that they're wrong, they'd apologise for their mistake and be grateful for having learned something. That isn't what usually happens though. They don't even apologise, much less seem grateful - they just spew out more bullshit and often become aggressive. But is this response really bullshit ?
Perhaps not as much as you might think. For in the ideal world, those who won the argument would say, "My pleasure. It's been a delight conversing with you, let's go for a beer." But they don't. They say instead, "HAH ! I knew I was right you total libtard penis face ! You know NOTHING Jon Snow ! BOO-YAH !". And journalists do much the same, holding every politician's mistake as evidence for their stupidity and poor moral character. People often don't admit they were wrong because they cannot afford to do so - it's less damaging to them to maintain their wrong position than it is to admit its flaws. "Knowledge is power", goes the old axiom. But knowledge is often used as something less subtle than power - a weapon with which to beat people and force them into submission. Knowledge is used as a tool of the oppressor, not to educate and improve the ignorant, but to beat them and demonstrate one's own superiority*. Genuine debates are rare; they all too easily become arguments designed for winners and losers, not a search for the truth. Is it any wonder, then, that elitism has become a dirty word and tribalism is so damaging for science communication ?
* That is, it is used by whoever thinks they have knowledge - regardless of the truth of it - to bludgeon their opponents. I'm not trying to say that librarians are the scum of the Earth or anything daft like that.
This too is of course a form of bullshit. The point of winning an argument should be to improve the world by improving the people you have to share it with - not to be right for the sake of the petty glory that's bestowed on anyone who wins an argument regardless of whether they're right or not. Again, bullshit begets bullshit : garbage in, garbage out. In essence, arguments can occur for the sake of forcing those unnecessary apologies discussed above, not for a genuine effort to establish truth. Like straightforward one-word answers, the simplest common courtesy ("sorry") requires a massive effort to extract because people fear the bullshit that almost inevitably ensues. It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy : I can't say I'm wrong because the press will say that makes me look weak and stupid and that gives ammunition to my opponents so I will actually become weak and stupid, like a hedgehog deliberately exposing its vulnerable belly to a fox.
It's not that we punish people for their mistakes, which can be entirely sensible. It's that we punish them for admitting their mistakes; no attempt is made to establish the reason for the mistakes - thus missing the point entirely. Someone changing their mind because new evidence came along deserves praise, not punishment. The reverse is true of those who change their actions (but not really their true opinion) in order to appease voters. Yet almost no effort is usually made to establish which is the case : a mistake has been admitted, ergo that person must be stupid. We don't stop to consider that there are many reasons someone can reach a stupid conclusion, only one of which is that that person is indeed neurologically inferior.
A political figure recently declared, "I've never changed my stance on anything." To me, that screams dangerousidiot. A person who doesn't change their mind about anything should not be praised but severely scolded, because anyone who thinks that they don't need to respond to different, changing evidence is a senseless lunatic who should probably be kept in a padded room somewhere. If you change your mind, though, then to earn respect you must do two things : 1) State explicitly that you're doing a u-turn. Don't duck this point, because the fact that you've changed your mind is relevant; it's not a bullshit question to ask if your opinion has changed. Do not go to point two without addressing point one. No, not even if you really want to. 2) Explain why you've changed your mind. I repeat, even if you have very good reasons, do not attempt to explain them before addressing point one. State how the evidence has altered to alter your conclusion. This in no way guarantees that you're not a bullshitter; it's merely a necessary but not sufficient condition. We're still gonna judge you on your interpretation of the evidence, you might be a bullshitter anyway... but if you don't explain yourself at all, you are most certainly a bullshitter.
Alternatively you might not have changed your real opinion, but are still changing your actions. Perhaps you think that sponsoring injured kittens is a fantastic thing, but now you don't have any money, so you can't. That's fine - unfortunate, but unavoidable. On the other hand, politicians who change their policies solely because of voter perception are in exactly the same league of dangerous idiots as those who never change their mind at all - they are not listening to the evidence. Political skill is neither standing by your convictions no matter what, nor is it about doing whatever mental idea the braying mob has got hold of at the moment, but about the far trickier ability to steer a course between these two extremes - give the people what they need and persuade them that it's what they want.
If there is a simple point here, it's perhaps that bullshit is neither constancy nor variability of conclusions but inconsistency of thought processes. If you change your stance (be that either your true opinion or stated policy) continuously, then chances are you're also continuously varying your reasons or interpretation of the evidence - because evidence itself seldom varies so rapidly. And if you never change your stance at all, then you must also be altering your reasons since evidence and circumstances do vary. It's not so much that your reasons themselves are variable so much as it is the way in which you reason - what sort of logic or rational arguments (or even irrational ones) by which you justify your conclusion. I'll return to an extreme example of this later.
Presenting narratives without any information content Really good bullshit has a high degree of "truthiness" to it. It gives the impression of conveying information without actually saying anything - as mentioned, it can make it seem like a question has been answered even though it hasn't. A common, particular tactic is to tell a story. As long as that story relates to the issue at hand, it's very easy to distract people and avoid actually addressing the issue at all.
It doesn't have to be a long story. It can be just a few simple lines. Consider the following stupid quip :
This is of course completely missing the point. It really just says that it requires more skill to be good at difficult things than easy ones, which is fine as far as it goes. But this tells us absolutely nothing about why it's considered to be moral for a man to sleep with many women but immoral for a woman to sleep with many men. It doesn't say why a man should have to play the role of the key or the woman of the lock - why isn't it the other way around ? And why is having sex a moral issue at all ? It's utter bullshit.
There's nothing wrong with having an opinion : a belief that something is true despite a lack of evidence. Often opinions are truly subjective - no-one but you can judge your favourite colour or celebrity chef or whatever. You think Gordon Ramsey is the best ? Fine, that can't be judged objectively, and even if it could it wouldn't matter - Gordon's behaviour might entertain you more even if Nigella Lawson could be objectively proven to be more entertaining, somehow.
But holding an opinion does not automatically make an objective matter into a subjective one. Holding the opinion that all eggs are cube-shaped and come from daffodils does not make that statement more valid, it just means you're an idiot. Maybe you still hold that opinion even after watching chickens lay egg after egg - OK, fine, it is "your opinion", but that doesn't mean you're not demonstrably wrong. You don't get to use your opinion to sow doubts where none can exist - that's bullshitting.
Holding opinions is fine, and inevitable where evidence is lacking. Excessively stating, "it's my opinion", however, is a pretty reliable sign of a bullshitter. Similarly, routinely using, "probably" or even worse "possibly" does not bode well. Why don't you actually go and test and investigate your ideas instead of just chuckin' em out there ? Pretty much anything is "possible" to some degree, but not everything is subjective or untestable. In many cases you can actually go and determine which possibilities are more likely or even really happening; reducing things to vague, unspecific terms like "many cases" is in many cases just bullshitting, especially, in many cases, with excessively excessive tautologous repetition. And as mentioned earlier, "I just think you're wrong" is largely bullshit if someone has presented you with evidence to respond to.
"I dispute these findings" is an interesting one - it's a declarative statement which makes itself true, like saying, "I resign" or "I now pronounce you man and wife". But at it's heart, it's no better than "I just think you're wrong" except that it's easier to deliver with a rhetorical flourish. "Do you know, actually I dispute those findings. Those findings are now disputed and therefore not as valuable as you thought they were."
Take heed, though, not to assume that the use of "weasel words" automatically constitutes bullshit. It's not that simple. For example, if an advert were to say, "scientists may have shown that this shampoo probably causes increased hair vitality and growth" then that is bullshit. Growth can be quantifiably measured, but how do you quantify vitality ? Worse, "may have" and "probably" water the statement down so much it tells you nothing - and conveying no meaningful information in a statement is classic bullshit.
For a counter example let's be more elaborate. Let's imagine there's this sudden plague of owls. Every tree and bush is a mass of white feathery bastards. Pretty soon everything in sight is covered in feathers and owl crap, and the incessant hooting and screeching drives everyone to distraction. Babies can't sleep at night, the mouse population crashes and ecological chaos ensues. The government steps in. They put forward a nice, simple referendum : Should this country commit itself to reducing the owl population to a stable ecological level within the next 18 months ?
Imagine further that "stable ecological level" is actually a rigorously quantified number and accepted by all. It would be a tough call to declare this one as bullshit - it gets right to point and is scarcely open to misinterpretation. Suppose that the vote is won by 90% of the electorate.
Now it all starts to go wrong. Instead of going on a campaign of humane extermination, the government legalises all forms of owl hunting and anti-cruelty laws are given a special exemption for owls. Brutal traps are laid by the government and "helpful" citizens that leave the owls as a bloody, dying mess for days on end. An equivalent of myxomatosis is introduced which soon spreads to other birds. Soon the cities and countryside are drenched in owl blood and ecological chaos becomes an ecological catastrophe. At this point, it would not be bullshit to say, "Actually, many people in this country probably didn't vote for this." Rather, it would be bullshit of the highest order to insist the initial vote must be "respected" (whatever that means) despite all the changing circumstances and unintended consequences.
Some rough guidelines : having an opinion and expressing it is fine, unless there's actual data to refute it but you judge your opinion to be superior to the data. But conversely, holding to a single data point rather than others is just another variant of the anecdotes-versus-data bullshit tactic - you're just selecting conclusions based on innate preferences rather than trying to form them from the data.
Shifting the goalposts around in a circle
A particularly severe form of a bullshit occurs when one has an underlying position that must be adhered to no matter what. The bullshitter will at first use evidence to support their claim, seeming like an honest though perhaps mistaken individual. However when that evidence is refuted, that refutation is instantly held to be evidence for their true position. It's not that they just shift the goalposts, making them harder to reach... it's that they move the goalposts on a circular track so that they can never be reached. What was initially held to be clear proof of something suddenly shifts to proving the exact opposite. This is more subtle and much harder to refute than the simpler case of demanding more evidence of the same effect.
For example, suppose that your Aunt Nelly doesn't want to go for a walk in case it rains. You don't go for a walk and it doesn't rain. Does that prove that Aunt Nelly was wrong ? No, she says, because if she had gone she'd have had to carry a heavy umbrella and it wouldn't have been any use. So she was right not to go for a walk because Logic. It's a sort of generalisation of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, where definitions are constantly changed so as to exclude whatever the bullshitter wants to exclude.
It's not the act of trying to find a definition that's the problem. It's thinking you already know what the definition is without being able to explain it, and using your internal definition to exclude whatever you like.
It's the sort of reasoning you can't really argue with, because it isn't reasoning at all - it's rationalising. Aunt Nelly had entirely different reasons from those she stated, hence the surface reasons were utterly meaningless (hence the apparent disregard for the truth) - but she held fast to her true intentions. What a total bullshitter.
Too thick a skin
Suppose you now get very cross with Aunt Nelly because you're sick to the teeth of her endless bullshitting. Instead of merely pointing out the inherent circular flaws in her argument, you get really mad and launch a scathing personal attack. How does a normal person react ? They get upset and probably angry. How does a bullshitter like Aunt Nelly respond ? It varies. Of course a bullshitter can get angry and upset as much as anyone - sometimes very much more, even when the attacks were strictly limited to the arguments and not personal at all. But unless the emotions displayed are actually fraudulent, they're not in themselves bullshit - they don't miss the point, they simply are. It would be a difficult task to determine if there's any meaningful correlation between emotion and bullshit, so I won't try. However, I will suggest that another reaction to extreme criticism is a more reliable indicator : doing nothing.
All bullshitters don't care about the truth of their statements. But some don't care about other people because they don't even care about themselves. Why take anyone else's views seriously if you don't care about your own opinions ? Normal people get offended when someone takes swipe at one of their views if they either respect that person and/or their own opinion - it hurts to have a long-held and cherished opinion sincerely challenged, because your brain makes it part of your core identity. You value yourself. So getting emotional - even over-emotional - isn't bullshit, at least not always. Even the majority of bullshitters care about winning the argument, even if they don't care about objective truth. But someone who doesn't care in the least when being personally attacked is probably a bullshitter to the core. They don't place any value on their argument or even themselves. Most of us are able to resist some level of scathing personal attacks if we have little respect for the aggressor - we know their opinion isn't worth much - but a real, extreme bullshitter doesn't care what anyone thinks because they think their own opinion has no value either.
I'd stay away from Aunt Nelly if I were you.
I've hinted at this one in the section on impartiality, but it deserves a fuller treatment. There's much more to this than how journalists cover a story.
The middle ground might not always be correct but it is a good position to adopt as a default. But sometimes people claim that "they're all the same" when two sides fiercely debate a position, when in fact they are very clearly not the same at all. Sometimes the two opposing sides may use the same flawed tactics, but that still doesn't mean their arguments are equal or even comparable. Saying, "you're a stupid twerp if you believe that armadillos are real" or "you're a stupid twerp if you believe armadillos aren't real" are not arguments competing on a level playing field. It's true that both sides are behaving unpleasantly, but that doesn't make both arguments wrong. Even if some of the proponents believe the correct answer for the wrong reason.
This takes many forms. My favourite expression of it comes in a very simple meme :
Somebody fighting back because they've been pushed beyond the limits of endurance is not the same as someone starting a fight for no reason (i.e. they just want to). But among some quarters of the internet, holding an opinion about anything is considered to be an unfair bias, as though you're supposed to be both objective and impartial all the time. This is of course absolutely impossible, because objective reality means that not everything is equally true. As we've seen, it makes no sense to be impartial about everything.
But on the other hand, a popular Nietzsche quote needs to be mentioned :
It's true that it can happen. When you start to truly hate something, responding rationally is almost impossible. Over enough time, of course you can indeed become exactly the sort of hate-filled monster you originally despised*. You might still profess to believe the exact opposite, but your true belief is no longer driven by evidence or reasoning, but by involuntary and irrational rage.
* Interesting possible example of the opposite : waves of nomads continuously invaded China, quickly became the rich, civilised layabouts they previously detested, and then promptly set about defending themselves from fresh waves of nomadic invaders. "He who fights with happy civilised people should not become a happy civilised person himself...."
The mistake that's made by bullshitters - and this can easily be an accidental form of bullshitting - is to assume that two sides are equally truly rage-driven when in fact only one of them is. That is, one side's position can be nonsensical, while the other's anger originates solely and justifiably in response to their opponent's attacks. Only after some considerable time - though it does eventually happen - does this sort of anger turn one into a irredeemable monster; remove the source of the unjust provocation early enough and calm is restored. Which links back to the fat kid and the dog on the seesaw : they might be about equal in mass, but in most other ways they're fundamentally different*.
* A corollary to this false balance is false asymmetry, where a comparison is presented as flawed because of some minor detail that doesn't actually influence the aspect being compared. Bullshitters hate analogies because they expose the truth more clearly, and therefore seek to find any faults they can - even if they're not actually relevant at all.
This leads nicely to the toleration paradox : permitting intolerant ideals to foster, in the name of tolerance, eventually shuts down a tolerant society. Karl Popper phrased it in this horribly inelegant way :
... which has excessive use of the word "tolerance" so let's bring in Plato's version :
Put simply, give people the freedom to enslave you and they will enslave you. Fighting back to defend yourself (or another innocent party) isn't bullshit, it's justice. This can apply to both speech and actions. Insisting that "names will never hurt me" when taken to an extreme is bullshit. Yes, of course people take it too far in the other direction as well, trying to suppress things that really shouldn't be suppressed. But don't confuse toleration with justice, for they are not at all the same thing.
Sometimes justice demands harsher treatment towards one side than another. Treating bigoted idiots as though they deserved the same amount of respect as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is unfair, asymmetrical, and above all it is bullshit. You don't get to whine about having your rights taken away when you've started a campaign to take away the rights of others who've done you no wrong. And saying, "I condemn ALL the violence !" is bullshit if you don't bother to look at who instigated the violence and how harsh it was to the other side.
Imagine, for example, that you're a pub landlord living decades ago, when signs saying "No Irish" were common. If you refuse service to Irishmen, should you expect service yourself in an Irish pub ? Of course not. Saying that they should do so because of the importance of respecting different viewpoints is a peculiarly disgusting kind of bullshit (and having the audacity to paint the Irish as the villains of the piece would be a remarkable piece of victim blaming). It makes no sense to expect someone actively suppressing the rights of others to be treated decently by the same people they're oppressing.
However, there's no reason to tell the Irish that they cannot serve such people. It is entirely their choice if they want to; perhaps the ignorant landlord will benefit from the experience, perhaps they won't. It isn't bullshit to hope the Irish will treat the bigot with more compassion than they deserve - it's only bullshit to demand that they do. If one side oppresses the other, who then responds with extreme toleration, then fine - but if they respond with counter-oppression, then the two sides are still not equal. Sometimes turning the other cheek is successful (pre-emptive aggression is rarely if ever a good idea), but sometimes it just promotes further violence. The defensive reaction of the victim should not be confused with the cruel provocations of the aggressor, unless the response is far out of proportion to the initial attack.
I'm not trying to say that "an eye for an eye" is a sound moral philosophy, because it isn't. I'm only saying that it's bullshit to demand victims behave with standards vastly superior to their attackers. That is neither credible to expect nor, necessarily, likely to resolve the situation amicably. Rather the priority should be on preventing the aggression from the attacking side. The Nietzsche quote is fine as far as it goes, but is doesn't follow (or imply) that taking violent action to prevent an atrocity makes the two sides equal. You can't say, "I couldn't hit the guy starting a lynch mob because I thought that would make me as bad as he was", because that excuse is utter bullshit. You've just let someone else die, for goodness' sake.
This issue is one of both principle and practise. The former is simple, the latter is not. Circumstances notwithstanding, is it in principle moral to use a small amount of violence to prevent a greater one ? Yes, absolutely. The difficult part comes in establishing under what circumstances violence will actually be effective and of net benefit - if it's likely to weaken the opponents position or embolden them. There are other, perfectly legitimate excuses you could use for not attacking the leader of a lynch mob; that discussion as to exactly when violence should be used is not bullshit at all.
You may be wondering if "bullshit" is just a catch-all term for any logical fallacy or mode of irrational thinking. Certainly there's a large amount of overlap - but there are some aspects of bullshit which can't be described as "fallacies", and a few fallacies which can't really be described as bullshit. Broadly, the more obvious logical fallacies can be fairly called bullshit, but the subtler ones tend to be something different.
Weasel words, for example, can't really be described as a fallacy, and we've seen how they can be used to bullshit, but are not intrinsically bullshit. Similarly statistics and anecdotes can also be bullshit but only in the proper context. Asking a bullshit question isn't really a "fallacy" in any sense either - it's just bad practise. And while bias can certainly be a cause of bullshit, it isn't really bullshit itself.
The "argument from authority" fallacy isn't necessarily bullshit either. If you say, "Stephen Hawking is an expert and he tells us that climate change is a problem", you've certainly made an error - but it's very likely you didn't realise what you were doing. Hawking is an expert, but he's an expert in a different subject. There seems to be a very widespread notion that any sort of scientist is able to comment on any specialist area with the same degree of expertise : would you realise that this isn't the case unless someone pointed out to you have different the various fields of study can be ? If not, you're not necessarily bullshitting by committing this fallacy. In your mind any expert is as good as any other expert, so it's not "missing the point" or "not caring about the facts" to cite an inappropriate expert - it's simply done out of ignorance.
Ignorance can certainly lead to bullshitting. If you're genuinely not aware that anecdotes don't refute statistics, then this fallacy too is perhaps not bullshit either. It's not that the bullshitter is unaware of the truth or correct methods of debate, it's that they don't care about it. They don't even care about being right - at most, they only care about winning the argument. As Plato put it :
"Knowledge is the most perfect barrier against learning", said Frank Herbert. Ignorance too can prevent learning, though it's a more complex case than dealing with certainty. Lacking knowledge doesn't always equate with lack of curiosity.
This sort of data-free bullshit is much more ambiguous than the data-based bullshit covered in the online course. Even that, though, can arise from pure ignorance rather than a willful attempt to deceive. So one should be very reluctant to call out a statement or activity as bullshit, if one does it at all. If ignorance was the cause then that does not make the statement itself any less bullshit, but it does mean the person may not be a serial bullshitter.* You can reason with someone who's ignorant but interested; you have no hope of reasoning with someone who doesn't want to learn.
*As mentioned earlier, you can have a stupid idea without being physiologically stupid yourself. It's the same with bullshit. We may identify individual statements are being bullshit but that does not mean people who say them have done so with either disregard for the truth or in order to deceive us.
So bullshit isn't the only argumentative problem by any means, but it is a big one. As I discuss at length here, claims that Flat Earth loonies (etc.) are just the unfortunate victims of chronic misinformation and/or cult-like indoctrination (or even, as has been suggested, demand higher standards of proof than the rest of us) look deeply suspect to me. There are some conclusions which by their very nature demand a rejection of the scientific method or established political facts - you can't be a rational Flat Earther by definition. But it's important to realise that not caring about the facts and genuinely caring about them but getting sources wrong (or making other mistakes) are two different things. An even harder situation, one I think no-one has a good answer to, is how to deal with two intelligent, intellectually sincere people who come to mutually exclusive conclusions. I don't think this happens very often, but it's not a total unknown either.
It might be helpful to categorise the depth to which bullshit can effect a person's judgement (the breadth to which they as a whole are affected is another matter - it's common for people to suffer from immense levels of bullshit but only about one specific issue, such is the complexity of the human condition). They are of course just parts of a continuous spectrum, but I would suggest the following :
Aggressively disinterested. The sort of thing that happens when someone finds themselves discussing something they're not interested in and know nothing about, but (for all sorts of reasons) feel compelled to say something anyway. This is the realm of the Dunning-Kruger effect where stupid people don't realise they're stupid, but just a little bit stronger. Even when their ignorance is pointed out to them, they keep arguing instead of just going away. Pretty much everyone alive has been guilty of this at some point; most people at this level can be reasoned with using correct and respectful arguments. These people care about winning just a bit more than they do about the argument itself, which is not very much.
Agenda bias. This is much more dangerous than level 1 and occurs when people care very passionately about winning but hardly at all about being right. They are often genuinely convinced that they are right but don't care about testing their assertion, only in making sure that everyone else believes it too. This often happens with those guilty of absolutist thinking, who are so certain about something that they deem any contrary evidence to be falsified by virtue of disagreeing with their belief. At this stage people can sometimes be pulled back from the brink, but only with immense effort - deep down they do still care about the truth, it's just that they think they've found the truth already. Self-consistency still matters to such people.
Egomaniacs. At this stage redemption is probably impossible. These people do not care about the truth of the argument at all, but they care very deeply about themselves. They want everyone else to acknowledge them as winning the debates but don't have any interest in objective truth. Winning has become a core part of their identity, to lose would not be to admit an error but an act of massive self-harm. These people are especially prone to moving the goalposts around in a circle; if they admit their previous arguments were flawed they will never admit that they themselves were ever wrong. Such people might be manipulated but never reasoned with. Their only redeeming feature is that they care just enough about themselves that they will always try to present themselves as self-consistent, even if it's obvious to everyone else that they are not.
Agents of chaos. The ultimate extreme is someone who not only doesn't care about the arguments but doesn't care about themselves, their own opinion or their reputation. They don't care if they're flatly refuted; they care nothing for self-consistency. They're not seeking approval or even trying to win anything - if they have any kind of agenda at all, these are the sort of people who just want to watch the world burn.
Going from one end to the other, we find people care progressively less and less about the truth and more about winning the argument, their own ego, and finally simply causing chaos. Of course people do not necessarily evolve along a nice sequence : egomania might drive one all the way to level 4, but absolutist thinking (in itself) will never make it past level 2.
The danger level of bullshitting is not so nicely linear. Level 1 is not especially dangerous, it's just very annoying. Level 4's absurdity makes it so easy to spot such people that they hardly ever amount of anything. Those in the middle are perhaps the most dangerous. It's difficult bordering on impossible to reason with such people, but if they sing a tune that people like they can achieve remarkable levels of power and influence. People like reliable facts and dependable people; if they think someone has their best interests at heart then they don't notice even the most blatant of inconsistencies. And it deserves to be repeatedly emphasised that everyone bullshits to some degree and, moreover, everyone goes to extreme levels of bullshitting at least on occasion in some limited topics.
So it does no good at all to shout out either, "BULLSHIT !" or "FALLACY !" at the first breath. In fact it seldom does any good to shout these at all, because no-one likes being told that they're stupid or have done something stupid. Exceptions ? Between friends and family members, maybe. Definitely not with strangers you meet over the internet. But if calling bullshit, in the literal sense, isn't advisable, being able to identify it most certainly is. How you persuade people is another story, but I'd hazard that the golden rule of giving a good presentation also applies : know your audience. Engage in debate and determine as best you can if your opponent is being rational. If they are - and this is the really hard part - be prepared to concede defeat. If you don't do that then you've already lost. But if they're not - if they're following some or all of the typical bullshitting behaviours, then don't bother trying at all. You'll only end up wasting oxygen.