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Sunday 4 June 2017

On Bullshit

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 :

Questionable priorities

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.

Victim blaming

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 statistical training, 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 dangerous idiot. 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.

Unfalsifiable statements

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.

False Symmetry

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 :
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  1. Interesting. Definitely *not* bullshit. :)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Wow. A new look at life.


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