It seems ‘Bullshit’ has been elevated to a technical term, recognised by psychologists and increasingly studied. I’m pleased by this as there is so much of it around to be worthy of academic study. It’s important to understand as Bullshit is too big a part of modern discourse, playing a large part in the election of some of its most extravagant users as well of course, the idiocy of Brexit and so much that has infected social media during the pandemic.
So what is it? For starters, it is not the same as lying. To lie is to deliberately deceive and implies awareness of the truth.
So whats the definition of Bullshit?
In “On Bullshit“, the philosopher Frankfurt defined it as something designed to impress but constructed without direct concern for the truth – so producing bullshit requires facts and evidence to be studiously avoided or manipulated.
This interesting study looked at how people might detect and receive pseudo-profound Bullshit. It compared what people thought after reading randomly selected buzzwords were put together to suggest they convey something meaningful such as:
“Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”, or
“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.“
They compared the effect of those to statements which have a little more meaning like “A wet man doesn’t fear the rain” or mundane statements like “Infants needs constant attention”.
They found: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
The latter point is interesting given that 44% of people in the UK have used what this study calls CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine), including 26% of people in the last year alone, it is reasonable to assume that a significant chunk of the population is vulnerable to deception by bullshit.
Even though I don’t think Alternative Medicine and complementary therapy are one and the same, this still represents a large number of people. Complementary therapy includes massage amongst other therapies which people find relaxing and positive, even though they are useless for the treatment of illness. I prefer Edzard Ernst’s evidence based blog and his term “So Called Alternative Medicine, neatly shortened to SCAM. There is good medicine and bad medicine, whoever provides it.
Why BS matters
Bullshit has been far too common during the pandemic. Statement such as “Vaccines kill more people than they save” are now believed by millions of Americans even though the evidence against such a comment is readily available and stark. There are too many examples of too many people for whom bullshit becomes a fixed belief and does not help the mental health for them or the people who listen to them.
Random Bullshit Generators.
Try it yourself for a bit of fun. There is a neat bullshit generator which uses buzzwords from the copious writings of Deepak Chopra, a widely published alternative medicine guru. It will readily supply copious numbers of statements derived with correct syntax, but no discernible meaning. How about;
“The secret of the universe is a reflection of the progressive expansion of mysteries”
Might the vulnerable reader think – “Wow, that’s impressive and profound so it must mean something, if only I could fathom it out!” Don’t bother, its just bullshit! That brings us to how like something thats true BS can be.
“Truthiness” related to something that sounds plausible, though devoid of real meaning and applies to much BS. For instance, the statement: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation” could be imagined to have a vague meaning as it sounds as if it might contain some sort of sense though in reality just randomly selected words. It’s ‘truthy’.
Pandemic hardcore Bullshit
Just the other day I came across a pertinent example of genuine Bullshit relating to the pandemic. This is the Tech Bro’ Steve Kirsch who is making a new career as an anti-vaccination publicist. His latest ‘study’ published in the ’eminent journal’ which is his own Substack site, (no need for peer review there!) claims that the vaccine has killed 3.5 times more people than COVID19.
He comes to this conclusion by a survey carried out on readers of his own anti vaxx website. He asked for information on the number of people they personally knew of who died after COVID19 and from vaccines. Lo and behold there were 3.5 times people who more reportedly died after vaccines than of COVID19. This is genuine BS. Why?
Those ‘surveyed’ were already following his poorly informed antivaccine views; none of the information was verified, the vaccination status of those who died was not known, and the grim assumption that anyone dying at undefined times after the vaccine was death due to the vaccine. All this meant his conclusions were not based on reality. I could go on about how dreadful the survey and its results were, but thankfully there are others who spend their time doing this. My series on Misinformation is inspired by the plethora of such impressive Bullshit that has polluted the minds of so many people.
This is not difficult. Check the author and their background; look at their previous publications to reveal where they are coming from, check their evidence, look at where their references come from and indeed check references as often they are misquoted or misinterpreted. Think too about how ones own beliefs and bias can influence correct interpretation of new information. Have a default critical approach to sensational stories, and remember, BS is common in social media.
BS infects the political sphere too. Narcissists such as Trump, Johnson and way too many others make regular statements which are demonstrably false, but stated with such passion and emphasis they impress, leaving fact checkers too busy and too slow to keep up with the avalanche of bullshit and of course, lies which permeate their rhetoric. This matters.
The Greeks thought that Democracy would not work without an educated population. The very minimum for this is the ability to recognise bullshit to the point where talking crap becomes not politically expedient. We are now at the other end of that spectrum, where bullshit wins enough votes to make big differences.
So where does that leave our democracies? Thats another story.