Bullshit 101

Fake news, alternative facts, bold lies. Disdain for evidence coupled with a contempt for expertise. Deception has been around forever – even in subhuman species; ravens “fake-cache” food when being watched – but mis/disinformation bombards us nonstop in today’s post-truth culture thanks to the viral capacity of social media.

In an attempt to stem the pernicious flow of falsehoods a plethora of fact-checking sites have sprung up.

The acclaimed International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute in my hometown (St. Petersburg, Fla.) recently launched the first-ever coalition of 10 separate fact-checking organizations under one umbrella.

click to access

Snopes is also a well-regarded fact-checking website, although it has been the target of fake news and malicious rumors designed to discredit its fact-checking efforts. In 2019 Snopes severed its relationship with Facebook, claiming the social media giant was not fully committed to eliminating fake news.

click to access

Most of us would agree the goal of exposing fake news is laudable but of course it is not wise from a legal standpoint to accuse someone of lying. Which is why bullshitting is the go-to term these days. Google the word and in less than half a second you get over 62 million results.

Bullshit, in fact, is barely even considered profanity anymore. During the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, Citizens Party candidate Barry Commoner ran a radio advertisement that began with an actor exclaiming: “Bullshit! Carter, Reagan and Anderson, it’s all bullshit!” NBC & CBS at first refused to run the ad but were overturned by a judge’s ruling.

Now plug ‘bullshit’ into Google Scholar, which indexes only academic literature, and you come up with nearly 90,000 results.

Bullshit Studies has become a legitimate and respected area of research in Academia ever since the publication of On Bullshit by Princeton professor of philosophy, Harry Frankfurt.

Bullshit is a closely related form of falsehood, with a twist. The liar, Frankfurt says, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead her audience. The “bullshitter,” on the other hand, does not care about the truth, is not primarily attempting to convince or persuade, but – from the mouth of a politician, e.g. – to create confusion, anger, and disorientation.

Think about the dispute over Trump’s inauguration audience or Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of a (nonexistent) ‘Bowling Green Massacre’. Such outrageous lies (which technically anyone could verify) are employed for political purposes, to make ‘normal’ political debate and critical scrutiny of policies impossible. The goal behind such bullshit is not to convince but to confound.

American Sign Language

Since Frankfurt initiated the conversation about bullshit, – his book was originally written as a monograph in 1986, published in 2005 – a wide range of academic disciplines have pursued and enriched our understanding: philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, communication specialists, and more. Two University of Washington professors – evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom & data scientist Jevin West – have even created a well-attended course for credit, Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.

click to access

Their course is also offered online for free. I bought the book ($12 Kindle) and am watching the video lectures – which, incidentally, are always under 10 minutes and never the kind to put you to sleep .

Sample Video

Interestingly, politics is not the main focus of this course. (A quick look at a list of their case studies from the home page above will confirm this.) As they write in the course syllabus:

While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullshit are those that we will be addressing in the present course.

Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullshit — and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup’s big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?

Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.

That’s a lofty goal, critical thinking, but I’m not holding my breath.

🙂 🙂 🙂

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