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18. Bullshit

"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back."

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

It is not easy to see through all the stuff one beliefs, even if it is in fact such bullshit.

This is especially true in today's age of "fake news", "deep fakes", generative AI and all manner of conspiracy theories:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

"Recognizing truth requires selflessness. You have to leave yourself out of it so you can find out the way things are in themselves, not the way they look to you or how you feel about them or how you would like them to be…"

Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Consider also: the amount of energy required to refute bullshit is of a greater order than it takes to produce it (Brandolini's law, also called: the "Bullshit Asymmetry Principle").

"No doubt turning one's back on cherished beliefs can feel daunting and scary, but one finds no real relief in a superstitious embrace of spirituality either. The mind of superstition is a haunted house filled with the ghosts of other people's religion, other people's pain, and other people's fears."

Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things

Carl Sagan once laid out a set of rules that make it easier to distinguish nonsense and pseudoscience from real science. He called this the "Baloney Detection Kit":

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the "facts".
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among "multiple working hypotheses", has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don't, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Another useful quote from Sagan is: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", which is another way of implementing Occam's Razor.

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