Calling Bullshit

“Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

* Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.

* Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.

* Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.

* Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

* Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”

Calling Bullshit Syllabus

The Misinformation Virus

“Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence…

…To successfully debunk a myth, the authors conclude, it helps to provide an alternative causal explanation to fill the mental gap that retracting the myth could leave. Counterarguments work too, as they point out the inconsistencies contained in the myth, allowing people to resolve the clash between the true and the false statement. Another strategy is to evoke suspicion about the source of the misinformation. For example, you might be more critical of government officials who reject human-caused global warming if you suspect vested business interests behind the denialist claims…

…[When personal identity and values are involved, people tend to cherry-pick their data towards pre-determined conclusions, which] hints at a vexing conclusion: that the most knowledgeable among us can be more, not less, susceptible to misinformation if it feeds into cherished beliefs and identities…

…Since each individual has only negligible impact on collective decisions, it’s sensible to focus on optimising one’s social ties instead. Belonging to a community is, after all, a vital source of self-worth, not to mention health, even survival. Socially rejected or isolated people face heightened risks of many diseases as well as early death. Seen from this perspective, then, the impulse to fit our beliefs and behaviours to those of our social groups, even when they clash with our own, is, Kahan argues, ‘exceedingly rational’. Ironically, however, rational individual choices can have irrational collective consequences. As tribal attachments prevail, emotions trump evidence, and the ensuing disagreement chokes off action on important social issues.

-Elitsa Dermendzhiyska. “The misinformation virus.” Aeon. April 16, 2021.

This article hits at many of the main points of why there are so many bad ideas floating around: a funky media environment, our need to make sense of the world, personal values that conflict with the demands of reality, in-group/out-group dynamics, etc. Thinking about it as a pathogen is probably a useful mental model. Social media is like the Plague and we are in the early 1350s in its transition. Humanity will likely need a few centuries to develop cultural antibodies for its effects, and while there may be policy interventions that might have some effect in the short term, it’s still going to take a long while for us to come to grips with the social disruption of this new kind of communication.

If you think about it, this is true of every type of new communication format, even in just the last two centuries. Telegrams, radio, and television all changed the landscapes of societies, and they are still doing it. Part of what makes the Internet so powerful is that it creates an abstracted layer for these forms of communication that can also be tailored to focused audiences, mass media transformed into media for one, which is much more engaging. It’s going to take awhile to come to grips with it.

The Illusion of Certainty

“Scientists sometimes resist new ideas and hang on to old ones longer than they should, but the real problem is the failure of the public to understand that the possibility of correction or disproof is a strength and not a weakness…

…Most people are not comfortable with the notion that knowledge can be authoritative, can call for decision and action, and yet be subject to constant revision, because they tend to think of knowledge as additive, not recognizing the necessity of reconfiguring in response to new information.”

Mary Catherine Bateson, ” 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?: The Illusion of Certainty.” Edge.org. 2014.

R.I.P., Mary Catherine Bateson.

The Market of Truth & Faction

“Fooling people only requires telling them what they want to hear, over and over again. People love to hear how right they are.”

—Stan Beeman, in The Americans.

The market for truth is a small one. On the scale of the universe, it is true that we are insignificant. On that level, we don’t factor into truth at all.

But, this is true of truth more generally. The truth is that on every level above the personal, the immediate environments of our day-to-day existence, our lives are of no consequence.

But, we want to believe we matter. We want to be powerful, famous and wealthy. We want agency in a world where most of what we think or do is irrelevant and worthless.

The only way to achieve that goal of relevance and worth is to believe in anything other than the truth. Our ego wants to place itself as the center of the universe, like the earth in Medieval times, and believe that the music of the spheres is playing for us. But, it’s a lullaby, lulling us into a sleep of self.

Fractions of the truth, leads to fragmented minds and to faction. The Other becomes a defining factor in maintaining significance, despite the truth. Faction is integral to dissatisfaction. But, it’s all an illusion built on the desire for significance, which is built on someone else’s insignificance.

All of it is a temple of suffering, the cornerstone of which is our rejection of our own insignificance. What would happen if we were able to accept this truth?

Celebrating Our Differences

After reading a bit about the Anne Hathaway kerfuffle on limb differences portrayed in The Witches, I find myself of two minds.

On one hand, we are all imperfect, a work in progress. When we do something stupid from a perspective we haven’t considered, it’s good and useful to have our myopic perspective pointed out.

We need to work to expand our perspective to the point that we can appreciate, even celebrate, our differences. The effort to train our minds to transcend our limited experience is hard work, but it is worth doing.

On the other hand, there is something about the effusive apology that I think makes this work harder. At some level, there’s a judgmental element involved, that people should have already incorporated some perspective and they are somehow less than because they haven’t. I think it is important to take people as they are and look for ways we, together, can move things in a positive direction.

No one has all the answers. No one is inherently better than anyone else. We all have something valuable that the world desperately needs. Like not being sensitive to limb difference, when we judge people rather than look for the good in their outlook, we are being a different variety of myopic. In the process, we lose the opportunity to expand our own perspective. In turn, you are also cutting them off from the good you are bringing to the table.

As the Mr. Rodgers saying goes, people are only open to change when engaged with someone that loves them. There are two religions, being right or loving someone. It’s impossible to be a member of both of these faiths at the same time.

Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life

7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
In order to position yourself well to cope with constant change, you should establish as many predictable structures and routines as possible. The point is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make about trivial matters. Save your energy for major questions that arise in our technological society. Regularize the trivial to cope with the significant…

Nystrom’s Nugget #1
Reserve the word ‘friend’ for someone who knew you when you still wore braces on your teeth, who has on at least one occasion spent the night with you in a hospital emergency room or police station, and who will without hesitation commit perjury for you in a court of law. Other people may rightly be called ‘acquaintances.’

13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about
a dozen.

All bureaucracies are alike, their principal characteristic being their wish to satisfy the rules of the system. Bureaucracies are by nature hostile to individual differences. Although we pretend institutions care, institutions do not have loyalty, compassion, or feelings, which are human traits…

16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
Do not allow yourself to become grim about anything. Above all, do not become an ist: a socialist, a feminist, a capitalist, etc. This will help you avoid hardenings of the categories and help you keep your sense of humor…

19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
Quantification has a very limited effectiveness. Any attempt to apply quantification to human affairs represents pure superstition of a medieval kind. Nevertheless, modern America is based on counting. We try to redefine non-quantifiable concepts into objective quantities: for example, take the numerical scores given for intelligence tests or for contestants in beauty pageants. This passion for numbers and quantification must be discarded…

Nystrom’s Nugget #5
Do not place too high a value on honesty and plain speaking. You are not wise enough to know what is the truth, and what seems plain to you may only bring pain to others.

Postman’s Addendum to Nugget #5: Of all the virtues, the most overrated is honesty. Honesty is the first refuge of the scoundrel. According to Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, the main use of language is to conceal your thoughts, not to reveal them. In some sense, by suggesting that speaking your mind can be upsetting, Nugget #5 offers an anti-ventilation theory.

-Janet Sternberg, “Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life.” Academia.edu. December 8, 2005

h/t Austin Kleon.

Cast Reason Aside

“You can tell time by the cry of ‘Never again’…The future is obvious. Escalating suicide, the 20-year real-terms recession, the blackout, the plagues, those people falling onto the tracks, microhomes and governments’ continued abuse of ’emergencies’, are obvious. Yet many feel it a duty to portray shock of surprise when it comes along…Human beings aren’t content to cast reason aside—it has to hit someone.” -Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett

Comforting Illusions

“William Sloane Coffin tells the story of a scientist from Harvard flying on an experimental mission in a private plane over the lake country of northern Alabama, measuring with elaborate instruments the fish populations of various lakes. Sighting two fisherman out at some remote lake he had just surveyed, the scientist figured that as a favor he would land his plane on the water nearby and tell them that his instruments had discovered that there were no fish to speak of in those waters and they would have better luck if they went on to another lake. So despite the delay, he landed near the anglers and explained the bad news to them, expecting grateful thanks. They were outraged, instantly, and told the scientist in rich Southern expletives where he could take his plane and his instruments and what he could do with them, whereupon they baited their lines once again and kept fishing. The scientist flew off, much abashed and much puzzled. ‘I expected their disappointment,’ he said later, ‘but not their anger.’…But of course we all react that way to unpleasant truth much of the time: it upsets our preconceptions and our comforting illusions and therefore angers us, and often as not we choose to ignore it. None of us wants to be told, even though deep down we may know it, that there are no fish.”

—Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale

Don’t Mistake Theater for Your Reality

I, too, have been called names. I have found myself sharing the living and thinking space of people with Cluster B personality disorders. I have seen them conjure worlds, hammer manacles, and shape the world with their words and beliefs. And while their tutelage was hard, I learned a great lesson, which I will share: Don’t mistake theater for your reality. The actors are playing a part, the play is an entertainment, of sorts, and you get to decide when and how far to suspend your disbelief. We, the audience and the actors, are the magicians. We make the rain, the good weather, and the fruit, and we are free to poison them in the interest of a better story.

I will cast my spells, act the role I have chosen, and say my lines. In the end, when the play is over, my only sincere wish is that it has all, at least, been entertaining. If they call me the fool, the villain, or even the hero during the play, have I not succeeded? People don’t want truth. They want to care about something. In a world where meaning is hard to find, we all most want, more than anything, to matter. The Matrix is both metaphor and the unvarnished truth of our times.

Change Your Conversations/Life

tl;dr: Discussions with people with love and respect done in the spirit of discovery of truth can be a powerful force for personal change. Without love, respect and a concern for truth, discussions devolve into signalling group allegiances and programming / deprogramming The Others and is best avoided.

Anti-idiotarianism: Opposition to idiots of all political stripes. First coined in the blog named Little Green Footballs as part of a post expressing disgust with inane responses to post-9/11 Islamic terrorism. Anti-idiotarian wrath has focused on Islamic terrorists and their sympathizers in the Western political left, but also routinely excoriated right-wing politicians backing repressive ’anti-terror‘ legislation and Christian religious figures who (in the blogosphere’s view of the matter) have descended nearly to the level of jihad themselves.”

-The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7, October 30, 2019

“But the Twitter conversation about national politics among U.S. adult users is driven by a small number of prolific political tweeters. These users make up just 6% of all U.S. adults with public accounts on the site, but they account for 73% of tweets from American adults that mention national politics.”

-Adam Hughes, “A small group of prolific users account for a majority of political tweets sent by U.S. adults.” Pew Research Center. October 23, 2019.

Let’s start with the obvious. The baseline is that no one cares what you think, about anything. People don’t want to read your “hot take” about the news of the day. They don’t want to hear about how the world would be so much better, if only you were installed as Emperor of the World. You’re not going to be Emperor of the World.

Even if Emperor of the World were a position for which they were hiring, if you were picked, it’s a certainty you’d fuck it up, as would anyone. Socrates, Buddha, or Jesus might be able to pull it off, but they wouldn’t want the job. You cannot liberate people and rule them at the same time.

For any discussion, this is the central question. Is it going to be an open ended process of discovery searching for truth? Or does it serve some other purpose, like binding a group together around an established ideology? The answer, at least 1 out of a 1000 times, is the latter.

There are people that want, more than anything, to be part of a group, to share in a collective power, even if it is a small share of that power. Discussion, in this context, is programming. With one side trying to program or deprogram the other.

But, people following a program are idiots. Merriam-Webster defines “idiot” as a foolish or stupid person. In this context, I think a better definition of idiot is: a person that subscribes to a particular ideology in order to be accepted as part of a group, thinks their opinions are correct (though they are idiosyncratic reflections of the opinion of their group), other people are wrong, and other people desperately need to hear what they think, whether they want to or not. There’s little point in talking to idiots, or people acting like an idiot.

Everyone acts like an idiot, every now and again. But, for many, being an idiot is a calling. The goal is promotion of the partisan, whether it is true or not. Although, many of these partisans are true believers, even if what they believe isn’t true.

The sanest strategy is not to get in the business of programming others and to try to avoid other people programming you. Avoid discussions of this sort, unless you deeply care for someone and feel an obligation to help pull them from the path they have chosen. Just be careful to give higher regard for your relationship rather than to your ideas.

If you eliminate those types of discussions, what’s left? Let’s assume we are contemplating an open ended discussion as a process for the discovery of the truth.

  • Why engage in a process like this one?
  • Who should we have these discussion with?
  • How should we do it?

Sometimes talking our ideas through with someone else helps us to develop them, particularly if that person disagrees with us. It allow us to confront problems or aspects of a problem we might not have considered otherwise.

But, our feelings about the other person are key. While it is possible to have civil discourse with people we don’t like, it’s best to have these discussions with people we know and like. If you don’t know or like someone, you are going to be less open to what they are saying. It becomes easier to become partisan or be contrary in a way that blocks a useful exchange of ideas.

What is useful discourse? Paul Graham has a helpful essay, “How to Disagree,” that talks about a hierarchy of disagreement:

  • DH0: Name-calling
  • DH1: Ad hominem, personal attacks.
  • DH2: Responding to tone
  • DH3: Contradiction
  • DH4: Counterargument
  • DH5: Refutation
  • DH6: Refuting the central point

If most of the discussion is equal to or less than DH3, it probably indicates that it isn’t useful. We can safely avoid conversations that drop down to these levels or we believe will quickly devolve into them.

In sum, we know what good discussions look like. If you don’t care for the person and there’s no forward progress to be made, end it. As an act of kindness, let them have the last word. It’s trying to get the last word the prolongs conversations that are better off dead.