This is a wonderful time for Bullshit in America. All manner of Bullshit. Political Bullshit. Bullshit Medicine. Bullshit Science. Bullshit Advice. Bullshit History. Even, and this may come as a surprise, Bullshit Media and News Coverage. What does all this mean for you? Who knows, probably nothing, but I can make some Bullshit up so you think that it’s the most important thing you will read about and you will either love me or hate me for it. It all depends, does my Bullshit align with yours?
So, is 2016 the Year of Bullshit? Sure, why not? Pictured above, Donald Trump is making a constipated face that he believes approximates a garish lack of concern, he is also running for President of the United States of America. He has become an ersatz Bullshit Messiah, both the epicenter of American Political Bullshit as well as a ‘Bullshit Creator’ in his own right. He epitomizes the desire for political outsiders among Tea Party Republicans while showing that they still don’t want a Presidential candidate with a clear grasp of reality, much less one who is willing to be honest.
Donald Trump is not the only source of Bullshit, in 2016 or otherwise. Really, 2016 may be the Year of Bullshit because, for one, we can now talk about Bullshit in a realistic manner. Since the 2005 reformatting of an earlier (1986) essay, Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit is a philosophical look into the subject of Bullshit, several academic articles have been written regarding the study of Bullshit. This line of academic seems to have crystallized into meaningful and actionable study with the November 2015 publish of On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit, in which authors (credited in link) tested individuals’ ‘Bullshit Receptivity’ and found that participants often failed to detect Bullshit and ‘Pseudo-Profound Bullshit’ correlated negatively with conspiracist ideation (meaning they didn’t buy that type of bullshit as often) and positively with belief in the paranormal and with previous knowledge of Deepak Chopra (whose Twitter posts researchers approximated and asked participants to rate in terms of level of profundity). The conclusions drawn help explain how 2016 may be the Year of Bullshit:
Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before. Profundity ratings for statements containing a random collection of buzzwords were very strongly correlated with a selective collection of actual “Tweets” from Deepak Chopra’s “Twitter” feed (r’s = .88–89). At the time of this writing, Chopra has over 2.5 million followers on “Twitter” and has written more than twenty New York Times bestsellers. Bullshit is not only common; it is popular.
Now, if you happen to be a fan of Deepak Chopra, you may feel like some Ivory Tower academic mucky-mucks are taking a cheap shot at something that they do not understand. First, remember, these particular academics generated some of the psuedo-profound statements attributed to Chopra as part of an experiment. If that does not quell your rage, perhaps catching academics falling for some bullshit would make you happy. Well, they have.
The Sokal Hoax or Sokal Affair has become the stuff of Academic Infamy, and Legendary Bullshit. In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokol submitted an article to the academic journal Social Text that was comprised of 100% self-aware pseudo-academic bullshit, Social Text published the article without comment. Sokal later announced the nature of the article, entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, as part-parody and part-test but most of all an aggressive rebuke of a Plea to Academic Authority (he was a physicist, after all) rather than the careful consideration and assessment of the content.
One characteristic of the emerging postmodern science is its stress on nonlinearity and discontinuity: this is evident, for example, in chaos theory and the theory of phase transitions as well as in quantum gravity. At the same time, feminist thinkers have pointed out the need for an adequate analysis of fluidity, in particular turbulent fluidity
From Sokal’s Transgressing the Boundaries, which was Bullshit.
Did you know that Homeopathy is Bullshit? The idea that the more you dilute an active ingredient, the stronger it becomes is not only nonsensical, it is nonsense. And yet, Homeopathy has fans, is not illegal (despite its occasionally causing the death of those who would have otherwise sought real medical attention) and even a petition to be covered by Medicare. Deepak Chopra may get a bad wrap for being pseudo-profound, but at least he hasn’t caused anyone’s death (to my knowledge).
Homeopathy is part of a larger wave of Bullshit in the area of people’s health. Anti-Vaccine Bullshit, raging due to Pseudo-Science Bullshit about Autism has led to very real resurgences of diseases that had been all but wiped out. Measles, Mumps, Rubella and approximately 149,000 preventable illnesses and over 9,000 preventable deaths, all due to a significant amount of cognitive biases, fear and, of course, Bullshit. That was, at least, the case until a group of Anti-Vaxxers (the people who think that vaccines are bad) funded a study that actually showed that there is no link between vaccines and Autism. Denial is a definite factor.
Here are two videos regarding Measles and vaccines. Can you tell which one is Bullshit?
So, did you figure out which of these two videos were Bullshit? No you didn’t. What you did was decide which worldview you agree with and decided one was true and one was lying. Well, thankfully, it is possible to verify the information in the second video (using trustworthy sources such as CDC.gov) and to debunk claims made by the first video (but if you did not do either of these fact-checking steps then you did not prevent yourself from falling for any number of potential cognitive biases, the stuff Bullshit thrives on.
And, again, this guy. If anyone has become synonymous with Bullshit, it is Donald Trump. He unabashedly uses monosyllabic taunts, mockery, empty bluster, and dismissive facial gestures to distract from his lack of substantial policy proposals, leadership skills, tact, or oration. His main reason for being a billionaire is that he was born one, and his main reason for being the GOP’s current Presidential frontrunner is that all of the attributes you see above are actually appealing to an increasing number of voters. He actually has mass-appeal! That’s Bullshit on a whole other level.
Remember what researchers learned about Pseudo-Profound Bullshit? The same can be said about Pseudo-Political Bullshit. When 41% of Trump supporters said they would favor bombing Agrabah and only 9% opposed the action, the polster failed to mention that Agrabah was the fictional country from Disney’s Aladdin. When this came out in December 2015 the headlines mocked Trump supporters’ for their ignorance, ignoring that 19% of Democrat’s surveyed also supported bombing a cartoon country. If Democratic Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley had anywhere near the polling numbers Donald Trump has, the fact that 39% of his supporters also supported bombing a fictional country would have raised eyebrows as well.
This is not just about the claims Trump has made, or the apparent gullibility of his supporters, but something deeper. Wait, something less deep. Think shallow! Trump is the very epitome of Bullshit because he can and has bullshit his way through life. He may have been born with more money than most small towns collectively make in a decade, but he has made even more money than that, and lost still more, several times over; all the while just as obliviously confident and self-assured as you please. It is this blissful ignorance to consequence that is the Trump persona. Trump is Bullshit incarnate, a walking, talking, tweeting, steaming pile.
What’s more important than Trump’s persona in the race for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination is the absolute media frenzy that started the moment Donald Trump announced his candidacy. It was ratings gold, even Donald Trump said so, even when he was announcing his candidacy. He’s that much of a self-assured ass, but he was right. The news media collectively climaxed and prepared for what, they seemed to believe, a few random gaffes from Trump followed by his eventual disappearance. Unlike the other times Donald Trump announced his candidacy, Trump continued onward in his bid for the GOP nomination. At some point, it seems, the American news media became to oversexed by Trump’s daily gaffes, refusal to apologize, ascent into the top echelon among as many as seventeen GOP candidates. The Donald broke the Liberal Media (which, in case you didn’t know, apparently includes FoxNews).
So, is 2016 the Year of Bullshit?
Well, not really. If you looked at the title “The Golden Age of Bullshit” you may have thought about some of the Historical time periods that were considerably more lacking in a scientifically derived narrative to combat whatever was being said by the ruling elites of their day.Perhaps you considered The Gilded Age or Late Antiquity in Europe, Soviet Russia and its era of extreme propaganda. Maybe you, just now, said “Hey, what about McCarthy and America during the Cold War” after I mentioned the Soviets. Any number of eras could have been argued as the Golden Age of Bullshit because Bullshit has been around as long as humans have had language and reason to ask questions but not the intellectual honesty to say “I dunno.”
What can be said is that there is an overwhelming amount of information available to people today. Not all of this information, however, is based in fact. A great deal of the information that is said, heard, read, written, posted, re-posted, quoted, posted via blogs and social media or becomes a meme is, unfortunately, Bullshit.
Here’s a stark realization then, you believe at least some Bullshit. Sadly, I say that with some assurance, because so do I. When a friend, neighbor, loved one or stranger calls me on my Bullshit, I try to own it, but it’s hard! The thing is, there is so much information (maybe a better way of phrasing it would be something like ‘info-noise’) out there that much of it goes unchecked and becomes a thing we think we know. Worse yet, having the awareness that somethings are Bullshit makes some of us think we can tell, instinctively, what is real and what is Bullshit. That is, among other things, how I came to be among the many who could be collectively referred to as the 911-Truth Movement. My lacking science knowledge at that time did not seem to exclude me from having theories regarding the melting point of steel of the nature of falling buildings, theories that I actually overheard and adopted as my own, sans fact checking of any kind.
The powerful realization that so much ‘info-noise’ being produced so regularly is utter nonsense, but that we cannot necessarily know what is real and what is not is harrowing. Luckily, there are ways of dealing with this. One strong suggestion would be to try and disprove any belief you have before making a claim of Belief: once you tell another person you believe something, it tends to become harder on your self-image to let go of that belief and, thus, be ‘wrong.’ Instead, entertain the notions, but consider the counterpoint. The next big suggestion being, investigate your assumptions often: the very ideas that may make you feel you know the world could be the ones could be the ones you use to unwittingly fool yourself.
The last idea is, of course, laugh. Knowing you were wrong isn’t nearly as bad when you can laugh at yourself. Although I don’t think it is actually healthy to mock others for their deeply held beliefs, it can be a source of relief to consider your old beliefs with an openness to the humor therein. At least I think that could help, that’s my opinion anyway, it may just be bullshit. Of course, the important thing is that we talk about the bullshit, so as to avoid believing the bullshit.
More Bullshit Below: