At this point, it doesn’t really matter which of the various tips and tricks you use to prevent yourself from passively believing bullshit as long as you do something and start now. The Internet, and social media in particular, have made the old ways of avoiding cranks and crack pots nearly impossible. Rather than seeing them screaming on the streets or in front of you at Wendy’s reciting the Magna Carta to the manager they are online explaining their demon alien 9/11 conspiracy theory on YouTube with flashy graphics and/or an oddly compelling one-sided argument. So now, rather than crossing the street, averting your eyes, or quietly praying that the crank will get out of line so you can order your meal, you watch and listen to unmitigated nonsense in the comfort of your own home, thinking “hmm, maybe Monster energy drinks are from Satan or evil demon aliens did 9/11 to distract America from Obama being the secret gay muslim Antichrist.” Oh, just in case you think I am making up the above example …
Here ya go! Not that flashy or compelling, but one example among many.
Well, say you never fell that far down the rabbit-hole, but every day the line between what’s real and what is ideological twaddle is growing more and more blurry. Though the causes are many and various, the solutions are as well. Pick from as many as you can, both here and in the list of external links at the bottom, but make this be the year you that you stop letting bullshit infect your brain.
I call myself a “recovering conspiracy theorist,” it’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it does describe my past acceptance of various ideologically driven hypothetical bullshit and rejection of cold-hard facts that disagreed with my point-of-view. This meant that I accepted the premise of an elite establishment covertly holding the reigns of global power while puppet regimes conduct what appeared to be a legitimate system of governance … but only when my side wasn’t in power. This internal bias blinded me to facts that made my political stances inconvenient. I quickly accepted, and vigorously argued for, any kernel of semi-plausible concept that could insulate me from those less-than-palletable facts. In essence, I was able to see the world in simpler ideological terms due to a thick layer of bullshit as insulation.
I use myself as an example because, once I realized I was operating within a system of unmitigated hyperbole and baseless hypotheticals that support my opinions but are not supported by facts, I had to make a decision. I had to decide if the truth mattered. That is the question most people don’t realize they have to ask themselves every time they spread a rumor or forward a link or meme that seems believable and is either for their ideology or vilifies someone in the opposition … every time, they have to ask themselves “Do I want to be honest and thoughtful in what I put out in the world, or am I okay being full of shit?”
Bullshit Detection 101
Part 1: Know thy Self, and thine own bullshit
Being full of shit is easy. Being honest, truthful, and thoughtful is hard. I should know, I was a well-renowned bullshit artist in my day (which is a separate thing altogether from being a conspiracy theorist, believe me). I had more than a few people call me on my bullshit, that’s because they had adequate levels of bullshit detection, still more had no ability to sniff out the BS and fell victim. Just because I spewed out a lot of bullshit didn’t mean I was immune to putting my foot in it. That old phrase “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter” is, in my opinion, total bullshit. Luckily, there are tools at our collective disposal.
The first step in bullshit detection, working hard to not being full of shit yourself.
The internal sources of bullshit may be the hardest to detect. The most important thing to remember is that everyone has biases. The bias a person has may come from early childhood experience, the biases of family members or significant others, or developed over a period of months or years. Even though everyone has some biases, that doesn’t mean that everyone lets their biases go unchecked. The best way of checking internal bias is to know what those biases are and take regular effort to challenge those biased assumptions with factual information and strive to be honest with one’s self. When you take an honest inventory of your beliefs, where they come from and the effects they have on you or others, it is possible to take steps towards improvement and, thus, a better bullshit detector (yes, this sounds a bit like a 12-step program, but the only Higher Power I am promoting here is the Truth).
Being honest with yourself may be hard to accomplish, but it’s worth it.
Part 2: Discerning Between Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation.
Yes, there are different types of bullshit.
First off, it is important to describe factual information before we talk about what is not factual. Briefly, a fact-based claim is any claim backed by factual evidence that is not skewed to mislead.
No matter what the source is, disinformation is the deliberate misrepresentation to mislead others. Russian dezinformatsiya (disinformation) took misleading stories to an art form. Dezinformatsiya was artful propaganda meant to delude the general public into believing what was not true. Regardless of the source, with the recent increase in awareness that fake news stories can have to influence the public, a deeper understanding of this type of bullshit is needed. One thing that is extremely important to understand is that disinformation is not a one-to-one exchange; it’s spread through various channels, many of whom having no inkling of the falsity of the claims they are promoting. Unwitting news agencies, friends, neighbors, and colleagues could all be spreading bullshit unbeknownst to you and to them. Even before it gets to word-of-mouth (or social media post), there’s layers to the shit.
Now, the unwitting carriers of bullshit are obviously not intentionally trying to mislead you. Far from it. They heard or saw some article of news or gossip and are repeating it as fact. The unfortunate thing here is that the skills you practice as a good detector of bullshit may put you in conflict with your friendly bullshit carriers. It’s not your job to tell your friend that what they are saying is bullshit, at least not until you have made absolutely sure whether the thing they are saying is true or false.
Here’s how to proceed.
When a person makes a wildly sensational claim, the first thing you should do is ask where this information came from. If they cite there source as “a friend of a friend,” then you should deem the claim non-verifiable and, since you can’t prove it to be true, disregard.
If their source is a news story, then it is normally a good idea to actually find that news story and read it, don’t just believe it out of hand. See what sources that news story use. If they are claiming that, for instance Obama is a secret muslim (a popular one for the last few years), and the news article cites a few sketchy memes, a rambling YouTube video, and/or another article with no credible sources; it is probably time to disregard.
Okay, say you saw what you thought was pretty good evidence. The memes and YouTube vids were pretty convincing! Well, you may well be believing a one-sided skewed view of a subject. If you seek truth and not just reassurance, it is necessary to try to disprove a claim, not simply to reinforce it. Most memes are one-sided. All conspiracy YouTube videos are one-sided, even though they pretend to be “just asking questions” (eg. “Is Queen Elizabeth an immortal shapeshifter and the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky?”). The problem is a lack of falsifiability, or ability for a claim to be proven false. The use of cherry-picked coincidences, loose-associations, numerology and magical thinking or coincidental timing as “proof” leaves anyone to make any claim and use any means they choose to “prove” that claim. In this world, nothing is real, all fantasy is just as “true” as the fundamental laws of nature. In that case, why take a plane when you can teleport?
If a claim of any magnitude cannot be either proven with evidence, or made falsifiable with evidence, it should most likely be disregarded. Just because a person is misinformed, or heard a hypothetical that they believed wholeheartedly, doesn’t mean that they are stupid. We all have the capacity to believe bullshit from time to time, and should treat each other with respect. If a claim is made that you know to be wrong, it may be appropriate to tell the person making the claim of your awareness, but that doesn’t mean that they will listen.
Part 3: WTF Internet?
All of the above examples can happen in real interactions and online. The massive disinformation and conspiracy theories are remarkably similar to small town gossip or rumors. A lie can spread faster than the truth. This is not something the Internet created. The Internet, especially with the advent of social media, just made the process go a lot further and faster.
Before the telephone and telegraph, people had to meet in person or write letters to spread rumors. Books and broadsides promoted conspiracy theories, but at a much slower pace than we have today. Before television, it was generally text or still images used to add depth to a sensational story. Before the Internet, however, people still were very able to promote propaganda, sow the seeds of scapegoating and witch hunts. It isn’t as if echo-chambers were invented by Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Now, a flashy combination of text and image, spoken word and videos with swift transitions and slash-cut edits can dazzle the subconscious while slyly persuading the reader and/or viewer. It is more than human consciousness has ever had to contend with before.
That’s not to say that the Internet is not also the source of immense new tools for bullshit detection. Google Scholar allows for up-to-date scientific fact-checking materials, some of it beyond the pay-wall but not all. Basic science facts are available through trustworthy websites.
Efforts are being made now to expose fake news purveyors, but that will never really be enough. Everyone needs to strive for greater information literacy and critical discernment. In other words, knowing when more information is required and when something is complete bullshit.
Scott Berkun’s blog “How to Detect Bullshit.”
“Baloney Detection Kit” adapted from Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World.
“YOUR BALONEY DETECTION KIT SUCKS” is a vital and modern rebuttal to Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” (using some of the best hyperbole there is, but still a relevant refutation). Remember, logical fallacies are only relevant when dealing with rational arguments, or arguing people.
“On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” by Pennycook, Cheyne, et al. 2015.
An anonymously created public Google Doc giving a list of fake and hoax news sites.
Neil Postman’s “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection”
“The Bla Bla Meter” helps you take a good look at your own writing (and the writing of others) and see how much bullshit filler and nonsense is in it.
Here is a plugin for several browsers that helps warn of questionable sources.
… And a CBC news story on the creator of the plugin.
When all else fails, including all the advice above, revisit the Golden Sentences of Democrates. A few examples include:
It is beautiful to impede an unjust man; but, if this be not possible, it is beautiful not to act in conjunction with him.
It is necessary to be a speaker of the truth, and not to be loquacious.
Fools frequently become wise under the pressure of misfortunes.