This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.
In my first-ever standup comedy routine, I remarked that the purpose of life is to learn to distinguish between truth and lies. Everyone in our society is jockeying for power, money, and attention, and dishonesty plays a huge role in that. I can't pretend that I can tell a liar from a truth-teller, but in my dealings with creationists and others, I've gotten pretty good at identifying a certain recurring mode of intellectually dishonest behavior, which I call "the Bullshit Syndrome."
As an example I'll tell you about an individual I learned about last week. Like me, he's a wannabe scientist. We're about the same age; he's an artist who writes about alternative physics, while I am a comedian/musician who writes about alternative physics. On his website he has posted over 100 articles totaling over 1,400 pages, in which he reformulates basic math and physics, from scratch.* Impressive! When I first heard about him, I was intrigued. But within about 15 minutes at his site, I began to realize that his ideas and rhetorical devices were dubious; after 90, they were fraudulent to the point of delusion. (To cite one example, admittedly out of context, he explains that a lead cube weighs more than a cardboard box because the cube has "more atomic bonds" and is therefore more structurally rigid than the box. "If I were more rigid, I would weigh more," he writes.)
I noticed that there was no discussion area on his website or a way to publicly ask questions. I Googled him — a few followers were citing his articles in physics discussion forums, but I found no place where he publicly sought reader engagement or an exchange of ideas. I did, though, find another essay he had written: a long screed declaring that Wikipedia is elitist and exclusionary, undemocratic, and that anyone who promotes alternative ideas there is labeled a nut or a conspiracy theorist.
Folks, normal people don't whine about being called nuts and conspiracy theorists. Only nuts and conspiracy theorists do.
It’s all part of the same Bullshit-Syndrome pattern that can be seen among creationists, 9/11 "Truthers," ultra-conservatives, and plenty of other groups, including some on the left. Here are five behaviors that most if not all of these groups exhibit, regardless of the topic:
1. Creation of a compelling alternative narrative. While in reality the subject matter requires education, dispassionate thinking, and nuance, in the Bullshit Syndrome this is replaced with a story that seems more like a film script — with heightened drama and intrigue, where some mysterious unseen entity is pulling the strings, typically with ulterior motives of control. These theories are an improvement on reality, where the narrative is more exciting, interesting, or comforting on a human emotional scale than the mainstream account. They may be popularized through grassroots propaganda materials, for example "agitprop" videos that feature rousing imagery and tense, insistent, dramatic music. (Here's a classic example.)
2. Appeal to simple-mindedness and intuition. Since the subject matter is difficult and nuanced, the Bullshit version is made more palatable and graspable. This may explain why these people are much more certain of their convictions (to the point of insularity and tribalism) than their opponents; while most people are likely to admit mistakes or concede points, the Bullshitter concedes nothing. The Bullshitter presents child-like rhetorical questions that appeal to the desire for easy answers and comprehensive understanding, and tells us that the mainstream account just doesn't make sense. "A five-year-old could understand this," they claim. Curiously, though, when challenged, they often fire back with, "Apparently you're just too dumb to understand."
3. Claims of exclusion by the establishment. The Bullshitter complains that they are being systematically shut out by the mainstream in order to protect the status quo, and this is why their ideas don't take hold. They typically exhibit other paranoid behaviors. I poked fun of these aspects of creationism in my video "Intelligent Design Really Is Being Expelled."
4. Accusations of servitude to the establishment. If you call the Bullshitter on their bullshit, that automatically makes you a "pawn," "shill," "toadie," etc., of the establishment. You are being controlled by, or are actively working for, the government, big business, the Illuminati, etc. — thus rendering your opinion worthless. But that's probably because of the propaganda put out by the mysterious monolithic entity to keep the "sheeple" under control. The Bullshitter of course is immune to this, and can therefore see the situation with a clarity that you'll never understand.
5. Control of criticism or discourse. Bullshitters are all about wanting opinions to be heard — until you publicly try to voice your opinion that theirs is wrong. Then your comments are removed, you are blocked from posting, etc., if you were ever allowed to comment in the first place. Emotionally charged disruption ("shouting-over"), both verbal and written, is a common tactic, as their ideas maddeningly just do not break through, despite what seems to be overwhelming proof. In online discussions, the frustrated Bullshitter has all caps and WILL USE THEM, DAMMIT!
Here is a chart with some examples of these behaviors in various groups that typify the "Bullshit Syndrome."
So, if you come across someone with an "alternative view" who's exhibiting this distinctive constellation of behaviors, you can be pretty sure that their version of the truth is patently false. Reasonable people who are actually interested in learning and debate simply don't resort to these tactics — at least, not to the predictable, systemic extent that Bullshitters do.
By the way, if you generally agree with my premise but you find yourself in one of the groups I mentioned, which of course invalidates the entire essay … well, all I can say is you've missed the point. Most likely, you will never get that point. Because you're Bullshitting yourself, too.
* If you'd like to check out his site and judge his ideas for yourself, Google one of his quotes from this article.