Friday, December 3, 2010

The Bullshit Syndrome & How to Spot It (1/11/2010)

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.


  1. The Flat Earth Society.

    1. The Earth is actually flat, and they are hiding the truth from us.
    2. "It doesn't make sense for the Earth to be round".
    3. Complaints about being mocked on the forum (
    4. There is a great conspiracy, by NASA and google to hide the fact that they can't really have space missions (because orbit is impossible), but still get the huge budget.
    5. This goes to their credit. They have an open forum and don't ban anyone, or try to prevent any criticism.

  2. I think your second point (Appeal to simplicity and intuition) is the most significant phenomenon driving this stuff.

    As a Youtuber, I'm sure you're aware of Potholer54's Law; "Myths are created much faster than they can be debunked". As a Physics enthusiast, I'm sure you're aware of the concept of entropy as described by Ludwig Boltzmann -a thermodynamic system will seek the macro state that offers the greatest possible number of supporting micro states.

    Anyone who doesn't know about potholer54 should check out his video entitled "Mail bag 1" on YT. For those who don't know what the Boltzmann reference is about, I'll offer this simple explanation.

    Imagine you're at your nephew's birthday party and while the kids are running around having fun, your sitting there patiently holding a balloon. The balloon doesn't appear to change at all as you cradle it in your open palms. It's size, shape, volume, pressure and temperature doesn't change noticeably.

    For this reason, it's easy to understand why people once thought that air was a stable substance but back in the 19th century people like James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann were arguing that air is actually made of something like very tiny billiard balls that are forever bouncing into each other.

    Thanks to their work, the much more intuitive (but unfortunately incorrect) view that air was some kind of stable substance lost out to the more explanatory power of the billiard ball model which states that the billiard balls inside your balloon are banging into each other in such a chaotic manner that the average macroscopic effect from your perspective is that the balloon appears to be completely at ease.

    The perceived peace and tranquility of the balloon's macro state belies a riotous cacophony of undirected chaos on the molecular scale. Just like the roll of a set of dice, these molecules cannot decide on one consistent direction or velocity so they average out to what we perceive as a stable macro state.

    Boltzmann would say that the shape of your balloon was due to the molecules seeking the greatest possible number of arrangements. They don't do this consciously of course, it's simply a side-effect of all that chaos in there, but he was able to use this concept to describe something that had been known about since the time of Nicolas Carnot --Entropy.

    This is where the idea of entropy as disorder came from. Your balloon wants the greatest amount of leeway with regard to disorder or randomness and that spontaneous quest leads to an increase in entropy.

    Increasing entropy is easy. Just leave things alone and they will do that all on their own if you're willing to wait long enough. But reversing entropy is hard, it requires work. If you forced the molecules in your balloon to line up and move in one direction, the amount of work you would have to do to pull this off would add more to the entropy of our universe than your molecular Conga Line subtracted from it.

    The statement that entropy (disorder) is spontaneous while order requires work nicely mirrors potholer54's law. Myths are easy. Just leave people alone to their own thoughts for a long enough time and you'll get myths. And myths spread all on their own, just like the disorder inside your balloon.

    But truth is hard to acquire, not only because it must fight against the myths but also because it must fight against the cognitive biases of the people seeking it. That's why we have double-blind studies. Just knowing that the outcome of your test can support your pet theory can cause you to unwittingly skew the results in its favor. A truth can only be acknowledged as the truth after it has stood up to the scrutiny of people who don't like it, and that requires work.

    "The Bullshitter presents child-like rhetorical questions that appeal to the desire for easy answers..."

  3. Excellent, thanks! I like the analogy between myths and entropy. And you're absolutely right when you wrote that truth "must fight against the cognitive biases of the people seeking it." Those cognitive biases are frequently what produces Bullshit.

  4. "...That's why we have double-blind studies...."

    Your entire post is brilliant, but please, direct me to the vast and comprehensive, "double blind studies" conducted on today's modern physics models... I see it in medical science yes, but cosmology and physics? Really?

    ~ D.E.

  5. The "Ancient Alien Theory" seems like Bullshit but the History show named "Ancient Aliens" presents some compelling evidence to support the theory. I'm convinced... :) After all why not? Everything is just a theory, even mainstream archeology's findings and literature could be or is just a theory. I keep an open mind for both theories.

    @Morgoth Bauglir: I never knew that a "society" named The Flat Earth Society existed before your post. How ridiculous does this sound? Flat earth... I'm an amateur "astronomer". When I say amateur I really mean it. Can't even setup my telescope correctly. Can't find another word right now for what I do and I just say "astronomer". But I've managed to see Jupiter with my nimble telescope and shed a tear on how insignificant we all are... how can those people say the earth is flat? Maybe their EEG is flat... EEG ==>

  6. The History Channel is terrible -- just my opinion. And some theories are stronger than others. An open mind is good, but a highly skeptical open mind is better.

  7. Always good to discover a speck of gold in the vast wasteland that is the internet. Love your writings, Edward. :) Justine

  8. I like your blogs Eddie, but I can't agree with your classification of "9/11 'Truthers'" among the bullshitters. Have you ever read any of the evidence? The molten steel and abundance of thermite, the free-fall speed of not only the twin towers but bldg 7? Come on man, you're a physicist. Conspiracy labeling is one thing, but evidence-based science is another.

  9. I've read the evidence. For about a week five years ago, I got caught up in Truther literature and ate it up voraciously. It was pretty compelling, I gotta say. I even drafted a letter to PBS's "Frontline," urging them to investigate the collapse of Building 7. But I never sent it, because in the end, it didn't add up for me. The Truther explanations were far too complicated or tortured and had too many holes -- too many "Why aren't monkeys still evolving today?" kinds of arguments. I guess I've read so much creationist Bullshit in the YouTube comments, by now I can spot the similarities.

    9/11 is one of those cases where an intuition-based alternative account is superficially attractive and exciting enough ("They kinda look like controlled demolitions! Why didn't they go clunkity-clunk on the way down, like I think they should have?") to warrant an exhaustive search for any supporting evidence at all. A large group of believers, determined that they are right, conduct this search. But their theories just don't work, no matter how many "but what about...?" questions they throw at the standard view. This is something that the groups I wrote about all have in common.

    Since my brief scare as a Truther, I've been fascinated with 9/11 and the physics involved. I'll be making a video in advance of this year's tenth anniversary called "9/11 Explained Scientifically." The video won't address thermite, because that evidence does not exist (it was cooked up by the same guy who wrote this article of amazing "evidence" -- which is Bullshit too by the way). The failure, collapse, and aftermath of buildings 1, 2, and 7 will be covered. And that is all I will say about 9/11 in these comments. Now, if you're wise, you will resist the urge to respond predictably (see item 4 in the essay).

  10. I've had a few long arguments with anti-Compulsory Education objectivist libertarians, and I think they do fit into what you call "The Bullshit Syndrome." (Here's a good example:

    1. The dramatic crappy music is definitely there, along with a bunch of short quotes from "authorities" in the field of education. It impresses me how they hate "experts" and yet have no problem using them when it suits their rhetoric. Check.

    2. Though I'm not American, apparently everyone that has been through the American Public School system that has eyes and ears should've noticed that he/she is being indoctrinated into being a communist regime-serving puppet (and hey, many people probably had a bad experience when they wen't to school so they can relate to that). Check.

    3. The public school system in America is a conspiracy to make everyone dumb and not question authority. Check.

    4. Apparently I was brainwashed into thinking that compulsory education does anything but prepare ignorant failures. Check.

    5. The guy resisted answering directly to my arguments, and often hid behind quotes made by famous scientists or people - often taken grousely out of context. I did not try to post a comment on the video, so I'll give its maker the benefit of a doubt.

    I don't know if public schools in America sucks as much as to advocate for the abolishment of compulsory education altogether, but it surprises me the video had 58 likes and only one dislike (2 if you count mine), considering it had 2758 views. These libertarians want a voluntary system funded by private charity, no joke, the guy that sent me the video said so himself.

  11. I think you nailed it. A sequence of heavily mined quotes is typically an indication that the person is just trying to create a vague impression rather than argue a specific argument. The photo at 7:30, with the kids heiling the American flag, was a nice touch. (I'd love to know the story behind the picture.)

    Don't take the likes/dislikes ratio to mean anything, whatsoever. Bullshitters travel in packs and mutually validate each other by way of their particular "echo chamber" of ideas. A couple of years ago, I waged a battle against the "HuluTube" conspiracy theory, weeks after that very popular and widely mirrored video was posted. I got nothing but abuse, and was branded a "YouTube Shill", no matter what reasonable arguments I put across. Funny how a Bullshitter calls you closed-minded, a sheep, deluded, even though of course they are all of those things -- something I think they realize on some unconscious level.

  12. Edward wrote; "Folks, normal people don't whine about being called nuts and conspiracy theorists. Only nuts and conspiracy theorists do."

    So simple, so brilliant, so RIGHT.

  13. You got some nice vids on religion.
    But, i see that you think that Bush wasn't involved in 9/11.

    Am not some kind of "truther" preacher, its the first time that i write about this and the reason am writing this to you it is because i think you're a smart man and you could understand this.

    Whenever i see someone arguing for and against the Inside Job all i get to see are thermite, building 7, molten steal, bombs etcetc.

    I really dont get this mentality, why people concentrate in these stuff?
    Ofc there weren't any bombs or thermites or whatever.

    The reason why i think that Bush was involved is cause of politics in general that surrounds the two families in the past and the present, if you look at it you'll see how Bush literally let them in and how they profited.

    It seems that those against the "inside job" are either focusing on the building 7 which i find pointless, cause its was just an accident or they think Bush couldn't kill americans like that, patriotism.

    The ones for the Inside Job usually are in it for the wrong reasons, like the demolitions or mindless anti-Bush/America hate and perhaps selfhate.

    But if you see the whole Bush-Osama relationship and how it developed and how things fell into place then everything shows into one direction.

    1. I don't know where you got the idea that I believe Bush was not involved in 9/11.

      He was obviously involved. Trivially, he was president of the U.S. at the time. He had been told that Al Qaida was determined to attack within the U.S. -- that we do know. So he was involved at least on that level. As for how much specific advance information the administration had, I'm agnostic on the matter. We will probably never know.

      The bullshit I'm referring to in this essay is thermite, bombs, fake planes, cruise missiles, holograms, etc. Which is all clearly bullshit.

  14. If you follow the money, you will learn the true nature of events more than you will if you follow science. Science can be manipulated (even peer reviewed science - see: 'trust us we are experts' or watch 'Inside Job' and pay attention to the manipulation of academic teaching, hence the manipulation of the future scientists paradigms).

    History shows science can be a lie as it is truth. Almost every new discovery debunks the "truth" we all defended furiously. Newtonian physics is a lie when you apply it to the sub particles, or to the universe as a hole. But it wasn't always that way, only in the 19'th and 20'th centuries, came along discoveries that proved it insufficient (aka wrong). Medical science is proven wrong every time a new discovery occurs (Do I have to remind you in the 40's and 50's there was peer reviewed science that proved cigarettes do not harm you? or that DTD is safe to spray on kids, or that fluoroid-silicate is safe - Oh, that one is still the common "truth". I guess it still makes a lot of money to a small group of people, but hold on, then why would the government pass a bill that no matter what science discovers about fluoroid, no body can sue the people who sell it today... oh shit, let's not think and trust the peer reviewed science ;).

    We live in a world where no idea or discovery is good unless it can be monetized. Philosophically speaking, this approach does not allow us to have truth what-so-ever, except for the truth that 'Money is Great'.

    I agree that oversimplifying things is a method of the bullshitter, but over-complicating things is kind of the same medicine, given by the trusted adviser to make us fear the subject and allow the trusted adviser full control of this part of our life. It's easy to explain something simple in complicated terms, it's very hard to explain something complex in simple terms. I didn't say 'simplify' it, I said 'explain it simply'. I hope you recognize the difference.

    So the people who sometimes offer a solution that speaks to the intuition of people, are not always wrong. Intuition is great and science is starting to catch up on that. Science used to think that people cannot effect the physical world by looking at it, but intuition made us feel we can do it, and then quantum physics came along with Schrodinger's cat. Science used to oppose spirituality and meditation, but now it proves there are beneficial effects to your body gained by a mental serenity.

    So you are saying beware of people appealing to your intuition, but do you really believe it is better than people who are appealing to your fears? Today science is fear driven more than ever. We need swine flu vaccine because we proved it can kill humanity (So it turned out not as bad as we thought, but we still made trillions of dollars selling the vaccine, hooray!), and we need antibiotics subscribed willy nilly cause we proved it is the best antibacterial agent out there (So we weakened the immune system, but that only means we can sell more drugs, hooray!), and we proved cell phone radiation is safe fro all (so what if now after 20 years we proved it is unsafe for pregnant women and children, but now we get to invent and sell phones with less radiation, oh and make trillions in selling drugs to those fools who couldn't handle the radiation till now, hooray!) And the list goes on.

    In the end of the day, there is no truth, except for Math. All other "truth's" are an interpretation of a need or fear, manipulated for the highest revenue and replaced with a newer "truth" when they stop making money.

    So beware: There are bullshitters around, and the most successful ones are backed by the science of the moment.

  15. Very interesting, it made me say AHA!! ;)