People say a lot of Bullshit

This post may be somewhat meta, I’ll leave it up to you to decide how meta this post is.

We encounter a lot of bullshit in our lives.  I’m not going to give a full philosophical overview of bullshit (though one does exist: On Bullshit).  My working definition is that bullshit is stuff people say and believe, but don’t really have very much knowledge to back themselves up with.  I think we encounter Bullshit constantly; we encounter it in the classroom, we encounter it at work, we encounter it while shopping, we encounter it with our friends.  Bullshit is when we say things off the cuff, but say it with conviction.  Psychologically we are, I think, predisposed to bullshit.  Once we say something we own it, and we are inclined to defend it to the bitter end.  For example, students randomly assigned a side in a debate reliably change their beliefs to match their assigned side (pre-debate: 40% correspondence between assigned side and actual belief, vs. post debate correspondence of 70%.) .  The students researched both sides of the issue before hand, but as soon as they actually started to defend a position they began to believe it (You can read the research paper here: Assigned Positions for In-Class Debates Influence Student Opinions).

There is a fine distinction between bullshit and just saying stuff.  Most of what we say is not researched, it is not thought before hand.  We don’t have that kind of time.  Our words transition into bullshit when we say it persuasively.  In other words, we try to make others think we know what we’re talking about when we really don’t (whether we realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about or not).

I say a lot of bull in my customer service job.  People ask me all the time whether this or that brand is good, or whether a product is reliable.  My usual response is ‘yes, it is good.’  I have no idea whether its any good or not.

I think there is a lot of bullshit in blogging and news (the lines between blogging and writing articles being one that grows increasingly thin).  To give two examples: Importance of Curiosity and Why dating in your 30’s is better then in your 20’s.  I believe both authors thought about their posts, and I think both believe what they say, but ultimately both articles seem like the product of off the cuff thinking.  Neither actually provides much evidence that what they say is true, and yet neither is really hedging themselves – they want their readers to believe them.

I’m not writing this to decry bullshit per say.  The point that I’m interested in making is that you should be careful who you listen to, because many who speak or write persuasively don’t really have any more credentials then you on the topic.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

via Blogger


4 thoughts on “People say a lot of Bullshit

  1. I’m guilty of this intellectual laziness sometimes! We’re talking about hand-wavy, ad hoc reasoning, I take it? I think that the psychological aspect would be really interesting to hear more about.. what’s your view on this question?

  2. Yes, exactly. I’ve experienced this myself debating in class and always wondered why, after the fact, I became so inspired to defend a view which I later ended up laughing at myself for having thought was true. I almost think like it’s just a matter of pride or something, but I know there must be a much deeper, psychologically interesting explanation.

    • I think I once tried to research the subject and I wasn’t finding very much. My personal theory is that winning debates and arguments was a matter of power (swaying the crowd) and being convinced of your own position also makes you more convincing.

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