That’s Bullshit!

One of the more obvious things about life is that some people are more intolerant of bullshit than others.  By “bullshit”, I don’t mean using big words or fancy phrases.   Nor do I mean any particular philosophical, political, or religious ideology.  I don’t even mean showing up to a sex orgy dressed in a chicken outfit with a bible underarm and a feather duster stuck up your ass.  All of those may be called bullshit by some people, but they are not what I mean here by bullshit.

“Bullshit” in the context of this post means a poorly grounded claim or proposition that is being asserted as established truth.  “Conservatives are racists.”  “Progressives hate the rich.”  “Priests molest children.” “Atheists feel empty and unfulfilled.”  If you take those statements to mean, “all” — in the sense of, “All Conservatives…”, or “All Progressives…” — then those statements are pure, liquid bullshit.  And some people are more intolerant of those kinds of statements than others.

Indeed, some people have almost violent reactions to bullshit.  Or, at least to what they think is bullshit.  They become visibly upset or angry.  Other people — or maybe some of the same people — flinch or cringe.  Bullshit strikes them like fingernails dragged across a chalkboard, like the “wrong” kind of music, like one of my poems.

Maybe the intolerance some people have for bullshit is partly explained by the fMRI study Harris, Sheth, and Cohen did which found,”The acceptance and rejection of propositional truth-claims appear to be governed, in part, by the same regions [of the brain] that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors” (p. 146 .pdf).  That is, more or less the same brain cells are being used to decide whether some claim is true as are being used to judge whether something smells or tastes foul.  If so, that might be part of the reason some of us have such visceral reactions to what they think is bullshit.

Of course, I’m not saying that people who are highly intolerant of bullshit always know what is or is not bullshit.  Perhaps ironically, being intolerant of bullshit seems to have little or nothing to do with being right about whether or not something is bullshit.

People who accept evolution often enough think Creationism is full of bullshit.  But some Creationists have the same gut reaction to the Theory of Evolution.  Apparently, it annoys, angers, and exasperates them.  So, what matters is not whether something is bullshit or not, but whether one thinks something is bullshit or not.

If our bullshit meter were a reliable truth detector, we could throw out all the scientific methods.  We wouldn’t need such cumbersome, laborious methods to determine whether we had arrived at reliable fact.

I think most of us are in the middle when it comes to tolerating bullshit.  We put up with it to get along, and we put up with it to a point.  Now and then, we reach our limit for the day.

Our neighbor, though, might be someone with a much greater tolerance for bullshit than we have.  The other day, someone was telling me he didn’t care whether his religious beliefs were true because their truth or falsity was less important to him than their contribution to his “self discovery and self-realization”.  “I don’t want to know if I’m right or wrong.  I want to know who I am.”

I wonder if our tolerance for bullshit more or less matches how conscientious we are at trying to establish the truth of a matter?

  • If I am highly tolerant of bullshit, am I relatively less conscientious at establishing truths?
  • And if I am highly intolerant of bullshit, am I relatively more conscientious?

I don’t know of any studies done on that subject, but my guess is that it is not as simple as that.  That’s just an intuition, though.  And I can’t come up with any good reasons in support of it, so maybe there are none.  Maybe it’s just as simple as it looks: People who dislike bullshit are relatively more careful not to indulge themselves in it.

My last question is: Do we become numb to bullshit?  Is it possible there’s so much bullshit today that it numbs us?  That we scarcely notice most of it anymore, and sometimes hardly respond to what we do notice?  What do you think?

 

 

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23 thoughts on “That’s Bullshit!

  1. This is why I love your blog.
    Thank you for making my morning.
    I especially enjoyed the link between accepting a proposition and smell. My belly still hurts from laughing after it.

  2. In a book called “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt, he says that the difference between lies and bullshit is intent. A liar wants to make you believe something that he knows isn’t true. A bullshitter wants you to believe something and doesn’t care whether it’s true or not. Then there’s paltering, being deliberately unclear in an effort to deceive.

    I don’t know if these definitions hold up to scrutiny, I was just interested that dishonest speech could be sliced up into distinct layers that way.

    • Hi Mark! Frankfurt’s definition fits in with some of the ways I’ve heard the word “bullshit” used. I wonder how many usages we could come up with between us if we gave it a shot? I bet that word has a lot of legitimate definitions.

      I suspect Frankfurt’s distinctions hold up to scrutiny. Seems to me I’ve met all three types of liars.

  3. America is bullshit. I actually believe that the intent of this nation’s founders was to get away from the bullshit, not to mention the bullshit of religions, but look at the results.

    America is one of the most religious nation on earth. It has also refined bullshit to unimaginable levels.

    One of the first lessons an American must learn is how to discern the bull shit.

    Frankly, one of the weaknesses of the even more horribly repressive religious states like Saudi Arabia, et al, is that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of bullshit.

    Bullshit! The bane of our nation’s existence, yet bullshit is monstrously responsible for its enormous growth, an incredible and indispensable fertilizer for capitalism.

    The hard sell. The soft sell. All bullshit.

      • Given the times he lived in, it seems inevitable that someone like Bernays would exist. The early Twentieth Century was a time when just about everything was honed by the scientific method, including propaganda. As that article notes, all the major powers in WWII (except maybe Japan) tried to apply some sort of science to the problem of persuading people to do things they might not have otherwise. When Bush The Younger hired a Madison-avenue type to better communicate with the Arab world, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. It’s how the elite talk to the rest of us.

  4. When better lies are told, Madison Avenue will tell them.

    Something always stuck with me from a New Yorker profile of comedy writer George Meyer:

    He hates advertising, which he views as a global force of destruction. (“I hate it because it irresponsibly induces discontent in people for one myopic goal, and then it leaves the debris of that process out there in the culture. An advertiser will happily make you feel bad about yourself if that will make you buy, say, a Bic pen.”) This antipathy has made Meyer a connoisseur of brazen marketing; he is especially interested in examples of ad copy in which the word-to-falsehood ratio approaches one. He once showed me a magazine advertisement for a butter substitute called Country Crock. “It’s not from the country; there is no crock,” he said. “Two words, two lies.”

    http://www.snpp.com/other/interviews/meyer00.html

  5. I hate bullshit too, and blanket statements like “all conservatives are bigots.” So it’s really maddening when every once in a while I realize that I actually bought into somebody’s bullshit.

    It’s altogether too easy to do sometimes.

    • Quite easy to do! I’m something of an expert at buying into bullshit.

      I once read of a study that found a link between people with high IQs and gullibility. The higher the IQ, the more gullible. It annoyed me to realize I had gotten the gullibility part down pat without managing to get the high IQ.

  6. I may not have absorbed this full article, being in an end-of-week work-daze, but I still feel the impulse to comment. Forgive me if it sounds like bullshit. It seems to me what you referred to as bullshit was anyone overgeneralizing simplistically what is really a complex issue. I tend to think of that as stupidity. To me, bullshit is when a person is making an argument they don’t even necessarily believe just to rile up attention, completely wasting everyone else’s time and energy and showing tremendous disrespect. One of the commenters called the U.S. one of the most religious countries in the world. Having spent some time of my life living in the Middle East, I find that incredibly hard to believe and wonder if that’s one of those statements you wish were true because it sounds so good, but is it really based on evidence? Is it too oversimplified? I would genuinely be interested in the evidence if this was meant as fact and not just general impression. This is an example of how a statement thrown out as bullshit versus a sincere statement of fact can lead to connection and mutual learning.

    • It seems to me what you referred to as bullshit was anyone overgeneralizing simplistically what is really a complex issue.

      Well, to be a pendant about it, I’m defining the meaning of bullshit only for the duration of the post as a poorly grounded claim passed off as well established truth. But I didn’t intend to preclude anyone else using the word as they see fit. Words almost always have more than one meaning.

      To me, bullshit is when a person is making an argument they don’t even necessarily believe just to rile up attention, completely wasting everyone else’s time and energy and showing tremendous disrespect.

      That’s a useful definition. I like that one, too.

  7. I think that your conclusions may be the other way around, based on my experiences and not large studies.

    But that depends on how you define BS.

    The people who do not care to know the details are less likely to notice when someone makes a statement that isn’t accurate. This supports your statements.

    Conversely, the people who are the most emotionally tied to their ideas of what is BS or not often are not conscientious in pursuing truth.
    Some people who are relentless is pursuing accuracy will find that ‘truth’ is much more nuanced than expected. They are also likely to have a greater understanding of how people work and therefore more empathy for the person. They react to the erroneous statement tempered by that understanding. At least, I perceive that in my life.

    Your example with evolution is a good one for this case. The people who most defend Creationism and whose BS sensors go off with fireworks when evolution is mentioned are not conscientious truth seekers. The more these people look for what is right, the less their reaction.

    And again, what is really bothering the person. Some people are angered by people holding onto lies in the face of ignorance. Some are annoyed by incorrect facts. Some just don’t like anyone disagreeing with them.

  8. Interesting article, interesting comments. I have nothing intelligent to say so I’ll be belligerent. Everything is bullshit. Except maybe deep fried cheesecurds. And those are simply artery-clogging.

  9. “more or less the same brain cells are being used to decide whether some claim is true as are being used to judge whether something smells or tastes foul. If so, that might be part of the reason some of us have such visceral reactions to what they think is bullshit.”

    Perhaps that’s why we say things “smell fishy” when we find them suspicious.

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