Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How to Tell Truth from Bullshit

The only tangible objects I inherited from my paternal grandfather when he passed away were a set of pajamas and a rubber stamp that said, simply, "BULLSHIT."

Though he didn't specifically bequeath me this item (rather, I picked it out of a pile of things my grandmother gave us to choose from), I like to think that in looking for ways to use the stamp, I developed a nascent tendency to determine if something has the ring of truth or the dull thud of a cow pie hitting the ground.

In college, I took a course on the afterlife in literature, and our class took a field trip to a few "haunted" places in the area, a local "ghost expert" in tow. I noticed some things about the expert's "professional assessment" that indicated she was possibly not on the up-and-up.

For instance, she told us to be careful to use the electromagnetic field (EMF) detector away from any electrically-powered devices to avoid possible interference, but then held one suspiciously close to an electric alarm clock, declaring at the same time that she was definitely picking up on something.

Then, at a local inn, she surreptitiously moved a binder that was sitting on one of the beds before calling the attention of the group and proclaiming "Look at this indentation! There is probably definitely a ghost sitting right here!" I raised one eyebrow as high as it would go and it stayed that way until we got back to the classroom.

"So," asked our professor, "What did you guys think of the expert?" I raised my hand and explained what I had noticed. The professor then gave me the biggest compliment I've ever received: "Erin, you have a foolproof bullshit detector."

While this is my only formal bullshit-detecting qualification, I want to talk about some signs that are total giveaways when you're trying to evaluate the veracity of a particular source. Check it out after the jump.

How to Tell if a Source is Full of Crap

For the sake of an example, we'll use this article, which is about the Mayan "prediction" about the "end of the world."

Sign 1 - Vagueness or pointed lack of specificity

There is a reason your teachers always told you to be specific and cite examples from the text. It's obvious that details and supporting examples make your argument more convincing. So if a source is intentionally vague, especially if they are making a controversial or sensational statement, it's because venturing into specificity would poke holes in the picture they're trying to paint.

Take a look at this sentence from the first paragraph of the example article:
While there is much speculation and predictions regarding the events that will actually transpire, the impending end of the Mayan Calendar is building a momentum among the masses similar to the dreaded anticipation that we witnessed as the world approached the milestone year 2000 (remember Y2K?).
We'll talk more about their Y2K reference when we get to sign 3, but notice that this article provides absolutely no details on the "events" related to the end of the Mayan calendar. Instead, they point to the "speculation and predictions" surrounding these events as though that should convince us that something is definitely going to happen. If they had any actual information that something will "actually transpire," wouldn't they include it here? Since they do not, it's safe to assume they have no such information and are simply building hype.

Sign 2 - "Rumor" language

"Some say," "rumors indicate," "many believe": these are all automatic red flags. If they actually got their info from a credible source, they would list the source. There would be no reason not to. The very first sentence of the example article contains one of these whoppers:
December 21st marks the countdown to what ancient prophecies term "the end of time", which many interpret to mean the end of the world - or at least, the end of the world as we know it.
Yes, it's apparent that many have interpreted the Mayan calendar to indicate the end of the world, but this in no way lends credibility to the premise. Many also believe that Tupac and Elvis are doing the rumba together in Atlantis. The article goes on to name more suspiciously general sources in its second paragraph:
Some believe we will experience a polar shift, as has happened on Earth before. Others predict the impact of a great meteor or asteroid, which has also catastrophically occurred before.
Bad writing aside, "some" and "others" aren't sources for reliable information; they are catch-all terms anyone can use when their argument is completely made up.

Sign 3 - Lists of unrelated phenomena

When someone is trying to pad an article to make it look like they've done research or have any credibility whatsoever, they might start listing other events, individuals or phenomena that capture a similar feeling to the one they are trying to evoke. The example article is chock full of this particular sign.

...the impending end of the Mayan Calendar is building a momentum among the masses similar to the dreaded anticipation that we witnessed as the world approached the milestone year 2000 (remember Y2K?).
The current economic chaos and global meltdown may be precursors to the transition leading up to December 21, 2012, the day that the 5,125 year-old Mayan calendar suddenly comes to an end, resetting to But what will be the catalyst? Some believe we will experience a polar shift, as has happened on Earth before. Others predict the impact of a great meteor or asteroid, which has also catastrophically occurred before. Or could it be the result of increasing global warming, or the reduction of the earth's magnetic field (which has already begun), or the extinction of too many species, or could it be global Armageddon brought on by man's incessant greed triggering war and destruction?
Here's the list: Y2K (I find this mention hilarious since nothing actually happened), economic chaos, polar shifts, meteors/asteroids, global warming, changes in the magnetic field, species extinction, war and destruction. None of these things have demonstrable links to the Mayan calendar, but all of them are listed to bring forth feelings of fear, panic, and impending doom.

If the source you're evaluating uses the same trick, it's probable that they have no actual basis for their argument and so must resort to the time-honored bullshit tradition of emotional manipulation.

Sign 4 - More questions than answers/lots of "what ifs"

An abundance of questions might be one of the easiest red flags to spot. This paragraph from the example article is, in fact, entirely composed of questions:
The ancient people had knowledge and wisdom that has been lost to us today, but what if they had some form of ancient computer in which they stored their secrets for others to unlock at some time in the future? Could that time be now? And could it be possible that crystal skulls might be the computers that the ancients used as receptacles for this wisdom and knowledge? Some may scoff at this idea, but if someone thousands of years from now found a laptop computer, would he know what it is or recognize the vast amount of information that it contains, and would he know how to access that information?
Because they have no basis for any of their assertions, they must rely on the trick of asking leading questions to push the reader to draw pre-designed conclusions. This is a really obvious sign that there is a dearth of credible information to back up the assertion, and should have your eyebrows raised as high as they'll go.

These are just some of the ways you can tell if a source is real or fake. Sometimes it comes down to a deeper instinctual sense that all is not as it seems. It's especially true today that you can't believe everything you read or see on TV, so it's crucial to start asking questions. What would this source have to gain by obfuscating the truth? What is their goal? What are they trying to sell?

Of course, most people realize by now that the Mayans did not predict the end of the world in 2012, so let's take a look at a different case. A great example of an unreliable source in current events is Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's recent interview with Chris Wallace. Ryan was asked to explain the details of their proposed tax structure.

Ryan: We’re saying, limited deductions so you can lower tax rates for everybody. Start with people at the higher end…lowering tax rates by broadening the tax base works.
Wallace: You haven’t given me the math.
Ryan: (laughs) Well, I don’t have the time. It would take me too long to go through all the math. (Source: Washington Post)

Ryan's refusal to explain the math behind tax plan makes us suspicious that there are things about it he wishes us not to know, much like how the Wizard of Oz's instructions to "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," tell us we most definitely should pay attention to the man behind the curtain.When questioned about his failure to go into the details, Ryan doubled down on his refusal:

"...I didn't want to get into all of the math on this because everyone would start changing the channel," he told Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes.
"When you're offering very specific, bold solutions, confusion can be your enemy's best weapon," he said later. (Source: Huffington Post)
If your solutions are so specific and bold, seems like you would've just talked about them instead of passing on the question. Sounds a lot like the classic grade-school strategy of "I could do a double backflip if I felt like it, I just don't feel like it right now." Can you really do a double backflip, Paul? Something tells me your pants are on fire.

I understand that political examples might not be everyone's cup of tea, but election season is a great time to start honing your bullshit-detecting skills. The Wizard of Oz sums up nicely why it's important to be able to sift truth from crap:

Dorothy: How do you talk if you don't have a brain?
Scarecrow: Well, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?

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