The Anti-Bullshit Movement

There’s nothing new about it. Usually, it’s cloaked in words that are designed to create the opposite effect, to make it seem smart, or insider-ish, There’s nothing new about this, either. Remember Pacific Bell’s Kroning, for example, that produced only one thing of value.*

What we need is an anti-bullshit movement. It would be made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language. It would question management twaddle in government, in popular culture, in the private sector, in education and in our private lives.

The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak. It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit.

What may distinguish this call to arms is that it calls bullshit what it is, bullshit. But then, to say “don’t bullshit” is about as useful as saying “don’t rape.” Duh, but it fails to inform anyone what it means. Some bullshit is easily identified, such as hip jargon.

These days, Krone’s gobbledygook seems relatively benign compared to much of the vacuous language circulating in the emails and meeting rooms of corporations, government agencies and NGOs. Words like “intentionality” sound quite sensible when compared to “ideation”, “imagineering”, and “inboxing” – the sort of management-speak used to talk about everything from educating children to running nuclear power plants.

Wrap it up in cool-sounding words and even the most empty notions sound cutting edge. For the drones, the ability to parrot such words does wonders to make them not seem anywhere near as intellectually bankrupt and full of bullshit as they are. Many a “thought leader” can win over a tribe this way.

Left to their own devices, people not only fail to recognize bullshit, but embrace bullshit. More serious efforts will be required to overcome this adoration of pseudo-thought. Enter academia.

Calling Bullshit:
Data Reasoning for the Digital Age


Course: INFO 198 / BIOL 106B. University of Washington
To be offered: Autumn Quarter 2017
Credit: 3 credits, graded
Enrollment: 180 students
Instructors: Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West
Synopsis: Our world is saturated with bullshit. Learn to detect and defuse it.

While this falls under the heading of Logistics for now, how long before this is Ph.D. material?

Learning Objectives

Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.

A key component, taught up front, is Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

As the syllabus makes clear, it’s not just the lack of understanding of logical fallacies, but the mesh of confirmation bias, dubious studies validated not by rigor but approval of the outcome, the reluctance to be that mean guy who calls bullshit on bullshit and the fine line between the ethical obligation to prevent bullshit and the desire not to be attacked by the bullshit crowd.

The ethics of calling bullshit. Where is the line between deserved criticism and targeted harassment? Is it, as one prominent scholar argued, “methodological terrorism” to call bullshit on a colleague’s analysis? What if you use social media instead of a peer-reviewed journal to do so? How about calling bullshit on a whole field that you know almost nothing about? Pubpeer. Principles for the ethical calling of bullshit. The Dunning-Kruger effect. Differences between being a hard-minded skeptic and being a domineering jerk.

Is this course perfect? Hardly. There is no assignment requiring the reading of SJ, or even its suggestion as a supplemental reading. That’s bullshit, but the course is still young and will require some honing, rather than kroning, as it’s fine tuned.

And there’s one further issue, buried within the notion of teaching people to recognize and refute bullshit.

Refuting bullshit. Refuting bullshit requires different approaches for different audiences. What works for a quantitatively-skilled professional scientist won’t always convince your casually racist uncle on facebook, and vice versa.

Is your uncle “casually racist” or is that complete bullshit?

*Proof that every cloud has a silver lining, and every silver lining has a cloud.

During this period, a young computer programmer at Pacific Bell was spending his spare time drawing a cartoon that mercilessly mocked the management-speak that had invaded his workplace. The cartoon featured a hapless office drone, his disaffected colleagues, his evil boss and an even more evil management consultant. It was a hit, and the comic strip was syndicated in newspapers across the world. The programmer’s name was Scott Adams, and the series he created was Dilbert.

23 thoughts on “The Anti-Bullshit Movement

  1. michael woodward, Yellowknife Canada

    I can’t thank you enough for this, and expect I’ll still be smiling after hours in line waiting for the gatecrasher special on the new bullshitometer 5000. This piece warrants nomination for an Ig Nobel Prize, category tbd.
    You’ve put a skip in my step today!

    1. Patrick Maupin

      I was going to sell you one of my bullshitometers, but after analyzing your comment, it claimed you weren’t serious about buying it. It does that a lot.

      I’m now having to consider a new marketing model where people pay me to not send them one.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          My bullshitometer confirms.

          BTW, it’s really a turtleshitometer. True, in the vernacular, it’s “bullshit,” but after working with this stuff for awhile, I have learned that it’s turtle shit all the way down.

            1. B. McLeod

              “Tiny Turtle” – an example of using a cute mascot or celebrity endorsement as a persuasive mechanism.

              When I was young, the sixth grade “Social Studies” class included a segment on various marketing mechanisms and techniques, from statistical manipulation and hip jargon to “get on the bandwagon” and similarly dated ploys. It does not surprise me that it would be on the verge of becoming a PhD course of study today.

              In the corporate world, there is a constant stream of this stuff. Always on from the last and off to the latest off-the-rack, “customer service,” “process improvement” or “quality management” fad. Always recycled, never really new, and the people in the rank and file shrug and endure it, with full recognition of what it is, because everybody realizes it can’t be stopped. This is why upper management makes the big bucks, not simply in Dilbert strips, but in the real world.

  2. st

    “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt, 2005. No link because rules, but Amazon has it.

    He’s a prof of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, so he knows a thing or two about the subject.

    1. Fubar

      Brandolini’s was an optimist.

      From my forthcoming treatise on the application of classical thermodynamics to Bullshit:

      Science gives us no hope for reprieve.
      The best you can hope to achieve,
      Is that Bullshit will fill
      The whole Cosmos with swill.
      You can’t win, or break even, or leave!

  3. Skink

    Doesn’t it say something that a course in more-or-less traditional logic gets renamed “Logistics,” then “Calling Bullshit?” I don’t have a ready answer–just a critter running around my skull.

    The current manner of thinking isn’t so much logical fallacies as the lack of applied logic or thought. I’ll call it “compounded untruth,” but it really is just bullshit thinking.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Yeah, but in that case, I think the compounding is mostly done by layering ISO 9001 on top of it, to make doubly sure you can recreate the same bullshit at will.

        1. B. McLeod

          “Six Sigma” is a still extant, but fading, off-the-rack fad. I think it came after “one-minute manager” but has largely been supplanted by “lean Six Sigma” and later management fads.

          The basic premise of all management fads is that management is fundamentally incompetent, innately untalented, and so, in need of a “gimmick” (almost always a canned “process” or “doctrine”) in order to appear to be “managing”. Many of them will have a component of exhaustive bean-counting, to report “performance metrics,” even though “management” doesn’t understand which metrics have significance, what that significance is, or which policy directions might have which impacts on the metrics.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            ISO-9000, OTOH, is very much alive and well in many industries, and is a huge moneymaker for a cozy clique of auditors and quality managers (who serve as auditors for other companies). If it’s a fad, it’s one that’s 30 years old. It’s much like Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA, in that the connection between the things done in the name of ISO-9000 and the stated goals of the standard is often quite tenuous. Half of it’s common-sense; the other half is dead chicken waving.

  4. CD

    No discussion about management bullshit (or bullshit in general) would be complete without a reference to the Peter Principle. In other words, isn’t bullshit the natural result of PHBs finding ways of covering up the fact that they were promoted to their level of incompetence?

  5. Casual Lurker

    “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”.

    This seems like a corollary to Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics: “Once you open a can of worms, the only way to recan them is to use a much larger can”.

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