May 02 2008


I am not referring to the excellent Showtime series by Penn & Teller – but rather to the very concept of BS. It turns out it is actually a useful concept for science and skepticism. Andy Lewis, who writes the Quackometer blog, recently wrote about the concept of BS as it applies to “alternative medicine”, specifically homeopathy. I liked it and thought the concept can be more generally applicable.

As skeptics we are often confronted with the false dichotomy question of whether or not a certain purveyor of nonsense or woo is self-deluded or a con-artist. My usual response is that for most people they are somewhere along that spectrum, and probably incorporate aspects of both. Since we can’t read minds, we can only guess or infer what a person’s true intentions are. I usually abstain from such speculation – except in cases where the behavior of the pseudoscientist requires conscious fraud. Psychic surgery is a good example. There is no self-deception involved in palming chicken innards and then pretending to psychically remove them from a person who desperately sought your help for their cancer.

The concept of BS now adds to the complexity of this question of self vs other deception. Andy refers to an essay by Harry G. Frankfurt. written in 2005 called On Bullshit. He quotes:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

I think this is a very useful concept to the skeptic.  In fact, I think that most of the time promoters of pseudoscience, by this definition, are bullshitting, not lying. They are not saying something that they know to be false. Rather, they are promoting a belief by going beyond the evidence, or ignoring contradictory evidence, or cherry picking the evidence they like. They may also exaggerate the implications of specific research they like, or enhance the impact of an anecdote that seems to support their beliefs. Without ever lying, they can create a false impression – they can deceive. This is the art of BS.

Andy is absolutely correct in applying this concept to homeopathy. Homeopathy is about as pure a pseudoscience as you get. It is utterly devoid of any theoretical possibility of being true, and the empirical evidence for its efficacy is essentially negative. But any complex medical literature is going to contain lots of poor quality and contradictory data. This creates an environment in which the BS artist can thrive. So homeopaths generate BS about the structure of water, about why we should rely on anecdotes, and why they should be allowed to cherry pick the data they want.

We can also apply this to psi research, which also lacks a plausible mechanism and has no definitively positive results to show after a century of trying. So psi proponents BS about unfairness in academia and about the negative effects of having a skeptical outlook on the outcome of research. They invent fanciful BS about the “decline effect” to explain why their positive research cannot be replicated, and apparent psi effects disappear under tight methodology. When all potential mechanisms have been shot down on theoretical or empirical grounds, they invent BS about a quantum consciousness. There isn’t the tiniest shred of a reason to believe in quantum consciousness – it’s just technobabble BS to give their psi claims a patina of legitimacy.

UFO enthusiasts are also neck deep in the BS. Why, after half a century, is there not one piece of verifiable evidence for a truly alien phenomenon? Well, you see, there’s a government conspiracy to hide any shred of evidence from the public. Why haven’t the aliens revealed themselves to us? Well, you see, they are trying to avoid a panic, or perhaps they have nefarious motives. Well, then why do they occasionally leave their headlights on when flying over major metropolitan centers? Ah – they’re testing our reactions. It’s all just BS.

Much of the time BS is just making stuff up on the fly as needed. In logical fallacy parlance we call this “special pleading,” but BS works as well, and carries with it a connotation that the bullshitter is trying to create the image of knowledge and authority that is undeserved. It is the opposite of what a good scientist should be – understated, humble, self-critical, and candidly honest. This does not mean always pleading uncertainty – which in itself is a form of dishonest false modesty. It simply means fairly proportioning confidence to the actual evidence.

I should also point out that we need to avoid the false dichotomy of science vs pseudoscience – because this is also a spectrum with a fuzzy demarcation somewhere in the middle.  What this means is that legitimate scientists sometimes engage in BS as well. The system works because other scientists are likely to call them on it. But we all do need to be vigilant about our own level of BS in order to keep it at a minimum. Otherwise we risk ending up like the homeopaths and UFO believers – buried in it.

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