A language of bullshit?

In an open society, and especially in scholarly research, we are used to discussing the merits of ideas. In doing so we judge their merits using a variety of factors, but most important are evidence and logic. People should change their minds when they are confronted with evidence that contradicts their position, rather than reject the evidence. It may take a long time, and prejudice never seems to go away, but science and is based upon the assumption that through discussion and review the illogical and implausible will be eclipsed by ideas which are supported by better evidence, or evidence at all. This process has served us well, the scientific method has provided innumerable benefits. Moreover, democracies are based upon similar assumptions – the best policies can be selected through debate and the ballot box. Politics is a lot more messy, but even so, through rational discussion and appeal to evidence and logic, democracy has proved to be far more resilient and successful than any of its competitors (and it is worth noting that its most virulent opponents such as fascism or communism were based upon wholesale delusion and denial of the patiently obvious).

But what happens when people make extraordinary claims – their new pill will prevent ageing, big pharma and governments are conspiring to make people ill, they can generate free energy, or 9/11 was an inside job – but are uninterested, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate? The problem is that when people resolutely deny the relevance of evidence or logic, or insist that what ever theory they believe in has replaced all we know about physics, chemistry, biology etc. we will ultimately be left with a choice between relativism, or criticising their integrity or mental faculties.

I’m not writing about people who read horoscopes, think that there might be something in homeopathy, or once saw a ghost in the moonlight. Of course we all understand the world through our subjective experience and from learnt knowledge (which can be pretty unreliable). We all have cognitive biases which mean that we interpret the world differently. I’m concerned with people who actively propagate the wildly improbable on a full-time basis. Such people don’t just accept received wisdom or misinterpret some ambiguity. They are actively engaged in developing, maintaining and propagating some very extraordinary claims, it’s very difficult to explain their actions through normal cognitive biases.

For example, look at this video by ‘Psychic John Green’. It’s of him sitting in a dark room describing the spirits that he can ‘sense’ around him. He also invites viewers to see ‘orbs’ on the video. John Green teaches ‘psychic development’ classes, claims to be able to heal strokes, and according to his website has appeared on the stage and on TV as a psychic. Unfortunately, no one can sense spirits, because they don’t exist. To reiterate, John routinely claims to sense things that can’t possibly exist. How do we engage with John and his ilk?

Relativism is the easy way out – they have their epistemology and I have mine. But that leaves a very bad feeling in my gut. We have two other responses. Either they are lying or they sincerely believe in the impossible. People making extraordinary claims have been caught lying: sceptic James Randi and colleagues discovered that faith healer the Reverand Peter Popov was not receiving his miraculous information from god, but from radio broadcasts. People have a strong financial incentive to exaggerate or invent their powers, or the benefits of whatever pill they happen to be selling, because they can create a market and enrich themselves. If we ignore such bogus claims, or routinely assume that they are due to incompetence rather than duplicity, we risk being over lenient or even complicit in the deceit.

It’s more difficult to find cast iron evidence that people who make such claims are deluded. Unlike frauds we don’t have any court judgements to draw upon. A delusion is a false belief held in contradiction to the evidence, and can be a symptom of mental illness. Dawkins entitled his most recent book The God Delusion, and delusions can clearly be held by many people and be generally accepted in society. They are often very much in contradiction with a mountain of evidence. To take the example of Psychic John Green, I’m prepared to accept that he sincerely believes that he can sense spirits, and that he believes that they produce the ‘orbs’ he claims are apparent on the videos. But then we have little choice but to describe him as being deluded – unless we want to relativistically accept that his belief in the supernatural is just as plausible as our disbelief.

However, explicitly or implicitly suggesting that people are liars, frauds or deluded without proof is at the very least considered uncool. Ad hominem attacks are a low form of argumentation. It isn’t very ethical to criticise people by implying, or explicitly stating, that they are mentally ill – and terms like loon, nutter, fruitcake, nutjob etc really are just popular euphemisms for poor mental health. More importantly, attacking someone’s integrity or mental health risks undermining the open discussion that one wishes to defend – you aren’t going to win many converts by calling people frauds, mad, or both.

We can try to limit criticism to ideas and not the person. Most academics are used to rarefied discussions, but even their discussions (especially in the blogosphere) can get very personal and abusive. More importantly, the identities of the practitioners and ardent believers of the extraordinary are often tied strongly to their beliefs – in the same way that many people’s identities are closely linked to their jobs. If someone criticises the ideas behind their belief, they are going to take it personally. Moreover, one can’t really separate the idea from the person. It was the person that created and nurtured the belief. If we say that their cherished idea is based on gobbledygook and shoddy research, we are directly criticising their competence.

I would like to believe that we can create a space where we can discuss various aspects of the extraordinary in a polite and rational manner. But the question is – how do play a game with people who reject the rules? If someone’s whole belief system is based upon a rejection of normal standards of evidence and logic then it becomes difficult not to accuse them of being either liars or deluded. Ben Goldacre called for some new ethics of bullshit. Can there be a language of bullshit? How do we criticise people ardently making extraordinary claims without ultimately suggesting that they are either liars or lack the ability to reason?


15 Responses to A language of bullshit?

  1. gimpy says:

    Thought provoking stuff woodchopper. Personally I feel that the ability to reason is really only of use to us in certain circumstances. Being irrational and unreasonable is no barrier to success in life. The problem we scientifically minded types have is that we need to be able to reason to succeed. Our way of life is based on reason. We love it. Even so we use it rarely. Supporting a football team is not the act of a rational being, nor is the surge of hormones that cause love or lust, human behaviour is irrational. Witness the queues outside Northern Rock last week. People were told their money was safe, every assurance was made that their money was safe, yet the queues grew. Part of the flaws in economists reasoning is assuming that people are rational, that is why economic crises often arise due to irrational behaviour. Look at Nick Leeson, his behaviour was not rational, he brought a banking institution to its knees. He was an exceptionally smart guy too. The real issue is how to persuade people to apply reason to their behaviour where appropriate.

    I may blog on this later in a shameless attempt to drive traffic to http://gimpyblog.wordpress.com

  2. hairnet says:

    nicely put, but i dont envy the task of trying to communicate with people who simply do not want to think differently..

  3. Steve Rolles says:

    brilliant – and welcome to the blogocube (or whatever its called)

    well done – looking great. theres a bunch pf forum stuff on how to jazz your blog…..all good fun.

  4. valueaddedwater says:

    Amen Brother
    If you want to see excellent bullshit in action, I’m oft tempted to refer you to my decidely seedy around the edges industry

    Good first post BTW

  5. Thanks for your comments. I shall try not to make this the last post.

    Gimpy – I agree absolutely that none of us are completely rational. We all engage with the world in our own way. But some people seem to be in a completely different league of irrationality. At least football teams and building societies actually exist, and when Newcastle beat West Ham by 3-1 everyone agrees that that was the final score. Belief in things like alien abduction seem to involve entirely different mental processes.

    Also, for an amusing example of someone calling Trufers crazy see here: http://rawstory.com//news/2007/Bill_Maher_Thinks_911_Truthers_should_0915.html

  6. Danny says:

    Perhaps the word we are looking for, to describe someone who believes (for example) that he can sense and communicate with spirits, or to describe the belief itself, is “wrong”.

  7. kelvinthroop says:

    Excelent points nicholasmarsh. I do believe, though, that the time comes when you have to call a spade a f***ing shovel. Granted you can’t call someone a fraud unless you have seriously good evidence AND a good legal team though.

    But if I were to insist to you that the CIA was tracking me with spy satellites and trying to fry my brains with microwaves because I have proof that 9/11 was an inside job, would it not be reasonable to use a psychiatric term and say I was paranoid? It might be uncool but it would be true.

  8. Duck says:

    By definition, you only have delusions when they aren’t common within your sociocultural group, and they interfere with your life. So neither conventional religious faith nor atheism can be considered a delusion in the UK, even if they make mutually incompatible claims. If homeopathy pays your mortgage, it’s not interfering with your quality of life, so it’s not a delusion in the technical sense.

    Kelvinthroop – it would depend on your background, & other stuff like whether you were able to care for yourself adequately, how you reacted to being challenged, or whether your belief was seriously worrying your family & friends. I can definitely think of some situations when I would not think you were mentally ill for such beliefs, just wrong.

    Being rational in the strict logical sense isn’t necessarily a desirable trait if your aim is to live a fulfilling life. Humans are built with all sorts of brain shortcuts, & most of the time they work well bypassing strict logical calculation & letting you get on with making tea.

    I’d go with ‘Provably Wrong’ to describe people with bizarre beliefs which are shared by a decent number of others.

  9. Rockdoctor says:

    In reference to an earlier comment – I think the people queuing to withdraw their money from NR were totally rational.

    From their point of view – the consequences of withdrawing money were zero. They could just put it into another bank. The consequences of leaving it in NR were unknown (since govts and banks lie in their own interests), and could range from losing all your money, losing part of your money, losing access to all or part of your money for an unknown period of time, or nothing at all (or some other outcome).

    Faced with that situation, why trust in promises, when you can simply withdraw your money?

  10. ukalien says:

    It is difficult to imagine a world in which suppression of views is commonplace to such an extent that our worldly knowledge is limited to ‘acceptable’ practices only. Without these sometimes ‘strange’ inferences, our view of life would be somewhat blinkered. The debate here is being undertaken exactly because we live in a free society in which all views and activities can be expressed freely.

  11. Spirits DONT exist eh? Can’t possibly exist??? I feel sorry for those who have closed their minds for they are missing something wonderful and spiritually uplifting. Scientifically speaking, we know very little (yet) about things beyond the laws of human physics and because they are not quite explicable in materialistic, rationalistic and empirical terms we label them as non extant…unreal, imaginary???
    I do believe that one day, these things we treat as wierd, spooky or downright hoax, will be understood and the word ‘para’ normal will be replaced by normal.
    So you ever growing army of skeptics and nay sayers will have to wait till then…I suggest howevr, that until then, you leave well alone….live and let live!

  12. James Hayton says:

    Nice post. I see nothing wrong with ridiculing the ridiculous though. Reasoned argument is of course the highest moral standpoint, but doesn’t go far in convincing people who have faith in nonsense.

    And some people do have mental issues… The woman behind the “what the bleep do we know” film believes she is a chaneller of the god Ramtha…

  13. […] of “deluded”: Nicholas Marsh has a post that touches on the question of whether it is ethical to criticise people by implying, or explicitly stating, that they are mentally ill and notes that “attacking someone’s integrity or mental health risks undermining the open […]

  14. Taylah says:

    I very much feel sorry for you.. Your mind must be so small and simple. Maybe if you did some research you could broaden that naive mind of yours before making such ridiculous statements.

  15. Ramesh Jahan says:

    First of all “science isn’t everything”. And to pun on that “signs aren’t everything either”. To quote the inimitable Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are to be found in your philosophy, Horatio!”… What we term nonsense is just non-sense or something which has no relation to sense. There are other senses besides the 5 we so like to cherish. And I am not just talking about the sixth. There are so many other dimensions beyond that. Madness is a symptom of having entered a different force-field or space-time from our own. No wonder it leaves us so prone to being different from the rest of the sleeping drudges. There is an internal universe besides the external one. So what if your so-called science and lousy logic don’t recognize it. It doesn’t make an iota of difference to this id-entity. Oh, and by the way, bullshit could be read as “bulls hit” for that is the nature of the beasts that are bulls. Just because you are fed high quality protein in the prison canteen one day out of 365 instead of the regular slop of tasteless mashed potatoes and wussy limp veggies doesn’t mean you take that different experience as bullshit. It could be a breakthrough instead of a breakdown. Reality after all is not just what you know but also what you feel.

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