While perusing André Spicer’s book, Business Bullshit, I was surprised to find that a central misunderstanding about bullshit had found its way into the second chapter. The author was discussing examples of vague and abstract mission statements which seem to contain no facts, when he stated, “All this abstraction points us to the first red flag, which marks out any kind of bullshit – a lack of reference to real facts.”1Spicer André. Business Bullshit. Routledge, 2018. The notion that bullshit is easily spotted because it contains no facts is mistaken. While bullshit may well be vague and abstract, it may also contain real and accurate facts! You can bullshit with facts or nonfacts. You can mix and match. Bullshit is unique not in its relevance to the facts, but in its relevance to the truth. Bullshitters do not care about the facts, but they will use them to manipulate us.
In bullshit, it is what happens to the facts that matters. Facts, in bullshit, are divorced from knowledge. It is thus selective facts with which we must grapple. One important fact left out of a message can produce bullshit!
A counterstatement to Spicer’s assertion, above, comes from authors Matthew S. McGlone and Mark L. Knapp in The Interplay of Truth and Deception: New Agendas in Theory and Research: “…carelessness distinguishes bullshit from others kinds of talk…A truthful claim conscientiously seeks the facts; a lie equally conscientiously avoids them; but bullshit, frankly, does not give a damn.” 2McGlone, Matthew S. ., and Mark L. Knapp. The Interplay of Truth and Deception: New Agendas in Theory and Research. Routledge, 2009.
As you develop your bullshit meter and hone your critical thinking skills, you may be fearful of becoming or appearing to be pedantic.
Critical thinking requires a great deal of attention to detail. It also requires understanding what details are important in a particular context and what details are trivial. Despite this, one hazard of displaying critical thought in your discussions with others is being accused of being pedantic.
What is a pedant? Merriam-Webster defines a pedant as “a person who annoys other people by correcting small errors and giving too much attention to minor details.”
A pedantic person often confuses didactic teaching (telling you something, often in a patronizing and “high-horse” way) with critical thinking. This type of person is often unable to engage in dialogical thinking, where they would seek to understand different frames of reference.
One mark of a pedant is that they are unable to recognize context when it exists and imagine that confusion exists (which they must clear up) where none actually exists.
The problem a critical thinker faces is that they are often unfairly accused of pedantry. To help, keep in mind that a critical thinker is not given to petty and insignificant objections based simply on technical precision. Regardless, it is difficult sometimes to tell the difference when engaging with someone who pays a lot of attention to detail, as any good critical thinker should!
Nigel Warburton, in Thinking From A to Z, reminds us to be sensitive to the standards of scrutiny appropriate to a particular context. 3WARBURTON, NIGEL. THINKING FROM A TO Z. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.
So, for example, if I were to say that “the Earth is round,” depending on the context, this may be an acceptable premise for whatever follows. In a stricter scientific setting, this may be woefully inadequate.
Did you know that rebut and refute mean different things? To rebut something is to try to refute something. To refute is to actually show through sound argument that it is not so. However, in common usage, it would be pedantic to point out when someone uses refute when they mean rebut as in “To refute your argument, I…”
Or would it be pedantic? Think of the implications. Not so easy to decide!
It is not the lack of facts nor the lack of truth that is a distinguishing characteristic of bullshit but a complete disregard for either. This means that bullshit can be accomplished without the care that lies require and without being so easily exposed. There is a reason that Frankfurt in his famous book On Bullshit said: “bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” Lies can be exposed by the truth, and thus eradicated. Bullshit lives a life of its own.
Frankfurt actually considered whether bullshit was the same as humbug. Humbug is not a word most of us are familiar with today but to understand it, think of the wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Frank L. Baum described him as a humbug wizard. In other words, a flimflam artist, a con man, a deceiver: One who uses tricks to create a false impression. While Frankfurt decided that humbug did not fully capture bullshit, there is one thing both have in common: They are both concerned with the impression we have of the practitioner.
This leads us to a more accurate red flag of bullshit, one that you will start to see everywhere in fitness and wellness as you read this book. If we think of a fitness program, for example, as akin to a physical product, we expect it to be a well-made one. One that holds up and works properly. Now, consider a fly-by-night company that markets a product to a trend with the sole aim of short-term profit. This company will ride the wave of this trend, sell a few million of its product and be gone before its consumers realize that the product was trash. The fitness industry is full of such dishonest players who care only about short-term profit and your impression of them. The problem is that the bullshit of the fitness industry is harder to crack and its consumers may never actually realize that the resulting products are ‘trash.’ In fact, a fitness bullshiter can create one shoddy product after another and have customers coming back for more!
Let’s look at some actual examples from YouTube of bullshitting with facts:
This power food [oatmeal] is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which possess endless benefits for our health.
Oatmeal does contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. There is no objective means to deem it “rich” in these nutrients, however, and the suggestion that these components of oatmeal in particular possess ‘endless benefits’ makes the statement bullshit as it is meaningless and vague.
Here is a more complex one paraphrased from Jim Stoppani when speaking about must-have ingredients for a pre-workout formula.
“In regards to BCAA’s, While most people think of leucine and muscle growth, BCAA’s must be in your pre-workout for energy and blunting fatigue. While most amino acids must go the liver, which decides what to do with them, the branched-chain amino acids get a direct line to your muscles and the muscles decide what to do with them. If it’s right before a workout, they will use them for energy. Leucine is not the most important amino, in this instance, for pre-workout. Valine is the most important BCAA for pre-workout. This is because valine blocks the uptake of tryptophan by the brain which therefore keeps tryptophan from producing serotonin. Serotonin makes you feel sluggish and fatigued.”
This contains a mixture of facts and not-quite facts. But it also contains facts, when strung together, produce a bullshit explanation. Notice the glide from the muscles to the brain! Are BCAA’s important because they go straight to the muscles and produce energy in them or they are important in terms of valine for blocking the uptake of tryptophan from the bloodstream?. Which is it?
The statement that BCAA’s bypass the liver is a not-quite-fact. This would be almost magical if it were so. All amino acids enter the portal vein on their way to the liver. BCAA’s however, undergo only minimal degradation in the liver before passing to the peripheral tissues like muscle, kidney, fat, and the brain..
Another problem with the statement is that other ingredients, including carbohydrates, would influence what happened to amino acids as opposed to tryptophan. Carbohydrates could cause large neutral amino acids like valine and leucine to be taken up by the muscle cells thus leaving behind tryptophan! Notice that Stoppani imagines both. The BCAA’s are being taken up by the muscle cells, but for some reason, there is a large amount of tryptophan in the bloodstream which is being blocked from being taken up by the brain by valine, which, supposedly, has been taken up by the muscle cells. I could go further into this but here we have a great mixture of facts, nonfacts, and not quite facts working together to produce a pseudo-explanation. And, we also have a twofer: The pseudo-explanation is taking the place of evidence for the claim! Where is the actual evidence that BCAA’s taken in before a workout produces more energy? Explanation is not evidence, but in the fitness industry, it often takes the place of evidence. This is something will get into much deeper later on in the book.
You may be thinking that you would have needed to do a lot of research on BCAA’s to spot the bullshit. However, the key spot was the subtle glide from producing energy in the muscles to preventing the production of serotonin in the brain. Notice that he glosses over BCAA’s producing energy in the muscles. There is no detail given. He then goes directly to discussing tryptophan and serotonin and suddenly presents a lot more detail! This jumping from one part of an explanation to another (or a story) is sometimes referred to as text-bridging. It is easy to spot if you listen closely! When a person is giving a great deal of detail and then suddenly mentions something, offers no elaboration, and moves on to something else in more detail, your bullshit detector should ping.
In truth, I have no doubt that Stoppani can produce a decent pre-workout formula but consuming such information skeptically could lead you to better and more efficient choices.
The result of critical thinking is not a command of the facts. Rote recital of facts, no matter how complex they may seem, is a product of simple learning. Critical thinking is about learning to handle the facts.
Facts are not the only tool of bullshit. Language itself is even more important. Bullshitters are often not concerned with what the words we use actually mean. We’re talking about semantics.
Next: Bullshit and Semantics
Resources [ + ]
|1.||↲||Spicer André. Business Bullshit. Routledge, 2018.|
|2.||↲||McGlone, Matthew S. ., and Mark L. Knapp. The Interplay of Truth and Deception: New Agendas in Theory and Research. Routledge, 2009.|
|3.||↲||WARBURTON, NIGEL. THINKING FROM A TO Z. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.|