The philosophy of bullsh*t and how to avoid stepping in it
A philosopher's guide to detecting nonsense and getting around it.
- A professor in Sweden has a bold on idea on what BS, pseudoscience, and pseudophilosophy actually are.
- He suggests they are defined by a lack of "epistemic conscientiousness" rather than merely being false.
- He offers suggestions on how to avoid producing nonsense and how to identify it on sight.
There is a lot of BS going around these days. Fake cures for disease are being passed off by unscrupulous hacks, the idea that the world is flat has a shocking amount of sincere support online, and plenty of people like to suggest there isn't a scientific consensus on climate change. It can be hard to keep track of it all.
Even worse, it can be difficult to easily define all of it in a way that lets people know what they're encountering is nonsense right away. Luckily for us, Dr. Victor Moberger recently published an essay in Theoria on what counts as bullsh*t, how it interacts with pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy, and what to do about it.
The Unified Theory of B.S.
The essay "Bullshit, Pseudoscience and Pseudophilosophy" considers much of the nonsense we encounter and offers a definition that allows us to move forward in dealing with it.
Dr. Moberger argues that what makes something bullshit is a "lack of epistemic conscientiousness," meaning that the person arguing for it takes no care to assure the truth of their statements. This typically manifests in systemic errors in reasoning and the frequent use of logical fallacies such as ad hominem, red herring, false dilemma, and cherry picking, among others.
This makes bullsh*t different from lying, which involves caring what the truth is and purposely moving away from it, or mere indifference to truth, as it is quite possible for people pushing nonsense to care about their nonsense being true. It also makes it different from making the occasional mistake with reasoning, occasional errors differ from a systemic reliance on them.
Importantly, nonsense is also dependent on the epistemic unconscientiousness of the person pushing it rather than its content alone. This means some of it may end up being true (consider cases where a person's personality does match up with their star sign), but they end up being true for reasons unrelated to the bad reasoning used by its advocates.
Two subcategories: pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy
Two commonly encountered kinds of bullsh*t are pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy. They can be easily defined as "bullshit with scientific pretensions" and "bullshit with philosophical pretensions."Here are a few examples which will clarify exactly what these things mean.
A form of pseudoscience would be flat-Earthism. While it takes on scientific pretensions and can be, and has been, proven false, supporters of the idea that the Earth is flat are well known for handwaving away any evidence that falsifies their stance and dismissing good arguments against their worldview.
An amusing and illustrative example is the case of the flat-Earthers who devised two experiments to determine if the earth was flat or spherical. When their experiments produced results exactly consistent with the Earth being spherical, they refused to accept the results and concluded that something went wrong; despite having no reason to do so. Clearly, these fellows lack epistemic conscientiousness.
Pseudophilosophy is less frequently considered, but can be explained with examples of its two most popular forms.
The first is dubbed "obscurantist pseudophilosophy." It often takes the form of nonsense posing as philosophy using copious amounts of jargon and arcane, frequently erroneous reasoning connecting a mundane truth to an exciting, fantastic falsehood.
As an example, there are more than a few cases where people have argued that physical reality is a social construct. This idea is based on the perhaps trivial notion that our beliefs about reality are social constructs. Often in cases like this, when challenged on the former point, advocates of the more fantastic point will retreat to the latter, as its is less controversial, and claim the issue was one of linguistic confusion caused by their obscure terminology. When the coast is clear, they frequently return to the original stance.
Dr. Moberger suggests that the humanities and social sciences seem to have a weakness for these seemingly profound pseudophilosophies without being nonsensical fields themselves.
The second is "scientistic pseudophilosophy" and is often seen in popular science writing. It frequently manifests when questions considered in scientific writing are topics of philosophy rather than science. Because science writers are often not trained in philosophy, they may produce pseudophilosophy when trying to interact with these questions.
A famous example is Sam Harris' attempt at reducing the problems of moral philosophy to scientific problems. His book "The Moral Landscape" is infamously littered with strawman arguments, a failure to interact with relevant philosophical literature, and bad philosophy in general.
In all of these cases, we see that the supporters of some kind of nonsense think that what they are supporting is true, but that they are willing to ignore the basic rules of science and philosophical reasoning in order to do so.
Okay, so there is plenty of nonsense in the world. What do we do about it?
While the first step to dealing with this nonsense is to understand what it is, many people would like to go a little farther than that.
Dr. Moberger explained that sometimes, the best thing we can do is show a little humility:
"One of the main points of the essay is that there is no sharp boundary between bullshit and non-bullshit. Pseudoscience, pseudophilosophy and other kinds of bullshit are very much continuous with the kind of epistemic irresponsibility or unconscientiousness that we all display in our daily lives. We all have biases and we all dislike cognitive dissonance, and so without realizing it we cherry-pick evidence and use various kinds of fallacious reasoning. This tendency is especially strong when it comes to emotionally sensitive areas, such as politics, where we may have built part of our sense of identity and worth around a particular stance. Well-educated, smart people are no exception. In fact, they are sometimes worse, since they are more adept at using sophistry to rationalize their biases. Thus, the first thing to realize, I think, is that all of us are prone to produce bullshit and that it is much easier to spot other people's bullshit than our own. Intellectual humility is first and foremost. To me it does not come naturally and I struggle with it all the time."
He also advises that people take the time to develop their critical thinking skills:
"I think it is also very helpful to develop the kind of critical thinking skills that are taught to undergraduates in philosophy. The best book I know of in the genre is Richard Feldman's 'Reason and Argument.' It provides the basic conceptual tools necessary for thinking clearly about philosophical issues, but those tools are certainly useful outside of philosophy too."
Lastly, he reminds us that looking at the facts of the matter can clear things up:
"Finally, no degree of intellectual humility or critical thinking skills is a substitute for gathering relevant information about the issue at hand. And this is where empirical science comes in. If we want to think rationally about any broadly speaking empirical issue, we need to inform ourselves about what empirical science has to say about it. We also need to remember that individual scientists are often unreliable and that scientific consensus is what we should look for. (Indeed, it is a common theme in pseudoscience to appeal to individual scientists whose views do not reflect scientific consensus.)"
A great deal of the pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy we deal with is characterized not by being false or even unfalsifiable, but rather by a lack of concern for assuring that something is true by the person pushing it. Oftentimes, it is presented with fairly common logical fallacies and bold claims of rejecting the scientific consensus.
While having this definition doesn't remove bullshit from the world, it might help you avoid stepping in it. In the end, isn't that what matters?
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Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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