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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Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.
- A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
- Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
- An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
Credit: logika600 / Shutterstock<p>Remaining healthy requires regular screenings. Here again we see a disassociation between risk reduction and proactivity. Seventy-seven percent of respondents don't talk to their doctors about lifestyle habits that support brain health; 51 percent have never been screened for depression; 44 percent have never had a neurological exam; and 32 percent have never been screened for hearing problems. </p><p>Common early warning signs of dementia, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">according to</a> Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center, include repetitive questions and stories, difficulties with complex daily tasks, and trouble with orientation. </p><p>In terms of intervention, <a href="https://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/does-lack-of-exercise-lead-to-dementia" target="_self">exercise</a>, <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/obesity-dementia" target="_self">diet</a>, building a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-reserve" target="_self">brain reserve</a>, and challenging your brain (such as learning a new language or musical instrument) are all proven methods for staving off the ravages of Alzheimer's. Oxytocin has also <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/alzheimers-oxytocin" target="_self">showed promise</a> in brain-addled mice, while researchers found positive results for a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/intermittent-fasting" target="_self">group of intermittent fasters</a> in promoting neurogenesis. </p><p>Epidemiologist Bryan James says that dementia is <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/04/15/176920391/how-exercise-and-other-activities-beat-back-dementia" target="_blank">not an inevitable result</a> of aging. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's simply not pre-destined for all human beings. Lots of people live into their 90s and even 100s with no symptoms of dementia." </p><p>Professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, Andrew Budson, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends</a> aerobic exercise and the Mediterranean diet. As has long been known, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and healthy fasts like nuts and olive oil seem to have brain-boosting properties. </p><p>To learn more, take the <a href="https://www.mdvip.com/brain-health-iq-quiz" target="_blank">Brain Health IQ quiz</a>.</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
The U.S., China, and Russia are in a "vaccine race" that treats a global challenge like a winner-take-all game.
All for one (vaccine)<p>Launched this April, <a href="https://www.who.int/initiatives/act-accelerator" target="_blank">the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator</a> brought together a panoply of governments, scientists, businesses, and global health organizations with the goal of accelerating the development, production, and distribution of an efficacious COVID-19 vaccine. The "vaccines pillar" of this initiative is <a href="https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/covax-explained" target="_blank">the COVAX Facility</a>.</p><p>COVAX is coordinated by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The program maintains a diverse portfolio of COVID-10 vaccines, monitoring each to identify promising candidates. It has also partnered with manufacturers to ease investment risks and serves as a purchasing pool for self-financing countries, while offering fundraising efforts to poorer ones.</p><p>"[G]overnments from every continent have chosen to work together, not only to secure vaccines for their own populations, but also to help ensure that vaccines are available to the most vulnerable everywhere," Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, <a href="https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/boost-global-response-covid-19-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-covax-facility" target="_blank">said in a release</a>. "With the commitments we're announcing today for the COVAX Facility, as well as the historic partnership we are forging with industry, we now stand a far better chance of ending the acute phase of this pandemic once safe, effective vaccines become available."</p><p><a href="https://www.vox.com/21448719/covid-19-vaccine-covax-who-gavi-cepi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Vox</a>, Berkley noted that the ACT Accelerator is the largest global collaboration since the Paris Climate Agreement. He added, "This type of solidarity is critical because otherwise what you're going to end up with is just a constant reintroduction of infections and the inability to go back to normal."</p><p>As of Monday, 64 higher-income countries and 92 low- and middle-income countries—representing nearly two-thirds of the world's population—<a href="https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/boost-global-response-covid-19-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-covax-facility" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">have signed commitments to COVAX</a>. Thirty-eight more are expected to sign soon.</p><p>COVAX's goal is to have 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. Experts estimate this amount will cover high-risk and vulnerable people, as well as healthcare workers, worldwide. Participating nations must cover those populations before administering vaccines according to national priorities. As part of the agreement, countries agree to support equal access to the vaccine once it becomes available, a move aimed at preventing hoarding and price gouging. </p><p>Currently, CEPI is supporting nine candidate vaccines, of which eight are in clinical trials.</p>
Why has the U.S. backed out?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7167e0bf1593a7cb29c1a116041116e3"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LUAsKbH7yeY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The United States is gambling that its bilateral deals with various pharmaceutical companies will win the "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/coronavirus-vaccine-trump/2020/09/01/b44b42be-e965-11ea-bf44-0d31c85838a5_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vaccine race</a>." This U.S.-only initiative, named (sigh) <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/06/16/fact-sheet-explaining-operation-warp-speed.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Warp Speed</a>, has already spent <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/14/the-us-has-already-invested-billions-on-potential-coronavirus-vaccines-heres-where-the-deals-stand.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">approximately $10 billion</a> and is pushing to deliver 300 million doses by January 2021. Many experts worry this speedy push through the regulatory path could result in <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/here-s-how-us-could-release-covid-19-vaccine-election-and-why-scares-some" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">premature and dangerous approvals</a>.</p><p>China and Russia have likewise bet on their own high-priced ponies. Russia is touting <a href="https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/09/russia-offers-its-untested-covid-19-vaccine-for-free-to-un-officials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an unvetted vaccine</a> nicknamed (double sigh) "Sputnik V." This vaccine has only concluded <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30402-1/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">phase 1 and 2 trials</a> with a small number of participants, yet Russia claims to have already received international requests. Meanwhile, China has administered <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-vaccines-foc/in-coronavirus-vaccine-race-china-inoculates-thousands-before-trials-are-completed-idUSKBN26705Q" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tens of thousands of doses of a vaccine</a> before completing phase 3 clinical trials. </p><p>An additional barrier to the United States' participation: COVAX is a WHO-led initiative. Earlier this year, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/865685798/president-trump-announces-that-u-s-will-leave-who" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">President Donald Trump admonished the WHO as a corrupt organization</a> and claimed it assisted China in covering up the coronavirus outbreak and its severity. Though he presented no evidence for the accusation, Trump has used it as the basis for <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/21/64-high-income-nations-join-effort-to-expand-global-access-to-covid-19-vaccines-but-u-s-and-china-do-not/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">his threat to cut ties with</a>, and funding for, the agency.</p><p>"The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China," said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, said <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-who/white-house-slams-who-over-criticism-of-push-for-covid-19-vaccine-idUSKBN25S62T" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in a statement</a>.</p><p>He added, "This president will spare no expense to ensure that any new vaccine maintains our own FDA's gold standard for safety and efficacy, is thoroughly tested, and saves lives."</p><p>By shirking COVAX, these countries hope to gain peerless access to a vaccine. Each could secure large numbers of doses for its citizens while also reaping the political boons to follow. In the United States, President Trump has pinned his re-election bid on a timely vaccine, while Chinese officials seem posed to use a vaccine <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/11/business/china-vaccine-diplomacy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to repair diplomatic ties</a>. </p><p>But the loss of such rich economies will prove a blow to COVAX and the ACT Accelerator. Vaccines are notoriously expensive and risky to develop; the costs to manufacture doses at scale will be immense. <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1070162" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus</a> stated the ACT Accelerator would cost roughly $30 billion, and the final bill for the tools to combat novel coronavirus would be at least $100 billion. But that's a pittance compared to the <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-imf/imf-says-10-trillion-spent-to-combat-pandemic-far-more-needed-idUSKBN23I27P" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$10 trillion already spent on the pandemic</a> so far.</p><p>"COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," <a href="https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/21-09-2020-boost-for-global-response-to-covid-19-as-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-up-to-covax-facility" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tedros said</a>. "Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery. Working together through the COVAX Facility is not charity, it's in every country's own best interests to control the pandemic and accelerate the global economic recovery."</p>
The winner won't necessarily take all<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNzY2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjExMzA1M30.2kF2U_8veNWxmaxOnSned_WTQMRtscbB5dmT5efJHsc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="55cd7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c56717cda300a40edc23795c8ee23c2f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="SARS-CoV-2 vaccine" />