The Modern Survival Guide #10
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and if you read this series it will result in you winning a million dollars in the next lottery. Oh wait… no, that’s total BS. Which is what this article is about! Here are ten tips for spotting blatant, overt, balls-to-the-wall bullshit that people will try to use to confuse and obfuscate your life.
#1: When It’s Too Good to be True
If it’s too good to be true, it is almost certainly bullshit. It’s a sad fact that life isn’t fair, good does not always triumph, there is no magic, and there are very, very few angels who swoop down from on high to give presents to the good little girls and boys.
So — if someone offers you something that seems too good to be true, be super-triple-mega wary. There are no homeowners in high-rent districts who want to rent their condos for peanuts. There are virtually no jobs where you can make $$$ just for stuffing envelopes or rating websites. There are no lotteries that you win even though you didn’t buy a ticket, and the Prince of Nigeria is not going to give you millions of dollars if you help him launder money.
This kind of bullshit rests on hope. Hope is a monkey, and it’s easy to get it on your back. Shake that monkey off, hard, or people will grab it and use it to use you.
#2: When Everyone Else is Wrong
This is the kind of bullshit that infects cultists and political ideologues — the idea that everyone is wrong except for the Great Leader. It’s fun (and absurdly predictable) to watch this one play out every damn day in the American democracy.
Folks, nobody is right all the time, and nobody knows enough to be right about everything even some of the time. So be really super-ultra careful if someone says something on the theme of “Everyone else is wrong! I’m the only person who has the truth!” Really bro? You’re it, out of seven billion of us? How precious.
Life is messy and moral, factual, and intellectual grey areas are all over the place. Argue against that if you dare. If someone wants you to believe that only they have the answers, then they’re probably selling some Grade-A snake oil.
#3: What About-ism
This is another common political tactic — a “what about?” dialogue is one where someone deflects attention away from a topic by saying something like “Oh sure, but what about X?” The goal here is to get you to forget about your original argument and start a new topic about X, where X is usually some embarrassing or controversial thing the politician’s opponents have done.
This is bullshit because it’s just a blatant attempt to distract you from a real issue by sidelining you into another conversation. The appropriate response to this kind of thing is to say “That’s interesting, but we were talking about this, and I don’t appreciate you trying to steer the conversation.” Shut that crap down early and often, or the bullshit will win by inertia.
Gaslighting is a particularly douche-baggy form of bullshittery where the bullshitter just blatantly denies objective reality, and tries to convince you that their version of reality is correct. This often takes the form of denying a person’s memory of an event, or making comically hilarious claims about the nature of the world.
I’m going to use President Trump as an example here, because he is almost a textbook example of a gaslighter. Remember the whole inauguration crowd controversy, where he claimed that his crowd was the biggest in spite of photographic evidence and the testimonies of many, many confused public servants and news reporters? Yeah. That.
Gaslighting is pretty easy to spot — just listen until your brain suffers massive cognitive dissonance because someone has said something totally crazy with total conviction.
Gaslighting is also extraordinarily dangerous — victims of gaslighting have a tendency to end up believing the gaslighter just because they are so unswerving confident in their statements. A shocking number of people believed (and continue to believe) the Trump claim. So keep your guard up and check your facts.
#5: When the Conversation Pivots
This is an easy one to spot — just watch politicians whenever they have to answer a tough question. They typically just change the subject halfway through their answer and hope you don’t notice. Many of them are so smooth that you might not.
This also pops up a lot in normal relationships. If your spouse or significant other can’t talk about an important topic (marriage, affairs, finances) without trying to shift the subject, that’s probably a warning sign for something.
In both cases, watch for the transition, or “pivot” of the conversation. This is when the person stops answering your question and starts talking about their own topic. “That’s a great question about why public school funding is low. I’ll address that by increasing support for private school vouchers and increasing scrutiny of public school test scores!” See what happened there? No part of that answer concerns public school funding. But it sounds kind of school-y, so someone who wasn’t paying close attention might not notice.
Pro tip: people who are trying to pivot often get really upset when they get caught, and often try to push through with pure bluster until their interrogator just kind of rolls over. This happens all the time with political reporting. So if someone gets super mad at you for forcing them to answer a question, they were probably trying to pivot.
#6: When the Questions Lead the Answer
This is a common bullshit tactic in talk radio and other similar propaganda outlets. You’ve probably heard lots of leading questions, things like “Is Obama a radical secret Muslim who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks?” or “Are the Republicans out to force women into the kitchen and deport all minorities?”
The point of a leading question is that it gives an opinion in the guise of a question — it frames a narrative. A true bullshit artist will just pump a bunch of these out onto the airwaves, not bother to answer anything, but keep asking the questions until the listener just assumes something is going on.
This works really well. Part of the issue is that people have trouble differentiating between questions and statements on a subconscious level; another is that people tend to believe things they hear often. A third and more insidious problem is that people who push leading questions can basically say anything because they’re “just asking questions.” It’s worse than people saying they’re “just joking.”
#7: When They’re Just Joking
This is classic passive-aggressive bullshit — someone saying something like “Oh my god, Janet is such a hateful bitch and her hair looks like a beehive… just joking!” This is just someone trying to hide being awful behind being funny. It’s usually totally transparent and doesn’t work, but it’s still very common bullshit. Politicians even get in on it sometimes, often hiding behind euphemisms like “locker room talk” to mask a frank exchange of their real feelings as “just joking, wink/grin.”
#8: When Correlation Becomes Causation
This is just a common logical fallacy in most cases, but a skillful bullshitter will often attempt to use correlation as proof positive of whatever view they’re peddling. Correlation is when different events are lumped together in statistical analysis — like the oft-cited stat that hemlines tend to get shorter in times of national crisis. Causation is when someone can demonstrate (not assert, but demonstrate) a logical cause/effect connection between two events. Causation requires evidence; correlation is just interesting and is the precursor for a causal investigation.
Correlative bullshit is all over the place in politics, though. For example, tying an increase in immigration to an increase in terrorist acts is a classic correlative trap. Most incidents of domestic terrorism are carried out by citizens. But linking immigration policy and the incidence of terrorism is a great way for xenophobic politicians to make their case (without proof).
Watch out for this shit, because it’s sneaky and subtle, and people often shift from causal proofs to correlative logic in the space of a sentence or two.
#9: When the Graph is Bullshit
Watch out for data visualizations (to put that in English, graphs and charts). Graphs and charts are used in nearly every industry, and all political spheres, to perpetrate strategic-level bullshit.
It’s so much easier to read a graph than it is to read an article, in most cases. So this means that it is so much easier to deceive people using a graph than using a carefully constructed argument. Some things to watch out for:
- Watch the measurement scales. Especially in graphs of things like the stock market, you’ll notice that the scale involved is usually only a small fraction of the total value. This is done to highlight small changes, but can also be used to deliberately overemphasize small changes.
- Incorrectly proportioned charts are always tricky. This is when the proportions of the chart do not match the data being presented. These are tough to spot — you have to be able to read the data, and then check in with your brain to make sure that the lines on the chart match. This is done to de-emphasize or over-emphasize data points.
- Watch the colors. Using bright colors will draw the eye to particular parts of a graph or chart, which of course distracts from other things.
- Check the publisher and publication dates. Data visualizations are typically used to display time-relevant information. A bullshitter might try to pull a fast one by using old data. Similarly, check the publication. Not all purveyors of information are equal.
#10: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
Statistics are among the easiest things to twist to the purposes of an agenda. Bullshitters love ’em, because they look complicated, and they use math, and those two things alone are enough to inspire belief in a large portion of the audience.
This is actually a huge subject all on its own, so I saved it for last. If you are interested in some of the more common statistical traps, check these out:
- Conditional Probability Fallacies
- Base-rate Fallacy
- Simpson’s Paradox
- Data Censoring
- Will Rogers Effect
- Lead Time Bias
- Length Time Bias
- Means vs. Medians
If you didn’t have time to read the links, just know that sample size and composition are super important in statistics (unrepresentative samples are notoriously common), and that extremely uncommon results can badly skew a data set if presented in the wrong way (one millionaire can affect the average income of a neighborhood).
It is very, very, very hard for a layperson to spot statistical bullshit. In general, just assume anytime you see a statistic that it has been manipulated for the benefit of the person presenting it, and you’ll be fine. Try to find non-partisan stats if possible. If you see multiple reputable sites or publications using the same statistic, it is usually, although not always, more trustworthy.
To Sum Up
Bullshit is omnipresent in modern life. This is partly because there are enormously successful universities that offer courses in “communications” to ensure that there is a constant supply of people who know exactly how to manipulate information. It’s also partly because the information age is a golden opportunity for bullshit artists to push their bullshit messages far and wide.
In general, it’s not hard to spot bullshit. The real trick is usually finding non-bullshit information. Remember — you can and should do your part to prevent the spread of bullshit… and call it out when you find it. Otherwise bullshit wins. A lie can get around the world before the truth puts on its boots, and all that.