“CALLING BULLSHIT!” — Spotting and Defying Falsifications, Lies, and Twisted Facts
The University of Washington has a course that is SRO (standing room only) every term it is offered. It is called “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World.” The brain child of professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, “Calling Bullshit” is designed to “ help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument,” says the course website, an extensive and informative space.
These two educators have noted that in government, the media, and even in higher education, a venue in which “truth” and “fact” were once held to the highest and most rigorous standards, truth has figuratively bowed to the loud and become a venue where fabrication, distortion, insinuation, and twisted data, when dressed to impress, often trumps “truth”.
Abraham Lincoln, addressing in his Cooper Union speech the demands promulgated by southern states and politicians in 1860, focused on a single example of how bullshit was at work. He explained what the southerners wanted from the North — “this and this only: cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right.” His answer to the southerners call to support a fiction, was succinct and momentous. “Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored — contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong…Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us.”
BULLSHIT BEATER #1 — No matter how many times or ways a lie is spoken, name it A LIE!
As then, verification of West and Bergstrom’s assertion currently abounds in all areas of society. For example, during his confirmation hearing, EPA Administrator-elect Scott Pruitt finessed the extensive volume of science around global warming and effectively dismissed it, waving the science away like a fly. First, he mentioned that “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” The key words in that statement are tremendous disagreement and degree of impact. Tremendous disagreement is meant to imply that many scientists think “Yes, humans impact climate change,” even as another large group of scientists think, “No, humans have had minimal impact on climate change.”
BULLSHIT BEATER #2 — Read, listen, or view carefully. Is any actual, verifiable evidence offered? Are buzzwords used to impress the audience rather than clarify the issue?
In fact, there is no tremendous disagreement. Fully 97.2% of peer reviewed studies uphold the impact of humans on global warming. Yet, Pruitt blew right past this mountain of consensus to affirm, “So no, I would not agree that it’s [human activity] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see…But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.” That is false. We do know, or at least 97.2% of recent respected studies know.
BULLSHIT BEATER #3 — Be wary of confirmation bias. Even if you agree with an assertion or statistic, that doesn’t mean it is true. Be vigilant.
The second relevant phrase is degree of impact. By using this phrase in conjunction with the first, Pruitt infers that the tremendous disagreement, which does not exist, consists of considerable differences in how much of an impact human activity has had. In June of 2017, Rick Perry, US Energy Secretary, said, “to stand up and say that 100% of global warming is because of human activity, I think on its face, is just indefensible.” Saying it is indefensible does not make it so. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Academies of Science of 80 countries, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it quite clear with verifiable data that human emissions and activities have caused “100% of the warming since 1950.”
BULLSHIT BEATER #4 — Check the source. Is it reliable? Is it unbiased? Even organizations have biases, and, believe it or not, phony research can get published for the right price.
The strategies that allow the senior administrator of the EPA, the energy secretary, the president, his minions, bankers, pharmaceutical companies, social media, universities, and the .01% to assert, promote and spread a myriad of flagrant falsehoods, a Kafkaesque conundrum to be sure, form a pattern of progressive deception delineated by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and political activist.
As Reich outlines in a video, the step by step process takes a lie, massages it, tweaks it, and redefines it, until, almost magically, it becomes quasi-truth.
1. Someone lies.
2. Experts contradict that person, saying the claim is baseless and false. The media subsequently and accurately report that the claim is false.
3. The liar then blasts the experts and blames the media for being dishonest.
4. The liar repeats the lie in interviews, tweets, and speeches, and asserts that “many people” say he’s right.
5. The mainstream media then deviate from the truth and start to describe the lie as a “disputed fact”.
6. The liar repeats the lie in various media with even greater enthusiasm. Why? Because the lie has been upgraded by the media. The liar’s entourage and subordinates repeat the now “disputed fact” on TV and in the right-wing blog-o-sphere.
7. As the life of the lie gains traction, the media further colludes with the perpetrator by now characterizing the lie as a “controversy”. It is not a controversy. It is still a lie. In fact, by calling the lie a controversy, the media has promoted a fallacy from the swamp to the boardroom.
8. Polls show a growing number of Americans, who may mostly be Republican during this administration, as believing the lie to be true. It is not. It is still a lie, but now it has become an accepted truth.
9. The media extends its complicity, designating the liar’s lie as “a claim that reflects a partisan divide,” that is found to be true by many.
10. The public becomes confused and disoriented about what the facts are.
Is it any wonder?
BULLSHIT BEATER #5 — Dissect the data in these cases just like that frog in biology class.
John Oliver, populist comedian/commentator describes how a conservative blogger reported, without any substantiation or facts, that millions of people had voted illegally. “We have verified more than 3 million votes cast by non-citizens.” As Oliver detailed:
1. Info Wars published this claim.
2. It spread like wild fire.
4. Despite that, Trump began tweeting about those “millions of illegal votes” and “serious voter fraud in states like California.”
5. Even when Donald Trump was confronted with the lack of evidence for this lie, the president elect responded candidly, “You know what is important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.”
NOTE: Calling Bullshit, having irrefutable, persuasive evidence, doesn’t always make a difference. This should not stop us from reporting the stink.
BULLSHIT BEATER #6 –Be clear, correct, and concise! “Recognize that people are not hard drives. If a myth [or bullshit] is believed, you can’t just shove more information at the believer,” cautions “Calling Bullshit’s” Jevin West. Carl Bergstrom concurs, and adds, “Think as hard about how to present your argument as you did about how to prove your claim in the first place.”
We are caught up in a world where, as George Orwell pronounced, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” The “Calling Bullshit” course guides the students through practice with actions that further the search for truth, using analysis of specific texts, websites like Snopes, Factcheck, and other sources like The Debunking Handbook, as well as a pattern of questioning.
· Is this a source I know and recognize?
· Has anyone fact-checked this?
· Are the facts available?
· Is there any language in this claim or assertion that seeks to inflame rather than inform?
· Does it link to primary sources?
· Do those sources match what the story says?
Just as there is a Murphy’s Law, which states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, there is also Brandolini’s Law on Bullshit. Of relatively recent origination, Brandolini’s Law, also called Brandolini’s Asymmetry Principle, first publicized in 2013 by Alberto Brandolini, states that “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Refuting bullshit is akin to one of the 12 Labors of Hercules.
BULLSHIT BEATER #7– Attack the claims and not the person. Yes, the use of a potent selection of insulting adjectives is tempting, but it simply gives others the ammunition they need to dismiss an argument.
In early July, 2018, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released portions of a bipartisan report after over a year of investigation and review of findings submitted by the CIA, NSA, and FBI. The investigation centered on Russian interference in the American election of 2016. As a preface to the findings, the Committee noted that those who analyzed the data, documents, and testimony “were under no politically motivated pressure to reach any conclusions.” Notably, the report begins with a statement that even as “the investigation progressed since January 2017, the Committee has seen additional examples of Russia’s attempts to sow discord, undermine democratic institutions, and interfere in US elections.”
While much of the report’s key judgments have been publicized over time, now finally confirmed by multiple reliable sources, this has made no difference in the actions of the Republican led Congress nor the president. Truth has not been sufficient to alter the course of action of any of these individuals. In fact, Donald Trump continues to quote Putin’s assurances that Russia did no such thing, expecting the American people to just go along, because, as Trump has said, what is important is “Millions of people agree with me when I say that.”
BULLSHIT BEATER #8 — Consider real life examples and graphics as tools when attempting to counter bullshit. Personal stories or powerful images can sometimes bridge the divide between fixed beliefs and a measure of truth.
CALLING BULLSHIT is not a cure for bullshit but if we neglect to call lies out, we will undoubtedly be buried beneath them. We should give thanks to professors West and Bergstrom and others like them for instruction in how to spot bullshit and tips on combating its stench and reach. Failing Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth, calling bullshit is our only option.