Call for Bullshit Submissions

I have long wanted to construct a general bullshit detection system that helps people detect bad or spurious arguments, and for that I need some good examples of bullshit (and non-bullshit).

Making a specific bullshit detector is easy: just learn about the subject. For example, if you say that you’ve carbon dated some dinosaur bones, then I automatically know you’re lying because carbon dating only works for things that are younger than about 50,000 years, and dinosaur bones are at least 65 million years old. (Also, dinosaur bones don’t contain a lot of carbon.)

But knowing more about the subject than the person you are talking to doesn’t generalize–for practical reasons, it is impossible for everyone to know everything.

So what’s a bullshit argument that you’ve encounter related to a field that you know but I don’t? For example, I know very little about chemistry, how the electrical grid works, or the Belorussian national anthem. I don’t know what temperature melts steel beams nor medieval Chinese history.

Each example of bullshit needs to be paired with a comparable piece of non-bullshit from the same field, otherwise I’ll automatically know it’s bullshit. Don’t tell me which is which.

Links, memes, Facebook posts, blog posts, youtube videos, “try googling this,” etc, are all fine. The arguments should be framed and phrased the way their proponents actually make them, because phrasing and formatting might be important.

I would love to assemble a really vast data set, and super appreciate anything and everything you send.

6 thoughts on “Call for Bullshit Submissions

  1. I don’t think this goal is achievable. The point of the bad arguments is that they look the same as the good arguments.

    I can’t provide you with a matched valid/invalid pair, but the topic reminded me of something I read long ago, about a fight between Nancy Lemon and Christina Hoff Sommers. Lemon, writing about feminism, referred to the idea that the phrase “rule of thumb” referred to a law allowing a husband to beat his wife with a rod no thicker than his own thumb, and attributed the origin of this law to Romulus. Sommers, writing about shoddy scholarship in feminist writing, pointed out that (1) no such law has ever been documented; and (2) Romulus is a mythical figure.

    Intriguingly, Lemon then chose to defend the claim that Romulus was a historical person about whom we can make historical claims.

    You can still read Lemon’s rebuttal and Sommers’ rebuttal-to-the-rebuttal here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Domestic-Violence-a/47940/

    I liked these two commentaries: https://rogueclassicism.com/2009/08/13/romulus-and-the-rule-of-thumb/ ; http://thecommonroomblog.com/2009/09/hoff-sommers-lemon-domestic-violence-and-plutarch.html

    You can also find commentary to the effect that Christina Hoff Sommers shouldn’t go around pointing out factual problems with Nancy Lemon’s work, because Lemon is ideologically correct and pointing out factual errors could damage her ideological impact.

    But what you reminded me of was actually tangential; in blog comments which I can no longer find, I noticed someone writing that they didn’t feel qualified to evaluate either position (on the historicity of Romulus) on its merits, but they did feel safe trusting Lemon over Sommers, because Lemon’s writing showed the marks of good scholarship: her claims were cited to sources, while Sommers relied more on the idea that the truth of her claims was obvious.

    This has permanently damaged my trust in the idea that “you can tell this writing is accurate/honest/correct, because it follows the correct forms”.

    Like

    • It is a difficult task, for sure. But sometimes I just look at an argument and think “that sounds like bullshit.”
      Right now there’s a problem that many contradictory positions have a lot of “scholarship” that can back them up, so merely citing a bunch of sources is inadequate, and the detector can’t just depend on people being able to evaluate the sources, because some sources are very difficult to understand.

      So I think one of the first things people should think is “Is there anything obvious that contradicts this?” Like, is this a photo of the bottom of the ocean, but it’s not dark enough to be the bottom of the ocean? Are there no shadows in this picture? In this case, is a law being attributed to a mythical character who left no written records? King Arthur might have been a real guy, but the idea that anything we’re doing is because of some law he decreed sounds sketchy.

      Common sense isn’t everything, but it’s often a good first step.

      Like

    • There’s also the category of the type, “XYZ is DEBUNKED!!!” but really it’s just a small definitional difference, such as with bears hibernating in the winter. (It’s not “true” hibernation, but it is a deep sleep called torpor… so the heuristic that bears sleep in winter is still correct.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Some humans are far more accurate than others. You can try to figure out whether the person you’re communicating with is credible.

    I find that the low-IQ pathological liars are relatively easy to spot, because they tend to be shamelessly self-aggrandizing. For example, “I have studied this for 20 years” means “I’ve spent hours reading cranky website”. In contrast, people who know much don’t need to overawe you with expertise.

    Another pattern is that experts will generally like to go into the details (and sometimes get lost in them). If anyone does not, you should be very suspicious.

    Liked by 1 person

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