a guide to recognizing bullshit

From ecologist Garrett Hardin's Filters Against Folly:

"The greatest folly is to accept expert statements uncritically. At the very least, we should always seek another opinion. Moreover, to the extent that time allows, we may become a little bit expert ourselves; but we don't have time enough to go far in this direction. 

[...] We need lay defenses against expertise. Fortunately there are such. The most important defense measure is to make oneself sensitive to the biases introduced by the assumptions and methods of experts."

Game of Thrones, British Accents, and Bullshit

Around this time of year, many of my friends participate in the weekly ritual of lifelong connection and sweet everlasting Platonic love (or whatever), huddling around a friend's HBO Go subscription and watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I always get asked if I want to watch, but truth be told, I really do despise the show. Maybe I'm just salty that I don't get invited anymore.

"Why? I thought it'd be right up your alley?!"

I hate the British accent. That's my only reason for not watching the show (that, and I also dislike medieval costumes).

Let me back up a few years.

During my freshman year at Georgetown, there was a guy (let's call him Hugh) in one of my international relations classes. He had made a name for himself for his deeply insightful commentary. It was as if his every word dragged against a charm-soaked silk on its way out of his mouth, producing this Oxford-cultivated je ne sais quoi.

Every time Hugh spoke, you could feel everyone kind of perk up from their hangovers and pay attention. I definitely fell for it.

One day, though, I wondered how I would respond to Hugh's words if he had a different accent. So I started transcribing his words, going to the library later in the evening, and then quietly reading them out in different accents (sorry, I'm pretty weird).

It turned out that there was very little substance to what he was saying. The "insights" we had thought he had been bestowing upon us were largely a stream of multisyllabic smart-sounding jargon -- "neoliberal thought," "postcolonial constructivist narratives," "tectonic shifts in global political theatre," etc.

Much of what he was saying could have be distilled to "People are angry at the British Empire and don't know what to do with themselves."

The Milgram Experiment

Years later, in a psychology lecture I occasionally showed up for, the professor mentioned an experiment that enlightened me on what had happened in the Case of Hugh the Bullshitter. In situations of uncertainty or moral confusion, we tend to seek out and abidingly listen to what appear to be authority figures.

Back in 1961, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a role-playing experiment in which "teachers" were told to administer electric shocks of increasingly high voltage to "learners" who didn't answer a question correctly. Unbeknownst to the teachers, all the shocks were fake, and the learners were all actors pretending to get shocked.

At some point, these "shocks" approach an absurdly high voltage, and the actors started screaming in anguish. Many of the teachers, unsure of what to do, shifted nervously in their seats and muttered some quiet words of criticism.

But the experiment runners told them to continue. "It is absolutely essential that you continue." "The experiment requires that you continue."

So at the behest of the experiment runners, an overwhelming percentage of the teachers continued administering these electric shocks. 65% of the teachers escalated the shocks up to the maximum voltage that the experiment allowed.

Obviously, there are many interpretations of what the Milgram Experiment observed. But one big thing it revealed was our natural inclination to listen to those who, through language and circumstance, behave like authority figures.

This is scary on many levels. But the scariest is that we unquestioningly and unwittingly defer to authority on a daily basis. In fact, many of us young ambitious types working in professional services end up mimicking and adopting the very behaviors of the people who have used language to bullshit us.

(I'm not saying to never listen to experts. But real experts typically don't cloak their work in impenetrable fluffery).

I've witnessed this in my 4 years since graduating from college. People who were at some point smart, thoughtful, and careful thinkers have in many ways degraded in the way they communicate, now monkeying the language of their bosses (for profit, social-climbing, and some pleasure). I can't say I haven't fallen victim to this myself.

Three Types of Bullshit

So let's examine what I think are the three forms of bullshit that we encounter every day (whether at work, or in school, or on TV).

  1. Notational
  2. Linguistic
  3. Ritualistic

Notational Bullshit

Mathematical notation plays an important role in building, explaining, and representing models. But the notation itself can easily become a form of unnecessary authority-signaling.

For example, that notation above looks pretty sweet and beautiful and intelligent, but it's really just expressing a very simple idea: "Given a list of ice cream flavors (A) and ice cream toppings (B), give me a list of all the different ways these flavors and toppings can be combined with each other."

It's succinct and elegant, but there's no reason to put too much value on the notation itself. Just because someone knows how to use linear algebra to notate combinations/permutations doesn't say much about his competence in being insightful about them.

We saw this in the startup world a couple years ago when people were going bananas about "viral coefficients". Notationally, this looked like this:

But really, all this is alluding to is "For every one invitation to my app I hand out, how many people actually sign up for my app?"

Fucking simple. You don't need notation to explain that. If your product is awesome, then 1 invitation will lead to the invitee signing up, then inviting all of his friends, most of whom also sign up. If your product sucks, then your one invitation will lead to 0 sign-ups.

But getting obsessed with the mathematical notation game is a common ploy among nerds like me who derive their self-worth from sounding smart. And it makes outsiders think our tinkering/experimenting is really some intense Hadron Collider-caliber theoretical physics-based shit that requires a lot of technical knowledge. Which it doesn't.

Linguistic Bullshit

Linguistic bullshit is what I call jargon that isn't fulfilling its purpose. Jargon is a domain-specific language used by a group of people to more precisely refer to a shared set of concepts. So when a lawyer says "due process" or "fact pattern," they are referring to an abstraction very specific to their field. When a banker says "LBO", it's a more concise way of saying "these guys bought the shit out of a down-and-out company with plans to change their top brass and flip them years later for a profit." In these two scenarios, the jargon is very helpful.

But here's an example where the jargon is designed to make a simple thing sound much more complex than it really is.

From Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson's talk at Stanford, Unlearn Your MBA:

"I have a funny example of how bad things can go when your brain has become all mushy with all this MBA bullshit.

This is Domino's CEO David Brandon talking a few weeks ago:

'The weakness in our value chain with the customer was really in our core product.'

...What?? What does that even mean? Well, I tried to translate that into human, and what I came up with was:

'Let's be honest, our pizza used to suck. I'm sorry. I swear the new ones will be better.'"

Linguistic bullshit, like notational bullshit, is often used to convey expertise (rather than to convey insight or truth). Be wary.

Ritualistic Bullshit

The third, most subtle form of bullshit is the bullshit of ritual: repeated behaviors that signal authority by telling observers that the person knows what he's doing.

Don't get me wrong, rituals are important. In basketball, the rituals that players use before shooting a free throw are crucial to the activation of muscle memory & mental clarity. Morning meditation or journaling or that weird thing you do before an important test/speech/what-have you -- these play the role of getting an individual into the mental space required to perform at a high level.

But contrast these earnest forms of ritual with the following absurdity Dan Lyons describes in his book DisruptedThe CEO of HubSpot brings a teddy bear to every staff meeting, giving it an equal seat at the table, supposedly as a stand-in for HubSpot's customers:

"Here are grown men and women, who I presume are fully sentient adult human beings, and they are sitting in meetings, talking to a teddy bear. And I am working with these people. No: Worse! I am working for them. At Newsweek I worked for Jon Meacham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson. Here I work for a guy who brings a teddy bear to work and considers it a management innovation."

When a ritual, just like notation or jargon, exists theatrically rather than functionally, then we know there's a problem. 

The Effect of Permitting Bullshit

During a brief stint working with a PR firm in NYC and a year-plus with a media startup, I've learned that the cream rarely rises to the top. The cream is largely manufactured.

The people running sexy companies, getting frequent mentions in influential publications, and shepherding large Twitter followings -- many of them got to that position by strategically using some mix of notational/linguistic/ritualistic bullshit to convince people that they know what they are doing. They were able to sell themselves as authorities.

And because the real authorities were too busy checking their own work to properly sculpt their "brand", these pseudo-authorities now drive mainstream thinking on most things.

However, not all prominent thinkers and doers are bullshitters. It's our job as consumers to learn how to tell the difference.