bullshit · Information

How to Spot Bullshit

Note that I don’t call it lying.  I view there being a spectrum between fact and lies.  People know what facts are.  People know what lies are.

Courtesy istockphoto

People also know there is a grey area between fact and falsehood. Between truth and lie.  Between honesty and perjury.  In this post I hope to explain the differences in relation to what is seen every day. Please note that this post is not intended an instruction manual for what to avoid being caught when bullshitting or how to toe the line between falsity and hyperbole.

Bullshitters Paint Opinions as Fact

Objective reality is different from subjective belief.  Facts are by definition quantifiable and verifiable.  For example, a fact could be, “The temperature outside is 80 degrees.” One can actually check out a thermometer and verify it.  “It’s hot outside” is an opinion because someone else will feel that it is warm or even cool outside.

We see this frequently in matters of politics – where people state an opinion as a matter of fact.  One way to make sure that one clarifies is to merely put “I think” or “I feel” in front of a statement.  There is a huge difference in the effects of the statement “curling is boring” and “I think curling is boring.”

Bullshitters Go Into Their State of Mind

There are many ways that people lie about facts, but one of the first things they do it to go into their states of mind.  An example of this: If a person is asked about something that happened at some location instead of saying, “I was not there” the bullshitter says, “I know I was not there.”  Or, instead of the statement “I don’t remember” or “I did not go to that party” the answer is “I do not believe that I was at that party.”

The bullshitter will address his or her state of mind, as if to convince himself or herself that what happened did not happen.  The person is not giving a version of events but rather giving a play-by-play of the thought process.  Example: Joe Biden released a statement that said “not once – never – did I believe I acted inappropriately.”

While this was a nice statement, the issue isn’t whether Biden believed he was creeping people out or intended to be creepy.  The problem is that other people thought he was behaving inappropriately and this is nothing new.  I have personally known people who behave in much the same way as Biden and I’ve always seen it as an example of obliviousness.  Biden’s better option would be to own how it looks.

Bullshitters Go Into Others’ States of Mind and Motivations

Another thing bullshitters do frequently is to attack the state-of-mind of other people.  For example, rather than discuss a person’s own feelings or facts, the bullshitter will move into character accusations.  “Joe is only saying that because he hates the environment.” Or, “Of course. She’s a commie and bases every idea on how much misery can be caused to others.”

The purpose of this is to remove focus from what is being discussed and impugn motivations. If a person does not want to provide an answer to a question that he/she knows will harm the position, that person will attack the other side’s motivations and character instead of actions or words.

Bullshitters Make Statements in the Form of Questions

If anyone knows that answer it’s the one being questioned. A common thing is that questions are also asked in order to suggest an answer. This occurs consistently with politics, because the purpose of such a statement is to put an idea into a person’s mind regardless of the answer.

An example: “Why would Barr not want to release an unredacted version of Mueller’s report?”  Of course there are plenty of reasons not to release an unredacted version of Mueller’s report, not the least of which being that it’s illegal.  The bullshitter will ask a question he or she knows the answer to because the answer to the question would ruin the point.

Another thing a bullshitter will say is, “Why would I do that?”  When put on the defensive the person won’t confirm or deny the allegation but ask a question instead.  What this does is place the onus on the questioner.  There are some caveats to this.  For example, a person might respond to a question with, “Why would she say that?” This moves into a territory where a person who is innocent of the conduct may genuinely be baffled about the situation he or she is in.

Final caveat: the questioner may be asking for bullshit.  If anyone has watched the First 48, a common ploy for cops who don’t have a case will bluff by asking a person to guess.  Cops bullshit suspects all the time, and will often do so the following way: “Why would a person tell us that you were in the room when the money went missing?” Much of the time it never happened, but those police are looking for some form of admission. They want the person to come up with some story that matches what they know.

In spotting bullshit, it becomes the job of the viewer to then decide what to do with this. Sometimes it can be innocent and sometimes quite serious.  Either way, there is a leg up on resolving issues if you know what to look for.



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