The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit
John V. Petrocelli
Bullshit is everywhere. It affects our memories, beliefs, attitudes, and decision-making. However it is easy to notice it if we are on the lookout for it, we can recognize it, challenge it, and call it out. By combatting bullshit and its effects, we can work together to make the future a better place. “The Life-changing Science of Detecting Bullshit” by John V. Petrocelli offers a guide to its readers on how to avoid falling for the lies and false information.
People bullshit for three reasons
Generally, it is easy to just believe what the person in front of us is saying instead of assuming that they are making up the whole story. It is also very easy to base our opinions or decisions on information that we already have in our heads instead of looking and considering points of view of others as well. However, this is not the right thing to do.
There are three main reasons why we fall for bullshit:
- It matches completely with our points of view and opinions and memories and the already existing ideas that we have in our brains.
- We hear about things for the first time, and oops.. Our brains automatically believe it..
- We rely way too much on intuition.
Let’s assume that I am for example a huge fan of Tesla cars and a friend of mine comes and praises the car because of how amazing it looks even though it costs a fortune to get one and to maintain it as well, knowing that it is my favorite car, the benefits will outshine the fact that the car can cost a lot and how it is not really that practical. I automatically fall for it.
We are less prone to bullshit when we fail to accept that our intuition isn’t always right
One place to not end up in is the position where we let our guard down and allow ourselves to believe every little stupid thing we’re being told.
Generally, we have a much bigger chance of falling for someone’s bullshit when we don’t try to protect ourselves actively from it. The point is not to ditch meaningful relationships or fear and attack someone whenever we’re being told something new, but more like double-checking the facts. Let’s take a look at those who believed in the Ponzi scheme, they fell for it because they thought that they have finally found the cheat code that will turn them into multimillionaires, their gut feeling was telling them that they should put faith in it and go for it because they felt that it might be right. The story actually sounded good in theory, but the hidden aspects of the scheme are what left many broke.
The main point here is that you can’t let intuition run things for you. It CAN be right, and you should NEVER ignore it. Explore it! Intuition is never a bad thing when it’s combined with the willingness to double-check the facts and research everything to be prone to bullshit.
We produce more bullshit when we feel an obligation or expectation to contribute.
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt suggested that bullshit tends to occur when we are required to talk about something we’re not really familiar with, no matter how prepared we are on it. his research shows that we bullshit whenever people ask us our opinions.
What is more interesting is the fact that we are more likely to bullshit when we are having a conversation with someone that knows less than we do. In John’s research, 41 percent of participants used bullshit when talking to someone new to a subject; but only 29 percent bullshitted when talking to someone knowledgeable.
We’re less likely to bullshit when nobody asks for our opinion, If there’s no pressure to contribute to a certain situation, our brain doesn’t go around thinking about what to say to get out of the situation looking good.
It goes the same way around, and we can all see this in our daily lives. We live in a world where information and news are flooding from so many sources, so we’ve come to expect everyone to have an opinion on pretty much everything. But we can’t possibly know it all. So what do we do? We bullshit. John’s research shows that when we think we’ll be held accountable for what we say, bullshitting is reduced.
people who tend more to bullshit often try to get others on board with them. If they can convince someone else to agree with their view, they’ll feel more comfortable with their own bullshit to the point where they think their assumptions will turn into truths. that’s not the case with people who truly know what they’re talking about. They’ll usually avoid trying to convince anyone of their beliefs because they already know the truth. That is also a way of living or source of income for some people, if we take a look at some Kylie Jenner’s sponsored Instagram posts or tweet, we see that her endorsement alone is enough to make people buy whatever advertisers are paying her to promote, she does not need to provide proof or evidence that she knows what she’s talking about, and she gets paid over 1,000,000 US dollars for that.
Understanding the common tactics of bullshitters will make you a better bullshit detector
In 1989, Dr. Douglas Biklen introduced Facilitated Communication in the United States. The aim was to provide mute autistic patients with a tool to communicate with others and the idea was that they will use a typewriter and the assistance of a trained facilitator.
It was considered a major breakthrough until skeptics examined the approach more closely. Despite dozens of studies proving that this method does not really work, Dr. Douglas Biklen is still considered a hero, when presented with the research that disproved his claims, Biklen doubled down and said the findings were flawed. He completely disregarded scientific evidence. Biklen here used one of the most effective and famous methods of bullshitting, which is: Storytelling.
Good stories influence us greatly, so it’s no surprise that bullshitters often use storytelling. Stories like these can convince many of us of lots of things that simply are not true. This tactic is why many believe that alternative medical treatments work, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Bullshitters are known not only for exaggerating their own credibility but also for promoting their supporters and discrediting their opponents. Their decisions are often based on exactly zero evidence. Former president Donald Trump had described John Bolton as “fantastic” when he appointed him as national security advisor. Almost 18 months later, he accused Bolton of impeding his administration, called him a “military hawk,” and said his forthcoming book about life in the White House was “nasty and untrue.”
Let’s not forget that we humans are often influenced by people we like and trust. This can be very useful to a bullshitter. Lance Murphy, is a successful drug sales representative whom connects with clients on a personal level. He openly admits that “bullshit can do wonders for this. Once again here, it is not his medical knowledge that allows him to sell drugs and treatments but his ability to connect with people.
If we don’t ask the right questions, we are accepting bullshit.
Abraham Lincon once said: ”You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time ”
If he was right, then there must be plenty of people who aren’t fooled by bullshit, and that’s indeed what John believes in.
A car salesperson won’t tell you something that might put you off buying. But the buyer is also complicit in this bullshit by omission. Why? Because she fails to ask the right questions! If you do some research at home before engaging with a dealer, you’ll be in a much stronger position. And this goes even further: if you connect with several dealers and build a list of cars you potentially want to buy, you won’t have to blindly accept the seller’s terms. There is a chance to even push back the price. Don’t forget to not buy on emotional impulse. Instead, make sure your decision is based on facts and reason.
John has asked many experts why many people get “bullshitted”. Their responses lead to the same conclusion. We make better decisions when We have good information. So, failing to detect bullshit is usually about what we don’t do and don’t ask.
The internet has many sites that make bullshit detection easier. Although we must not forget to check the quality of the evidence provided. Most sites use documentation and statistics to support their conclusions. And when it comes to checking any scientific claims, going straight to the primary sources is the right way to go.
John V. Petrocelli. 2021. The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit. 1st Edition. St. Martin’s Press.