Protecting yourself against bullshit

Here’s a very useful book for those who often get into debates with people who attempt to diss science. Its called Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. The author is philosopher Stephen Law.

It’s quite a short book – it’s purpose is to help the reader identify arguments and techniques used by the irrational to defend their beliefs. In short, the bullshit that can often suck people into the “intellectual black holes” of irrational belief.

The author aims to unpack and explain some strategies used by people who are “powerfully committed to some ludicrous system of belief.” Strategies used to construct “an impregnable fortress . . . . around even a ridiculous set of beliefs, rendering them immune to rational criticism and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.”

Law concentrates on eight strategies and povides his own name for these in the following chapters:

  1. Playing the Mystery Card
  2. “But It Fits!” and The Blunderbuss
  3. Going Nuclear
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts
  5. “I Just Know!”
  6. Pseudoprofundity
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes
  8. Pressing Your Button

I am half way through reading the book and recommend it. His discussion of the “scientism” ploy and analysis of the bullshit used to attack Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion were spot on. I also liked his Chapter 3 on Going Nuclear – he has an early version on his blog – see Going Nuclear. A version of Chapter 6: Pseudoprofundity is also on the blog.

Anyone with a passing interest in internet discussion will immediately recognise these strategies. They are generally a sign of weakness, but are often  used to bamboozle discussion partners.  This book will help people to understand what is going on and how to handle such bullshit.

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12 responses to “Protecting yourself against bullshit

  1. Just had a look on Amazon’s preview and immediately I don’t like it. Anyone who unreflectively talks about “the Scientific Method” in capital letters is bullshitting himself.


  2. John – that is strange. I have just searched through my copy (an advantage of eBooks) and the only place he uses capitals (Scientific Method) is in a heading. Your complaint must refer to a reviewer, not the author.

    However, in a formal review I would have mentioned a fault of the book is it’s naive presentation of the nature of science and origins of modern scientific method. He presents science as originating 400 years ago – a claim that always gets up my nose. And he appears to attribute the scientific method to Bacon.

    However, the book is really not about that but about the techniques theologians and other opponents of science attempt to pull the wool by using these bullshitting techniques.

    That’s where I see it’s value. And such an analysis us very necessary.


  3. Whatever the merits of the book, I think I have a new favourite word: Pseudoprofundity 🙂

    Temporarily. A new favourite will be along sooner or later… 😉


  4. Richard Christie

    He presents science as originating 400 years ago – a claim that always gets up my nose.

    Are you sure that he doesn’t just argue that the modern scientific method gained ascendency 400 yrs ago?
    Not the same thing as “science” in broadest sense.


  5. Richard – this is the description that grated with me: “‘Science,’ as the term is most commonly understood today, refers to a certain sort of activity, and/or body of knowledge produced by, the application of something called the scientific method – a human invention not much more that four hundred years old, the emergence of which owes much to thinkers such as philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626).”

    Far too simple.


  6. Yes Grant, pseudoprofundity is pretty good.

    I like “going nuclear”. It’s one the theologically and philosophically inclined use a bit and reminds me of MAD – mutually assured destruction.


  7. I have to confess it partly strikes me as I have a twit being disruptive on my blog. While this isn’t quite what the term refers to, he is currently trying, among other things, to present himself as some sort of sound expert by carefully worded statements conflating facts to imply he has skills, sincerity and objectivity that he doesn’t have.


  8. I meant the use of the definite article and the hypostasising of scientific method. There is no “the” scientific method, but only thousands of scientific methods. There is no single path of scientific inference, just thousands of inference techniques by scientists. Methodism of this kind is a cheap substitute for thinking.


  9. John – do you have a preceding issue with Stephen?

    I ask because despite the truth of what you say it is quite common to talk of scientific method, even “the” scientific method. I wouldn’t pull him up for that. (Although I have often argued against algorithmic methods. I prefer Neil deGrass Tyson’s description of scientific method as doing everything possible to avoid being fooled by reality).

    Especially as Law is critiquing methods which are not part of any valid scientific mettod, quite the contrary.

    His book is not a treatise of scientific epistemology. I agree his brief presentation of the origins of science and scientific method are inadequate. But, bloody hell, lets not throw away the baby with that little bit of bath water.

    All sorts of bullshitting is used to attempt to undermine and discredit scientific knowledge. It is rife. Law’s book has value because he identifies and anlayses these bullshitting methods. Your critcismin this case really is a diversion from the real issue.


  10. WHOA, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa. Anyone who gets ont he Dawkins bandwagon is already entering an intellectual blackhole and setting himself up for unthinking arrogance (Dawkins likes to preempt the accusation of arrogance by calling others arrogant — offense is the best defense). Dawkins is hardly philosophically erudite. You read his material, and it’s juvenile. But I digress. Just keep in mind that you risk looking like an intellectual fool the next time you’re quoting Dawkins or leaning on him for support when making philosophical claims. Better yet, don’t. It as bad as using Dan Brown’s book as reference material.

    The scientific method, btw, is as Ken puts it, not an algorithm. We must remember a method is not an algorithm that gives an answer we believe no matter what. There are indeed numerous methods used in science, but the general scientific method, when it is stated as such (something that cannot be applied) is rather a description, in the most general and abstract sense, of all scientific methods. Obviously, psychology employs a different approach to physics, but nontheless enjoys (whenever it isn’t quackery which it often is) a common thread which runs through the gamut of the modern sciences. This is where I find a real problem in education. It tries to give people recipies that can be followed blindly to produce a result. The problem is, where did the recipe come from, and why shouldn’t I be able to produce a recipe myself? If the reason is that only a few men possess the ability while the others must simply trust and believe, then we have a gnostic kind of authoritarianism hanging in the balance, and this is thoroughly bred into the culture (just look at Hollywood and politics).

    The most general and overarching method of the intellect might be called reason. The question is whether the scientific method is identical to reason, to which I submit it is not. Philosophy is the use of reason without the operative assumptions that restrict empirical science to a certain domain of reality.


  11. Whoa yourself Rob. Where the hell are you coming from?

    I get the message you have a problem with Richard Dawkins but why bring that up here?

    I usually find such knee jerk reactions to a simple name reveal an unhealthy obsession. In my view it discredits the owners of those knees.


  12. WHOA, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa.

    Oddball way to start a comment.

    Dawkins is hardly philosophically erudite.

    Your opinion is worth it’s weight in gold.

    The problem is, where did the recipe come from, and why shouldn’t I be able to produce a recipe myself?

    Hm, that’s certainly a stumper. Good luck with that.

    This is where I find a real problem in education.

    Thank you for sharing.


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