Bullshit has always bothered me. Not the literal kind, but rather the kind the dribbles out of the mouths of the uninformed, the liars and the willfully ignorant. What I am talking about here is the kind of bullshit that surrounds topics for which we have a wealth of evidence and is commonly employed as a weapon by agencies with an agenda to push. Conspiracy theories, snake-oil products and ‘scary’ science such as stem cell research are all areas surrounded by layers of bullshit.
For the sake of this article and not offending anyone overtly, I call it bullshit instead of some other choice phrases which might be a bit harsh on delicate sensibilities. Others might call it a ‘difference of opinion’ or ‘an alternate view of the facts’ if they want to be nice. I define bullshit as a statement or opinion that is entirely and provably untrue and designed as an attempt to mislead and distract from the truth. This can be intentional (as in the case of someone lying for personal or financial gain) or unintentional. I want to use the immunization debate as an example here because it’s a subject which fires me up and the bullshit surrounding it is very dangerous.
Recently my local paper ran an article on how the percentage of immunization in some of the wealthiest suburbs in my city had fallen from the high 90’s to the mid 80’s. No explanation was given, but the author heavily inferred that it was because of pseudo-scientific scare mongering and lingering fear over children becoming autistic or being harmed after being immunized. In other words; bullshit. The truth is that immunization is widely studied by scientists from every corner of the globe. If there’s a conspiracy, it would not be isolated to the US, but would be perpetrated by the collective scientific community throughout the world.
How Immunization Alleviates Suffering And Bullshit Increases It
Immunization research and has improved quality of life for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Even if 1 in 100,000 cases of immunization resulted in autism in a child – it doesn’t-, it still wouldn’t deny the fact that immunization is one of the main contributing factors to human life spans extending into the 70’s and 80’s, and a continual fall in infant mortality rates throughout the world where vaccines are available.
Immunization has lead directly to diseases such as polio, measles, mumps and rubella being virtually eradicated. Smallpox, a deadly disease which killed of millions of people, is effectively extinct due to immunization. Failing to immunize a child not only puts that child in danger but also gives diseases a foothold, putting more and more people at risk of infection. So you’re not only harming your own child by refusing to have them immunized, you’re harming other people and their children too. Your bullshit is dangerous to the very children you’re trying to protect.
Of course it’s quite easy to find information on immunization and its benefits, so why do people still believe this crap? Looking back on my previous article on scientific illiteracy, it’s easy to see how many people could be fooled into believing the bullshit. At one point it wasn’t hard to find a headline that screamed about the evils of immunization, especially in tabloids and shock-jock publications mostly out to get ratings. Some of these might even present evidence to back up their case and for someone who is susceptible to bullshit this presents a problem; they will take the evidence at face value.
Bullshit And Freedom Of Speech – Not All Opinions Were Created Equal
In the most of the Western world, free speech is upheld as one of humanities great and unalienable rights. To speak your mind and give your opinion on any subject is a freedom which many don’t get and in certain countries it is often punishable by incarceration or death. It’s something for which we should be entirely grateful and something we should protect to the death. However, one of the by-products of freedom of speech is bullshit.
If anyone can say anything they like on any topic, then that’s what’s going to happen. It can result in some pretty outrageous and upsetting claims ranging from the purely benign to the downright dangerous. Not everyone has an equally valid opinion. A politician, or everyday Joe’s opinion on whether or not climate change is induced by man is not as valid as a climatologist who has expertise in this precise field. You wouldn’t want a car mechanic doing neurosurgery anymore than you would want a salesman flying your commercial aircraft. The same goes for the quality of opinion regarding a complicated topic – expertise matters.
Does this mean that freedom of speech is a bad thing? No, it doesn’t. I don’t need to go on about it here but I will say that I may not agree with your views on abortion or inequality, I may even actively fight against them, but I will defend your right to have your opinion vehemently and with passion even if your opinion is bullshit. Bullshit is just an unfortunate by-product, much like farts are an unfortunate by-product of eating MacDonald’s.
The Recognition Of All That Is Bullshit
It can be seriously hard to recognize when someone is bullshitting you, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The person may present evidence and facts to support their case and which on the surface seem likely to be legitimate. A cursory look at Acai Berries for example, which were presented as the biggest and best ‘super-food’ on the planet, shows us tons of evidence for their benefit from scientists and personal testimonies. It has to be true because scientists are saying it!
If we look back to when the scare campaign on immunization started, there were reports from scientists and members of the public showing without doubt that immunization was dangerous and caused autism in children. A common theme that runs through bullshit is that it will always try and lasso science into supporting its claims and when it cannot do that, it relies on personal testimony and anecdotal evidence to support it.
Unfortunately there is no solid way to detect bullshit other than using your natural skepticism to check all the facts before you make up your mind. Never take anything at face value, even if it’s said by a reputable scientist or politician who you’ve been able to trust hundreds of times in the past.
Hell, don’t trust me in this article! Go and research for yourself and then decide if I am bullshitting you or not. In the cases above both hoaxes and outright fraud played a big part in pushing this bullshit to the masses and unfortunately continue to fool people today. If something seems too good to be true then it probably is, so check it out from multiple trustworthy sources before jumping on the bandwagon.
Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? No! It’s Bullshit Man!
If you’re a fan of the English comedian Ricky Gervias, you probably know who Karl Pilkington is by now. He’s a ‘dopey little twat with a head like a fucking orange’ as described by his loving partner in crime, Ricky.
The Ricky Gervias show was a series of Podcasts that started in 2001 and ran for a number of seasons and some great (and hilarious) debates were had between the three hosts on topics as far ranging as natural history and art.
Karl usually talked a lot of bullshit about things he didn’t understand and Ricky and the other host (comedian and intellectual, Stephen Merchant) called him on it and tried to expand his knowledge all in a good natured way.
On an episode of An Idiot Abroad (Ricky and Karl’s TV show which grew out of an idea in one of the podcasts) one great meme emerged from Karl’s detritus of opinion and that was ‘Bullshit Man’. When Karl was asked what superpower he would like after seeing a man whose body acted like a literal magnet, he claimed that he’d like the power to detect bullshit where ever it was being dribbled and the ability to walk into the room and call ‘Bullshit’. Imagine that!
In Karl’s humble views this power would seemingly be used for small bullshit. Parked your car crookedly? Bullshit! The next bus will be on time? Bullshit! Crapping on in a meeting? Bullshit! But I think that we should co-opt this superhero that Gotham needs for a greater purpose:
“9/11 was all a giant conspir…”
“Immunization is dangerous for childr…”
“Evolution isn’t a fact it’s a theo…”
So the next time that someone is bullshitting on about how Acai Berries cure diabetes, immunization causes autism,or how Conspiracy Theory A is so true if only we’d just listen and ‘wake up’ and stop being one of the ‘sheeple‘, do your research, don your cape, stand your ground and call loudly and proudly, “BULLSHIT!”
And now, take a moment to appreciate a past comedic legend, and perhaps a real world example of one that in life possessed the power to call ‘BULLSHIT!’ I give you George Carlin.