Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bullshit Busting For Fun and Profit

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 33
Loren Collins, Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
—Richard Feynman

This book is based on the simple premise that bullshit vendors behave in comprehensible patterns. Identifying the techniques they use empowers citizens to think critically about powerful ideas, an important skill in a technological era when cranks have unprecedented reach. Irrational beliefs have achieved sweeping penetration in contemporary America, Atlanta-area attorney Loren Collins insists. Only informed reasoning stands between us and blathering anarchy.

Today’s Internet is filthy with people claiming NASA never touched the Moon, that tested vaccines with clinical histories cause autism, or that there’s a missing Amendment to the Constitution. These opinions have no scientific, historical, or legal precedent, yet spokespeople retain their soapboxes. And because schools shy from controversial topics, Americans hit adulthood unable to rebut faulty reasoning. Thus, good, smart people believe moonshine because it feels plausible.

In a brief biographical vignette, Collins describes growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the shrine of Confederate apologetics. In college, he purposed to write an essay justifying why the Confederacy wasn’t founded on racism. But when he commenced his research, he discovered everything he’d believed was wrong. From this he learned a seemingly obvious, but frequently forgotten, axiom: that which really exists doesn’t depend on our acknowledgement for its legitimacy.

Buncombe merchants rely on different principles. Rather that disclosing evidence that withstands scrutiny, they muster innuendo, spotty reasoning, and half-remembered facts to construct self-contained narratives. Many four-flushers claim to “poke holes” in accepted theories, like evolution or Constitutional law, apparently believing that sowing ambiguity about their opponents lends them validity. They don’t have to win; they just need to create illusions of doubt.

Collins, who moonlights as a journalist covering foggery artists, exhaustively documents techniques he’s personally encountered among people who’ll believe anything but facts. These include, but aren’t limited to, rumor mongering, quote mining, and plain old denialism. Some self-made experts focus on trivial details, like would-be legal scholars who note the Constitution’s irregular capitalization in claiming the Fourteenth Amendment literally creates two classes of citizens.

Many of Collins’ targets habitually claim they’re “just asking questions.” This gives them sweeping plausible deniability: we’re not really denying science when we advocate young-earth creationism. We don’t really claim global warming is a Marxist hoax. We don’t really mean Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. We’ll just keep debates open indefinitely, despite robust evidence, despite our lack of coherence, and despite legitimate expert consensus, because we’re just asking questions.

Perhaps the obfuscator’s most valuable tool is ever-shifting expectations. Scientists, historians, and legal scholars can never present enough evidence to sway deniers’ opinions. When Barack Obama finally disclosed his birth certificate, Jerome Corsi and his ilk simply declared it a forgery and persisted attacking. But their arguments, often presented as narratives rather than evidence, remain bulletproof. Unless you can disprove their every isolated point, they consider their belief network proved.

Importantly, bullshittery doesn’t necessarily imply lying. Though Collins dedicates a whole chapter to deliberate hoaxers, many conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, and others truly believe the tommyrot they sell. They’re victims of “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek evidence which ratifies existing beliefs, and hold tenaciously to disproved conclusions. Rather than convert every bunko believer, we must focus on inoculating the larger population against half-baked thinking.

Bullspotting techniques aren’t ideologically neutral, though they aren’t partisan, either. Collins concedes that political conservatives seem more vulnerable to pseudo-thought than liberals. But Collins, a self-described conservative libertarian, doesn’t just mock the right. He considers this trend a liability, since every moment spent parsing Sovereign Citizen legal gibberish or Birther paranoia is time not spent constructing legitimate, airtight alternatives to Obama-era social dogma.

The hogwash artists Collins exposes would deny this, but they’re ultimately all about power. If they truly understand, as you don’t, who really wrote Shakespeare, or who really killed JFK, or how UFOs really work, or whatever, that makes them more astute than you. It makes them more wise, more worldly, more deserving of authority, than whoever currently holds power. With real debates circulating globally, fake debates undermine legitimate authority.

Collins believes the techniques necessary for recognizing faulty argument are more important than ever. These skills can be taught, and we can learn them, but too few do, because schools and other authority structures have become pathologically conflict-averse. Thus, responsible citizens have a duty to educate ourselves. Crap vendors now imperil America’s democratic foundations, and free citizens need to make a bold stand in favor of reality.

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