Briefly: An Example Of Why We Need An Ethical Language of Bullshit

May 12, 2008 at 12:08 pm (Bad Science)

In September last year, blogger Nicholas Marsh posted an article discussing the need for a Language of Bullshit and I was reminded of this at the weekend when reading a comment from a poster on the Hpathy forum. In response to a statement to the effect that “homeopathy is an elaborate placebo and its practitioners are either fooling themselves or fooling their customers”, the poster wrote:

but I just wonder why do you not want to leave these deluded fools alone? Why all this fuss of “exposing” them? Do you feel somehow threatened by them? But it’s just plain sugar pills, what’s in all this to you? It’s mean to make fun of deranged, where are your morals?

The reply to this point was as follows:

I absolutely agree that it is wrong to make fun of people who are deranged and it was not my intention to do so. I said that practitioners were either fooling themselves or their clients – I didn’t claim anyone was deranged, nor did I intend to imply that because someone fools themself into thinking homeopathy works that they must be deranged. As Richard Feynman said, when speaking of scientific integrity: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. And we do fool ourselves quite often. There’s an article in the New Scientist titled “Fooling yourself is an ancient and useful trait” here (unfortunately, it is behind a paywall). It refers to cognitive dissonance. There’s also some interesting stuff [out there] on people’s tendency to see patterns in random sequences. This is all about how we fool ourselves – all of us. It doesn’t necessarily make us deluded or deranged.

I always thought Nicholas Marsh’s piece A Language of Bullshit was interesting. Not just interesting, but important too. Here are a couple of brief quotes from Nicholas’s piece:

The problem is that when people resolutely deny the relevance of evidence or logic, or insist that what ever theory they believe in has replaced all we know about physics, chemistry, biology etc. we will ultimately be left with a choice between relativism, or criticising their integrity or mental faculties.

We can try to limit criticism to ideas and not the person. Most academics are used to rarefied discussions, but even their discussions (especially in the blogosphere) can get very personal and abusive. More importantly, the identities of the practitioners and ardent believers of the extraordinary are often tied strongly to their beliefs – in the same way that many people’s identities are closely linked to their jobs. If someone criticises the ideas behind their belief, they are going to take it personally. Moreover, one can’t really separate the idea from the person. It was the person that created and nurtured the belief. If we say that their cherished idea is based on gobbledygook and shoddy research, we are directly criticising their competence.

To read the whole piece, click here: Extraordinary Claims.


1 Comment

  1. Jerry said,

    I’m not sure you really need an ethical language of bullshit – what’s so wrong with calling a nut a nut?

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