A Beginner’s Guide to Calling BS

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Photo: Bruce Laurance/Getty Images

Every day lately seems to bring an onslaught of fresh bullshit: fake news is outpacing the fact-checker, dubious claims abound in advertisements and political speeches, dating profiles turn out to be more aspirational than accurate, luxury music festivals end in disaster, Instagram bros fake their bench presses — it never ends.

It can be hard to know what to do in the face of this onslaught, when truth seems to have lost all currency, and you can no longer distinguish fact from fiction. It’s easy to slip into confused, exhausted apathy, overwhelmed by the task of sorting it all out.

But two college professors are fighting back. Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist, and Jevin West, an information scientist, this spring taught a course at the University of Washington titled “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data” — a seminar on how to detect and refute bullshit in academic papers and on the news.

Inspired by their example, Science of Us talked to a number of experts and compiled this advice about how to spot bullshit, how to avoid falling victim to it, and how to call it out online and in person:

(1) Look who’s talking: Watch out for car salesmen. And rich people.

When confronted with a new piece of information — a news story, an advertisement, any kind of claim — look first at the person it’s coming from. Ask yourself, does this person stand to gain if I believe him? The classic example, said West, is the car salesman, whose words you should parse very carefully, since he’s trying to convince you to hand over a large sum of money. It can also be useful to consider this advice from the opposite angle: Look for people who are making statements they might suffer for — they’re more likely to be telling the truth. It’s more compelling, for example, when a Republican congressman challenges a statement by President Trump, since he has more to lose by standing up than a Democrat does.

Also, look for a corroborating source. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era, said he read two months ago on Twitter that Trump would be impeached within 24 hours, which seemed plausible, until he noticed he didn’t see the same story in the Washington Post or the BBC or CNN. “I don’t mean to imply that those sources are unbiased or never wrong,” he said. “It’s just a game of probabilities.” If you’re only hearing it in one place, it’s probably bullshit.

When it comes to other forms of bullshit, like social pretension or inauthenticity, watch out for wealthy people as a source. Judith Donath, an academic who studies how people deceive each other online and elsewhere, said the rich often have easy access to social signifiers that others have to earn the hard way. A starving fashion student, for example, might spend hours making her own dresses or scouring used clothing stores for vintage outfits, to craft a signature look that demonstrates her mastery of current design trends. But a wealthy person can make it look like they have they same cutting-edge taste and style, just by hiring a personal shopper.

(2) Connect the dots and check the wording.

“When something sounds too good or too bad to be true, it probably is,” West said. Bergstrom said he was sent a map online that purportedly marked all terrorist attacks in Europe with dots, accompanied by a claim that immigration and terror are connected. The map showed that Poland, which has strict immigration laws, had no dots, unlike all of its neighbors. Closer examination found it was total bullshit, Bergstrom said. The dots on the map did not correspond to actual terror attack sites or, apparently, anything else. The claim sounded too one-sided to be true, and it was.

“If the words sound a little too carefully chosen, it might be that the person is trying to hide something,” said Levitin. If a toothpaste claims to be “recommended” by four out of five dentists, consider why it doesn’t say “preferred.” About a decade ago, Colgate got into trouble for just this reason, when it failed to disclose that four out of five dentists recommend Colgate along with other toothpastes, not over them.

Claims that involve averages can be particularly misleading, Levitin said. For example, if you’re told the average height in a room full of people is five-foot-eight, you might picture a typical group of adults. But the statement could just as accurately describe a team of NBA players visiting a class of second-graders, Levitin said. This kind of bullshit gets passed around a lot when it comes to climate-change discussions, he said. It might not seem alarming if the average temperature is projected to rises only one degree, but that statement could be hiding a disastrous prediction that summers will be 12 degrees hotter and winters 10 degrees colder.

(3) Get out your shovel and dig to the truth.

Detecting bullshit often requires probing below the surface, by going back to original sources. Bergstrom said he looked into a tweet that made the shocking claim that college applications from international students were down 40 percent after Trump’s election. First, he read the article the tweet was based on, which actually said that such applications were down at 40 percent of schools, not by 40 percent. Then, Bergstrom looked at the scholarly paper the article cited and found that, while applications were down at 39 percent of schools, they were also up at 35 percent of schools. A little digging behind an inflammatory statistic revealed an innocuous data point.

If you’re dealing with online bullshit, the truth is often just a Google away, but you can also do some in-person digging when it comes to IRL bullshit. On a date or in a job interview, for example, some simple follow-up questions can often pop a balloon of hot air, Levitin said. If someone claims to be a rare-book collector, for instance, but can’t remember their most recent acquisition or name their most valuable volume, they might be bullshitting.

Maria Hartwig, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies lie detection, said interrogators often use the concept of “cognitive load” to detect bullshitters. The idea is that it takes more mental resources to maintain a web of lies than to simply tell the truth. So if you give someone an extra task while they’re talking — increasing their cognitive load — a liar will be tripped up before a truth-teller. You might ask someone to tell their story backward, for example. “It’ll be hard either way, but it will be harder if they’re lying,” Hartwig said. Or, you could ask someone to maintain eye contact with you while they talk, just adding a little extra distraction. That could be fun to try if you feel like your Tinder date may be exaggerating his role in foiling a bank heist, or some other bullshit.

(4) Look in the mirror: Bullshit comes from within.

Stopping bullshit starts at home: Be acutely aware of confirmation bias — the tendency to seek out and believe claims you already agree with. This is more important than ever in a world where fake news thrives on shares and retweets, said Bergstrom. “We’re all now in the position of broadcasters and re-broadcasters, and if you’re not calling bullshit on yourself, you’re building this echo chamber of fake facts.”

Gordon Pennycook, a Yale postdoctoral fellow in psychology, said calling bullshit on yourself can be the hardest of all. He’s the author of what he believes to be the only psychological investigation of bullshit, an award-winning paper on what kind of people are suckered by “pseudo-profound bullshit” — meaningless phrases that sound deep, like “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.” Pennycook said he found, not surprisingly, that intelligent people are less likely to think these phrases are actually meaningful, because they’re more likely to be skeptical.

But simply telling people to be more skeptical doesn’t cut the bullshit, Pennycook said. “Usually when you tell people to be skeptical, they’re extra skeptical of the things they’re already skeptical of,” he said. The things you really need to think extra carefully about are the things that you find yourself agreeing with, he said.

This extends also to your close relationships, said Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist who studies deceit. She said a graduate student of hers did a study with romantic couples to see if they could tell if the other was lying or telling the truth, and people in couples did worse than strangers. “If you’re in a relationship, even a friendship, you’re invested in seeing them a certain way,” DePaulo said. “That investment is going to potentially undermine your ability to know when they are really lying.”

(5) A little bit can be a good thing.

One of the most useful definitions of bullshit comes from philosopher Harry Frankfurt, as presented in his seminal work On Bullshit. Frankfurt draws a distinction between the liar, who knows that he is concealing the truth, and the bullshitter, who doesn’t care what’s true or false, but is looking only to manipulate you. When considering bullshit and how to respond, however, Bergstrom pointed to a possibly more important distinction: Is it harmful? If it’s not, don’t waste your time on it.

Some bullshit has a purely social value: It’s submitted not for its informational value, but for what it conveys about the speaker. Bergstrom offered an example: If I tell you about a killer double-black-diamond backcountry ski run I found after hiking for 19 hours on a gnarly glacier on Mt. Olympus, he said, “I’m not telling you about the ski run. I’m telling you I’m a badass.”

You might find this kind of braggadocio bullshit entertaining or annoying, but it’s probably not destructive. In fact, a lot of bullshit helps us get along with others. Donath pointed out that children are taught from a young age “not to tell the truth of what’s going on in their mind: Don’t stare at the person with the eyepatch. Say thank you for the gift even though you didn’t like it.”

This kind of bullshit lubricates the gears of society; it’s not the bullshit we need to fight. “If I come into the office and Jevin says, ‘Nice hair cut,’ he probably thinks I look like the shaved ass of a dog,” Bergstrom said. “But that’s the kind of thing that keeps relationships going.”

(6) Calling bullshit is tricky: Be prepared and be nice.

If, however, you do find some malignant, dangerous bullshit, you also need to think carefully about what to do about it. Consider the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, also known as Brandolini’s law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” This may also bring to mind the famous maxim, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” In other words, if you set out to prove that something is false, you’ve got a steep mountain of bullshit to climb.

First, Bergstrom and West said, make sure you’ve got your facts in order. Hartwig and DePaulo both stressed that it is often harder than we think to know whether someone is lying. People think liars betray themselves through stuttering or blinking or sweating; but that’s nonsense. DePaulo said studies found that people who claimed to be able to decipher those tells did little better than random when it came to picking out liars.

When calling bullshit, Bergstrom and West said, be charitable: Never assume someone is being malicious when they might simply be stupid, and don’t assume stupidity when someone might simply be mistaken.

It’s often challenging to tackle bullshit head on, because, as Donath points out, “The more often a lie is repeated, even in the context of debunking it, the more believable it becomes.” Repeating a false statement in order to refute it makes the falsehood more familiar, more ingrained in popular consciousness, a phenomenon called the illusory truth effect. It’s better to emphasize and repeat the truth, Donath said.

If calling bullshit in person, Levitin suggested simply asking for more information, with a smile. If, for instance, someone in the office break-room levels a wild claim about current events, just say, “Oh, I never heard that before. Where did you read that?” Tell them you’d like to read up on it, to learn more, Levitin said. “If you’re not threatening the person in front of you with losing face, you’ll often find the person will say, ‘I guess I don’t really know if it’s true.’”

Sometimes calling bullshit means getting at the underlying values driving the bullshitter. “A piece of it is really trying to understand what’s their investment in believing this story and trying to work around those issues,” Donath said. “Why do they think this is a good thing? What are their worries?”

(7) Bullshit can seem overwhelming, but don’t despair, the world still turns.

In the face of an avalanche of bullshit, when no one seems to be able to agree on a common set of facts anymore, it can be easy to slip into a kind of nihilism, Bergstrom said. “How do you keep people feeling that it’s worth participating in science or democracy, or whatever it is?”

Jevin said he and Bergstrom are always careful to begin and end their lectures by saying that despite all the bullshit, science still works pretty well. Science has given us smartphones and rockets and vaccines and revealed what happened a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, Bergstrom said.

The same is true of other areas of life, they said. People may bullshit at work or in dating but we all still have at least a few good, honest, treasured friendships. And political figures may be bullshitters, but the government still functions, for the most part. Levitin said he takes heart from reading court decisions on Trump’s travel ban, in which the phrase that jumps out at him is variations on the phrase “there’s no evidence” to back up the administration’s claims. The courts are calling bullshit on the president. “The system is working,” Levitin said.

A Beginner’s Guide to Calling BS