On Bullshit

I came across something called the “bullshit asymmetry principle” on Andrew Gelman’s blog. I don’t understand a lot of stuff there as he is a math whiz at Columbia (professor of statistics) and the discussions are rather advanced. But THIS topic I can wrap my brain around!

The bullshit asymmetry principle is also known as Bandolini’s law and goes like this:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude* bigger than to produce it.

I tend to believe this. The truth is often hard to find. And it is often boring. Or, at least, it contradicts your beliefs or your hopes. The truth occupies a smaller space than the rest of the the stuff out there. There are lots of ways to be wrong. There a few paths that lead to the truth.

And what is the path to the truth? Being wrong! The mistakes, false leads, and dead ends are the signposts that keep you on the path. In science people have to publish their work and let it be ripped apart by other scientists. It’s the essence of the process—you have to find out what’s wrong in order to make it better. But even science suffers from bullshit. People of all stripes are prone to vanity, self-promotion, and stubbornness. Those are good hooks to hang your bullshit hat on.

So how do you counter bullshit? It’s hard, because you have to play the skeptic and go on the offensive. No one likes a whiner, nit-picker, or cynic. Bullshitters know to get their stuff out first because any claim can be made plausible enough to accept conditionally. Most folks take things as true first, then think about them later. That puts the debunker at a disadvantage, time-wise, and then puts them in the position of having to attack, which alienates the bullshitter’s audience.

Perhaps the best weapon against bullshit is more bullshit. That is, if the bullshitter cares not about the truth, why should his or her critic? Fight bullshit with better bullshit! I suppose that’s ultimately self-defeating. The amount of truth in the world is small enough, adding more layers of bullshit won’t help.

If you make a claim, it seems to me, the burden ought to be on you to test the claim and provide some support for it. But it doesn’t work that way. Bullshitters make claims that seem valid, or claims that are stupid but sufficiently intriguing to keep folks interested, but don’t do the legwork. They don’t provide what a reasonable person might consider proof. They leave it to the contrarian to do all the grunt-level stuff. Bullshit just has to feel right, it doesn’t have to be subject to a test. It is a lot easier to mold the world to fit my world view than it is to change my world view when the world intrudes with ugly truths!




*An order of magnitude, in science, is a ten-fold difference. 500 is an order of magnitude larger than 50.