November 6

The Science of Detecting Bullshit

John Petrocelli is the author of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, a professor at Wake-Forest College, and director of the Bullshit Studies Lab (yes, that's the real name). In this interview, he explains the definition of bullshit, why we are so susceptible to it, and how we can detect it.

What is Bullshit?

Photographer: Evan Dennis | Source: Unsplash

There is no better word for this behavior, which is different from lying. It is not lying. It is often confused with lying, but bullshitting is not lying. The liar knows the truth and cares. And the liar does not believe what he says. The bullshiter, on the other hand, doesn't care about the truth. They pay no attention to it. In fact, sometimes what they say just happens to be true. But even they wouldn't know it because they pay no attention to truth, established knowledge, or real evidence. – John Petrocelli, The Unmistakable Creative

Social media is fertile ground for bullshit because people ignore established knowledge, make false claims, and completely disregard real evidence.

Fad diets are a perfect example of bullshit. Someone on a fad diet can build a huge audience, write a best-selling book, and convince everyone that this diet is the key to weight loss, better health, etc. However, in most cases, this is based on a sample size of one or anecdotal evidence.

On the other hand, someone like Darya Rose is a credible source because she has a Ph.D. in nutrition. And most likely, she would be the first to tell you that the "science" supporting fad diets is bullshit.

Personal Experience Leads to Inaccurate Perception

Photographer: Bradley Pisney | Source: Unsplash

Personal and even professional experience is the main drive of the conclusions people draw about the world, how things work, and the future. What we learn through personal experience is often random, unrepresentative, ambiguous, and totally incomplete given how many things can happen and the types of data that can actually be collected. – John Petrocelli, The Unmistakable Creative

I often tell my clients to consider the possibility that everything I tell them is bullshit. To them, it might be because all prescriptive advice is contextual. Brilliant advice in one context might be bullshit in another.

For example, I am writing an article about the benefits of waking up an hour earlier. But if you are a doctor or nurse who's worked a 13-hour night shift, everything in my article would be bullshit.

Whenever you give or follow prescriptive advice, it's important to put yourself in someone else's shoes instead of just considering personal experience. Personal experience is not an accurate representation of how the rest of the world works.

Anecdotal Evidence Makes us Susceptible to Bullshit

Photographer: Clay Banks | Source: Unsplash

"Most students are in the dark and will develop attitudes, opinions, and beliefs, but that doesn't mean they are based on real, ideal evidence, as opposed to explanations, which are often mistaken for evidence," says John Petrocelli.

The blessing and curse of the internet is that it gives everyone a microphone. If someone can build a large following, they can spin bullshit into truth.

  • A skilled propagandist can convince people that vaccines will kill them, the earth is flat, or that all Muslims are terrorists by backing up his claims with anecdotal evidence. Neglecting real evidence is a hallmark habit of bullshit artists.
  • Writers with large audiences can make claims that everyone should do something based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience.
  • Self-improvement gurus are notorious for backing up their claims with anecdotal evidence.

If you want to avoid being fooled by charlatans who make false promises and sell pipe dreams, look for real evidence that what they say is true.

Confirmation Bias Perpetuates Our Preference for Bullshit

detecting bullshit
Photographer: Joshua Sortino | Source: Unsplash

We pay attention to information that confirms our ideas about the world. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel like we are right. And anything that contradicts that, we completely ignore. – John Petrocelli, The Unmistakable Creative

If you only pay attention to information that confirms your existing beliefs, it leads to a myopic view of the world:

  • If you watch CNN or the Daily Show, it's easy to believe that all Trump supporters are racists, rednecks, and "deplorable."
  • If you watch Fox News, it's easy to convince yourself that immigrants are stealing jobs and all leftists are destroying the country.

After the 2016 election, a Journalist from CBS traveled to the city with the most pro-Trump supporters in America. One of the families she profiled owned a ranch that had been in the family for decades. If Hillary won the election, they would have lost their livelihood.

If electing Trump meant the difference between keeping a roof over our heads or losing everything we have, every one of us would have voted for him.

Confirmation bias polarizes and divides citizens. The key to avoiding it is to look for evidence that disproves our beliefs.

Three Questions That Help You Determine When Something is Bullshit

detecting bullshit
Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

When I was growing up in Texas, my parents took me and my sister on a tour to NASA. When the tour guide told the group that the atomic clock only goes wrong once every hundred years, my sister raised her hand and asked him, "How do you know that?"

When the tour guide replied, "Someone told me," my sister said, "Do you believe everything people tell you ?"

John Petrocelli says there are three questions we can use to determine whether something is bullshit or not.

1. What Exactly are You Trying to Say?

Bullshit artists will immediately start to clean it up. They'll say, "This is what I am talking about. And, and make the claim as clear as possible because we know that clarity is an important antidote to bullshit" say, John Petrocelli

If you think someone is smarter or has higher status, it's easy to resist asking them to clarify what they are saying. But if you want to become less susceptible to bullshit, then ask people to clarify their claims.

2. How Do You Know That?

"This is a much better question than asking why. When you ask the why question, all you'll usually get are lofty, value-laden, abstract reasons and explanations. But you will not get anyone to talk about evidence. If you ask how you know, you will get them to talk about evidence." – John Petrocelli, The Unmistakable Creative

Rather than treating what people say as gospel, we should have the courage to question what they are regardless of their authority or expertise.

3: Have you Considered This?

"Skepticism in the context of uncovering bullshit means bringing a healthy amount of polite doubt when it comes to evaluating evidence for or against an assertion," says John Petrocelli.

If someone gets defensive when you question their claims, there's a good chance that what they are telling you is bullshit.

A Vast Marketplace of Bullshit

detecting bullshit
marPhotographer: Folco Masi | Source: Unsplash

Whether you are reading headlines on Medium, watching TED Talks, attending self-help seminars, or searching for books on Amazon, you are coming across tons of bullshit whether you realize it or not.

Self-help books

Much of what we read in self-help books sounds amazing in theory but fails in practice. Talk to someone who thought they could use the law of attraction to sit on their butt and dream their way to fame and fortune. Even John Assaraf, who was in the movie, said the most important message that was left out was the law of GOYA (Get off your ass).

Pseudo-foundational language is deliberately obfuscated by hyperbole, ambiguous innuendo, insider jargon, buzzwords, and the authoritarian assertion that the speaker knows about things that no one else can even begin to understand. Pseudo-justified nonsense contains meaningless and confusing buzzwords that obscure meaning and invite people to fill in the blanks with what they think the nonsense means. Deepak sounds brilliant.

If you have ever talked to someone who claims to be enlightened but you feel like you need a translator to understand what the hell they are talking about, you have probably been talking to a bullshit artist.


Because viewers tend to trust experts, they often accept the content of TED Talks as fact. But the truth is that TED Talks often spout considerable bullshit. – John Petrocelli, The Life Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit

If TED Talks are spreading bullshit, why do we love them so much?

  • First, they make us think we can solve life's biggest problems in less than 18 minutes.
  • Two, when you put a charismatic speaker in front of an audience, you can persuade people to do almost anything. This is how people end up in cults.

Put a nice website, a few best-selling books, and amazing production quality on top. And someone who is bullshitting can convince you that they are not.

Personality Tests

You have to remember that these tests are all based on self-assessment. That's just a fancy way of describing how people tend to describe themselves. – John Petrocelli, The Unmistakable Creative

Personality tests are fun to take. They make for great conversations at social gatherings. But it turns out they are bullshit.

Vanessa Van Edwards says, "There are five basic personality traits that everyone has. This is the only personality science that is actually backed by academic research. Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, and DISK are not based on academic research, and they have not been able to replicate those findings. The only personality science that is actually workable and used in many different organizations is the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness. Extroversion and neuroticism.

But that does not stop people from taking personality tests and believing that the results determine their destiny.

Why You Need to Develop The Ability to Detect Bullshit

Photographer: Mulyadi | Source: Unsplash

In a world where everyone has a microphone and anyone can make false claims without worrying about real evidence, spotting bullshit is one of the most important skills you can develop.

Becoming a better bullshit detector will.

  • Make you less susceptible to toxic charisma.
  • Keep you from making reckless decisions and taking reckless risks
  • Keep you from wasting money

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit is one of my top 10 book recommendations for 2021. If you want to become a better critical thinker and avoid being taken advantage of by charlatans, read John's book.

Listen to the Full Interview on The Unmistakable Creative Podcast


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