Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Monday, December 16, 2013

The BS Antidote

BSers have no idea if the claims they perpetuate are true or false; they have put little effort forth in regards to investigating the claim.  The truth-value of a claim is not important to the BSer.  There is a difference between a liar and BSer.  The liar misrepresents what they believe to be true. 

On Bullshit (Frankfurt, 2005) is a pocket size, 67-page book that discusses BS.  Frankfurt discusses why BSers and Liars do not necessarily have the same motives.  I had never thought of the two- BSer and liar as being different until reading On Bullshit.  However, after reading Frankfurt’s book it became clear- there is a difference between BSers and liars.

Frankfurt points out that BS is one of the most salient features of our culture.  Everyone engages in some level of BS.  Frankfurt makes a point to explain that someone who thinks they are lying can actually being telling the truth. A statement is a lie if the person making the statement “believes that the statement is false and intends by making it to deceive” (p.8). 

Why are there so many Bsers? There are two key reasons:1- ego inflation 2- customary communication.  Many people like to always be right, or at least make others think they are right.  Of course, most people like to be right.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be right, but this becomes problematic when being right becomes more important than finding the truth.  Many people pride themselves on being good BSers; you know the type of person that can carry on a conversation with anyone, or wow people with their smarts.  Some of the most popular people are BSers.  Personally, I don’t mind to hear a little BSing.  I BS on occasion, but I limit my BSing, and I know when it is inappropriate.  The excessive BSer doesn’t seem to understand or care to understand that BSing is sometimes inappropriate.  As an example, the excessive BSer has a tendency to consistently make unfounded claims, and attempts to participate in conversations on topics they know little to nothing about.  They haven’t looked at the evidence, and they aren’t interested in what the evidence says.  They know they are right, even when they have no evidence to support their claims. They generally support their claims by using an array of logical fallacies and nonsensical claims.  What is the antidote to BS, in this context?   Maybe we should call the bluff, and ask to see evidence.  This generally doesn’t work.  I have been in many Internet battles, and asking BSers to produce evidence is generally a waste of breath. To reiterate, BSers are not interested in the truth-value of their claim.  And, most of the time BSers have a completely different idea than others, when it comes to what constitutes evidence.  This lack of understanding in regards to what it means to produce evidence is prevalent, and is particularly problematic when discussing science.  In science, we discuss topics by referring to evidence, not wishful thinking, personal observations, or common sense.  Scientific thinkers derive their claims from systematic processes used to collect and analyze information, namely science.  If asking for evidence doesn’t work what should we do in order to combat BS?  I don’t have a good answer to this question.  Maybe someone else does.  Maybe we should pass a law that allows us to duct tape their mouths shut?  Maybe they should be fined for intellectual pollution?   

The customary process of communication may be another reason that BS is so prevalent.  Consider the following: you and your significant other attend a dinner party for your friend.  Your friends are talking and seemingly having a pleasant evening until the conversation addresses stem-cell research.  Your friends appear to be relatively knowledgeable about the subject.  After a few minutes of dialogue they ask for your opinion.  You panic because you know very little about the subject, but you decide to express your opinion. Why would you comment on something you know nothing about?  You felt obligated to say something because you didn’t want to be rude. This type of situation occurs on a regular basis.  Bullshit is unavoidable when someone is forced to discuss a topic that they know little about.  In this context the antidote to BS is politely admitting you are not qualified to discuss the topic. 

BS is ubiquitous and sometimes it is fine; however, at times it is inappropriate.  Good thinkers are able to figure out when it is appropriate. The next time you notice you are discussing a topic, and defending it vehemently, even though you have no evidence to corroborate your beliefs do yourself and anyone listening to you a favor and shut up!   

Below is some of the e-mail I have received and responded to over the past three weeks. A lot of these conversations are with BSers.

Not-Fan Mail

E-mail: Hello Jamie,

I am a fan of some of your work, but your article on testing and learning is PLAIN wrong.  I am a junior high teacher and I know from experience that testing does little to improve learning.  In fact, it is my opinion, and the opinion of many of my co-workers that testing has a negative influence on learning.

My response: Thanks for the e-mail.  I assume you are referring to the article titled Does Testing Enhance Learning http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/search?q=does+testing+enhance+learning

Your opinion is a moot point if it is not supported by even an angstrom of evidence, and lacks logic.  “I know from experience” is not sufficient evidence.  Of course, at times experience may lead to the formation of testable hypotheses, and if that is the case they should be tested.  The article you are referring to discusses the following research:

Balota, D.A., Duchek, J.M., & Paullin, R. (1989). Age-related differences in the impact of spacing, lag, and retention interval. Psychology and Aging, 4, 3–9. 

Roediger, H.L., & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17 (3), 249-255.

The results support the claim that testing enhances learning

Name, sorry you don’t like the results, but science doesn’t have any concern for whether or not you are pleased with the results.  Science is the great truth finder and self- deception detector.

2nd email:  The results of studies are often wrong.  Scientists have vested interests.

My 2nd response:  You don’t think you could be wrong.  Science might be wrong, but it makes use of numerous self-correcting techniques to help ensure that it isn’t wrong.  When scientific information is shown to be wrong that information is abandoned in exchange for better information.  All scientific information is tentative. If interested in learning more about scientific processes I suggest you spend some time educating yourself in the following areas: philosophy of science, research methods and stats.  I can send you some suggested sources if you would like.

3rd email:  Jamie, I have no interest in seeing your suggestions.  It appears to me that you have a hidden agenda.  Maybe you are just interested in promoting science.  It seems to me that you think science can answer everything.

My 3rd response:  My agenda is the perpetuation of science.  I am not trying to hide that.  I am a science educator.  Do I think science can answer all questions?  No, I do not. You have never heard me say that.  You have heard me say, and you will continue to hear me say scientific processes are unquestionably the most successful processes we have for discovering reality.  There is no other method of knowledge acquisition that even compares.  Of course, you will probably dishonestly say you disagree.  I say dishonestly, because you like everyone else depends heavily on science and technology.  Try going 2-3 days without using any of the benefits that you are provided due to science and technology. 

E-mail: It appears to me that you are a hypocrite!  You are always talking about being skeptical.  So, why shouldn’t we be skeptical of your claims?

My response:  I appreciate the not so kind words.  You should be skeptical of all claims, including those made by myself.  Skeptic is derived from the Greek skeptikos, which means, "inquiring" or "to look around”. Skeptics apply reason to and need evidence for all claims. It is important to consider who are making the claims, but no matter who makes the claim evidence is required. The individual’s reputation, authority or credentials do not make the claim correct.  

If you are not a skeptic you should be.  Skepticism should be applied to all claims; no claim should be given a free pass when it comes to providing supportive evidence. 

E-mail:  Hey Coach Hale,

I used to be a fan of your work, until you became boring.  You are always talking about evidence.  Not everyone cares about evidence!  They just want the answers.  

My response:  I agree that many people do not care about evidence.  Especially, when that evidences contradicts their beliefs.

Correct answers are dependent on evidence; so, if someone wants correct answers they should want evidence.  But, people often do not care about what the evidence says, they are only interested with recipe knowledge- they want to know what to do, but they are not  concerned with why they should do it.

E-mail: If correlational research does not determine cause and effect why do researchers conduct this type of research?  It seems that they are wasting time. 

My response: Even though correlational research is not used to determine cause and effect it is still important. Consider the following points made by Stanovich (2007):

“First, many scientific hypotheses are stated in terms of correlation or lack of correlation, so that such studies are directly relevant to these hypotheses."

"Second, although correlation does not imply causation, causation does implycorrelation. That is, although a correlational study cannot definitely prove a causal hypothesis, it may rule one out."

"Third, correlational studies are more useful than they may seem, because some of the recently developed complex correlational designs allow for some very limited causal inferences."

"…some variables simply cannot be manipulated for ethical reasons (for instance, human malnutrition or physical disabilities). Other variables, such as birth order, sex, and age are inherently correlational because they cannot be manipulated, and, therefore, the scientific knowledge concerning them must be based on correlation evidence.”

Correlation does not imply causation, however causation does imply correlation. Correlational studies are a stepping-stone to the more powerful experimental method. (Hale, 2014).

E-mail:  Sometimes your comments are very rude.  I think each person has a right to their own beliefs, and those beliefs should be respected. 

My response:  You are being dishonest. You do not believe that all beliefs deserve the same level of respect.  Believes that are not based on evidence do not deserve the same level of respect as evidence based beliefs.  As an example, no one respects the belief that “Elvis lives.”  Why don’t people respect that belief? Because it is absurd; even if we can’t prove he doesn’t live.  It is important to realize no matter how much you want something to be true if it defies everything that is known about reality it probably isn’t true.  No amount of wishing makes it any truer.

E-mail:  I think it is offensive to tell people if they don’t have any training in research methods and statistics, or that if they don’t read about those subjects they can’t understand them. 

My response: Thanks for pointing this out.  I am sorry that you are offended by this fact.  Why do you think that you understand the complexity of research methods and stats if you have made no effort to acquire an education in these areas?  When I say that you do not understand these subjects, or when I say you are ignorant in these areas I am not saying you are stupid.  However, I am saying when you continuously attempt to show how much you know about subjects that you nothing about you demonstrate irrationality.  Of course, consistent irrationality might be referred to as stupidity.  Or a euphemism may be used in suggesting stupidity.

To be clear, not understanding a subject doesn’t reflect stupidity; if that were the case we would have to say everyone is stupid.  No one understands all areas of knowledge.   

E-mail: You admitted that your writing style has prevented you from getting published in some of the big magazines.  That should tell you something?

My response: It tells me that magazines should change their publication criteria.  When my writing style reflected many of the popular myths disseminated by the fitness industry it was a lot easier to get published.   
Many types of magazines not just fitness magazines have suggested that my writing style is a little too evidence based, and not practical enough.  Generally, magazines publishers are interested in generating high revenues, and quite often evidence based information might not be the best revenue generator.


Frankfurt, H.G. (2005).  On Bullshit.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.   

Hale, J. (Not yet published ).  In Evidence We Trust: The need for science, rationality and statistics.

Stanovich, K. (2007).  How To Think Straight About Psychology 8th Edition.   New York, NY: Pearson.