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EPISODE # 207

John Petrocelli — The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit (book cover)

Bullshit is the foundation of contaminated thinking and bad decisions that leads to health consequences, financial losses, legal consequences, broken relationships, and wasted time and resources.

No matter how smart we believe ourselves to be, we’re all susceptible to bullshit — and we all engage in it. While we may brush it off as harmless marketing sales speak or as humorous, embellished claims, it’s actually much more dangerous and insidious. It’s how Bernie Madoff successfully swindled billions of dollars from even the most experienced financial experts with his Ponzi scheme. It’s how the protocols of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of 36 million people from starvation. Presented as truths by authority figures and credentialed experts, bullshit appears legitimate, and we accept their words as gospel. If we don’t question the information we receive from bullshit artists to prove their thoughts and theories, we allow these falsehoods to take root in our memories and beliefs. This faulty data affects our decision-making capabilities, sometimes resulting in regrettable life choices.

But with a little dose of skepticism and a commitment to truth seeking, you can build your critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills to evaluate information, separate fact from fiction, and see through bullshitter spin. In The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, experimental social psychologist John V. Petrocelli provides invaluable strategies not only to recognize and protect yourself from everyday bullshit, but to accept your own lack of knowledge about subjects and avoid engaging in bullshit just for societal conformity.

With real world examples from people versed in bullshit who work in the used car, real estate, wine, and diamond industries, Petrocelli exposes the red-flag warning signs found in the anecdotal stories, emotional language, and buzzwords used by bullshitters that persuade our decisions. By using his critical thinking defensive tactics against those motivated by profit, we will also learn how to stop the toxic misinformation spread from the social media influencers, fake news, and op-eds that permeate our culture and call out bullshit whenever we see it.

John Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of BS and BSing in the way of better understanding and improving BS detection and disposal. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Petrocelli also serves an Associate Editor of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

  • bullshit defined (different from lying),
  • signs that you’re being bullshitted,
  • magic and bullshit,
  • how we obtain reliable knowledge,
  • conspiracy theories as bullshit,
  • what it means to “believe” in a conspiracy theory like QAnon or the rigged election,
  • how we know that the election wasn’t rigged, that 9/11 was not an inside job, and that climate change and evolution are true,
  • Hitchens’ Dictum and Razor,
  • the replication crisis and why it happened,
  • how to talk to a bullshitter,
  • bullshit in: wine tasting, car salesmen, real estate agents, diamond salesmen,
  • Donald Trump and alternative facts (aka bullshit),
  • Steve Bannon: throw shit at the system/the enemy is not the Democrats but the media.

From the book

My ideal bullshit detector is Lieutenant Frank Columbo, played by Peter Falk in the 1970s television series Columbo. He was a homicide detective and famous for solving complicated “whodunit” murder mysteries by asking suspects “just one more question.” The last question would always be the one that cracked the case. What does the Columbo critical-thinking mindset look like in practice? We can list the basic habits of critical thinking as the following:

  • having a passionate drive for clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, consistency, logic, completeness, and fairness,
  • having sensitivity to the ways in which critical thinking can be skewed by wishful thinking,
  • being intellectually honest, acknowledging what they don’t know and recognizing their limitations,
  • not pretending to know more than they do and ignoring their limitations,
  • lListening to opposing points of view with an open mind and welcoming criticisms of their beliefs and assumptions,
  • basing beliefs on facts and evidence rather than on personal preference or self-interest,
  • being aware of the biases and preconceptions that shape the way the world is perceived,
  • thinking independently and not fearing disagreement with a group,
  • getting to the heart of an issue or problem without being distracted by details,
  • having the intellectual courage to face and assess ideas fairly even when they challenge basic beliefs,
  • loving truth and being curious about a wide range of issues, and
  • persevering when encountering intellectual obstacles or difficulties.

Philosopher Peter Facione and the American Philosophical Association identified five critical-thinking skills in the landmark 1990 Delphi Report: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, and self-regulation. Each of these skills is essentially a different way of asking questions.

You are best able to detect bullshit when you are able to accurately interpret the claim. If you can answer the following questions, you can better understand the meaning and significance of a claim:

  • What does the claim mean? How is it meant to be understood?
  • Is there anything unclear, ambiguous, or not understood about the claim?
  • How can the claim be best characterized and classified?

An expert bullshit detector analyzes the arguments that could be made in support of and against a claim. Engaging in analysis involves asking these questions of the claim:

  • On what basis is the claim being made?
  • How does the individual know the claim is true?
  • What assumptions must be made to accept the claim and its conclusions as true?

When critical thinkers assess the logical strength of a claim, they engage in evaluation. They determine if the arguments and evidence for the claim justify the conclusions. Evaluative questions include:

  • How compelling is the evidence supporting the claim?
  • How well does the claim follow from a reasonable interpretation of the evidence?
  • Do the results of relevant investigations speak to the truth of the claim?

Expert bullshit detectors engage in inference, which occurs when the relevant information needed to draw reasonable conclusions is secured and connected to the implications of the claim’s truth. Inference is promoted when you can gain answers to questions like:

  • What does the evidence imply?
  • If the claim is true, what are the implications moving forward?
  • If major assumptions supporting the claim are abandoned, how does the claim’s truth stand?

Self-regulation involves assessing one’s own motivations and biases and asking whether these influence one’s interpretations, analyses, inferences, and evaluations of a claim. Self-regulation works best when engaging in metacognitive thought (thinking about one’s thoughts) by answering questions such as:

  • How good was my method in evaluating the claim?
  • Are my conclusions based on evidence and data, or are they based on anecdotal evidence or what I read in the news?
  • Is there anything I might be missing (or wanting to miss), and are my conclusions about the claim motivated by something other than the truth in any way?

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