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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

The Life-Change Science of Detecting Bullshit

John V Petrocelli’s new book, The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit isn’t the first book written on the topic of bullshit.

That honour goes to philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, a 1986 essay that became a 2005 bestseller for its novel definition of bullshit as “speaking without regard for the truth.”

According to Frankfurt, liars care about the truth very much. After all, why else would they go to such pains to keep it hidden? Bullshitters, on the other hand, are not too fussed either way.

In Petrocelli’s book, he builds on Frankfurt’s definition (as well as 35 years of work by psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers) to create a practical guide to dealing with bullshit in the modern age.

In the first part of the book, Petrocelli outlines what bullshit is, pulling from a familiar rogue’s gallery of bullshitters that include Deepak Chopra, Douglas Bilken, and Donald Trump.

Bilken’s case is particularly interesting. A dean at Syracuse University, Bilken was the creator of facilitated communication, a technique for non-verbal people with autism to communicate through the help of a facilitator. Unfortunately, when tested, it was shown that facilitated communication simply didn’t work.

Bilken went on the offensive saying “I think the test has severe problems. One, you’re putting people in a confrontational situation.” i.e. the test was flawed because it was asking people to prove their claims. Facilitated communication was to be simultaneously believed in while also somehow transcending the scientific method.

To measure the bullshit of people like Bilken, Petrocelli suggests a Bullshit Fly Index:

This is a brilliant addition to bullshit detection reminds us that not all bullshit is created equal. It could only be improved by the addition of a level below one fly for bullshit that is not only harmless but helpful. After all, the ability to shoot the shit with friends, brainstorm with worrying about facts, and roleplaying roles is not only fun but useful.

Perhaps we could call this level flowers: bullshit that helps us grow.

In the last chapter of the book, Petrocelli offers tools and suggestions for dealing with bullshit and bullshitters, a feature missing from most books on the subject.

I remember reading Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber and becoming increasingly depressed by the number of jobs that have no reason to exist only to reach the end of the book with no practical solution beyond widespread societal change.

Much of Petrocelli’s is familiar to anyone who has studied critical thinking and conflict resolution theory: Attack ideas not people. Be considerate. Offer empirical evidence to support your claims.

However, these methods can be limited when dealing with bullshit. As Petrocelli says “...presenting bullshitters with evidence and encouraging them to think critically is unlikely to improve their judgment or decision-making…”

Hopefully, the research of Petrocelli and others will lead to enough techniques to fill a second volume.


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