Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Monday, 12 June 2017

Don't Worry, Everything Is Still Awful


Just before the election I wrote about how awful the UK political situation is. Four days later and nothing much has changed. If you're a Tory supporter, I'm afraid you're in a bad way. There isn't much I can offer to console you, except that for now, you've won. It's a bad win though, and very likely a Pyrrhic victory. Sorry about that. Actually, I might have been sorry with Cameron's government in charge, if only a little bit. But with May and her vicious screaming horde ? Not so much really, I was lying about that. Sorry. Actually that was a lie too. Sorry.

If you're anyone else (except for a few hard-right fringe parties) then I'm afraid, well, first of all...


The good news is that May is not long for this political world. May, as we've seen with increasing frequency in the last few weeks, is not a creature that does well under pressure. She has a habit of turning into a robot and giving wildly inappropriate answers to questions; not everything is about being strong and stable and very little of anything is about running through fields of wheat. Oh, she likes to talk tough, but actually being tough means giving sensible answers under pressure, not merely being able to deliver stock phrases without bursting into tears. That's just not good enough.

Pressure on May is about to increase dramatically. It's already ramped up because of the loss of the Tory majority. And as I said some time back, May called the election not merely out of opportunism, but out of desperate opportunism. She couldn't cope with the pressures of the reality of Brexit and the threat of indyref2 so instead of trying to negotiate her way out of it - the sign of a truly tough character - she went the way of the desperate and rolled the dice.

With strange irony, the election has indeed (unexpectedly) removed the threat of indyref2 - but it hasn't helped ease the pressure on May at all. Her slim majority has gone completely. This wouldn't necessarily be so bad except that the whole election campaign revolved around being "strong and stable"* and the farcical notion that the stronger the mandate of the UK PM to govern the UK, the better deal we'd get in a Brexit negotiation. Quite how that was ever supposed to work escapes me. And worse, virtually all of the other parties are now firmly opposed both to Tory ideologies - not merely policies but the deeper perception of what it is the Tories actually want - and May's personal dictatorial "strong and stable" style.

* May, they say, is a prisoner of number 10. Who's her jailer ? Easy : herself. She's a victim of her own sloganeering, constrained by her promise to be strong and stable when what's needed is to be intelligent and flexible.

That leaves the DUP, a bunch of awful people that no-one's ever heard of  - and those that have heard of them rightly detest them. Even May, horrid character though she is, is only trying to deal with them because she has no choice. It may sound strange to suggest that a deal with the Tories and these archaic lunatics is a good thing for modern progressives, but it is. Everyone instantly hates the DUP, and already they're not kowtowing to the Tory machine as expected. May is a lousy negotiator and always has been.

Furthermore, if you're worried about the damage the DUP will do to British politics, don't be. Brexit succeeded only (in part) because there had been years (decades, even) of widespread far-right anti-foreigner rhetoric in the popular press. But climate change denial or promoting creationism ? There's no appetite for that. The worst they'll do is generate a debate in Parliament, and we'll quickly find that virtually everyone is opposed to their assorted insanities. Their policies have no support, and nothing will come of nothing. They are toothless non-entities*. All they'll do is make the Tories much more unpopular.

* Just for good measure, it seems that they won't be able to vote on most issues because of the recent decision on English Votes for English Laws, though this needs to be verified.

And then the Brexit negotiations start, wheee ! Or at least they're supposed to. If they're delayed then that further weakens May, ratcheting up the pressure. If they're not delayed than we still go into them with a bunch of undiplomatic morons in charge who think that diplomacy is about being "strong and stable" for some reason, only now we'll do so with far greater doubts that even the crazy British public actually want the hard Brexit that May loves so much. Again, ratcheting up the pressure. Compared to dealing with the tiny bunch of lunatics that constitute the DUP, dealing with the large and largely sane group of leaders of 27 other countries is going to be way, way, way more difficult.

May's going to break, whatever she says. My guess is sooner rather than later - certainly long before the DUP have any chance to destabilise the peace process. That situation is a self-limiting problem by virtue of its sheer awfulness. I hope you enjoyed that comforting message, for alas...


Everything I've said about Corbyn remains true and is even reinforced. Declaring that you're "the real winner" of the election doesn't make it true, any more than May's repeated professions of certainty and stability make them true. Moral winner ? Maybe. But you want to actually form a government ? Well when you and all the other parties combined still don't have enough to reach a majority, that's cute.

Doing better than expected doesn't equate to doing well. Labour lost this election and lost it badly. Yes, they gained seats. Yes, that gain was even respectable - but it was still, ultimately, modest. Cheering in celebration is plainly ridiculous. In any other situation the leader would have apologised and resigned. Guess what ? Exactly as I bloody well told you would happen, Corbyn won't go. He sees every minor gain as a resounding endorsement of his ideologies and simply ignores every setback no matter how difficult.

Nor does any deal with the DUP somehow exonerate New New Labour's links with the IRA. It makes the Tories hypocrites, yes. But it doesn't magically make it OK to hang out with your terrorist pals you blithering idiots - it just means everyone is equally awful. Or perhaps not equal, since the allegations against the Corbynites go back a long time and are somewhat personal, whereas the Tories are accused of doing a deal because they have no choice.

I know many of you would like to believe that Corbyn is a basically decent chap who's misunderstood, misrepresented by the media and occasionally makes a bit of a blunder. But he isn't. His mistakes are chronic and follow a predictable pattern : going on the warpath when threatened then doing absolutely nothing when secure; pig-headed stubbornness; a near-total refusal to admit mistakes and a total inability to compromise. Not to mention a complete blindness as to the importance of the biggest political issue of the day, an unbelievably sanctimonious attitude and far too many friends who seem like a toxic mixture of the stupid and the evil.

See, I would love to believe that Corbyn really is taking Labour in a bold "new" direction back to the 1970's. Or rather, I'd love to believe that Corbyn's New New Labour would really deliver a strategy that makes a real, significant difference to the poor and lower earners and just be a generally good thing. I would love to believe that cancelling Trident would magically make the world a better place. And I would really, really, really love to be wrong about Corbyn and his acolytes, I really would.

But being anti-establishment isn't automatically a virtue. And attacks from the Tories are not automatically wrong. The thing about science is - and I've said this bajillions of time - we try to attack results that agree with what we expected. Confirmation bias is very well known : not only do you criticise things you don't like more strongly, but you also don't criticise things you want to be true. Individual scientists don't always do that, but the scientific collective is pretty efficient at finding problems. Sometimes it takes a while to be noticed, but there's almost always someone prepared to say "nope".


Science doesn't have partisan elements, though for sure academia does. Politics, on the other hand, is almost entirely driven by partisanship and tribalism; bias runs rampant with barely any consideration for plausibility. So I implore you, for all the good it will do, forget what you want to be true and consider what might actually be true. Honestly, if Corbyn was a Tory, most of my readers would be demonising the hell* out of him right now.

* Makes sense, right ?


Prediction is a fool's game in politics, so here goes. May will quit, probably within 1-2 months, 3-4 maximum. I doubt she'll be forced out - the reason we didn't see any credible Tory figures at the last election contest was because they know how screwed we are thanks to Brexit, and fully realise that the premiership would not be a chance for glory right now. No, May will go because she'll break under pressure, and we'll get someone else of comparable idiocy to May instead. None of the saner Tories will step up to the gallows right now.

Corbyn won't quit because he too is a bloody fool who doesn't understand that being PM will neither be good for him or the country. Could he win the next election if May does quit ? I wouldn't assume so despite recent polls - Labour still have a mountain to climb. But if he does, then a lot of people are going to find out quite quickly just what a colossal mistake they've made. Disillusionment is going to be much bigger and more rapid than with Blair, as they realise that Corbyn's cabinet have neither the skills nor the motivation to actually enact any of their promises, much less any way to find the money to pay for everything.

And emerging from the cloudy fog of British politics comes the sea-cliff of Brexit; not one we'll fall off but one we'll crash headlong into, the ship of state dashed against the stony rocks of contempt for reasoned arguments as we're held in the grip of the ideologies of well-meaning intentions. Corbyn has shown great strength and stability in resolutely not caring about Brexit; May at least realised the seriousness of situation - Corbyn is either too stupid not to understand what's happening or simply doesn't care. All those arguments we've heard about the dangers of Brexit - like it or not, they're still there. All the election has done is made us all ignore them for a while and live in the happy cloud cuckoo land of blissful ignorance where we pretend it doesn't really matter. Well it does matter, and having an apathetic idiot at the helm is not going to end well.

A Corbyn administration will be an absolute farce, far, far worse than the current government because it will be delivered not on a message of dreadfully dull stability and competence, but renewal and hope. Corbynites are going to have their dreams shattered. If the Tories are playing with fire by getting into bed* with the DUP, then Labour are in no better shape by playing with the fires of Marxism.

* Pro tip : don't play with fire in bed.

So take heart, people - everything is still awful, and it shows no signs of getting better anytime soon. We aren't even going to get a halfway competent Tory, let alone a sensible Labour leader. One way or another, we're just going to keep getting screwed.

(Possible escape route ? It's just possible that the Tories might have a sudden flash of intelligence and realise that, since the country didn't vote for a hard Brexit, they should elect a more intelligent, competent Remainer who would at least understand that diplomacy is about more than carrying a big stick. Such a person could destroy Corbyn without much difficulty. As for Labour I'm seeing less room for optimism - when they come to their senses they'll realise that since Corbyn is an unmovable despot, they'll have no choice but to split. Eventually, something might emerge from the ashes, but it's a long dark road for Labour full of soul-searching and mixed metaphors. Woohoo.)

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Everything Is Awful


During most elections I like to stay up late into the small hours of the morning hoping to know the result as soon as possible. I rather enjoy watching all the various silly graphics, hyperbolic speeches (does anyone else remember Peter Mandelson's, when he threatened that his enemies would taste his "inner steel ?" that was amusing...) and trying to make mountains out of molehills as every new result comes in. It's fun because I have a stake in the result and a clear preference for the winner but, even in the worst case, I don't think things will get more than "quite a bit worse" whatever the result. Mostly.

I don't think I'll be watching the coverage this time, because there's no realistic possibility of getting a result which isn't utterly awful. In fact I've never been less eager to know the result of an election.

Not being a Tory voter and anticipating that my readership isn't either, I don't see much point in dwelling on just how awful I find the current crop of Tory leaders and their policies. In short :


But, if more is needed, austerity is stupid. I guess it's OK if there's a short-term budget shortfall that needs to be balanced quickly, but as a long term plan for economic growth it just plain sucks. Sure, let's cut all the services that are of most use to the poor, because that'll incentivise 'em to get off their lazy backsides. Let's force 'em back to work, because slavery's OK if it's done to poor people. Let's discriminate against immigrants from poorer European countries because wealth is how we measure virtue, and then, because this totally makes sense, let's also discriminate against skilled foreign workers just because they're earning less than £35,000 a year and then - and this is the really clever bit - let's claim we're not xenophobic idiots ! Spectacular. While we're at it, let's bring back fox hunting for a laugh, piss off the entire European political bloc, suck up to Donald Trump, ban encryption and make pornography illegal just because screw you, that's why.

Inspiring stuff.

Then we've got the Labour party. Never did I think there would come a day when I looked at Labour and thought, "yep, they're just as bad". Now, let me clear - most of their policies are a damn sight better than the Tories. I like their anti-austerity approach. I like their pledge to cut university tuition fees, introduce a corporation tax and re-nationalise the railways. I don't think all of these are entirely practical (in particular I think their economic approach consists largely of wishful thinking) or that they'd achieve all of their goals as well as stated, but if it was a case of voting purely on policies, Labour would win hands down. Unfortunately, it isn't.

The problem for Labour is trust and ability. I've said all this before several times. Since no-one is listening, let me just summarise because when the faeces hit the proverbial fan - and they will - I'll point to this post and say "I FRICKIN' TOLD YOU SO YOU DUNCE SEE THIS ANGRY RANT AND LINKS THEREIN FOR DETAILS YOU BLITHERING IDIOT !". So at least I'll have that moment of bitter pleasure as the country goes the way of Atlantis.


Corbyn's policies - leaving aside the (credible) prospect of returning too much power to the unions and threatening us with nationwide strikes every five minutes - are ideologically opposed to much of what we've seen in British politics for the last many elections. At last, those of us of the same leanings thought on his election victory, a chance for us to have a real voice, to start something really new. What did he do ? After the first leadership election, sod all. He continued doing sod all throughout the Brexit campaign. He had a fantastic, unprecedented opportunity to start building a real social movement for a new type and form of politics, and he completely and utterly wasted it. The current Tory crop were never popular, but instead of taking advantage he just sort of sat there, shuffling his feet and presumably growing amusing vegetables in his allotment.

In fact he did nothing much of anything except when his "power" was under threat. MPs were threatened with deselection, his own innumerable rebellions dismissed as matters of principle whilst insisting that the party follow his line, resorting to "I was elected with a mandate of blah blah blah" as though it were some kind of insanely powerful magical chant that could ward off evil spirits and awkward questions whenever the least bit threatened. That his own MPs were all democratically elected as well, and had principles of their own, he cared not a jot. Did he even challenge the naked xenophobic racism of UKIP during the Brexit campaign ? Not really. Even UKIP's own MP seemed to be more concerned than Corbyn did.

He won another election campaign but remained oblivious to his wider unpopularity. He ignored losing a vote of no confidence from his MPs as though somehow that would all just go away once he somehow won the election for them (which he later described as "rigged" but vowed to win anyway - oh, yay).

Well, it won't. You can't form a government from people who hate you. It doesn't matter how much you want to, or even why they hate you, you can't. What we'll get is a shambolic, impotent farce, and Corbyn won't care. What makes me think so ? Because he hasn't shown a glimmer of caring at all thus far in his leadership career. He didn't care about building up support in opposition - he cared only about his own position. If you think he's magically going to turn into some kind of Action Man as Prime Minister and start rallying the troops, you're going to be disappointed.

Except... maybe there are some troops he will rally : his own hardcore lunatic supporters. Corbyn is no socialist who cares about helping people, he's a Communist who cares about getting his own way. Every pattern of behaviour thus far indicates so. His similarities to Trump are, I believe, remarkable given his diametrically opposed style and policies.

Furthermore, Corbyn's initially novel approach of not always knowing what to say and being a bit socially awkward has long since given to way to, at best, just another form of classic political bullshit and often is just textbook-standard bullshit without anything the least bit interesting about it. He used to at least basically acknowledge that he couldn't answer questions; now he just answers different questions instead. Straight talking honest politics ?  It looks oh so much like standard spin doctoring to me I find it hard to tell the difference. It isn't even straightforward honest bullshit, because with most politicians at least everyone knows they're just spewing political crap that you're not supposed to take seriously.

Everything about this man and his cabinet, to me, screams, "DANGER ! DANGER !". There are two possibilities. Either he's chronically incompetent and apathetic, in which case Labour really will be annihilated at the election next time if not sooner, or he's actually villainous. The latter possibility is something I give serious credit to. There are just too many associations with terror groups, too many admissions and - ironically - denials which are quickly refuted and sheer bullshitting about alleged and documented meetings, too many times of giving terrorists organisations far more than grudging respect but an open hand of friendship. Corbyn wasn't involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland at all, so why are we now expected to believe that he was ? He never had any role in the Middle East peace process either, so what's he doing calling Hamas his friends ?

I'd love to believe this was all just Tory propaganda on a par with the time the Daily Mail called Ed Milliband's father "the man who hated Britain". That instance was ludicrous. It was so outrageous it even got Ed "hell yes I'm socially awkward !" Milliband fired up, for crying out loud. But Corbyn and the IRA ? The man doesn't bat an eyelid. Similar accusations toward Diane Abbott - a woman who continuously seems like a high school student giving her first presentation with zero rehearsals but who somehow thinks the oratory isn't important in politics - and John McDonnell are met with similar pathetic denials. Getting them to admit that terrorism is wrong is possible, but by God it's like pulling teeth from a donkey*. This pattern of behaviour is too consistent and too broad-ranging among Corbyn's cronies to dismiss as entirely fanciful. The absolute best-case scenario is a widespread track record of massive, massive incompetence and really utterly shite judgement. The worst case scenario doesn't bear thinking about. In either case, the idea of straight talking honest politics is just so ludicrous it's becoming frankly offensive to common sense.

*Likewise, you can read whatever Brexit policy you like best if you cherry-pick the right bits from Corbyn's occasional statements and don't care about statistics.

That's why, then, I don't think this election represents the clear choice it's being made out to be. Even between Milliband and Cameron, two relative centrists, the choice was far clearer. But now we've got the Nasty Party on the right and the impotent lunatic communist party of the left. Whoopdee-frickin'-doo-dah. 

This is far worse than the situation of voting for someone I just don't like very much. Sorry people, but I'm not that stupid - I do recognise the difference between things I dislike and things I'm morally opposed to. And the current leadership of Labour scare the bejesus out of me - yes, every bit as much as the Tories. It's not a case of choosing the lesser of two evils or of voting for the Labour party so that the Tories don't get in. I despise the Tory party, but Labour have gone and made themselves into something just as bad. That it's a different kind of bad does not remedy the level of badness : I'm not voting for them, and you shouldn't either.

Suppose the associations of terrorist sympathies are just overblown fanciful nonsense, touch wood. Then you still have a track record of chronic incompetence in the shadow cabinet led by a man who pretty much ignored the biggest political issue of this generation because he has the lunatic idea that the EU is all about crushing people beneath the mighty boot of capitalism. You have someone in charge who was not the slightest bit interested in holding the government to account in opposition, i.e. in doing his frickin' job. What in the blazes makes you think this is going to end well ? It won't. Hasn't got a hope in hell.

Best case for a Labour majority : an incompetent shambles of such a scale that it will be child's play for the press to turn against them, yes, even if the Tory party remain as bad as they are now. You might be voting for them purely on the basis that you prefer Labour's policies and genuinely don't care about the leaders, but if you do that you are handing the Labour party its own destruction on a silver platter.

Best case for a Labour-led coalition government ? Scarcely much better. Corbyn doesn't even listen to his own MPs so there's not much reason to think he'll listen other parties. And, much as I respect certain members of the SNP, I'm not entirely convinced that people who think Scottish independence is a good idea could act as any real kind of moderating force anyway.

Best case Labour loss with a Tory victory (or somehow another coalition) ? The best outcome, not improbable, would be that the Tories get a very small minority that could be challenged by backbench rebellions so that they won't keep molesting the populace on a daily basis without some restraint. Corbyn could finally see sense and leave and hand the torch of party reform on to someone who's not a communist. Unfortunately that latter prospect won't happen unless Labour's loss is devastating (thus giving us five years of unopposed rule by the Grand High Witch), because Corbyn takes the smallest signs of approval as absolute endorsements by the whole country and has a long track record of refusing to leave when it's patently obvious even to members of the Monster Raving Loony Party that he needs to go. So that isn't going to happen.

Best case long term realistic solution ? Labour have to split. Take a lesson from the Simpsons :


But most likely, for the next five years everything political is just going to suck. Sorry people, but it will. We're screwed.

Cheerio.


(Is there any ray of light at all ? Perhaps one. Now that he's got off his arse because his position is under threat, Corbyn has exposed the weakness and vulnerability of the Tory party. Austerity isn't popular and May doesn't look sensible. Left wing ideologies remain alive and well, but sadly, with tremendous irony, it looks very much as though Corbyn could inadvertently be the one to deal the death blow to left-wing politics.)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

On Bullshit


I'm currently following the University of Washington course, "Calling Bullshit", which is available online in its entirety. This course attempts to promote critical thinking by drawing attention to how people can "blind you with science" or more accurately, with data. I would strongly recommend this course to just about anyone. In my opinion, it does a good job of being impartial and genuinely encouraging people not to simply debunk anything that's thrown at them for the sake of it, but to make a sincere effort to get at the truth.

Bullshit, in the course professors' working definition, is essentially the manipulation and presentation of data in order to persuade without regard for the truth. That does not mean lying, though that can be part of it - you can use the truth to tell a lie all too easily. But data manipulation is not the only aspect of bullshit. Anyone who's ever participated in any online debate will know that responses can be total bullshit without using any data at all, and it has a distinctly different feel from simply telling lies or being misinformed. Often it doesn't even have any real objective at all.

I will offer the following simple definition that I think may encompass the full, glorious range of bullshit : missing the point. This can easily include data manipulation that disrespects the truth, since when the data contains an obvious conclusion but the presentation says something else, that's bullshit. It's not a lie, or at least not just a lie. It's a mixture of selective truths, half-truths and sometimes outright lies. It usually (but not always !) has a definite agenda, a conclusion that must be maintained regardless of what's thrown at it. It twists and manipulates any robust counter-arguments so that they appear to agree with whatever the bullshitter wants. Clear and obvious conclusions are attacked with unjustified doubt; genuine uncertainties are lauded as unquestionable facts. Alternatively, it can take the form of simply disagreeing with whatever statements are made regardless of the consistency or hypocrisy of doing so; all bullshitters disrespect the truth but the really extreme ones disrespect even their own position.

Merely missing the point isn't always bullshit. Someone who makes an honest mistake will say "oops !" when corrected, and possibly burst into song. A bullshitter simply doesn't care. Bullshit, then, may be taken as not caring about the essential point of a statement. All the various forms of bullshits are, I think, variations on this theme. Bullshitters may care deeply about winning an argument, but not at all about the truth. Or they may care about disrupting a discussion for the sake of disruption, but have no self-consistent position of their own. Having a sincerely held conviction is a very much optional extra for a bullshitter. Often, as we shall see, their surface level statements are almost meaningless camouflage for their deeper beliefs, but in other instances when you look below the surface you find nothing much at all.

 It's very difficult to evaluate if someone is making a bullshit argument on the basis of a single statement; it's very context-dependent. It comes in varying degrees, of course, and can make for very effective humour - it's not always heartless or even nasty, though that's what I'll focus on here.

One other minor point before we start : the online course mentions the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, the well-known doctrine that the amount of effort required to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than what's needed to produce it. I suggest a slight modification to this. Often, refuting bullshit to an objective observer is trivial. The difficult part comes in persuading those who have either fallen victim to the bullshitting techniques or who are themselves bullshitters.

So while the university course offers an excellent guide to the pure-data side of bullshit (what items of bullshit look like), allow me to offer some insights into the emotional, psychological manifestation of bullshit (what the process of bullshitting looks like). Some of this I've covered before (and no doubt other people have done so elsewhere much better than me), but it's worth revisiting. So I will. The previous examination was more extensive, but with this post I want to take a more in-depth look at the major aspects of the issue. Without further ado, here are some examples of bullshitting techniques which are largely free of empirical data and why I don't like them.


Focusing on something insignificant



A time-honoured classic of the internet forum. Someone makes a profound statement that it's hard to disagree with or tells a hilarious joke. The bullshit response is to focus on some incredibly petty and irrelevant part of that. It was a joke about something in the Bible ? Go off on one about how God doesn't exist. It isn't done with any degree of tact of humour, it's simply a blunt statement that doesn't even comment on the main point of the original argument. The bullshitter will not back down when questioned, they will keep directing the discussion towards their point and usually personally attack anyone who points out what they're doing.

This is one reason why bullshit is distinct from simply lying or not caring about the truth. A bullshitter's argument with regard to a certain specific point may actually be both logical and correct, but by shifting the focus away from the main point they deny the original argument any progress.


Not responding directly to a (seemingly) straightforward question


One of my pet hates : people who don't respond to a simple question even when you directly state, "I want you to respond to this question". Now, if someone says, "I'm not going to answer that question and let me explain why" then that's more legitimate. At least they've acknowledged that the question was asked, and of course sometimes there are indeed excellent reasons for not answering questions (I'll get to that in the next point). It's those who dodge the question completely that are the real bullshitters.

There are numerous different ways to avoid answering questions. One is to answer a different question instead - this question has to be similar to what was asked but still isn't quite the same. Another is to talk only in terms of general principles rather than specifics. A really first-class bullshit answer would be to make a statement that makes it seem like they've given a decisive yes/no answer without having done so - using a general principle to make it seem like they support/disavow the specific issue in question, presenting things as being mutually compatible/exclusive when in fact they are not. And very often the bullshitter will talk at great length as though their answer must be hidden in there somewhere, even though it isn't. Example :

Q : Do you support a council tax rise to help pay for the restoration of Lincoln Cathedral ?
A : I'm fully committed to using public funds to support all of Britain's ancient public monuments, I've said so many times and my position hasn't changed. My voting record attests to this, unlike the opposition who just want to tear everything down and eat your children. Without the decisive leadership role that this government has played in the maintenance of some of our most valuable heritage, it's clear that this country would have witnessed the wholesale destruction of countless irreplaceable archaeological treasures and I'm proud to be a member of John Smith's progressive and forward-thinking cabinet...

Of course, it's quite possible to give a non-answer that isn't bullshit. That might be the following :

A : Well, as you know, I've always been strongly in favour of using public funds to support our ancient cathedrals. I do support a council tax rise in principle, however, there are specific issues with regards to Lincoln that need to be addressed. So to answer your real question, although I do support the idea, I can't yet guarantee that's the method we'll actually use to raise the funds.


Asking a bullshit question



As the previous point hinted at, it isn't only answers that are bullshit - a more overlooked aspect is that questions can be bullshit as well. Such a question forces an answer whereby the respondent will be perceived as negative (or indeed positive-!) no matter what answer they provide (so long as they answer it directly). Paradoxically they also tend to be vague, because the more vague the question the easier it is to give a woolly answer : "do you support publicly-funded veterinary services ?" versus, "will you increase taxes to help the abandoned kittens in Coventry ?".

Like all forms of bullshit, bullshit questions miss the point. They ask for politicians' personal moral views rather than what they actually plan to do in government. This is why probably 99% of questions about their sex lives are bullshit : "Mr Smith, you're the shadow transport secretary, so how do you respond to allegations that your partook in a Nazi-themed gay orgy-?".

How could Mr Smith respond to this in a sensible way ? He probably couldn't. Refusing to answer on the grounds that it was his personal lifestyle choice would indict him of a legal activity that most people profess to disapprove of - as would the response that his being transport secretary is not relevant. Answering in the affirmative - "oh, we all had a simply fabulous time, I went dressed as Eva Braun..." would be a frankly magnificent comeback*, but alas the general public probably aren't ready. And who would want to disclose their intimate personal activities to the world at large anyway ? Politicians aren't porn stars, thank God**.

* I will give 100 internet points to anyone who actually does this.
** I'm sure there are interesting exceptions to both parts of this statement.

There are (of course) exceptions to personal questions being bullshit. If the accused may have used public money to indulge their personal vices, then the public deserve to know. If they're found to be grossly hypocritical, the public should know that too : "Mr Smith, you ran your campaign on a strong rhetoric of traditional family values and often claimed you were opposed to same-sex marriage, so how do you respond to these allegations ?". Conversely, being personally opposed to whatever sorts of debaucheries one cares to mention but accepting that other people's lifestyle choices are their own to make is not bullshit - it's hypocrisy to demand that others follow rules which you yourself don't obey, not if you yourself choose to live by certain standards which you don't force on others.

The prevalence of bullshit questions from journalists is a big and under-discussed issue. They seem to delight in asking questions that only permit a bullshit response. They confuse the importance of the specifics and the general : they ask for their moral views when they should be asking for their policies, and vice-versa so as to make the politician (or indeed any public figure) look foolish and/or inconsistent. They ask, "do you personally support policy X" when they should be asking, "will you commit to voting for policy X" and insist on asking, "did you make controversial statement Y - YES OR NO !" when they should be asking, "did you really make controversial statement Y and if so could you explain it ?". A yes or no approach does have value - sometimes tremendous value - but it can also be very easily and effectively used for leading questions. They can be woefully misleading and ignore vital wider context.

Consider things from the politician's point of view. They're fully aware of what journalists are doing, so there's really only one way they can respond : with bullshit. They know that whatever minor infraction they commit, the media will attack them with the ferocity of ravenous and rabid piranhas that have been subjected to random electric shocks and forced to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special on a loop. Far safer, then, to give a bullshit answer - hopefully a convincing one if they're really good - as not saying anything at all carries far less consequences than actually saying something of substance. Journalistic bullshit is even so prevalent that politicians usually have to be subjected to extreme force to give a yes or no answer even when that answer does them absolutely no harm whatsoever.

Q : Look, for the last time, please answer my question : do you like Walker's crisps ?
A : I'm generally in favour of the potato as part of a healthy balanced diet, but I have some reservations about the saturated fat content. That's why I'm launching my new healthy eating initiative that aims to educate people about the every-present danger of improperly cooked potatoes...

And so on. As with computer code : bullshit in, bullshit out. No-one can remain principled or honest in this maelstrom of an environment for very long - not when your only escape is to substitute genuine responses with utter crap. You want better politicians ? Then create an environment which doesn't grind people into a powder and feed them to cattle, because that has only one possible outcome. This isn't all the journalists fault, of course - politicians do come up with bullshit entirely of their own accord as well - but it is a large factor in why we have so much of it.

I'm strongly in favour of public figures being rigorously and intensely examined. But "examining" them with pure bullshit is not the right way to do it. Some suggested guidelines :
  • Ask them about what policies they pledge to enact, not what they do or believe in their personal lives except when the two may be in gross conflict.
  • Don't just ask, "did you say this ?", ask, "why did you say this ?". Allow them a chance to explain. If it's a complex issue, this may require some time - but that's far better than insisting they just say yes or no. If they cock up their response, then that's their fault.
  • If someone doesn't seem to be answering a question, ask them why not - sincerely, with genuine curiosity why they're not answering rather than as a way to force them to answer. Ask them directly if they thought the question was misleading. State the purpose of the question at the outset, as an effort to emphasise what the point is you're trying to get at to give them less room for maneuver.
  • Far more importantly - and far more difficult to do - stop treating every single response you disagree with as though it were evidence the luckless interviewee was the spawn of Satan. Unless this stops, the tide of bullshit will never fall.

Attacking straw men



The straw man fallacy refers to when someone attacks a statement that no-one actually made. It's often closely related to the Nirvana/slippery slope fallacies, wherein a moderate position is taken to represent something very extreme. So, "I think we should encourage more people to adopt kittens" gets the response, "But not everyone likes kittens ! Some people are allergic to cat fur !" whereas the original statement did not suggest that everyone should adopt a kitten. Politicians use this in interviews as a way of aggressive self-defence : preemptively attacking any criticism before it's even been made.

While I'm trying to avoid specific real examples here, I'll use one in this case. Ironically it never actually quite becomes a straw man fallacy, but it becomes interestingly close so I think it's worth mentioning. Stephen Sackur of the BBC interviewed New York Times editor Dean Bacquet, regarding his decision to publish secret police images of the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack :

SACKUR : It was all top secret, confidential.
BAQUET : Mmm, no. Actually it was not at the highest level of secrecy. It was at a level of secrecy that made it much more widely dispersed than people are acknowledging. It was not top confidential secret, our story was...
SAKCUR : As far as the police were concerned it was totally confidential.
BAQUET : But there are literal levels of classification and it was not at the top. Which is, the reason that's important - at the very top means very few eyes saw it. This was much more widely distributed.

Surely, though, the real issue is not how many people the police deemed could see the images at all - it's whether they intended it to be made public. "It wasn't the most secret" is a bit like saying that because celebrity sex tapes aren't classified military secrets, it's perfectly okay to publish them. In fairness, the interviewer makes the erroneous statement that the document was top secret, so Baquet isn't quite committing a straw man fallacy here. He is, however, completely missing the point, which is classic bullshit. Sackur continues to emphasise that the documents weren't intended for public release :

SACKUR : This is an ongoing investigation. 48 hours after 22 young people - including children - had been murdered, you chose to put on your front page pictures which the British police regarded as highly sensitive operational information.
BAQUET : And right after that the BBC and the Guardian put 'em on their front pages.
SACKUR : Well that's no justification, cos...
BAQUET : I'm not saying it is, I'm just pointing it out.

The last statement in particular is highly refined bullshit. It makes very little sense at all and completely clouds the issue. It's an aggressive form of defence in that it attacks the interviewer rather than trying to justify the editor's behaviour. His position is untenable, so what does he do ? He attacks someone else instead. Again, not quite a straw man, but perilously close.


Your evidence is no match for my anecdotes


The Nirvana and slippery slope fallacies, which I've covered before, are also forms of bullshit in that they miss the point. Cutting vehicle emissions won't save enough CO2 to stop climate change ? Better not do it at all then. Some people like scrounging off the state ? Better not increase benefits in case we all end up as drug-addled layabouts then. Gun regulation doesn't prevent all murders ? Better to give absolutely everyone a gun instead. These sorts of "arguments" pick individual examples as though it were statistically valid to infer anything from them.

Such responses are another classic technique for politicians to avoid giving a straight answer to a question. If they're asked about specific instances they can respond with statistics :

Q : Don't you think it's a problem that cockroaches were found in the canteen of the local high school ?
A : Under this government school canteen hygiene levels have risen four-fold in the last two years and we expect those improvements to continue, as part of our wider campaign of across-the-board social improvements...

Both the question and the answer are potentially bullshit here. Suppose that overall, the vast majority of school canteens are of objectively high hygiene standards. In that case the question is likely an attempt to force an unnecessary apology, because roaches are a thing and cannot be prevented with 100% efficiency - and ministers don't go around personally wielding bottles of bug spray. They can seldom be held accountable for individual incidents, though they can damn well take the blame for the overall trend. The anecdote in the question is no match for the minister's statistics - and yet the minister hasn't actually answered the question at all.

By the same token, politicians can claim credit for overall improvements. They shouldn't go into schools waving flags about how much better things are in that particular case though, any more than they should be blamed for the exceptions where things didn't work.

Furthermore, though this is straying into the world of data, the minister's claim of a four-fold improvement lacks any detail by which it can be verified (which is another form of bullshit I'll return to later). An improvement of a factor of four may be pathetic if standards are abysmal everywhere. And improvements are all well and good, but which schools have seen an improvement ? How many have seen hygiene standards drop and by how much ? Statistical data is very powerful, and used properly it makes mincemeat out of anecdotes - but it's open to all kinds of abuses. Anecdotes, usefully, are much more black and white. I saw this happening, therefore this is a thing. The problem - the fatal mistake that people so often make - is that they can't tell you anything at all about how often this thing is happening.

Both anecdotes and statistics can be used to bullshit. In general, it's best to respond in kind to each : if a question is about statistics, respond with statistics; if it's about anecdotes, at least begin by addressing that anecdote before employing statistics. Remember that humans naturally learn primarily by personal experience, not statistics. Concerns about individual experiences are entirely legitimate, and if you dive straight into the wider statistics - attempting to brush individual horrors under the carpet of what may well be a genuine wider improvement - without addressing those concerns, you're bullshitting. Conversely, the reverse situation is much simpler : if you attempt to counter statistics with anecdotes, you've almost certainly lost the argument.

The greatest difficulty comes in fighting statistics with other statistics. No such difficulty exists if you have anecdote-versus-anecdote, because it quickly becomes apparent that neither side has the upper hand and it boils down to trust. But who has the most valid statistics ? There's no easy answer to this, but consider the following : unless you've had some degree of statistical training, you're leaving yourself wide open to manipulation. This happens to politicians too, who sometimes have to resort to the crude dismissal, "I dispute those findings" - an information-free, impossible to refute statement that stymies the debate. I'll return to that sort of bullshit later.


Not admitting or apologising for mistakes



This one occurs everywhere. In an ideal world, when incontrovertible evidence is presented to someone that they're wrong, they'd apologise for their mistake and be grateful for having learned something. That isn't what usually happens though. They don't even apologise, much less seem grateful - they just spew out more bullshit and often become aggressive. But is this response really bullshit ?

Perhaps not as much as you might think. For in the ideal world, those who won the argument would say, "My pleasure. It's been a delight conversing with you, let's go for a beer." But they don't. They say instead, "HAH ! I knew I was right you total libtard penis face ! You know NOTHING Jon Snow ! BOO-YAH !". And journalists do much the same, holding every politician's mistake as evidence for their stupidity and poor moral character. People often don't admit they were wrong because they cannot afford to do so - it's less damaging to them to maintain their wrong position than it is to admit its flaws. "Knowledge is power", goes the old axiom. But knowledge is often used as something less subtle than power - a weapon with which to beat people and force them into submission. Knowledge is used as a tool of the oppressor, not to educate and improve the ignorant, but to beat them and demonstrate one's own superiority*. Genuine debates are rare; they all too easily become arguments designed for winners and losers, not a search for the truth. Is it any wonder, then, that elitism has become a dirty word and tribalism is so damaging for science communication ?

* That is, it is used by whoever thinks they have knowledge - regardless of the truth of it - to bludgeon their opponents. I'm not trying to say that librarians are the scum of the Earth or anything daft like that.

This too is of course a form of bullshit. The point of winning an argument should be to improve the world by improving the people you have to share it with - not to be right for the sake of the petty glory that's bestowed on anyone who wins an argument regardless of whether they're right or not. Again, bullshit begets bullshit : garbage in, garbage out. In essence, arguments can occur for the sake of forcing those unnecessary apologies discussed above, not for a genuine effort to establish truth. Like straightforward one-word answers, the simplest common courtesy ("sorry") requires a massive effort to extract because people fear the bullshit that almost inevitably ensues. It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy : I can't say I'm wrong because the press will say that makes me look weak and stupid and that gives ammunition to my opponents so I will actually become weak and stupid, like a hedgehog deliberately exposing its vulnerable belly to a fox.

It's not that we punish people for their mistakes, which can be entirely sensible. It's that we punish them for admitting their mistakes; no attempt is made to establish the reason for the mistakes - thus missing the point entirely. Someone changing their mind because new evidence came along deserves praise, not punishment. The reverse is true of those who change their actions (but not really their true opinion) in order to appease voters. Yet almost no effort is usually made to establish which is the case : a mistake has been admitted, ergo that person must be stupid. We don't stop to consider that there are many reasons someone can reach a stupid conclusion, only one of which is that that person is indeed neurologically inferior.

A political figure recently declared, "I've never changed my stance on anything." To me, that screams dangerous idiot. A person who doesn't change their mind about anything should not be praised but severely scolded, because anyone who thinks that they don't need to respond to different, changing evidence is a senseless lunatic who should probably be kept in a padded room somewhere. If you change your mind, though, then to earn respect you must do two things :
1) State explicitly that you're doing a u-turn. Don't duck this point, because the fact that you've changed your mind is relevant; it's not a bullshit question to ask if your opinion has changed. Do not go to point two without addressing point one. No, not even if you really want to.
2) Explain why you've changed your mind. I repeat, even if you have very good reasons, do not attempt to explain them before addressing point one. State how the evidence has altered to alter your conclusion. This in no way guarantees that you're not a bullshitter; it's merely a necessary but not sufficient condition. We're still gonna judge you on your interpretation of the evidence, you might be a bullshitter anyway... but if you don't explain yourself at all, you are most certainly a bullshitter.

Alternatively you might not have changed your real opinion, but are still changing your actions. Perhaps you think that sponsoring injured kittens is a fantastic thing, but now you don't have any money, so you can't. That's fine - unfortunate, but unavoidable. On the other hand, politicians who change their policies solely because of voter perception are in exactly the same league of dangerous idiots as those who never change their mind at all - they are not listening to the evidence. Political skill is neither standing by your convictions no matter what, nor is it about doing whatever mental idea the braying mob has got hold of at the moment, but about the far trickier ability to steer a course between these two extremes - give the people what they need and persuade them that it's what they want.

If there is a simple point here, it's perhaps that bullshit is neither constancy nor variability of conclusions but inconsistency of thought processes. If you change your stance (be that either your true opinion or stated policy) continuously, then chances are you're also continuously varying your reasons or interpretation of the evidence - because evidence itself seldom varies so rapidly. And if you never change your stance at all, then you must also be altering your reasons since evidence and circumstances do vary. It's not so much that your reasons themselves are variable so much as it is the way in which you reason - what sort of logic or rational arguments (or even irrational ones) by which you justify your conclusion. I'll return to an extreme example of this later.


Presenting narratives without any information content

Really good bullshit has a high degree of "truthiness" to it. It gives the impression of conveying information without actually saying anything - as mentioned, it can make it seem like a question has been answered even though it hasn't. A common, particular tactic is to tell a story. As long as that story relates to the issue at hand, it's very easy to distract people and avoid actually addressing the issue at all.

It doesn't have to be a long story. It can be just a few simple lines. Consider the following stupid quip :


This is of course completely missing the point. It really just says that it requires more skill to be good at difficult things than easy ones, which is fine as far as it goes. But this tells us absolutely nothing about why it's considered to be moral for a man to sleep with many women but immoral for a woman to sleep with many men. It doesn't say why a man should have to play the role of the key or the woman of the lock - why isn't it the other way around ? And why is having sex a moral issue at all ? It's utter bullshit.


Unfalsifiable statements



There's nothing wrong with having an opinion : a belief that something is true despite a lack of evidence. Often opinions are truly subjective - no-one but you can judge your favourite colour or celebrity chef or whatever. You think Gordon Ramsey is the best ? Fine, that can't be judged objectively, and even if it could it wouldn't matter - Gordon's behaviour might entertain you more even if Nigella Lawson could be objectively proven to be more entertaining, somehow.

But holding an opinion does not automatically make an objective matter into a subjective one. Holding the opinion that all eggs are cube-shaped and come from daffodils does not make that statement more valid, it just means you're an idiot. Maybe you still hold that opinion even after watching chickens lay egg after egg - OK, fine, it is "your opinion", but that doesn't mean you're not demonstrably wrong. You don't get to use your opinion to sow doubts where none can exist - that's bullshitting.

Holding opinions is fine, and inevitable where evidence is lacking. Excessively stating, "it's my opinion", however, is a pretty reliable sign of a bullshitter. Similarly, routinely using, "probably" or even worse "possibly" does not bode well. Why don't you actually go and test and investigate your ideas instead of just chuckin' em out there ? Pretty much anything is "possible" to some degree, but not everything is subjective or untestable.  In many cases you can actually go and determine which possibilities are more likely or even really happening; reducing things to vague, unspecific terms like "many cases" is in many cases just bullshitting, especially, in many cases, with excessively excessive tautologous repetition. And as mentioned earlier, "I just think you're wrong" is largely bullshit if someone has presented you with evidence to respond to.

"I dispute these findings" is an interesting one - it's a declarative statement which makes itself true, like saying, "I resign" or "I now pronounce you man and wife". But at it's heart, it's no better than "I just think you're wrong" except that it's easier to deliver with a rhetorical flourish. "Do you know, actually I dispute those findings. Those findings are now disputed and therefore not as valuable as you thought they were."

Take heed, though, not to assume that the use of "weasel words" automatically constitutes bullshit. It's not that simple. For example, if an advert were to say, "scientists may have shown that this shampoo probably causes increased hair vitality and growth" then that is bullshit. Growth can be quantifiably measured, but how do you quantify vitality ? Worse, "may have" and "probably" water the statement down so much it tells you nothing - and conveying no meaningful information in a statement is classic bullshit.

For a counter example let's be more elaborate. Let's imagine there's this sudden plague of owls. Every tree and bush is a mass of white feathery bastards. Pretty soon everything in sight is covered in feathers and owl crap, and the incessant hooting and screeching drives everyone to distraction. Babies can't sleep at night, the mouse population crashes and ecological chaos ensues. The government steps in. They put forward a nice, simple referendum :
Should this country commit itself to reducing the owl population to a stable ecological level within the next 18 months ?
Imagine further that "stable ecological level" is actually a rigorously quantified number and accepted by all. It would be a tough call to declare this one as bullshit - it gets right to point and is scarcely open to misinterpretation. Suppose that the vote is won by 90% of the electorate.

Now it all starts to go wrong. Instead of going on a campaign of humane extermination, the government legalises all forms of owl hunting and anti-cruelty laws are given a special exemption for owls. Brutal traps are laid by the government and "helpful" citizens that leave the owls as a bloody, dying mess for days on end. An equivalent of myxomatosis is introduced which soon spreads to other birds. Soon the cities and countryside are drenched in owl blood and ecological chaos becomes an ecological catastrophe. At this point, it would not be bullshit to say, "Actually, many people in this country probably didn't vote for this." Rather, it would be bullshit of the highest order to insist the initial vote must be "respected" (whatever that means) despite all the changing circumstances and unintended consequences.

Some rough guidelines : having an opinion and expressing it is fine, unless there's actual data to refute it but you judge your opinion to be superior to the data. But conversely, holding to a single data point rather than others is just another variant of the anecdotes-versus-data bullshit tactic - you're just selecting conclusions based on innate preferences rather than trying to from them from the data.


Shifting the goalposts around in a circle



A particularly severe form of a bullshit occurs when one has an underlying position that must be adhered to no matter what. The bullshitter will at first use evidence to support their claim, seeming like an honest though perhaps mistaken individual. However when that evidence is refuted, that refutation is instantly held to be evidence for their true position. It's not that they just shift the goalposts, making them harder to reach... it's that they move the goalposts on a circular track so that they can never be reached. What was initially held to be clear proof of something suddenly shifts to proving the exact opposite. This is more subtle and much harder to refute than the simpler case of demanding more evidence of the same effect.

For example, suppose that your Aunt Nelly doesn't want to go for a walk in case it rains. You don't go for a walk and it doesn't rain. Does that prove that Aunt Nelly was wrong ? No, she says, because if she had gone she'd have had to carry a heavy umbrella and it wouldn't have been any use. So she was right not to go for a walk because Logic. It's a sort of generalisation of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, where definitions are constantly changed so as to exclude whatever the bullshitter wants to exclude.

It's not the act of trying to find a definition that's the problem. It's thinking you already know what the definition is without being able to explain it, and using your internal definition to exclude whatever you like.
It's the sort of reasoning you can't really argue with, because it isn't reasoning at all - it's rationalising. Aunt Nelly had entirely different reasons from those she stated, hence the surface reasons were utterly meaningless (hence the apparent disregard for the truth) - but she held fast to her true intentions. What a total bullshitter.


Too thick a skin



Suppose you now get very cross with Aunt Nelly because you're sick to the teeth of her endless bullshitting. Instead of merely pointing out the inherent circular flaws in her argument, you get really mad and launch a scathing personal attack. How does a normal person react ? They get upset and probably angry. How does a bullshitter like Aunt Nelly respond ? It varies. Of course a bullshitter can get angry and upset as much as anyone - sometimes very much more, even when the attacks were strictly limited to the arguments and not personal at all. But unless the emotions displayed are actually fraudulent, they're not in themselves bullshit - they don't miss the point, they simply are. It would be a difficult task to determine if there's any meaningful correlation between emotion and bullshit, so I won't try. However, I will suggest that another reaction to extreme criticism is a more reliable indicator : doing nothing.

All bullshitters don't care about the truth of their statements. But some don't care about other people because they don't even care about themselves. Why take anyone else's views seriously if you don't care about your own opinions ? Normal people get offended when someone takes swipe at one of their views if they either respect that person and/or their own opinion - it hurts to have a long-held and cherished opinion sincerely challenged, because your brain makes it part of your core identity. You value yourself. So getting emotional - even over-emotional - isn't bullshit, at least not always. Even the majority of bullshitters care about winning the argument, even if they don't care about objective truth. But someone who doesn't care in the least when being personally attacked is probably a bullshitter to the core. They don't place any value on their argument or even themselves. Most of us are able to resist some level of scathing personal attacks if we have little respect for the aggressor - we know their opinion isn't worth much - but a real, extreme bullshitter doesn't care what anyone thinks because they think their own opinion has no value either.

I'd stay away from Aunt Nelly if I were you.


Conclusions

You may be wondering if "bullshit" is just a catch-all term for any logical fallacy or mode of irrational thinking. Certainly there's a large amount of overlap - but there are some aspects of bullshit which can't be described as "fallacies", and a few fallacies which can't really be described as bullshit. Broadly, the more obvious logical fallacies can be fairly called bullshit, but the subtler ones tend to be something different.

Weasel words, for example, can't really be described as a fallacy, and we've seen how they can be used to bullshit, but are not intrinsically bullshit. Similarly statistics and anecdotes can also be bullshit but only in the proper context. Asking a bullshit question isn't really a "fallacy" in any sense either - it's just bad practise. And while bias can certainly be a cause of bullshit, it isn't really bullshit itself.

The "argument from authority" fallacy isn't necessarily bullshit either. If you say, "Stephen Hawking is an expert and he tells us that climate change is a problem", you've certainly made an error - but it's very likely you didn't realise what you were doing. Hawking is an expert, but he's an expert in a different subject. There seems to be a very widespread notion that any sort of scientist is able to comment on any specialist area with the same degree of expertise : would you realise that this isn't the case unless someone pointed out to you have different the various fields of study can be ? If not, you're not necessarily bullshitting by committing this fallacy. In your mind any expert is as good as any other expert, so it's not "missing the point" or "not caring about the facts" to cite an inappropriate expert - it's simply done out of ignorance.

Ignorance can certainly lead to bullshitting. If you're genuinely not aware that anecdotes don't refute statistics, then this fallacy too is perhaps not bullshit either. It's not that the bullshitter is unaware of the truth or correct methods of debate, it's that they don't care about it. They don't even care about being right - at most, they only care about winning the argument. As Plato put it :

"Knowledge is the most perfect barrier against learning", said Frank Herbert. Ignorance too can prevent learning, though it's a more complex case than dealing with certainty. Lacking knowledge doesn't always equate with lack of curiosity. 
This sort of data-free bullshit is much more ambiguous than the data-based bullshit covered in the online course. Even that, though, can arise from pure ignorance rather than a willful attempt to deceive. So one should be very reluctant to call out a statement or activity as bullshit, if one does it at all. If ignorance was the cause then that does not make the statement itself any less bullshit, but it does mean the person may not be a serial bullshitter.* You can reason with someone who's ignorant but interested; you have no hope of reasoning with someone who doesn't want to learn.

*As mentioned earlier, you can have a stupid idea without being physiologically stupid yourself. It's the same with bullshit. We may identify individual statements are being bullshit but that does not mean people who say them have done so with either disregard for the truth or in order to deceive us.

It might be helpful to categorise the depth to which bullshit can effect a person's judgement (the breadth to which they as a whole are affected is another matter - it's common for people to suffer from immense levels of bullshit but only about one specific issue, such is the complexity of the human condition). They are of course just parts of a continuous spectrum, but I would suggest the following :

  1. Aggressively disinterested. The sort of thing that happens when someone finds themselves discussing something they're not interested in and know nothing about, but (for all sorts of reasons) feel compelled to say something anyway. This is the realm of the Dunning-Kruger effect where stupid people don't realise they're stupid, but just a little bit stronger. Even when their ignorance is pointed out to them, they keep arguing instead of just going away. Pretty much everyone alive has been guilty of this at some point; most people at this level can be reasoned with using correct and respectful arguments. These people care about winning just a bit more than they do about the argument itself, which is not very much.
  2. Agenda bias. This is much more dangerous than level 1 and occurs when people care very passionately about winning but hardly at all about being right. They are often genuinely convinced that they are right but don't care about testing their assertion, only in making sure that everyone else believes it too. This often happens with those guilty of absolutist thinking, who are so certain about something that they deem any contrary evidence to be falsified by virtue of disagreeing with their belief. At this stage people can sometimes be pulled back from the brink, but only with immense effort - deep down they do still care about the truth, it's just that they think they've found the truth already. Self-consistency still matters to such people.
  3. Egomaniacs. At this stage redemption is probably impossible. These people do not care about the truth of the argument at all, but they care very deeply about themselves. They want everyone else to acknowledge them as winning the debates but don't have any interest in objective truth. Winning has become a core part of their identity, to lose would not be to admit an error but an act of massive self-harm. These people are especially prone to moving the goalposts around in a circle; if they admit their previous arguments were flawed they will never admit that they themselves were ever wrong. Such people might be manipulated but never reasoned with. Their only redeeming feature is that they care just enough about themselves that they will always try to present themselves as self-consistent, even if it's obvious to everyone else that they are not.
  4. Agents of chaos. The ultimate extreme is someone who not only doesn't care about the arguments but doesn't care about themselves, their own opinion or their reputation. They don't care if they're flatly refuted; they care nothing for self-consistency. They're not seeking approval or even trying to win anything - if they have any kind of agenda at all, these are the sort of people who just want to watch the world burn.

Going from one end to the other, we find people care progressively less and less about the truth and more about winning the argument, their own ego, and finally simply causing chaos. Of course people do not necessarily evolve along a nice sequence : egomania might drive one all the way to level 4, but absolutist thinking (in itself) will never make it past level 2.

The danger level of bullshitting is not so nicely linear. Level 1 is not especially dangerous, it's just very annoying. Level 4's absurdity makes it so easy to spot such people that they hardly ever amount of anything. Those in the middle are perhaps the most dangerous. It's difficult bordering on impossible to reason with such people, but if they sing a tune that people like they can achieve remarkable levels of power and influence. People like reliable facts and dependable people; if they think someone has their best interests at heart then they don't notice even the most blatant of inconsistencies. And it deserves to be repeatedly emphasised that everyone bullshits to some degree and, moreover, everyone goes to extreme levels of bullshitting at least on occasion in some limited topics.

So it does no good at all to shout out either, "BULLSHIT !" or "FALLACY !" at the first breath. In fact it seldom does any good to shout these at all, because no-one likes being told that they're stupid or have done something stupid. Exceptions ? Between friends and family members, maybe. Definitely not with strangers you meet over the internet. But if calling bullshit, in the literal sense, isn't advisable, being able to identify it most certainly is. How you persuade people is another story, but I'd hazard that the golden rule of giving a good presentation also applies : know your audience. Engage in debate and determine as best you can if your opponent is being rational. If they are - and this is the really hard part - be prepared to concede defeat. If you don't do that then you've already lost. But if they're not - if they're following some or all of the typical bullshitting behaviours, then don't bother trying at all. You'll only end up wasting oxygen.

Friday, 26 May 2017

I Told You He Was Tricksy


Absolutes are very comforting things : this is right, that is wrong. Once established, no further thought is required - indeed, an absolute fact can be used to refute anything that disagrees with it. This is extremely powerful, but also potentially very dangerous. What if you're just plain wrong about those facts ?

For some time now I've been trying to convince y'all that science is rarely - but not quite never - about these black-and-white absolute facts. Granted, it has a strong component of factual elements : I measured this result with this instrument using this method. Perhaps the measurements were wrong or the method was not appropriate, but that measurement was taken in that way even so. I even contend that it's possible to establish not merely that things happened but even to prove their underlying causes - though this does require a carefully stated (but by no means unusual or watered-down) definition of proof.

But the scientific method is truly a messy, complex thing. Working out the relations that explain all those disparate facts is seldom as clear as the measurements themselves. And so while I really do like the opening quote very much, I take strong issue with the final statement. That's all there is to it ? Is it really so simple to judge whether something is right or wrong ? Well, not exactly.


Falsifiability Is Nice, Though

At least it's undeniably easier to disprove than to prove something. Whether you can really do this with a single experiment is something we'll come back to later.
Falsifiability is important. You can't just go around saying things like, "I think gravity happens because of Dave the magic farting fox", because that isn't helpful. By what mechanism does this explain gravity ? Does it have something to do with Dave's farts or was this an unrelated additional description ? How would we test for the existence of Dave and his potentially magical farts, or are they so magical that they defy rational analysis ? Perhaps your idea is right, but we can't understand it using science, so it's useless for anyone trying to establish objective truth.

It's obviously much better if it's possible to conduct some experiment which will either confirm the predictions of your theory or find some different result. Now, confirming its predictions doesn't automatically prove your theory. It's still possible that another model would do an equally good job of coming to the same answer by a completely different mechanism - and of course it's possible that new observations would reveal something that your theory didn't predict at all, in addition to what it got right. Don't take the latter case lightly - as the link explains, models can make extremely specific, accurate predictions but still be fundamentally wrong. I call this the "more than one way to skin a cat" principle.


So proving models to be correct is extremely difficult. Not impossible, for reasons I go into at length here - but in short you have to be careful about your definitions. "Proof" must happen within the assumption of an objective, measurable reality in which we're not being fundamentally deceived by our poor senses / Dave's farts / evil demons / Theresa May's witchy powers. Your theory must be carefully stated so that it's as specific as possible - otherwise a single error could be unfairly held to disprove it, when in fact it just needed a very small adjustment*. Properly framed though, the line between theory and fact can indeed become blurred with sufficient evidence.

* Immediately we see that "that's all there is to it" is looking decidedly shakey. Great care must be taken to ensure that the result really does disagree with the fundamental nature of the theory and not some more legitimately tweakable aspect.

But surely disproving a theory is much easier ? It's surely much more decisive when an observation disagrees with prediction, right ? And isn't it absolutely essential to a scientific theory that it should be at least possible to disprove a theory with enough effort ?


Here's Where Things Get Tricksy

With wonderful irony, this mock horoscope is completely and utterly wrong for astronomers. If you felt like really trolling people, you could also argue that because astrologers have told them what's coming based on the positions of the stars and planets and people believe them, then it's surely a self-fulfilling prophecy...

Well for starters being falsifiable is clearly, at best, a necessary but not sufficient condition for a scientific theory. Astrology is falsifiable and is falsified continuously, but that doesn't make it scientific. Without wishing to spend ages on what science actually is, astrology clearly isn't it. Hell, it probably wouldn't even be scientific if it got its predictions right.

But is it even true that it's necessary for an idea to be testable to make it scientific ? If you can't even know if it disagrees with experiment, how can it possibly be scientific ? Doesn't that equate it to the intellectual level of Dave the magical farting fox ?


There are two aspects to this. Sometimes ideas are very difficult to test, and sometimes testing them is fundamentally impossible. Again the boundary between the two can be blurred : if your theory can be tested in principle but only using, say, energy levels comparable to the entire output of the Sun in a million billion squillion years, that is certainly practically impossible. It can't be done in your lifetime. Philosophically though, this is clearly different to the case where no-one will ever be able to test it. Dave's magical farts, you theory might say, might be so damn magical that they defy rational analysis and simply can't be used to make any kind of prediction at all.

Clearly we need some examples from the real world, to show just how messy this can really get.


Yet More Shades Of Grey In the World Of Science. Quelle Surprise.

Ensemble models - false but not false but still useful

Here's a nice one from the world of meteorology. Because the equations of fluid dynamics are incredibly difficult to solve, they have to be simplified. It's completely impractical to solve all of the necessary billions of equations if you wanted to do it perfectly, and it's completely impossible to know absolutely everything about the weather system at any given time. Both theory and observation have intrinsic errors that can't be avoided. So they have to be reduced and simplified - it's that or stop making weather forecasts altogether.

This means that instead of running a nice simple single computer simulation, meteorologists run many - each with slightly different equations and conditions based on observations. Predictions are based on what the majority of models say will happen, but of course sometimes only a few models get it right while most get it wrong. The thing is that this doesn't mean those models are flawed and can be thrown on the fire and spat on in disgust - they're still perfectly valid approximations and in other circumstances may actually give more accurate results than the others. So while both the overall prediction and individual models are falsifiable, that falsifiability doesn't even mean you can say they're fundamentally wrong. It's much more complicated than that. It would be better to think of them only as testable : they might be falsified in this one particular case, but not all.

Example of ensemble models for the path of a hurricane. Most agree very well up to a point : after that they predict radically different paths. Small differences in the models and initial conditions lead to big changes in the end result.

What if you extrapolate falsifiable phenomena to untestable scales ?

Astronomy is awash with examples of ideas that are both difficult and impossible to test. Predictions are often made as to what will happen billions of years in the future, when it's entirely possible the human race will be extinct. And they're also made about things happening billions of years in the past or beyond the observable Universe - things we'll never be able to test. Does this really make them unscientific ? After all, they're based on logic, observations, and testable phenomena on laboratory scales - or indeed on smaller but still astronomical scales and timescales where observations can verify them.


Measurable, useful comparisons do not require falsification

Astronomy also presents good examples of the ambiguity of what "testing" and "falsifiability" mean, further emphasising that they are not the same thing. First, we can't observe the behaviour of individual galactic systems on the necessary timescales. Second, observations generally have large errors in the measurements, because the systems we examine are so faint and distant. So we can test our predictions statistically, e.g. we can see if the population of galaxies in the distant past does what we predict it should have done - we can see how well it agrees with our models. But we can't truly falsify it by checking if individual galaxies behave as we think - there are usually just too many parameters and too many sources of error, so it's often possible to easily explain away a few weird outliers from the overall trend. We can often only determine which model does best rather than which ones are completely impossible.

At least the "weird outliers" in astronomy are often nice to look at.
A simplified example : galaxies in very dense regions tend to have smooth, elliptical shapes, while those in less dense regions tend to be spirals and irregulars. We know there are varying processes which can act to change a galaxy's shape, but which one dominates ? We don't even want to try to falsify which ones happen - because we know they all do - it's just a case of establishing which one has the biggest effect. The effects of the different mechanisms are so complex (and observational errors so large) it's possible we could make any of them work, with enough effort. So which method gives the results closest to reality with the least amount of tweaking ? That's the question we try to answer, which has little or nothing to do with falsifying anything.


Theories can be only partially testable

Just to muddy the waters even more, some theories consist of a mixture of testable and untestable aspects. Inflation predicts that the observable part of the Universe is just a small part of a much larger whole, the majority of which can never have any influence on us at all. It predicts some signatures we can search for, but this most fundamental, dramatic aspect is thoroughly untestable*. And it uses a mixture of complicated mathematical models and hard-nosed observations. So is it science ? Similarly dark matter makes some testable, falsifiable predictions about galaxy cluster interactions, but could rightly be described as unfalsifiable in terms of directly detecting the actual particle in a laboratory - one can always say, "we didn't find anything, so the particle must be harder to detect than that."

* That is, we can't test it directly by flying off to a region of the Universe the theory predicts are forever inaccessible, by definition. More on the standards required for testing/falsifiability later.


Proofs you can't check - who watches the watchers ?

Here's another example - a computer claims to have proved an obscure mathematical theorem but its proof is far too long for any human to ever read. By necessity, this proof must be based on logical deductions, but if it's too long to check then is it really a proof ? This isn't really all that novel either - throughout history, stupid people have stubbornly refused to accept the proofs that cleverer people have come up with. Does that mean that clever people aren't being scientific if they can't explain their ideas to the mentally deficient ? With science becoming increasingly complex and requiring increasing amounts of time to fully understand, this is a real problem. And if scientists don't even fully understand their results, well...


Wiggle room is not cheating, but it can be problematic


And here's another extremely common issue : elephants ! I mean, models which depend on values which can't be determined by observation or experiment. These "free parameters" can be adjusted to get whatever result you like. In severe cases, even when you do have parameters that let you make a testable prediction which is found to be wrong, you might still be able to tweak the parameters so that everything's tickety-boo once again. This is similar to the nature of both dark matter and its alternatives : you can't falsify every possible dark matter particle and you can't falsify every theory of modified gravity. Are these ideas unscientific ?


Doing better than Dave but not very much

What about aliens ? The existence of aliens isn't yet established observationally, but the prospect of their existence is based entirely on scientific findings. Then there's the notion of godlike aliens, chronically invoked as explanations for anything ordinary theories can't account for. Such aliens are consistent with established scientific findings, but in terms of testability they're scarcely better than Dave the magical farting fox. On the other hand, most of the other examples I've just given are clearly much more scientific than Dave the magical farting fox, despite their lack of falsifiability in some areas.


What if it's falsifiable but only far in the future ?


And this popular myth is itself likely false...
Newton's theory of gravity offers a very nice combination of many of the above problems. It gave quantifiable predictions of the behaviour of objects falling under gravity and apparently explained both the small-scale stuff (apples falling from trees) and the very large-scale stuff (planets orbiting the Sun). Apples falling from trees are easy to measure very precisely, and what's more Newton could - if he wanted - change just a single parameter at a time to see what effect it had (e.g. the height of the tree, the mass of the apples).

Such control was trivial on the scale of apple trees, but absolutely impossible in Newton's day on the scale of planetary distances. It remained impossible for another 270 years, when Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite. It still isn't possible on planetary mass scales because we can't appreciably change the orbit of a planetary-mass body. And we can't do controlled tests on galactic distance scales either : like Newton, we can only interpret observations. Which brings us back to dark matter, with some people holding that there must be missing mass to explain the observations (assuming we know the theory is correct, it makes a prediction we can test to some limited extent) and others claiming that the theory of gravity breaks down on really large scales (assuming the theory has been falsified by observations). It's all rather messy, isn't it ?


There's more to science than numerical measurements

Science is really all about the kitties anyway.
One final example to provide another perspective : string theory. Simplifying hugely (it's the principle that matters here more than details), this doesn't provide any testable results that would distinguish it from rival models, but philosophically it solves a lot of problems with standard models. For example, removing the infinite density inside black holes prevents the equations from screaming in agony and gives us meaningful results where previously there were none... but we can't test them. Is it really fair to claim this isn't science solely on the basis of lack of current testability ? It too is a highly sophisticated idea based on other, testable ideas. It solves problems with the existing models. Must we really demand falsifiability as an absolute requirement ?


But We Can At Least Falsify Some Things, Right ?

Of course. But to return briefly to the notion that "if it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong", it's worth noting that even here things aren't always as clear as we might like. Models are often complex, not only because of their fundamental nature but because (as mentioned) they may have many different parameters. Now if, given the known values of the parameters, a model makes a prediction which is then found to be wrong, does that automatically mean the model is wrong ? No - it could be that those known parameter values were simply in error. This does in fact happen sometimes, on those rare occasions when theory proves superior to observational "facts". It's a sort of generalised case of the anthropic principle : accepting a theory as true, you can use it to predict observational values.

It could also be that the model itself needs adjusting. Grey areas rapidly emerge when multiple adjustments are needed : at what point do you say, "we've made so many adjustments that this model is unsalvageable, we should just chuck it right out" ? The notion of crystal spheres and epicycles comes to mind, with early astronomers inventing more and more elaborate, unwieldy theories until eventually they gave way to something very much simpler. So while you often can totally falsify many models, in other cases it's far less clear cut.

But let's not go nuts : it's worth repeating that you can completely falsify some models. If your model predicts the existence of a planet around a star that should be detected by some telescope and no planet is found, then your model is wrong. The key is not to get carried away. Maybe your observations are good enough to rule out the existence of any planet around the star, but often they won't be - they will just put some limit on how massive a planet might be there. That may or may not be sufficient to rule out your model, depending on the details. Your model as originally and precisely stated is wrong, but that doesn't necessarily mean that every single aspect of it is completely bunk.


Conclusion : This Is All Deeply Unsatisfying



Indeed. To recap, falsifiability isn't an absolute necessity :
  • Not all aspects of every theory are falsifiable or even testable, but that doesn't make them useless.
  • Theories can consist of testable elements which can be extrapolated to scales where they cannot be tested.
  • We often can't do controlled testing but are limited to purely observational interpretation, which is subject to some amount of unknown errors - so are falsification is far less rigorous.
  • Sometimes when we can't falsify a theory, we can at least say if it makes better or worse predictions than its rivals.
  • Theories which make no new predictions are still arguably better if they avoid philosophical conundrums or logical paradoxes that plague their rivals.
  • Bizarre though it may seem, falsifying a model doesn't necessarily mean that it's been disproven.
  • Models can often be saved - after seemingly being falsified - by honestly legitimate modifications; it's almost as rare to be able to declare a model truly dead as it is to say it's been proven.
  • There are always grey areas rather than strict boundaries. You can't rigorously define what counts as a legitimate modification to a theory, nor is it sensible to set a time limit within which it should be possible to test your theory if it requires technological advancement to test it.
  • How do you actually define falsifiability anyway ? What if a theorem is so complex that no-one else can even understand it ?
Falsifiability is, however, always a bonus. A theory never becomes worse by being falsifiable. But the demand for falsifiability, like so many other things, is highly beneficial in moderation but can be actually damaging if taken to extremes.

Indeed, really extreme proponents of falsification often tend to be those of the anti-science ilk. Geology, astronomy and anything else which involves deep time, they say, are not really sciences because we can't actually prove anything - no-one left records for billions of years ago for us to check, and we can't wait around to see how galaxies evolve. In a very strict sense, the evolutionary history of life on Earth and the behaviour of stars over cosmic time really can't be falsified.

Such a way of thinking has many parallels with conspiracy theories. It's not that everyone is lying, exactly, it's just that they are demanding impossibly high standards from the evidence which can never be met. By demanding ludicrously high levels of confidence, by refusing to make even the most basic assumptions and give the data some rudimentary level of trust, in short by refusing to even entertain hypothesis for the sake of it, they prevent themselves from learning anything. And they rarely say why they have such confidence in their own senses, which is bizarre given the complexities and many, many demonstrable fallibilities of the human brain.

Science, in a very crude sense, requires a sort of leap of faith - just enough to let you play with the data for the sake of it, just enough to trust that extrapolations are not totally outlandish - but not in such a way that your preferred conclusion becomes sacred and inviolable. Newton applied laws testable in Cambridge to the scale of the Solar System, an act that could be described as one of audacious faith, but he surely wouldn't have defended his ideas if the evidence had gone against them*. While science can often have elements similar to that of faith, it's actually more of a sort of highly elaborate play.

* If the evidence had gone against Newton, he wouldn't have rushed to proclaim himself wrong not (just) because he was a jerk, but because he'd want to be sure which way the evidence was really pointing overall. He'd have known that disproof is a far more subtle concept than a single observation disagreeing with a prediction.

This playful element is sometimes less obvious in the applied sciences like engineering, chemistry and medicine, where a very much higher degree of control and rigour is possible. There, falsification is not only necessary but largely unavoidable. But while it might be nice to hold falsification as a general overarching principle of science, it's a mistake to try and apply this to all sciences in the same way. The standards of falsification possible in engineering are simply impossible to meet in geology, archaeology, astronomy or quantum mechanics.

Yet while the latter disciplines cannot be distinguished from other pursuits by virtue of their falsifiability - which as we've seen is a thoroughly murky area - they are clearly of a different nature to the prospect of Dave the magical farting fox. So if we can't use falsifiability to set them apart, what should we use instead ? I prefer to abandon rigorous absolutes altogether, but there are at least some useful guidelines :
  • Is the theory based on falsifiable components ? Does it at least make some falsifiable predictions even if not all of them can even be tested yet ? Can it be falsified on some scales even if it's impossible to test on others ?
  • If you can't falsify that theory, does it at least make predictions which distinguish it from its rivals so that one can determine which one is more successful ?
  • Does the theory have mathematical rigour even if its observational predictions are untestable ?
  • If the theory offers no new predictions to distinguish it from existing models, does it at least do as well as those models ? And does it improve on any philosophical difficulties of the current ideas ?
The Universe is, of course, under no compulsion to be testable by a bunch of hairless monkeys on an unremarkable rock floating through the cosmic void who think that digital watches are a pretty neat idea. Consequently, falsifiability is always nice to have if you can get it, but if you insist upon it in all circumstances, then you're hindering scientific advancement - not helping it. A theory that isn't falsifiable doesn't become uninteresting; not being able to "solve mysteries" (to use the journalistic vernacular) doesn't mean you can't ask increasingly interesting questions. Right and wrong answers are only a small component of science - for the most part, it's far more interesting than that.

Feynman, of course, understood all this very well. The opening quote is merely a simplification, a lie to children that's a useful introductory teaching aid rather than a fundamental truth. It's a great principle to aspire to, but the reality is much more subtle. So just to prove I'm not out to attack Feynman, let me give him the final word with something I think is much closer to the truth :