Why Calling BS is Important

by Mike Sententia on February 16, 2012

You found my old blog. Thanks for visiting! For my new writing, visit mikesententia.com.

Update: Ananael filled me in on some backstory of the quote. Apparently, it was intended to be satire. Looks like I’ve fallen into the trap of taking a satire seriously and railing against it. My bad. I’m leaving the posts up because (1) I believe in owning up to mistakes, not covering them up, and (2) these posts might be useful someday, when I have some legit word games to call BS on.

Yesterday’s post about calling BS on faux-wisdom didn’t come out quite right. I focused on how to recognize it, not why calling BS is important. But I think this topic is important, so I’m going to take another shot.

I’ll post about quartz later today, too.

There are some statements that are concrete and fair, but simply inaccurate. “Magick works by known psychological principles (your love spell gave you the confidence to talk to people), or by placebo.” The person is making a strong, factual statement, which they presumably believe. The correct response is to respectfully cite experiences and results that are inconsistent with their belief, to change their mind.

Then there are statements that are intentionally hard to pin down, like “Magick is all in your mind, but you have no idea how big your mind is. It includes everything around you.” Here, the person is not trying to explain their view of magick as clearly as possible. No, they’re playing word games, sounding like they’re saying one thing, then re-defining a word to say something completely different, so it sounds deep without really saying anything.

Even if you can’t say why, faux-wisdom doesn’t sound quite right. It makes science-minded people not take the speaker seriously. And established, widely-repeated faux-wisdom makes the whole community look bad.

Mostly, we encounter inaccurate but sincere beliefs, presented as well as the writer can manage. And so, our default response is respectful disagreement. Which is a good thing: We all benefit by having discussions rather than flame wars, and I’ve been glad for that tone in my comments.

But that doesn’t work for intentionally-confusing faux-wisdom. The meaning will shift throughout the discussion, and you just wind up talking in the same circles as the original speaker. Like arguing with a fool (“Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” -Mark Twain), listeners can’t tell who’s the charlatan and who’s the one trying to speak clearly. The person spouting the faux-wisdom gets to feel wise for having a “deep, thought-provoking discussion.” (You’ve heard that response, haven’t you?) Logically refuting faux-wisdom won’t get rid of it.

I think there’s a parallel with televised debates between biologists and creationists, where simply entering the debate was the wrong move, though I can’t quite pin down the analogy.

That’s why we need to simply call BS on fake wisdom, particularly when it comes from an established, respected source.

To quote myself from the comments: If it were a non-writer or a new blogger, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. But when an established writer starts a popular meme by speaking in circles, I think we need to address what he said, not what he meant, and call BS. (He’s a professional writer, so we can assume he knows how to write clearly, and simply chose not to). The problem isn’t the idea itself, it’s the word-games and circular logic in the presentation.

If you liked this post, consider visiting my current blog at mikesententia.com.

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