Press releases are the lifeblood of journalist enterprise. These let editors and writer know when something new happens or a new product is launched at a company we are interested. For me, these were more important when I worked at magazines. Even now they help when I hear about something and I want the company’s words describing what they are up to.
We quickly learn which are the companies and the PR people we can trust and listen to and which send either off-target things or fill their prose with fluff. A friend once ran a “PR Hall of Shame” with the worst examples of press releases. I told him he was a bit off the mark. Usually the culprit is not the professional PR person. Look instead to the marketing manager or the business owner for the culprit who packs as much vague and meaningless jargon as possible into the prose.
With that background and context, I introduce an article from one of my favorite sites—Big Think. A philosopher’s guide to detecting nonsense and getting around it by Scotty Hendricks.
- A professor in Sweden has a bold on idea on what BS, pseudoscience, and pseudophilosophy actually are.
- He suggests they are defined by a lack of “epistemic conscientiousness” rather than merely being false.
- He offers suggestions on how to avoid producing nonsense and how to identify it on sight.
There is a lot of BS going around these days. Fake cures for disease are being passed off by unscrupulous hacks, the idea that the world is flat has a shocking amount of sincere support online, and plenty of people like to suggest there isn’t a scientific consensus on climate change. It can be hard to keep track of it all.
Even worse, it can be difficult to easily define all of it in a way that lets people know what they’re encountering is nonsense right away. Luckily for us, Dr. Victor Moberger recently published an essay in Theoria on what counts as bullsh*t, how it interacts with pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy, and what to do about it.
The essay “Bullshit, Pseudoscience and Pseudophilosophy” considers much of the nonsense we encounter and offers a definition that allows us to move forward in dealing with it.
Dr. Moberger argues that what makes something bullshit is a “lack of epistemic conscientiousness,” meaning that the person arguing for it takes no care to assure the truth of their statements. This typically manifests in systemic errors in reasoning and the frequent use of logical fallacies such as ad hominem, red herring, false dilemma, and cherry picking, among others.
This makes bullsh*t different from lying, which involves caring what the truth is and purposely moving away from it, or mere indifference to truth, as it is quite possible for people pushing nonsense to care about their nonsense being true. It also makes it different from making the occasional mistake with reasoning, occasional errors differ from a systemic reliance on them.
I think this professor is generous, but also he has put his finger on the correct pulse. What do you think?