Bullshit Detectors

0. Introduction

When reading blogs, watching the news, or listening to friends, it is very easy to get railroaded into agreeing with a position that makes you uneasy. The most popular rhetorical trick is to argue a position in such a way that the average individual must yield to expert opinions; since no one is an expert in everything, this tactic is always successful if it is allowed to proceed. I will give a few heuristics that I have found helpful in avoiding rhetorical disaster. These are all meant to be used with an internal dialogue in your head, they are not meant for argumentation. You ask yourself these kinds of questions to get at a real question you might pose when faced with something that smells suspiciously like bullshit.

1. Marginalism

Thinking on the margin is the best way to avoid getting bogged down in details. Roughly, thinking with marginalism is asking questions about how to accomplish the next thing. If you’re talking about savings, it’s about where the next ten dollars will come from. If you’re talking about food, it’s about where the next meal is going to come from. Marginal thinking by itself is not necessarily the way to deal with all problems, though, because what is the best margin to look at isn’t always clear.

In politics, the talk often revolves around money. Money is the eternal tarpit for political rhetoric. Politician P wants to do something, and the shill/plant/well-intentioned idiot asks, “Yeah but how are you going to pay for it?” This question is madness. The US and most western countries already can’t pay for most of what is being done, so any answer is going to be a tsunami of crazy talk. But there is a question you can ask yourself when someone suggests such a plan: where are the people that are going to do it coming from?

Money is like engine oil, and people are the fuel. People do things, not money; when money “does work” it does so by inducing people to do something or other that they wouldn’t otherwise have done. So if Politician P says, “We need to have public education,” the first thought should be, “He means we don’t have enough education, and if we make it public, more people will be educated.” The next thought should be, “Where are we going to get the teachers?” I mean, more students is the goal, and more students need more teachers. Where is the next teacher going to come from? (I assume we don’t have a ton of teachers just sitting around on food stamps.)

Well, for something like the STEM fields we’ll have to spend money to lure people out of industry into education. OK, so who is going to be in industry, then? I mean, they were already doing work in industry, so those that are lured away will have to be replaced, and where are they going to come from? Suddenly the details of this are not so clear. Maybe they can’t be replaced at all, which might be an economic disaster, since the economy will shrink and then, four to eight years later when all the new students graduate they won’t be able to find work.

When the Bush, Jr. administration pushed for the DHS and TSA, my first thought was, “Where are we going to get law enforcement officers from? Do we have a glut of honest cops somewhere?” My answer was “yes, decrease the war on drugs and move resources from it to DHS which ostensibly has a higher relative priority.” But they didn’t do that. So where did the cops come from? Unemployment maybe was a source, but do you think there was enough LEO-material in the ranks of the unemployed? Is that your impression when you go to the airport?

When humans get scarce for whatever reason, technology can step in to solve the problem. My guess is that this is why the police have militarized so much: not because of some shadowy conspiracy against the public, but because cops who were already doing work have been lured away from those positions to newly-created positions and there was not enough idle LEO-material to plug the gaps. This will only get worse if we attempt to enforce more laws. For instance, if Trump wants us to fight illegal immigration harder, where are these LEOs supposed to come from? Asking him where he’s going to get money to pay for the wall (or where Mexico is) is more of this meaningless details, neither Mexico nor the US can “afford” anything. Where are the border patrol agents going to come from? Maybe we scrap the ATF?

2. Physics

Physical intuition is a great source of bullshit clearing ability. You don’t need to understand particle physics or solve second order differential equations to use it, you just need to find an analogy to some physical system. Since these are analogies they cannot prove anything and may still lead you to err, but as a first pass bullshit check physics is very powerful. I find physics to be most helpful when dealing with economic questions that marginalism doesn’t seem to help with.

For example, suppose someone suggests that we should increase taxes on some group—it doesn’t matter who, let’s say it is corporations. So what I do is picture an engine. It is not running at full capacity, and it is not efficient. Now I wish to put some load on this engine. What has to happen? It either needs more fuel or it needs to be more efficient. But really we’re not talking about one engine, we’re talking about thousands of them, an engine for each corporation. Are all these engines actually the same? No, they aren’t. Some are probably pretty inefficient so maybe putting a load on them will cause the maintainer to increase efficiency first. But some probably are pretty efficient already, and the only thing we’re doing by increasing a load is causing it to need more fuel or fail. But taxes don’t give a source of fuel, so they’ll just fail. So in this picture, do I think there is so much inefficiency that we will increase efficiency faster than we lose power output from some engines failing?

It is very easy to think about taxing a group when someone already offers you a characteristic example, maybe some evil bank, maybe some horrible oil company full of externalities, whatever. What the physical bullshit detector makes you do is unthink the characteristic example. Maybe sticking it to the oil companies isn’t worth the cost to some other industries after all, because you were picturing Big Oil but not your local sandwich shop that makes the best steak and cheese at a good price.

The physical analogy does help understand why research has shown that modest increases in the minimum wage haven’t resulted in some kind of ultraviolet catastrophe. Businesses have a lot of little knobs to turn, of which increasing the prices of their offerings is just one. And businesses that pay minimum wage are usually of some particular characteristics that are easier to understand. But there is a limit somewhere: eventually the next twenty-five cents an hour is going to cause some engines to start failing because there’s no efficiency gains that are cheaper to implement. Enter principles.

3. Principles

The great thing about opinions is that everyone has a lot of them. The bad thing is that most people don’t spend a lot of time trying to organize them in some fashion. A rhetorical argument trick that can help you wade through someone’s bullshit is the slippery slope.

The slippery slope is, without question, one of the worst arguments people make and for some reason it is really appealing. I think I know why it is appealing, and it is a good bullshit detector, even if it isn’t worth ever using in a discussion. The problem with the slippery slope is simple: commitment to a course of action today does not commit us to following it again tomorrow.

Suppose shill/plant/useful-idiot is telling you about something “we” should do. In your head, you elevate it to a principle and apply the slippery slope, see where it leads, and then ask yourself: has anything this person has told me indicated what counter-principles are at play which would stop us from sliding all the way down? Before you even bring this up, use the time to create such a principle, it doesn’t matter if you agree with it or you think your conversation partner would agree with it, just have one in mind. If you can’t quickly come up with one, chances are someone is bullshitting you pretty hard.

This is the “women in STEM” issue. Premise: there aren’t enough women in STEM, we need more. Slide: only women should be in STEM. Stop: we should stop pushing women in STEM when we reach parity. All good? OK. What if that parity means we have 100% women in mathematics and 100% men in engineering? Was women in STEM really the issue? Suppose we already have roughly the correct number of people in STEM fields, so when more women enter STEM they necessarily push men into some other field—gender studies, perhaps? We push engineers-to-be into gender studies, is this the goal at work?

All sorts of useful questions come up here, good angles with which to further probe your conversation partner to see if you understand their position, or indeed if they even understand their position (it’s only polite to assume they do but there’s no prior reason to suppose it).

Never, under any circumstances, argue from a slippery slope, but use it to start an internal dialogue that gets you to questions that will help the three blind men discover the elephant.

Minimum wage is another principle issue. Someone says it should be $15 an hour, the slippery sloper asks why not make it $50 an hour or $100 an hour? Dumb question to actually ask anyone but yourself. But you can ask yourself, what stops this person from saying it should be $50 an hour? Probably they have some standard of living in mind. What is that standard? I saw an article talking about the wage needed to “live comfortably” in a two-bedroom apartment in various states in the US. Why this standard? Sure, there are people who need to try to support a family on low wages but is the suggestion seriously that all workers affected by this are of this class? Because if not, we’re just attempting to engineer a massive transfer of money to a small group of people and I’d bet there sure as hell is a better way to do this. All you have to do is compare rents in a major city to rents 30 minutes outside the city to see that increasing the minimum wage everywhere is almost certainly the super wrong way to help the target class of people.

Personally I like it that some cities are starting to push for their own wage floors, not because I like wage floors particularly but because it is at least targeted to the problem and makes some internal sense. And if your conversational partner doesn’t like this plan because it is just going to hurt business in the city (where am I going to get my 2PM latte from you shitlord?!) then you know they’re bullshitting because it can’t possibly make the situation better to hurt business everywhere.

4. Target Answers

It’s important to have a good bullshit detector to aid in conversation or when reading the news. But it’s not good to simply ask a bunch of “didja think about THIS” questions, spraying questions you don’t want answers to everywhere. Use your internal dialogue time to ask yourself questions to narrow down the questions you want to ask to at least one question you actually want an answer to. If you are trying to lay rhetorical traps, you’ve not had enough internal dialog. If the issues you’re discussing are important then don’t treat it like a blitz game of chess. Get to the heart of the issues and find questions that you can’t internally resolve in your favor (or your opponent’s favor) and then ask those and really listen to the answers.

If you’re not prepared to listen to the answers then you’re not even having a conversation. (99% of the internet.) Don’t waste your time or their time, because you asking dumb questions isn’t going to do anything but reinforce their beliefs and reinforce your own.

If you’ve asked a good question, I mean a really good one, they won’t know the answer. This doesn’t mean they’re bullshitting you, but it does mean there was a chance they were bullshitting themselves and now have to resolve the matter independently. Politely let the issue drop and grab a beer.

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