Calling BS

You have to be wary of newspaper articles published on 1 April, but I think this one is genuine. The Guardian on Monday contained a report about scientific research into bullshit. Or more specifically, a scientific/statistical study into the demographics of bullshitting.

Now, to make any sense of this, it’s important first to understand what bullshit is. ¬†Bullshit is different from lying. The standard treatise in this field is ‘On Bullshit‘ by Harry Frankfurt. I’m not kidding. He writes:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction

In other words, bullshitting is providing a version of events that gives the impression you know what you are talking about, when in fact you don’t.

Unfortunately, standard dictionaries tend to define bullshitting as something like ‘talking nonsense’, though this is – irony alert – bullshit. This article¬†explains why and includes the following example. Consider the phrase

Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.

It argues that since the sentence is grammatically correct, but intellectually meaningless, it is an example of bullshit. On the other hand, the same set of words in a different order, for example

Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract.

are simply nonsense. Since they lack grammatical structure, the author isn’t bullshitting. He’s just talking garbage.

So, bullshit is different from lying in that the bullshitter will generally not know the truth; and it’s different from nonsense in that it has specific intent to deceive or misdirect.

But back to the Guardian article. The statistical study it refers to reveals a number of interesting outcomes:

  • Boys bullshit more than girls;
  • Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to bullshit more than those from poorer backgrounds;
  • North Americans bullshit the most (among the countries studied);
  • Bullshitters tend to perceive themselves as self-confident and high achievers.

If only I could think of an example of a self-confident, North American male from a wealthy background with a strong tendency to disseminate bullshit in order to illustrate these points.

But what’s all this got to do with Statistics? Well, it cuts both ways. First, the cool logic of Statistics can be used to identify and correct bullshit. Indeed, if you happen to study at the University of Washington, you can enrol for the course ‘Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World‘, which is dedicated to the subject. The objectives for this course, as listed in its¬†syllabus, are that after the course you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

I especially like the fact that after following this course you’ll be well-equipped to take on both the renegade hippy and racist wings of your family.

So that’s the good side of things. On the bad side, it’s extremely easy to use Statistics to disseminate bullshit. Partly because not everyone is sufficiently clued-up to really understand statistical concepts and to be critical when confronted with them; and partly because, even if you have a good statistical knowledge and are appropriately sceptical, you’re still likely to have to rely on the accuracy of the analysis, without access to the data on which they were based.

For example, this article, which is an interesting read on the subject of Statistics and bullshit, discusses a widely circulated fact, attributed to the Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco, that:

81% of white homicide victims were killed by blacks

Except, it turns out, that the Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco doesn’t exist and FBI figures actually suggest that 80% of white murder victims were killed by other white people. So, it’s a bullshit statement attributed to ¬†a bullshit organisation. But with social media, the dissemination of these mis-truths becomes viral, and it becomes impossible to enable corrections with actual facts. Indeed, the above statement was included in an image posted to twitter by Donald Trump during his election campaign: full story here. And that tweet alone got almost 7000 retweets. So though, using reliable statistics, the claim is easily disproved, the message is already spread and the damage done.

So, welcome to Statistics: helping, and helping fight, bullshit.




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