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Archive for 24/06/2011

Deliver me from bullshit

A blog posting has made me angry. As I have said before, I dislike reading angry posts and try to avoid writing them myself. But there is a limit and so here I am writing an angry post. Below is the start of a blog on the Psychology Today site in its Sapient Nature blog.

Human beings are different from other, lower-order, animals in several ways. Humans are the only species with the ability to imagine, which allows us to “time travel” (that is, reminisce about past events and imagine future ones) and to conceive of things (products, ideas) that currently don’t exist. We are also the only species to be aware that we are going to die, which, according to some psychologists, is the primary reason we have traditions and culture.

A third way in which we are different from others species is that we are the only ones to feel the need to be busy. Most lower-order animals would presumably be perfectly satisfied to idle their time away. Give a lower-order animal sufficient quantities of food, love, and shelter, and the animal will likely grow to be fat and happy; the animal would have no issues about lazing around and frittering away the rest of its life.

The writer than carries on with a reasonable post on human reactions to boredom. He even quotes evidence for what he says about human boredom. (here) Well done - if you ignore the start of the post.

Why then the first two paragraphs? As they have nothing to do with the main idea of the post, I assume they are a literary flourish. I do not think that it is reasonable to say any-old-dumb-thing just to try to be an interesting writer. Not if you then want to be taken seriously in your third paragraph.

There is a definition of bullshit saying it is not really a lie and its truthfulness is not the point. The speaker of bullshit does not care if what he says is true, sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not. The bullshitter does not even care if you believe him. It is the overall impression that counts. I don’t get the feeling that the blogger cares whether I believe what he has to say about animals. He makes no attempt to convince me – no science, no anecdotes, no logic, no folk wisdom. Of course, there are ideas that are so accepted and acceptable in particular contexts that they need no support. But here we have a PhD in psychology who teaches in a university and edits journals, writing in a prominent psychology site. He should (and probably does) know what statements need support and what do not.

What animals think does not have a single answer. After all ‘animals’ includes everything from sponges to us. But definitely it includes other primates, dogs, elephants, whales and dolphins, crows and parrots. The author is saying, with a straight face, that these particular animals as well as many others (1) cannot imagine (2) do not foretell death (3) do not feel boredom. The death remark is not obviously false, probably even true, but also probably not the primary cause of anything so important as culture. The other two remarks are controversial at best and unacceptable at worst. Some people would accept them but many wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. In previous postings I have dealt with various aspects of animal thought so I am not going to repeat them here. The point I am making is that the area is controversial and therefore bold sweeping statements cannot be made without some support.

But for bullshit none of this matters. It was the bullshit that made me mad. If I thought that the writer actually believed his first two paragraphs were about anything except setting a tone for the rest of the post, I would have disagreed but not felt angry. I have a vision of the author thinking about how to make a piece about boredom interesting. They can’t think of anything original so they use the ‘only humans can x’ hook. That should make readers feel warm inside. They know that a great many ‘only humans can x’ have been discredited but does that matter. No need to look this one up – their readers will not care. Well I do. And if I was a zoo keeper who spend hours every day trying to keep the animals from going stir-crazy, I would care even more.