The Art of Crap Detection

One purpose of liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for one simple reason.

Because you are a fool. 

And so am I.

Please do not be offended by the above statements. They are cause for compassion, not criticism. 

We are all partners in fool-hood. We live, move, and have our being in foolishness. 

And it’s not our fault. We are born into foolishness, and precious few are the voices that call this fact to our attention—let alone point a way out.

Crap as commodity

Pundits and politicians of all stripes utter foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. 

Sometimes the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject are pure foolishness.

This is otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply: crap. 

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

That’s not exactly a warm fuzzy. But what a useful insight. 

Hemingway was not the wisest or most compassionate member of the human race. But on this point he was right: Crap detection calls for eternal vigilance.

Finding mentors in crap-detecting

Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. Fortunately we can find mentors in this craft. 

Many of these folks are dead, but that matters little. Crap is timeless, and so are the ways to avoid it. 

One beacon is “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection,” a 1969 speech by Neil Postman.

Also check out On Bullshit, by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt.

My favorite anthem to crap detection is Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. It’s worth re-reading every year or two.

According to Orwell, we utter crap when we string together:

  • Words that have no clear meaning
  • Assertions that violate logic
  • Arguments that have little or no supporting evidence
  • Sentences that are unnecessarily ugly 

These guidelines get to the heart of crap detection. To them I humbly add a couple of my own.

Beware the oft-told story

Case in point: the “boiling frog” story. Though there are countless versions of it, the key points are:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail—to their peril—to notice gradual and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

The Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company’s website nailed it with Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant

This article quotes two biologists who point out that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The bottom line: When I hear an anecdote more than three times, my crap detector glows red.

Avoid brand-building books

I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Dave Logan about the banality of many business books. He describes them as “air sandwiches”—first and last chapters with little of substance in between. 

“One of my mentors told me to read the first and last chapters of a book,” Logan writes, “because everything in the middle is either stories or takeaways so simple that watching Mr. Rogers is a better use of your time.”

I’m afraid these comments apply to many nonfiction books beyond business titles. This is especially true in the era of brand-building books, commonly published by consultants who want to boost their credibility and build their client base.

A few of these books are actually worth your time. But a great many of them are simply overgrown business cards.

Are you thinking about writing a book to build your brand? If so, start by asking some inconvenient questions:

  • Do I have a book-length idea—one that actually merits 50,000 words? Or, do I actually have a magazine article? Or a blog post?
  • Can I support my thesis with something more than personal anecdotes?
  • Can I balance clarity with complexity—that is, offer credible solutions without over-simplifying the problem at hand?
  • Can I go beyond superficial take-aways and help readers to do the hard work of thinking?

For more guidance, see Should You Write a Book? by John Butman and his own book—Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Ideas.

In any case, please be careful. Because anything you read—including some of what you find on this very website—might be pure, unadulterated crap.