The Art of Crap Detection

Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down. — ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The purpose of a liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for two reasons: 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 brothers and sisters 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 would call this fact to our attention — let alone point a way out.

Much of what we hear from pundits and politicians of any stripe is foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. And often the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject are pure foolishness — otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply, crap.

Avoiding stories that undermine your credibility

One place that crap easily enters our thinking, reading, and writing is the anecdote that’s inaccurate — or simply untrue.

Consider the infamous boiling frog story, for example.

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • 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 subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

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

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that this story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company  folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit also debunked this story, confirming Wiseman on this point.

The bullshit industrial complex

I wanted to cheer after reading The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex by Sean Blanda. This is about another aspect of crap detection — sniffing out fake expertise.

“Don’t fall into the trap of being an expert before you’re ready,” Sean wrote. “We have enough of those.”

As editor of 99u, Sean gets pitches from people who want to write for the website or speak at company’s conferences for creative professionals. In the worst of these pitches, he says:

…there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

Sean also presents a continuum that goes from credibility to bullshit. He identifies the following levels:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Groups 5+: And downward….

Our path to freedom from the Bullshit Industrial Complex is to remember that Group 1 sources exist in every field. And, our job is to find them.

If you’re a critical reader of self-help material, for example, Group 1 includes researchers who write well — academics who stay close to the data and have a source of income beyond speaking fees and book royalties.

Notable examples include Martin Seligman, Richard Wiseman, Sojna Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Timothy Wilson, BJ Fogg, Orin Davis, and creators of  evidence-based psychotherapies.

I trust such people because they abide by the ethics of responsible scholarship.

They go beyond anecdotes to test their ideas with well-designed studies.

They know the professional literature and cite their sources.

They distinguish between hunches and statements that are supported by evidence.

Most of all, Group 1 sources openly acknowledge the possible objections to their ideas and state the limitations in applying them.

This gets to the heart of the scientific method, which includes a deliberate search for evidence that refutes your hypothesis — and an admission that nothing is ever proven.

Revision as crap detecting

Our constant challenge as writers and speakers to dwell above the “line of bullshit demarcation.” Our daily job is to create original work that goes beyond aggregating the content of other aggregators — even when mindless mash-ups win shares, likes, and other hollow dings of social approval.

This is hard work. It means cultivating the timeless virtues of honesty and humility — qualities that can go down the toilet when there’s a book to promote or a mailing list to build.

Writers have another name for crap-detection — revision. We scour our work for:

  • Words that have no real meaning
  • Assertions that violate logic
  • Arguments that have little or no supporting evidence
  • Sentences that are ugly
  • Stories that are not based on direct personal experience or credible sources

Revision is not a luxury. If we skip this step, our readers will be only too happy to point out the resulting crap.

In a masterful essay, Paul Graham reminds us that speakers can miss this opportunity for crap detecting. We let charismatic speakers get away with illogical statements, unsupported assertions, and other species of crap.

Writers, on the other hand, don’t get a pass. The fluff that you can dish out during a speech looks vacuous on paper or screen. Those words words don’t lie. They stare back at you. They help you decide whether to start revising or find some career other than writing.

This is one reason for every idea entrepreneur to write a book. Writing is not just about making money or building a brand or getting speaking gigs or looking good. It’s about discovering whether you actually have anything to say.

If you’re in the business of selling ideas, information, or instructions, this means everything.

By the way, it’s fine to discover that your work is full of crap. Just make this discovery as early as possible.

Masters of crap detection

Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. I’m glad to say that there are refresher courses from two esteemed teachers. They’re both dead, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to crap detection. Their teachings are still available.

The first teacher is George Orwell, whose essay Politics and the English Language is an ode to crap detection.

The second is Neil Postman, who carried on the Orwellian tradition with another classic essay, Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.

But please be careful. Be on guard. Be ever vigilant. Because anything you read — including the stuff I write — might just be pure, unadulterated crap.

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