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Knowing It From Shinola: An Academic Looks at "Malarkey"

Tho' I am not naturally honest, I am sometimes so by chance. –The Winter's Tale

Key points

  • "Bull" is not the same as lying.
  • Tribal, emotional, and self-interested beliefs can interfere with our ability to combat problem thinking.
  • It is important to teach young people the basis for evidence-based knowledge, both in high schools and in higher education.

In 1958, China’s supreme leader, Mao Zedong, declared a national war on agricultural pests. He decided that rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows were consuming or otherwise fouling stored grain, thereby creating shortages. The entire nation was ordered to prioritize eradication of these creatures.

The eradication of sparrows was so successful that populations of locusts and other crop-destroying insects exploded. With their avian predators decimated, the bugs proliferated out of control. Within two years, the plan had to be abandoned. In 1962, China actually imported 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to fight the pestilence of insects.

Mao’s unsubstantiated assumption that sparrows were causing grain shortages resulted in a famine that killed about 36 million people—six times more than died in the Holocaust. The tragedy was exacerbated by the fact that no one was prepared to tell Chairman Mao that he was wrong.

Bull Runs Free

John V. Petrocelli cites Mao’s war on sparrows in his new book, The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullsh*t, as an example of how bullsh*t can be not only an annoyance but downright dangerous as well. Petrocelli, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, has developed a bullsh*t rating scale (the “Bullsh*t Flies Index,” since flies are attracted to bovine droppings). He rates bullsh*t on a scale of one to three flies.

One fly indicates essentially harmless bullsh*t, such as more nuns live in Chicago than any other U.S. city. (I just made that up. I don’t know where most nuns live.) Two flies indicate “bad” bullsh*t, such as a used car dealer claiming that “This car has never been wrecked,” when he doesn’t know if that’s true or not. Three flies designate bullsh*t that’s “dangerous.” Chairman Mao’s sparrow malarkey rates three flies, as does Donald Trump’s claim that injecting bleach might be a remedy against COVID-19. At least five states reported increased calls to poison control in the days immediately following his remarks, with reports of people “ingesting disinfectants like Lysol.”

Petrocelli emphasizes that bullsh*tting is not the same thing as lying. A liar knows that he or she is misstating facts and intends to deceive. A bullsh*tter doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and may be indifferent to whether his or her statements are believed. “The degree to which something qualifies as bullsh*t is inversely proportional to the degree to which the claim is based on truth, genuine evidence, and/or established knowledge,” Petrocelli writes. Once we sniff out bullsh*t, our higher-order thinking skills can kick in. The book emphasizes the development and application of critical-thinking skills as our best defense.

Bull Fighting

I was listening to a talk radio show one day when one of the callers said, “I’m a Republican, so I’m not sure I believe in climate change.” Well, that’s interesting. I’m a psychologist, so I’m not sure I believe in the International Space Station (ISS). But whether the ISS exists is a question independent of the fact that I’m a psychologist. And whether climate change is real bears no relation to whether that caller is a Republican, Rastafarian, or Klingon.

This is the kind of “problem thinking” Petrocelli addresses. First, there is no reason why someone should publicly volunteer an unforced and uninformed opinion on climate change or any other topic. Second, the caller’s climate change thinking appears to be a matter of group orthodoxy rather than science. The same dynamic occurs among fundamentalist Christians who reject evolution because their churches preach creationism. It also occurred among the millions who refused to mask up and get vaccinated during the height of COVID-19—many of them also berating those who did take precautions.

The erosion of respect for evidence-based knowledge in favor of tribal, emotional, or self-interested beliefs is ample justification for this book at this time. It is especially important to teach young people the basis for evidence-based knowledge, both in high schools and in higher education. What better way to capture their attention and interest than to expose bullsh*t and then lead them toward the light with research-based examples? I recommend The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullsh*t to anyone interested in this vital topic, and that’s no bull.

If you’re really successful at bullsh*tting, it means you’re not hanging around enough people smarter than you. –Neil deGrasse Tyson

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.