When I enrolled in “Detecting Bullshit in the Modern Age,” taught by Dr. Kelly O’Donnell at the Macaulay Honors building, I thought I’d be learning about fake news. Fake news was the first thing that came to mind when I saw “bullshit” and “modern age” in the course title. In reality, the course entails much more than that — we haven’t gotten up to fake news yet — and it only raises more concern about the amount of bullshit that exists.
Dr. O’Donnell has covered everything from the definition of bullshit, to publication bias. You might be wondering how to actually define “bullshit.” We’ve read a few texts that had different definitions, but I particularly liked Harry Frankfurt’s explanation from his paper “On Bullshit”:
What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
Essentially, Frankfurt’s definition refers more to the bullshitter’s ability to persuade, discounting the truthfulness of the bullshit. To put this into perspective, just think about the amount of bullshit that spread following the Parkland high school shooting — trolls and conspiracy theorists posting all sorts of wild things on social media. Sure, in this case, the bullshit was false, but these sadistic (yes, I’ll just say it) individuals care more about sharing this misinformation to a wider audience. For some reason, they just feel more joy from doing that.
That’s a more obvious example of bullshit…in terms of the media industry. Dr. O’Donnell also taught the class about the bullshit ingrained into scientific journals, which unfortunately involves young, naive scientists getting conned out of their money. This could be from fake “con-ferences” (ha, get it?), fees requested by predatory journals and so on. In the case of predatory journals, they prey on a fault in the world of scientific publishing — scientists gain more credibility by publishing more journal articles, which sadly takes a lot of time and money. Predatory journals offer little to no peer-review process, thus speeding up the publication time. In addition, their publication fees are generally much lower than a reputable journal that is actually real, thus attracting scientists who are looking for cheaper and quicker ways to get published.
In the world of scientific publishing are faults in the peer-review process. Ideally, any publication would have high standards when reviewing its article submissions, but there have been many instances when that hasn’t been the case. There have been many interesting, borderline-unethical experiments scientists have done to test whether a journal — predatory or not — would accept an article they come up with that’s utter nonsense. (One case we read about involved a scientist who typed an entire abstract using his iPhone’s predictive text function.) Sure, those particular examples could be considered unethical, but they at least involve scientists who were just doing it to analyze the peer-review process. What about the scientists who take advantage of these flaws to the peer-review process by submitting bullshit papers to boost their prestige? Yes, that’s happened — I can guarantee you, thousands of times. If you’d like to learn more about this, you should definitely check out Retraction Watch, which tracks papers that have been retracted due to scientific misconduct.
So, how do we, as a society, counter this bullshit? It’s much easier said than done, but it starts with media literacy — being able to access, analyze and evaluate information. That might seem simple enough, but the term has an even more complex layer in its definition in the 21st century. Essentially, that layer means people’s ability to detect when they’re being presented with bullshit.
Whether it’s the media or scientific publishing, media literacy is an essential tool to lessening the power of bullshit. As readers and consumers of the media, we must be more vigilant when discerning information. Don’t just take something to be the truth; look at everything with a more critical eye, and really question how much evidence to back up why something is true.
As for producers of content, don’t forget to consider the impact on the audience when deliberating whether a message should be propagated. Understand that as media gatekeepers, you carry the burden of having your content read and consumed by other people who might (understandably) take your words as fact. Being a media gatekeeper is a job that comes with big responsibility, and it’s incredibly difficult to break through this world of bullshit when some people use their large platforms and statuses as media gatekeepers to intentionally deliver misinformation.
Let’s make this world a better place, one less bullshit idea spread at a time.