In his awesome book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, Scott Adams gives some advice about bullshit detection. I’d like to explain briefly why it works and offer a…different way of remembering it.
Before you decide whether anything I say in this book is useful, you need a system for sorting truth from rubbish. Most people think they have perfectly good bullshit detectors. But if that were the case, trial juries would always be unanimous, and we’d all have the same religious beliefs. Realistically, most people have poor filters for sorting truth from fiction, and there’s no objective way to know if you’re particularly good at it or not. Consider the people who routinely disagree with you. See how confident they look while being dead wrong? [Ed: Plug.] That’s exactly how you look to them.
When it comes to any big or complicated question, humility is the only sensible point of view [Ed: Plug 2]. Still, we mortals need to navigate our world as if we understood it. The alternative—acting randomly—would be absurd. To minimize the feeling of absurdity in your life, I recommend using a specific system for sorting truth from fiction. the system will be useful for reading this book, and it could be even more important in your life. [Ed: The trained hypnotist reveals himself :-).] The system recognizes that there are at least six common ways to sort truth from fiction, and interestingly, each one is a complete train wreck.
The Six Filters for Truth
1. Personal experience (Human perceptions are iffy.)
2. Experience of people you know (Even more unreliable.)
3. Experts (They work for money, not truth.)
4. Scientific studies (Correlation is not causation.)
5. Common sense (A good way to be mistaken with complete confidence.)
6. Pattern recognition (Patterns, coincidence, and personal bias look alike.)
In our messy, flawed lives, the nearest we can get to truth is consistency….
When seeking truth, your best bet is to look for confirmation on at least two of the dimensions I listed. For example, if a study indicates that eating nothing but chocolate cake is an excellent way to lose weight, but your friend who tries the diet just keeps getting fatter, you have two dimensions out of agreement. (Three if you count common sense.) That’s a lack of consistency.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (Chapter 1)
Seriously, it’s a great book and it stays good throughout.
Here’s why this works as a form of bullshit detection: consistency indicates some common cause, and more consistency means greater likelihood of a common cause (this is also the idea behind the g factor theory of IQ). When we’re talking about what causes two or more of the heuristic methods above to agree, one possible common cause is that they are agreed on the truth. If we can’t imagine any other possible common causes, then it’s reasonable to have a higher level of confidence that both heuristics have hit on the truth.
Still, it’s quite possible for one or more heuristics to be biased toward the same answer. Say you’re friends with an Amway salesman who’s trying to sell you a drink that he says will boost your productivity. He shows you a study where participants who drank the product performed better at a data entry task. He then tells you about how much more productive he is when he uses the drink. A reasonable person will discount the friend’s testimony and ask for a free sample.
Now for the mnemonic:
We are trying to find shit, so where do we go? To a public bathroom of course! We shall peek through the cracks in one of the stalls as voyeurs for TRUTH, or perhaps over one of the dividers if we’re being careful about it. Don’t be weird, you’re making this weird. It’s the only way to see whether someone is pulling their ANSWERS out of their ass.
I’m going to rearrange two of the heuristics so as to spell PPEECS with the first letters.
6. Pattern recognition
1. Personal experience
2. Experience of people you know
5. Common sense
4. Scientific studies
Yes, PPEECS = Pee peeks, which is what we’ve been doing all along. Great work, truth voyeurs!
Becoming a voyeur for the truth is a great hobby, and sometimes if you get a good angle on ANSWERS or the TRUTH you can post them on the internet at certain websites where other hobbyists hang out, and maybe even make some money. But you have to watch out because it can become an addiction, and the people in those corners of the internet can be a little weird and often smell funny.