A Whole World of Bullshit: ‘Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation’

If you’re reading this, the world didn’t end on December 21st. You survived 2012. You weren’t raptured by gods, or abducted by aliens, or dragged by monsters deep into Loch Ness.

You’re still here with us, ready for another year of the same crap.

Will it make any difference in 2013 if you read Loren Collins’ Bullspotting, a book that tries to ‘instill in people the practices of critical thinking and skepticism’ (12)?

That depends. If you’re already so super-smart that you can spot bullshit blindfolded, this book will only be a miserable catalogue of human howlers. You’re not going to waste your time reading about ‘Holocaust deniers, Truthers, anti-vaccinationists, creationists, anti-Stratfordians, JFK-assassination-conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, sovereign citizens, moon hoaxers, and even followers of David Icke’ (14).

Most of us, however, aren’t that good at nailing the truth. We know, after all, that strange things do happen. Governments keep vile secrets. Big Pharma works to make money, not cure people. Friends swear by the blood-type, the cabbage-soup, or the caveman diet. Worst of all, the world (or at least the planet) will actually end — we just don’t know when or how.

For those of us troubled by such thoughts, Collins has words of wisdom, some good, some obvious, and some terrifically trivial “‘Alternative’ medicines,” he says, for example, “run the gamut from ancient therapies to modern supplements, but the thing they have in common, the thing that puts them all under the ‘alternative’ umbrella, is that they don’t demonstrate any effectiveness when studied.” (165).

OK, you knew that already, but should you need to be reminded, this book will help. It will also be of great assistance if you haven’t a clue what confirmation bias is, or if you can’t tell a null hypothesis from an egg.

Just don’t expect from it theoretical depth or a full guide to critical thinking. Instead, expect repetitiousness and a range of wacky examples. Prepare to hear (more than once) that some people blame Kennedy’s assassination on actor Woody Harrelson’s father; that others believe the jets that flew toward the World Trade Center on 9/11 were giant holograms; and that celebrities sometimes misquote other celebrities on their tweets. Yes, really.

Collins — an attorney “descended from not one, not two, but five Confederate soldiers” (7) — must enjoy this kind of stuff, because he once spent a fair amount of energy debunking claims by so-called ‘Birthers’ that President Obama ain’t bona fide American. “I started a blog, and although some of my writing got some attention across the web, it seems to have done little to change the opinions of any Birthers themselves,” he says (13). “After a couple of years, I decided to channel my investment in the Birthers into a book.” (14)

Did the investment pay off? Most of the examples in this book are so cranky that their only value is as a cheap source of entertainment.

Alternatively, given the numbers involved, they’re good for a cry instead of a laugh. Nearly 15 percent of the world’s inhabitants, according to a recent poll, believe the world will end during their lifetimes. Add in those who believe in horoscopes, angels, the evil eye, and assorted other superstitions, and the result — even accounting for overlaps — is a substantial portion of mankind.

“The sleep of reason produces monsters,” wrote painter Francisco de Goya. Unlike those that crowd the waters of Loch Ness, such monsters aren’t always imaginary.

They aren’t all on the fringe, either. Any of us can get things wrong. Entire societies can get things wrong. In a couple of centuries’ time, much of what we all believe and do in 2013 will probably look as idiotic to our descendants as our ancestors’ blood-letting by leeches does to us.

So while Collins’ arguments are often banal and many of his examples silly, his underlying message is spot-on. When he finally asks “What’s the harm?” he rightly warns that uncritical thinking carries a high cost. Injury to people’s health can follow from dubious faith-based or alternative practices. Economic scams — new-age and old-age — exploit the gullible and uneducated. Most tragically, the failure to engage our critical powers wastes precious time and resources needed to fix our personal and collective lives.

Limited as this book is, then, more people ought to follow its advice. For some, it could be as simple, says Collins, as “someone who stops listening to late-night conspiracy-theory radio shows and instead uses those hours for real education.” (236)

For everyone, a real education should be high on the 2013 list of resolutions. Because one cycle of the Mayan calendar has ended, but a whole world of bullshit is still turning.

RATING 6 / 10