The world we’re living in, has become full of disinformation. Fake news, spin, misrepresentations, conspiracy theories, and so on. We’ve become inhabitants of a world filled with our own bullshit. And in many ways, it’s killing us. Making us suffocate. So, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at where all this bullshit comes from.
For this post, I’ll have to talk a little about politics. It’s hard to talk about bullshit without talking about politics, because, though there’s plenty of bullshit that’s not political, systematic bullshit is predominantly political1. That’s because bullshit is almost always about power. And even people who aren’t that interested in politics will still be exposed to its systematic bullshit, and will still have to suffer from it.
I used to believe that the difference between political views were mostly about priorities. That is, the political left probably considered “peace on Earth” very important, and their politics were the result of that. And the political right probably considered prosperity more important, and their politics followed from that. But if it was that simple, they should be producing similar kinds of bullshit. That doesn’t seem to be the case. So, I now believe there’s a more fundamental difference. And understanding this difference allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the production of bullshit, in a way that can also be extended to non-political bullshit.
Notable producers of bullshit
The political left
The fundamental maxim of the political left seems to be this: “This is how the world is. Let’s adapt ourselves to it.” The ideological details on “this is how the world is” may vary. If you assume it’s “we’re all born equal”, you get socialism (or, at least, a school system that is hell on Earth); if you assume it’s “we’re all different”, you get liberalism, and so on. But the principle is more or less the same. This has implications for the kind of bullshit the political left produces. Like everyone else, they may fall prey to flawed reasoning, misplaced focus, damaging decisions, and perhaps an overbearing sense of morality. And God knows they’ve done a lot of damage to, for example. gifted children. But, when it comes to objective facts, they do care deeply about getting it right.
(As an aside, statistics tend to indicate that intellectuals (highly educated and/or highly intelligent people) tend to lean towards the political left. Perhaps this is because education and intelligence correlate with both the ability to adapt, and to understand the world. That is, perhaps intellectuals have an easier time with the idea of adapting ourselves to the world.)
The political right
In contrast, the fundamental maxim of the political right seems to be this: “This is who we are. Let’s adapt the world2 to us.” Since this means we don’t have to change who we are or how we do things, this gives us conservatism. There are many reasons people are drawn to this point of view. Sometimes the reasons are relatively noble, such as believing that we have rich traditions that enrich our lives, and values worth preserving, such as honor, morality, and a duty to God. Sometimes the reasons are simple, such as patriotism, feeling pride in being part of something bigger than yourself. But, in a large number of cases, the reasons are entirely selfish, because the political right gives you all the excuse you need to not care about anything other than yourself. It allows you to find a group of like-minded people and then say “this is who we are, this land is our world, the rest of you should adapt to us, and we don’t care if you don’t like it”.
But, more importantly, the maxim tells us that objective facts are not as essential to the political right as they are to the left. And, if you see facts as merely a tool you can use to adapt the world to suit you, why not adapt the facts, too? If you do it right, you can make some people actually believe your altered facts. You can expand your sphere of influence, make people rally to your cause, and that way, perhaps succeed in adapting the world to you.
Science is one of our civilization’s very best tools for finding objective facts. The difference between the left and right is perhaps most telling in how they treat it. When science provides facts that are inconvenient to the left, they might reframe what the findings mean, or appeal to morality, or whatever other excuse, but they generally don’t dispute the findings, research, or scientists themselves. But when science provides facts that are inconvenient to the right, they don’t have much of a problem with disputing the findings, discrediting the research, or attacking the scientists, with little concern for whether they themselves have any of the qualifications or competence required to do that. The fact that these people are willing to aggressively cover facts up at the source like this, says much about how little objective truth matters to them, and thus, how much bullshit the political right (or at least, a significant fraction of it) is willing to produce.
The maxim of conspiracy theorists is, more or less, “We can’t trust what they say. Let’s protect ourselves from them.” It is not always clearly defined who “they” are. It could be something like the so-called “Illuminati”, which can’t be definitely proven to exist3, but which it’s possible to imagine is pulling the strings. Or, for the Flat Earthers, it might be something like “whoever’s trying to convince us that the Earth is not flat”, in which pretty much everyone in the world could be part of the conspiracy (whether intentionally or by being “brainwashed”).
Conspiracy theories may or may not be political. When they are, we can see from these maxims that they’re usually more compatible with the political right than the political left.4 Among populists, “they” tends to be defined as “the elite”, although still without further defining precisely who that is or why, other than being made up of the people who don’t agree with you. And white nationalists may call them “the globalists”. Sometimes, people on the political right might define “they” as “the socialists” or similar, which might appear much more clear, but even in this case they still tend to place people who aren’t actually socialists into the same category. This labeling allows them to protect themselves when facts are against them: simply put this “socialist” label on anyone who points out inconvenient facts. That way, they can justify ignoring them, and always be “right”.
Preachers of religion
The maxim of the religious can be expressed as: “This is what we believe. Let’s defend it.” This defense can take many forms (and may include preaching), but because people don’t want their beliefs to be wrong, their beliefs can easily get intertwined with their egos. And since beliefs tend to become part of who you are, your defense of your beliefs will also be a defense of yourself. Thus, when people need to protect their beliefs, they may be drawn to conspiracy theories (in which case “they” would probably be defined as “the sinners”, “the atheists”, or “the devil”).
Religion is, naturally, compatible with all political viewpoints. Whether you consider religious beliefs part of “this is how the world is”, or “this is who we are”, in either case you want people to adapt to that, and in either case you’re likely to get some things wrong. But, once again, there seems to be a difference in how much each side values objective truth. For example, in modern political terms, Jesus was left-wing, but that hasn’t stopped a number of Christian groups from claiming that the political right is somehow morally superior to the political left.
Whoever wants to sell you something
This one probably doesn’t need a maxim. Marketing and commercials are full of bullshit, but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to blame the individual producers. These people are mostly just victims of a system (capitalism) that has evolved to the point where, if you want to survive, you have to produce bullshit. Everyone else does, no way around it. So everyone’s gotten pretty good at it, often playing on the emotions and insecurities of the consumers they target, in order to try to get them to make otherwise irrational purchasing decisions. That’s not how capitalism was originally supposed to work (in fact, it utterly destroys the philosophical justifications for capitalism), but all the same, irrational purchasing decisions are now what makes the industrialized world go round.
Notable examples of systematic bullshit
- Climate change denial. This happens to be mostly a right-wing thing, because accepting the reality of man-made climate change would force people (and the economy) to actually adapt themselves to the world, instead of adapting the world to themselves. Obviously, that’s not acceptable to the political right, so they instead choose to spend a lot of money and energy denying the facts, devising conspiracy theories, and cherrypicking data (e.g. temperature graphs that start at 1998, which conveniently was an extraordinarily warm year, in part because of an unusually strong El Niño). They also seem to like attacking people who try to do something about climate change, such as those driving electric vehicles.
- Accusations of political bias in mainstream media. Psychological research has shown that if you’re on the political left, then a neutral, balanced report will be perceived as biased to the right; if you’re on the political right, then that same neutral report will be perceived as biased to the left. So if you think a report is biased, perhaps it’s not the report, but you. Furthermore, mainstream media are bound by reporting standards and subject to market forces, both of which incentivize objective and factual reporting. Also, in their role as the Fourth Estate, it is the job of the free press to take a hard, critical look at people with power. Regardless of whether you like that, it does not imply political bias. Mainstream media is not, in general, significantly biased. But you may be.
- Accusations of “political correctness”. These days, the idea of political correctness is no more than a conspiracy theory that the political right uses to avoid uncomfortable truths. I’ve written about it before. Attempts to use the phrase “social justice warrior” as a pejorative also fall into this category.
- Claims that nazism was a left-leaning ideology. This is based on the fact that the name was shorthand for “national socialism”, which may sound leftist. But this claim is false; this name actually refers to an attempt at a “third way”, combining a right-leaning nationalist ideology with socialist elements. In other words, the name hints at a centrist ideology. But, in practice, Hitler and his friends took it to the political right, without really caring much about the name. To them, the name was just another tool.
- Creationism, i.e., the denial of evolution. Also known as “Intelligent Design”. There’s plenty of solid evidence for evolution, in fact more than plenty. It’s better understood than gravity. Most of the arguments against evolution are based on a lack of understanding of biology, physics, information theory, or science as a whole (e.g., this idea that a “theory” means that something’s not proven, even though, in science, basically the opposite is the case. If it’s unproven, it’s called a “hypothesis”, not a theory.) One thing that’s relevant here, is that evolution being real, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no creator. In fact, if I were God, I would probably not design every animal species from scratch, when I could evolve them instead. This is known as guided evolution, or theistic evolution. (And, as a software engineer, I might in principle even be able to create a virtual universe where I could actually do this, though it would take a while.)
- Anti-vaccination. There’s no real truth to claims that vaccines are dangerous. The autism study that many “anti-vaxxers” refer to has been shown to be bullshit, but disinformation campaigns about vaccines still abound, for no good reason. The only reasonable argument I’ve seen is that Big Pharma is just in it for the money, which is mostly true (and sometimes a problem), but that doesn’t mean that their vaccines are dangerous. The pharmaceuticals industry is heavily regulated, and overseen by various governmental departments that aren’t in it for the money, and do want to keep people safe.
- The moon landing, the shape of the Earth, etc. Yes, we did land on the moon, and yes, the Earth is round. Arguments to the contrary are mostly founded on a lack of understanding of how physics actually work. (However, it’s also a myth that science used to think the Earth was flat. Science never thought the Earth was flat. Even the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round, and had a quite decent estimate of its size. People weren’t worried that Christopher Columbus would sail off the edge of the Earth. Rather, they were worried that Columbus had miscalculated the size of the Earth, and they were, in fact, quite right about that. He’d probably have died on his way to India, if he hadn’t been lucky enough to bump into America along the way.)
I’m not sure that we can necessarily stop the production of bullshit anytime soon. But we don’t have to let it get power over us. Stop propagating it, stop believing it, stop giving it power. Do your research – not necessarily in the topics themselves, but at least in the sources. If you seem to prefer some particular source, ask yourself why, and whether it makes sense. It might, but it might also point towards some bias in you. If so, at least be aware of it, and honest about it. Don’t give space to bullshit, even when it supports the side you’re on. In fact, whenever possible, I’d encourage you to avoid siding with any particular group, and accept that we’re all inhabitants of the same planet. Borders aren’t given by nature or by God. They’re something we created. Just as money is something we created. The fact that we’re letting our own creations enslave us, rule over us, cause us to suffer, is a testament to how much power our own bullshit have over us.
Clarification for the conservatives out there: I’m not saying that being a conservative is bad, if it’s for noble reasons. What can be bad, however, is to believe everything that sources like Fox News want you to believe. There are many self-serving forces out there who would very much like to exploit your noble intentions for their own ends. They can do that by scapegoating and demonizing the political left or other groups, thus directing your attention away from their own agendas, and letting you believe they’re on your side. I’m just saying they’re not.
1 This includes organized religion, because to me, organized religion is mostly just an insidious form of politics.
2 Some may claim they don’t want to adapt the whole world, just their own country. But they still need the rest of the world to respect their country’s sovereignty and territory. That is, they need the rest of the world to leave them alone and allow them to do whatever they want, and not mind the fact that we’re all living on the same planet. So, at least in that way, the rest of the world still has to adapt to them.
3 Something called the Illuminati definitely did exist in the past, but it was probably not a global conspiracy.
4 Some notable exceptions could be in what’s going on in certain communist or socialist countries, with conspiracies like “anyone who doesn’t like our great government must be sponsored by the West”. However, these countries tend to generally be authoritarian with merely a leftist pretense (arguably, no real communist country exists), and therefore, could also be considered de facto far-right countries. It has been observed many times that the far left and the far right are remarkably similar.