There's a Formula for Detecting Bullshit

And it's worked for more than 3,000 years.

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May 23 2017, 4:00pm

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How do you spot a liar? Check his facts. While some experts claim you can read microexpressions or tone of voice or body language, the truth is, liars are pretty easy to detect without getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience. After several fact-checked lies (or an election), you're bound to conclude that the guy is a consistent liar. It may take a while, but we all end up knowing who the liars are.

Now a skilled bullshitter, on the other hand, is hard to spot. That's because his chief tool isn't lies, but logic. Instead of setting the truth on fire, he twists it into seductive patterns.

A liar tells you the acre of alligator-infested swamp he's selling is a well-drained paradise. A bullshitter pitches the same swamp by asking if you like paddleboarding. A liar says he never dealt with the Russians. A bullshitter says the Russians are our best hope against ISIS.

Sometimes a liar and a bullshitter are the same animal. But not always. With the liar, the truth eventually comes out—possibly when you're standing waist deep in water. With the bullshitter, you tend to blame yourself for being so damn stupid.


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So you might as well skip the lie detector. But is there a bullshit detector? One that can stop you from being manipulated, voting for the wrong person, buying stuff you don't need, or falling in love with a good looking cheating liar? Why, yes there is.

It comes from rhetoric, the 3,000-year-old art of persuasion. This bullshit detector was first described by the philosopher Aristotle, the man who invented logic as we know it, and who literally wrote the book on rhetoric. Let's get even geekier: The detector has a barely pronounceable name, the enthymeme. (EN-the-meme, if you do care to pronounce it.)

The enthymeme has two parts: the proof, and the conclusion. The proof can be a fact, a statistic, or a trend. It's the reason for the conclusion. The conclusion is whatever the speaker wants you to believe or do.

A lot of bullshitters take advantage of us by using enthymemes with proofs that aren't proofs at all. Take many ads dreamed up by Madison Avenue. Their conclusion usually is, Buy This Thing. A legitimate proof would be a bunch of boring facts about the product's features, reliability, low cost, blah blah blah. How often do you see that kind of logical argument in an ad? A Corvette commercial shows a beautiful woman next to the car. Buy this 'Vette because… woman!

Proof: Beautiful woman. Conclusion: Buy this car.

While such bullshit seems patently ridiculous when you parse it logically, it has seduced thousands of middle-aged dentists into spending too much on convertibles.

But men aren't the only sex that succumbs to corporate bullshit. Unilever, the multinational giant that makes everything from cleaning powder to margarine, hawks Dove soap by telling women that they should feel good about their bodies.

Proof: Women should feel good about their bodies. Conclusion: Buy this soap. Those ads are like the dogs in the movie Up, who would…Squirrel!

Now, here's where the enthymeme can be your best bullshit detector. The enthymeme's two parts, proof and a conclusion, have to work together in sync, and both of them have to be legitimate.

To be a good, trustworthy enthymeme, the proof has to qualify as a proof. You may not know right away whether the proof is true. But you can tell whether it qualifies as a claimed fact, statistic, or trend. "Women should feel good about their bodies" fails this test.

Next, the proof should lead to the conclusion. A kid in high school wants to stay at a party after 2 am. "Nix," say his parents. And the kid offers the time-honored argument, "All the other kids get to stay out."

Proof: Every child on earth gets to stay out past 2. Conclusion: I should be allowed to stay out.

Assuming the parents don't Google "average parent curfew for high school students" (I just did, and only got a lot of bullshit), they can instead use the enthymeme to criticize the logic. Does the claim of universal dawn patrolling support the conclusion that the unique fruit of their loins should fall under that same rule?

Politicians often bullshit us in similar ways, decoupling the proof from the conclusion. Vote for me because…wall! Trump wasn't lying about his proposal to build a wall. (Sure, he was more than shaky with the facts about the existing wall and about illegal immigration and just about everything else. But those facts could all be checked by everyone but Fox News.) A future proposed wall is not a fact. It doesn't exist. You can't lie about a choice. Trump wanted us to vote for him. That was the conclusion. So what's the proof? A wall. So here's the enthymeme:

Proof = wall. Conclusion = vote for Trump.

Vote for him and you get a wall. Ask: Is the wall a good proof of voting for Trump? Will it solve the problems that worry you the most? How much of a problem is there in the first place? And how effective are walls anyway? In short, does the proof lead to the conclusion?

So, next time you're wondering whether you're being taken for a ride, ask whether the proof qualifies as a proof (fact, statistic, trend). The best kind of proof is not a distraction. It's not an anecdote. It's a fact, a statistic, or a trend. That's a proof. Finally, ask whether the proof actually leads to the conclusion.

Think about that scene in Animal House when Delta Tau Chi gets placed on double secret probation. That's a fact. The conclusion offered by the brothers: Toga!

Ask yourself whether the fact—double secret probation—leads to the conclusion—toga party.

The answer: Definitely. A toga party is always the proper solution to double secret probation. This is no bullshit.

Jay Heinrichs is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

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