How To Detect Bullshit

By Scott Berkun, August 9, 2006

Everyone lies: it’s just a question of how, when and why. From the relationship saving “yes, you do look thin in those pants” to the improbable “your table will be ready in 5 minutes”, manipulating the truth is part of the human condition. Accept it now.

I’m positive that given our irrational nature and difficultly accepting tough truths, we’re collectively better off with some of our deceptions. They buffer us from each other (and from ourselves), avoid unnecessary conflicts, and keep the wonderful confusion of our psychologies tucked away from those who don’t care. White lies are the spackle of civilization, tucked into the dirty corners and crevices our necessary, but pretentiously inflexible idealisms create. Small lies prop up and support our powerful truths, holding together the insanely half honest, half false chaos that spins the world.

But lies, serious lies, should not be encouraged as they destroy trust, the binding force in all relationships. One particularly troublesome kind of lie is known as Bullshit (BS). These are unnecessary deceptions, committed in the gray area between polite white lies and complete malicious fabrications. BS is usually defined as inventions made in ignorance of the facts, where the primary goal is to protect oneself. The aim of BS isn’t to harm another person, although that often happens collaterally. For a variety of reasons BS can be hard to detect, which is why I’m offering this missive as a crash B.S. in BS detection. But be warned: to keep you on your toes there are several bits of BS tucked inside this essay which you will have to find for yourself.

Why people BS: a primer

The first lie in the Western canon comes from the same joyful tome as the first murders, wars and plagues: the Old Testament. Despite my distaste for trips into religious texts, this one has supreme tragicomic value.

To recap from the book of Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve not to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, as pretty as it is, for they’ll die. He wanders off to do some unexplained godlike things, as gods are prone to do, leaving the very tempting, and non pit-bull or electrified fence protected, tree out for all to see. Meanwhile Satan slinks by and convinces Eve apples are good: so she and Adam have an apple snack (the bible refers to them only as fruit, apples are a western addition). God instantly returns, scolds Adam, who blames Eve; resulting in everyone, snakes, people and all, getting thrown out of Eden forever.

Please note that in this tale nearly everyone lied. God lied[1], or was deceptively ambiguous, about the apples (they weren’t fatal in any modern sense, as if I told you reading this essay will kill you, you’d expect I meant sometime today – please read the footnote if you’re angered by critiques of scripture). Satan misrepresents the apple’s power, and Adam, approximates a lie in his wimpy finger pointing to Eve. It’s a litany of deception and a cautionary tale: in any book that makes everyone look bad in just a few pages, is it really a surprise how the rest plays out?

People lie for three reasons; the first is to protect themselves. They may wish to protect something they want or need, a concept they cherish, or to prevent something they fear, like confrontation. There is often a clear psychological need motivating every lie.

A well known fib, “the dog ate my homework”, fits the BS model. In the desperate fear driven attempt not to be caught, children’s imaginations conceive amazing improbabilities. Fires, plagues, revolutions, curses, illnesses and absurd reinventions of the laws of physics and space-time have all been summoned by children around the world on the fateful mornings when they find themselves at school, sans-homework. It’s an emotional experience, this need to BS: as logically speaking, the stress of inventing and maintaining a lie is rarely easier than accepting the consequences of the truth.

Which leads to the second reason people lie: sometimes it works. It’s a gamble, but when it works, wow. Did you lie to your parents about girls, boys, fireworks, drugs, grades, or where you were till 2am on a school night? I sure did and still do. My parents still think I’m a famous painter / doctor / professor in London (shhh), and my best friend still believes his high school girlfriend and I didn’t get it on every time I borrowed his car[2]. Even my ever faithful dog Butch used to lie, in his way, by liberating trash from a house-worth of garbage cans, then hiding in his bed, hoping his lack of proximity to the Jackson Pollock of refuse that was formerly my kitchen would be indistinguishable from innocence.

Which gives us the third reason people lie, a truth saints and sinners have known for ages: we want to be seen as better than we see ourselves. Sadly, comically, we also believe we’re alone in both having this temptation, as well as the shame it brings with it (e.g. “We’re not alone in feeling alone“). The secret truth is everyone has moments of weakness: times when fear and greed melt our brains and we’re tempted to say the lies we wish were true. And for that reason the deepest honesty is found in people willing to admit to their lies, or their barely resisted temptations, and own the consequences. Not the pretense of the saints, who pretend, incomprehensibly, inhumanly, to never even have those urges at all.

Ok, enough philosophy: lets get to detection.

BS detection

The first rule of BS is to expect it. Fire detectors are designed to expect a fire at any moment: they’re not optimists. They fixate on the possibility of fires and that’s why they save lives. If you want to detect BS you have to swallow some cynicism, and add some internal doubt to everything you hear. Socrates, the father of western wisdom, based his philosophy around the recognition, and expectation, of ignorance. It’s far more dangerous to assume people know what they’re talking about, than it is to assume they don’t and let them prove you wrong. Be like Socrates: assume people are unaware of their own ignorance (including yourself) and politely, warmly, probe to sort out the difference.

The first detection tool is a question: How do you know what you know?

Throw this phrase down when someone force feeds you an idea, an argument, a reference to a study or over-confidently suggests a course of action. People so rarely have their claims challenged, that asking someone to explain how they know something sheds light on whatever ignorance they’re hiding. It instantly diminishes the force of a BS driven opinion. It works well in response to the following examples:

  • The project will take 5 weeks“. How do you know this? What might go wrong that you haven’t accounted for? Would you bet $10k on this claim? $100k?
  • Our design is groundbreaking.” Really? What ground is that? And who, besides the designers/investors, has this opinion?
  • Studies show that liars’ pants are flame resistant..” What studies? Who ran them and why? Did you actually read the study or a two sentence press clipping (poorly) explaining the results? Are there any studies that claim the opposite?

When you ask a flavor of “how do you know what you know?” often they can’t answer quickly. Even credible thinkers need time to sort through their logic, separating assumptions from facts: an an exercise that works in everyone’s favor (the fancy word for this is epistemology. I wish there was a word like epistemologize, to describe when you challenge someone’s epistemological basis for something).

Of course it’s fine to hear: “This is purely my opinion” or “It’s a guess, as we have no data”, but those are far weaker claims that most people, especially if they’re making stuff up, typically make. Identifying someone’s opinion as speculation, rather than fact, disarms the threat of most kinds of BS.

The second tool is also a question: What is the counter argument?
Anyone who has seriously considered something will have seen enough facts
to fit their current argument as well as alternative position: ask for them. It’s a grade school assignment, intended to show there are many reasonable ways to interpret the same set of facts. However, someone who is bullshitting you won’t have researched or thought through anything: they’re making things up. Asking for the counter argument will force them to either back up their position, or to end the discussion until they’ve done due diligence. (If they claim there is no counter argument, end the discussion. They are not only BS’ing you, they think you’re a moron).

Similarly useful questions include: Who besides you shares this opinion? What are your biggest concerns, and what will you do to address them? What would need to change for you to have a different (opposite) opinion?

Time & Pressure

A good thought holds together. Its solid conceptual mass maintains its shape no matter how much you poke, probe, test and examine. But BS is all surface. Like a magician’s bouquet of flowers, it’s pretty as it flashes past your eyes, but its absence of integrity become obvious when you hold it in your hands. Anyone creating BS knows this, and will tend towards urgency. They’ll resist reviews, breaks, consultations or the suggestion of sleeping on decisions before they’re made.

Use time & pressure, the third tool of BS detection, in your favor: never allow big decisions to be mismanaged to the point where they must be made urgently. Ask to withhold judgment for a day, and watch the response. Invite people with expertise you need but don’t have to participate in decisions to add intellectual and domain pressure (Hiring them if necessary. The $500 you pay a lawyer, accountant or consultant to review something effectively becomes a well spent BS insurance fee).

Be a leader in creating an environment unpleasant for BS. If everyone knows the gauntlet of friendly, but rigorous, intellectual curiosity claims must run through, BS will be discouraged while still in the minds of the tempted.

Confidence in reduction

Especially in business and technology, jargon and obfuscation hide huge quantities of BS. Inflated language is a technique of intimidation. The bet is that if you don’t understand what they’re talking about, you’ll feel stupid, or distracted, and give in to the appearance of their superior knowledge. This is, of course, entirely bullshit. To withstand BS you have to have an inner core of self-reliance, holding on to your doubts longer than the BS’er holds onto their charade.

For example:
Our dynamic flow capacity matrix has unprecedented downtime resistance protocols.

If you don’t understand what the hell this means, err on your own side. Don’t assume you’re missing something: assume they are. They’re either hiding something, communicating poorly, or don’t themselves understand what they’re talking about. BS deflating responses include:

  • I refuse to accept this proposal until I, or someone I trust, fully understands it.
  • Explain this in simpler terms I can understand (repeat if necessary).
  • Break this into pieces you can verify, prove, compare, or demonstrate for me.
  • Are you trying to say “our network server has a backup power supply?” If so, can you speak plainly next time?

Assignment of trust

The fourth tool of BS detection (derived from the rule of expecting BS) is careful assignment of your trust. Never agree to more than your trust allows. Who cares how confident they are: the question is how confident are you in them? It’s rare that there isn’t
time for trust to be earned. Divide requests, projects or commitments into pieces. It’s not offensive to refuse to take someone’s word if they have no history of living up to it before (especially if they’re trying to sell you something).

And trust can be delegated. I don’t need to trust you, if you’ve earned the trust of people I trust. Anyone skilled in the BS arts has obtained that skill through practice, diminishing the odds that many BS-proof people have been successfully deceived by them in the past. Nothing defuses BS faster than a collective of people that help each other detect and eliminate BS. If a team of people witnesses the complete evisceration of someone’s BS few will attempt it again: they’ll know your world is a BS free zone. Great teams and families help each other detect bullshit, both in others and themselves, as sometimes the real BS we need to fear
is our own.

Footnotes

[1] One popular interpretation of Genesis 2:17 is that God meant “you will be mortal” when he said “you will surely die”, so its not a lie – this is in line with the many who believe in the omnibenevolence of god or the perfect nature of the bible. While I question these positions, they are popular views and deserves mention. More to my point, in the context of Genesis, there is no reason Adam could know, when told by God he’d surely die, any of these modern interpretations of God’s words, or the symbolic meaning of all these things, we know now in the present.

[2] This is of course, complete bullshit. I have never lied to anyone ever.

The link about apples not being in Genesis was added on 3/6/2012. I’d known about this common erroneous assumption, but didn’t see the need to call it out until now.

The phrase, “or was deceptively ambiguous”, was added 9/25/2006.

The phrase “..they weren’t fatal in any modern sense… ” was added 6/30/2010

References / Notes 

Photo credits: Bullfighting arena, Razorback’s Ozarks, Tricorder, Bulls for sale.

246 Responses to “How To Detect Bullshit”

  1. Lae

    I call myself a bullshitter because I’m a bad liar. I can lie and sometimes I do create elaborate lies that I wind around and around leaving ends somewhere and closing them, but I prefer not to lie. I perfer not to lie because if I become good at it, I think it would really crush me as a person and feed my ego. On the other hand I’ve gotten good at finding my place being a bullshitter and I do that because of all the reasons you mentioned, the 3 main reasons. For a long time growing up as a kid I was taught not to lie, and so I just listened to my parents and I didn’t lie. But I noticed people around me lying, at school, at church even, and just all around me. What I found out was that adults lie, great lies and they wear them as trappings in their lives (this is before I began to be aware that I could create elaborate lies that would hold and stick). As a kid I noticed that the lies we told were more smaller lies and more creative as well, I guess because of boredom or seeking some kind of outlet. Sometimes you would come across friends or classmates who were just touted as liars and no one believed what they said, but really when you got to know them you would find out they were lying for a reason and that these people were really creative and clever. The lies we told as kids weren’t deliberately orchestrated as much as they were whatever first came to mind. It usually was a test to see if someone would buy the lie and then if you could continue. A lot of kids lie but the intent/malice isn’t there. But then there’s some lies kids say that have grave consequences, but unless you’re taught by your parents or others around you about lies, big lies, and even small lies, you aren’t aware of the consequences.

    I became a bullshitter because I couldn’t lie. I would lie and then just think it wasn’t worth it and then turn aroundn and tell the truth. It didn’t help that most of the time I was lying I was always aware of what I was doing so I would give tells and laugh sometimes. I mean if I’m lying to you, you can’t take me seriously, but sometimes you wouldn’t know because I’m careful to build layers around me to confuse. I don’t do it to hurt, as much as a protection and a self coping mechanism or defencism…whatever it is. I’ve had time to observe this a lot through the years because for a long time I wouldn’t lie, because of rules imposed on me by my parents and what they taught me of the catholic religion, but then I couldn’t straight out lie because I was bad at it, so I learned more about myself, my tells, my expressions, why I lie, about how people manipulate each other in the world and I just tried to understand. I became a bullshitter late in elementary school and early highschool for the reasons I mentioned before. I became a bullshitter because although I was a straight A student and put up this facade of listening to everything my teachers and parents directed me to, really I wasn’t sleeping at all, and I was always reading. When you’re awake 24/7 and your mind is always running, you’re not always there when you have to attend a school environment. But I became a good faker. I learned to live life like how everyone else wanted me to or saw of me. Sometimes I would purposely do work and not hand it in because I wanted to test the reactions. I learned not to talk about what was going on personally and keep myself apart. When I told a lie I would go back to that person, my friend or adult and tell them I lied. The question I always got was why, and it would always be the hardest to respond, but I always took the time and thought it through and then answer. I would lie to my parents and then tell them about the lie. I mean I was never like my siblings in being able to lie well and be comfortable with it. I got good at recognizing the lies I even told myself.

    As they say bullshitting is an art, but really it’s the go to easy route to misleading someone. It exists in the grey and allows for ample manipulation if you want it to become concrete like a lie, or build it purposely with holes in it. Sometimes bullshitters are in it for the game. They are fond of what they do. There’s no guilt that cloaks everything you do when you bullshit. You learn to brush off a lot of things.

    This is a great starting post on bullshitting. It’ll help people learn that what they think of as a lie, or white lies that people through out there in conversations are really bullshits. All you need to do is become aware of what is and that it’s happening. Then you’ll start to recognize things about the person delivering the bullshits that you may have not known. You might learn that it’s actually a common defensive way for that person to interact or relate. If the bullshit doesn’t have solid holes in it and it’s too good to be a bullshit, then you know it’s a straight lie and that the person intended to lie to you. Bullshits can be shot down. You can deliver comebacks to a bullshit.

    On the part in this post about Genisis in the KJ Bible, I think that the other of the post is right. He’s right because of the way he approached this post and based on his own individual experiences with the text, his own environment drawn experiences that allowed him to come to an opinion on his point. He didn’t write it as a statement of fact, but if he did then it’s one great bullshit. It’s actually subjective. I understand what Scott Berkun means because before I took it upon myself to read the entire Bible, not the Children’s version of the bible that I learned in Sunday School, but the King James version with all the red texts, the old words, the footnotes (depending on which kjv bible you have you might not have footnotes on the language of the text. I’ve read the bible with footnotes and without)…I would have said the same things as the commenters in reply to this post. In fact my first reaction when I read the first part of this philosphying of the religious text and trying to go to the originiation of the lie, and sin or what catholics call the original sin, I actually thought I was being had. I asked myself, “Is this guy serious?” But I didn’t doubt the seriousness of the post and I was eager to read his footnote after reading the post. Scott Berkun said what he knows. He didn’t infer anything based on his experience. He probably came to this opinion based on what he learned. His is a literal view of the language. He didn’t need to read romans or continue reading into genesis or whatever the context was prior to and after that declartive text of God’s words. He isn’t saying that the death is the death of innocence and spirituality and that’s why adam and eve noticed that they were nude and were cast out. He didn’t do any of that. He basically gave his summation of what he had read. He’s right when he says it was God’s lie because it wasn’t immediate death. You, nor I, nor Scott can infer what God meant. Yes context in this case is hindsight and understanding, and it’s based on translations and understandings we’ve all gleaned and been taught of the text in the bible, but the actual text is not indirect or misleading. They are words that hold great weight. If someone tells me I’m going to die, then I believe that. I don’t disbelieve it because it’s the modern thing to do, to question like Socrates said and did, or because we have the right to get a second opinion when a doctor gives us a definitive statement. I mean if I was the original person, in that time, in Genesis, in the Garden, and the most high unkown came to me and had said this to me, I would think I would die. I wouldn’t know what death was because I had never died before I was created and unliving, but I could probably imagine what death was just like I could imagine the freedom of whatever Satan had described. I think will and imagination were present at that time there and weren’t muted. So if I’m allowed those things, I would say Adam and Eve would be smart enough like many of the commenters are, in inferring what God meant with his words, but I can’t do that in that time.

    So everyone is coming to that text based in hindsight, and years of accumulated knowledge. Adam and Eve didn’t have that advantage, so you can’t imagine whatever they were thinking or whatever God was thinking and meant. It just doesn’t work. If you think so and that it wasn’t a lie, then it was probably one of the best bullshits or the original of bullshitting from the orignator God. So what God said in this time and age doesn’t hold water especially if you’re taking a literal understanding of the words written in that exact passage in Genesis. It’s at best a deviating statement. There’s something missing there. It’s not as clear as it should be. It’s omitting something. Whatever that something is, it’s what is being questioned and attacked. You might call it a lie, you might say it’s foreshadowing an effect of a cause, etc…

    I’m going to be thinking about this post for a bit. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Nancy

    God doesn’t lie. Adam and Eve died spiritually and lost their physical eternal life when they disobeyed. You may know how to spot a lie in a living person, but it’s obvious that your knowledge of Godly matters is sorely deficient. Your perception of the book of Genesis is an incorrect and surface understanding.

    If you believe God lies, you must not have a personal relationship with him through Jesus Christ. I urge you to read the book of John in the new testament and see how loving God is and what is plan is for our lives.

    It’s a sad thing for any person not to understand God’s love and to end up spending their eternity in Hell. And you can rest assured, Hell is a real place and once you’re there, it’s for eternity.

    There are no unbelievers after death.

    Reply
    1. Jan

      The bible is like a newspaper. Would you read the comic section and expect it to be “true” in the sense that the news section is? Myth and tales that help you learn lessons are a part of the bible. Stop being so simplistic about Genesis.

      Reply
    2. Chris Z

      The problem though is you are not reading the bible literally. God said “die”. That means die. Physically. Plus humans were NOT immortal, otherwise why would there be a tree of eternal life in the garden (remember that, when God said if they ate of that they would “live forever”)?

      I love fundies: They quote the bible literally when it suits them, and interpret it when it suits them. Wishy washy bunch. Accept it: God lies. A lot.

      C

      Reply
  3. aworkinprogress

    I LOVE this article! My dad and sister bullshit ALL the TIME!They’re both extremely arrogant and articulate,so people hang on every word they say. Its so manipulative and sad on their part because they get so many people to accept their lies that they eventually start to believe it themselves. For my entire life I found it so frustrating that they always got their way by doing it. My sister (in her 30s now)flat out lied about her college education and got a great job w/a six figure salary. She barely finished high school…its nice to know that there are people who can see through that! it puts my faith back in humanity lol thanks for the relief sorry about venting-A.

    Reply
  4. Estragon

    Regarding footnote #1, I believe there is a theological error. When God warns, “You shall surely die,” he is not speaking of the physical being, either immediately or in its inevitable mortality. Rather the warning is for our souls.

    Hence, the taint of Original Sin.

    I note that others have raised roughly the same point, so I offer my thanks for the article in its entirety.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi David:

      Not derived from, but I have read a lot of Postman over the years, including I’m sure, at some point, that essay.

      It’d be more accurate to say Frankfurt’s book, On Bullshit, was the closest thing to a specific inspiration as I believe i read that, and found it quite disappointing.

      Reply
  5. KDonahoo

    Nice article.
    A couple of thoughts. When questioned a BSer will heap on other unsubstantiated facts. For example, quoting texts from the bible to contradict other texts from the bible. Logically, if a book contradicts itself it puts all its statements in doubt. Also, when a person is emotionally vested in an idea or belief their facts are automatically suspect. You should always consider the source and the desire of the person when evaluating their statements.

    Reply
  6. Shinji

    Sorry, to bump up such an old post.. but I see it has caused quite a stir with God and all his disciples.

    Adam is no more and God is busy making other plans….So, why don’t we give this thing a rest and call a spade a spade?! Good post :)

    Reply
  7. Luanda

    I’m very sure that a parent/guardian has – atleast once – given you a rule to abide by and then given you the free choice to follow it or not. You either a) consider the fact that the parent is clothing you, sheltering you, feeding you and LOVING you and abide by the one rule that is given, or b) forget all of those things and disrespect your parent. Your fight is invalid. Do you love and have faith in your parents? Or are they evil for understanding that one cannot live if their life an decisions are being controlled by others? Think about that one for a while, Mr.Know-it-all.

    Reply
  8. step

    All this smarty-smart talk from the religious folks or trolls here trying to pick a debate where there really needs none. Even if the Bible reference was slightly off, the author is expressing the COMMONLY accepted and repeated version of the Genesis tale. Most school children, and many adults, would tell that same version. And, he did this (who cares if it was intentional or not?!) to draw a comparison to the “original” lie. Why must we be silly and always debate things like this. Let me go on record: YOU…yes you..are super smart and extremely sharp. And very bright too. God loves you. If you don’t believe in God, then you are smart for not being a member of a herd. Whatever you say. OK. Now that you have your positive feedback, can you please try to restrain yourself from debate … for debate’s sake. (isn’t that called ‘playing Devil’s advocate’?? Strange coincidence!?) …

    Also, if you want to really pick; nowhere does the Bible say “apple” – it says fruit (probably fig since thats what they wore). No where does it say Satan. In fact, Satan isn’t even mentioned until the New Testament. Take that smarty pants!

    To the author: good article; keep up the good wurk. (I misspelled work to draw nasty responses! I love when pick can’t argue a topic, so they resort to punctuation and such. The internet is fun!)

    Reply
  9. step

    @anthony: I must call you out specifically. You said, quite arrogantly: “Disobeying God is a sin, the consequence of sin is death. You would have been more accurate in saying the first lie was Lucifer (the devil) telling Eve, “ye surely shall not die.” Educate yourself before posting.<

    I would like to directly call you a liar. You said in your post that you had read the entire bible-and thus the author should have as well before posting such so-called 'errors.' You lectured him to 'educate [himself] before posting.'
    You need to go back to the first page of the Old Testament and see that NOWHERE in the Genesis story is a mention to the Devil or Lucifer. That came thousands of years later. A serpent told Eve to eat the fruit. What makes you think it was Satan? Oh yes, I know what makes you think that. NOT READING-OR NOT UNDERSTANDING-the very text you lecture others about. I suggest you use your time berating others on their Biblical knowledge to possibly read about the Seven Deadly sins (ALSO NOT IN THE BIBLE). Check out the one regarding Pride. And, also: be a nice person. Bringing others down does not bring you up. OK, buddy?

    Reply
  10. payam

    I think this clip goes well with this great article. A visual description of BS.

    Reply
  11. Karls

    This is pure gold. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Edel

    ok in response to everyone saying God didn’t lie…..

    imagine you go to the doctor, you get tests done, and are told there is nothing that can be done and that your gonna die…. are you really gonna think “awh sure that’s grand, i have another 20/30/40 years left….”? it is more likely you’ll be asking how long do ya have left so you can enjoy your life. if the doctor told you ya had 6 months to live and 10 years later you were still around healthy as ever. would that not be considered a lie a deceptiont?

    in the context that the writer wrote that sentence god did indeed lie or at least deceive both adam and eve. and yes you can say im am ignorant and that i don’t know my bible but fact is i do but im not completely ignorant to the world around me and other peoples opinions. if you read the beginning of the article and the footnote again you’ll see that the writer is taking the view point of adam and eve when god told them they would die.

    fact is that whatever interpretation of this you wanna play the writers argument still stands. adam and eve were told they were gonna die, and to quote the bible “you will die the same day”. adam and eve existed long before jesus and the bible itself so they would not have been thinking “awh well dang, guess we aren’t gonna get into heaven now” because they existed before religion did

    although in all fairness no matter how naive and gullible anyone is are you really saying you believe god actually made eve from adams rib! you wanna complain about someone taking the bible too literally and in the wrong context then wake up and smell the coffee…. and open your eyes to what is being said instead of interpreting everything that is said into what suits you, see the bible for what it is as well as what it mean to you personally.

    and heres a little bible trivia question for all ye bible bashers? is it right to get your father drunk and sleep with him so that you can have a child? cause according to the bible it would seem that its A-ok. but surely there is some very satisfactory interpretation for that too.

    Reply
  13. haibane13

    Are you just BSing too ? On purpose , is this a test ?

    If no one will apply detecting BS I guess I will .

    How do you know the context of Gensis 2:17 ?

    How do you know there is no reason to think that God meant mortality and Adam and Eve didn’t know what God meant ?

    Are you letting the Bible interpret the Bible or are you basing this on presuppositions ? “Despite my distaste for trips into religious texts, this one has supreme tragicomic value.” – Scott Berkun

    As good as this article is , I guess even you can fall for BS too . It’s ok we are only human .

    Reply
  14. Chris

    The account in the bible makes no sense if you think your pre-conceived notions are the basis of reality and are a dependable lens to filter the bible’s statements through. How do you know what Adam did and did not understand, or whether he would interpret God’s words the same way you do?
    A good question for believers and non-believers alike to ask is “If we accept the biblical account of creation up to the point of Genesis 2:16 as fact, how in the world can the threat of “dying” (whether it would be understood as a threat of spiritual death, instant physical death or a gradual process of dying) be understood by Adam, since up to this point there had been no death, and everything God had made was “very good”? It would seem that in order for the threat to have a restraining effect the one warned by it has to have a knowledge of the unpleasant consequences. So for God’s warning to Adam to be effective, Adam must have had some knowledge of what “death” meant. The bible says that death entered this creation through sin and at this point Adam had not sinned yet, so the only way Adam could know anything about death is if God revealed it to him. (Genesis 2:21 and the mention of the Lord putting Adam into a “deep sleep could be hinting at how this was done, since sleep is used to speak metaphorically of death often in the bible.) In any case, in order to take God’s warning seriously as a deterrent, Adam had to have some knowledge of death, which opens a whole can of worms. Just because reading the bible presents these kinds of difficulties to me without a detailed explanation, I am not going to call God a “b.s.’er or a liar. If I have a desire to know the truth, God will reveal it to me from His word. If I don’t, then no matter how detailed the biblical account were to be made, I would not believe it.

    It is interesting how so many scientists and “experts” at reasoning and “logic” are so eager to discount the bible, while they are ignorant of the fact that the bible explains the basis of the existence of everything that we know of as real, and it does so with the very first LETTER of the text. As far as I can tell, scientists agree that everything we know of is made up of information. Even light. In order for there to be inFORMation, there has to be an IN-FORM-er. The first word of the bible is be-reshiyth. The “be” sound is from the Hebrew letter “bet”, which is used to denote the meaning of “in”. It also means “house”, something which also separates that which is “inside” from that which is “outside”. Anything that has a “form” is known by making a distinction between that which is considered “inside” the form from that which is considered “outside”. “IN the beginning” creates the first distinction. The first form. In-formation.

    Getting back to whether God pulled a fast one on Adam or not by supposedly not making Himself clear – I am of the opinion that we are not fit judges to make that call, since we are descended from Adam and have been affected by sin. And God does not have to live up to my judgements of what He should or should not have explained to Adam. A lot of people try to defend God from any connection to evil, and they form their interpretations of the biblical text with that as one of their main goals. It doesn’t seem to matter how convoluted their interpretations become, as long as God is not seen as the creator of evil. They explain away Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 as figures of speech. Anything to keep evil from being associated with God. One reason this is so important to them is more than likely because they believe that evil will continue to exist forever, since they believe that “hell” and it’s punishments are “forever”. This is not true, and is the result of mistranslations and misguided teaching that crept into the church a long time ago. (A good website to look into this subject is tentmaker.org. Their “scholar’s corner at the bottom of the Home page is full of very detailed books that are very enlightening) Evil is a tool that God uses for His purposes, and theologically I have no problem accepting that, since from my understanding of the bible, God is the only One who it can ever be said of “the ends justify the means”. Accepting God’s use of evil to accomplish a good end theologically, with mere mental assent is one thing, to accept it experientially is not so easy. That is when I start to demand “more detailed information” and easily understandable “explanations” (so I can try to avoid experiencing evil again in the future). But it’s like the case of language #1 having a word that can’t be translated into language #2 because the concept is “foreign” to that second language. The only way to know the meaning of that word is to learn the language and immerse yourself in the culture that uses it. No amount of “explanation” will work apart from that. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul says “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”. The Greek word translated “dimly” in that verse is where we get our word “enigma” from.

    Reply
  15. Berny

    It would seem from the bevy of replies focusing on Genesis and your statement that God lied (Yes, he did, by the way. He excelled at it) that a lot of people haven’t applied the BS meter to the Bible itself.
    The book positively pegs the Bullshit meter in the overload range. There is nothing to back it up. No facts. No evidence. Just stories.
    People need to start thinking critically about their beliefs.

    Reply
  16. Jason Leonard

    Regarding the whole Genesis 3 scenario, EVERYONE so far has gotten it all wrong. Mind you, the Christians have been right in their interpretation but not thorough in their defense.

    A phrase like “for the day you do this, you shall surely die” is a figurative expression in Hebrew, which is one way we know God was not talking about literal death. Remember these words are being penned/interpreted by a Hebrew person (which the original Hebrew is more literally “dying you shall die”). Only when taken with wooden literalism can God be seen as a liar here. Similarly, the immediate context indicates the author intended a figurative meaning – we are ignorant to assume an author would be so blatantly contradictory on purpose. JP Holding defends this view well at http://www.tektonics.org/tsr/jerry722.html#fig

    For other evidence that this kind of language is not foreign to the remainder of the Bible or it’s authors, one only need read 1 Kings 2:36-45. You will see very similar language, and yet it is clear from the story that Solomon was not being literal. He waited for Shimei to return to him and have a face-to-face. In short, his original statement would more accurately be interpreted “as soon as I hear that you’ve left, you will be on my kill list!”

    Before anyone goes wild with a BS meter, it helps to differentiate between figurative and literal language. God knows my wife doesn’t call me a BS’er when I use obvious hyperbole. And this is something you can’t learn from only reading the Bible or being Christian – you have to specifically study language, culture and context these things are written in.

    Reply
  17. david

    Mr. Berkun,
    You referred to the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in your essay. Your credibility is damaged by referring to the forbidden fruit as an apple. Nowhere in this story in Genesis is the fruit referred to as an apple. (It could have been a passion fruit, for all we know.) You also made the very serious accusation that even God lied when he told Adam and Eve that, on the day they ate of the forbidden fruit, they would die. Was God lying, or, as you suggest, being ambiguous? Obviously, they didn’t suffer physical death within 24 hours of eating the forbidden fruit (although they did eventually die, which would not have happened had they not disobeyed God). But maybe God was referring to spiritual death. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, their intimate relationship with their Creator was broken; they became alienated from God as a result of their sin. So, in a very real sense, they did suffer death when they disobeyed God.

    By the way, I’m reading Confessions of a Public Speaker and finding it very useful and entertaining.

    Reply
  18. Auntie Hosebag

    The Bible is the all-time bullshit generator, compendium, and tutorial. Start there.

    Reply
  19. Paul

    Great article. Props to the creator.

    * A little note here: God definitely did not lie. Please be careful what you say about, and research it before you write something.

    Besides that, it is definitely a great article with useful tips.

    Reply
    1. Saxtus

      IF GOD IS JESUS THEN GOD HAS LIED.

      “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
      -Jesus (Matthew 7:7-8 NAB)
      PS: I’m jesus ;)

      Reply
  20. Bernie

    Wow… this is some great reading. I found your link with a little help from my “friend” David Usher. I have added your blog to my favorites and suspect I will be spending my rare day off from work enjoying your “mad writing skills”. I like how your brain works… thank you.

    Reply
  21. madhukar bhaiya

    really liked it….gimme some more, please. mb

    Reply
  22. Jeff

    On the section ” Confidence & Reduction ” , I would like
    to point out that two segments of our population use un-necessary verbage. They are politicians and economists. Far too often, they use a language I call ” obfuscatese ” . It sounds so important, accurate, and official, most people don’t question the user. Those who do attempt to unearth the truth are belittled, as if to say, ” How dare you question me? I’m the expert in this field/I’ve been in this department for ‘X’ years ” , and so on.

    Reply
  23. 7thson

    First off you are all full of bull shit! God didn’t write the bible man did!
    When we start the coversation with that fact, it’s fairly safe to say you are all full of BS.
    Open your mind ask questions, and don’t limit your thoughts to the passions of whatever religion you have been brainwashed to believe.

    Reply
    1. Saxtus

      no god wrote the bible with his pinky finger i saw it on family guy!

      Reply
    2. David Lieber

      @7THSON

      Scott was simply serving up an example of critical thinking–hardly thumping a Bible. Everyone knows that human beings wrote the Bible, including believers, and that much of what they wrote was bullshit. A few more seconds of your time would have brought you to that understanding.

      Reply
      1. Jas

        And the bible was written by a bunch of traveling hash heads who had nothing better to do except pass on ” big fish stories”

        Reply
  24. English Learning Center

    Yes,this is a wonderful Article i really enjoy through out the Article,that how we detect bullshit it gives new and working ideas.

    Reply
  25. Loak

    Lying is a perfectly valid tactic to achieving your goals.

    Most people suck at using it (Wrong situation or lies that are just stupid and unbelievable), but most people are also very gullible, so it kind of cancels out.

    There’s also a few rare situations where you’ll want someone to catch your lie.

    Reply
  26. pfffhtt

    hey idiot has it ever occurred to you that adam and eve weren’t to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge because then they will know good and evil thus causing them to sin and do things that are unholy also the eating of the tree has caused them to lose their immortality.

    Reply
    1. rationalthinker

      Yeah, last I checked. Adam and Eve, were in fact, DEAD.

      sounds like he was 100% correct when he said, eat and die.

      Hey morons, It’s not God’s fault, YOUR ignorant assumptions led you to the WRONG conclusions.

      Reply
  27. stefan

    thank you.

    I actually read quite a bit of your site and didnt get side tracked.

    maybe it was the alcoholic freedom flowing through my mind as I sit here gazing out of a 32nd floor lounge window.

    anyway, I have been doing the ‘talking about writing a book’ for nigh on 10-15 years. started a bit then got bogged down by work and family- well, work really.

    sorry, I waffle, in summary, your site made sense and was informative (and encouraging) to me, I will send a cheque for a doughnut and coffee when my first book gets erm, finished….if published you will have my thanks and a mention!
    Cheerio.

    Reply
  28. fran

    To sum it up for me is people lie because they think they look good, and it boost there ego, until they find out they can’t do what they lied about then they look like a fool. thats what you get when you really lie. I guess we all do the little white lies, but they suck to.

    Reply
    1. brenda

      people lie with malicious intent to belittle some one else or inflict harm. i belive this is done so that they can 1. say they are just as bad as i am. 2. see how much better i am 3. as a form of control 4. lie to them selves.

      Reply
  29. Kevin

    What a load of guff this article? is mister . All of these comments below come from a bunch of idiots bullshit’n themselves . F this world and all the morons that have inherited it . I am all alone but not lonely in my reflections of pure honest simplicity

    Reply
  30. Carol Cartwright

    My teacher–who was a sort of Gnostic Stoic existentialist atheist rationalist freethinker radical passing as an Ivy League educated Republican–used to say in his upper level undergrad course on the History of the English Language:

    “Language was invented to tell a dirty joke with, then to lie about it later.”

    Reply
  31. Katharine Trauger

    I wonder. Are you suggesting BS is good? A little confusing, there! I mean, do you subscribe to it? Are we to take all your articles seriously? Or do you recommend we test them?

    Also, you left out one lie in the Gen. story: Eve, in her response to the serpent said that they were not to eat of it or to TOUCH IT. Obvious stretching of the truth, there, and who knows if she heard it wrong from Adam or if she just stood there and made up stuff while visiting with a snake…BUT the fact that she was promoting or believing THIS lie caused her to have more confidence, perhaps, when she touched it and experienced no change at all…

    So, if you are a proud and practicing BSer, take a lesson from Eve and include some confusion for our radar screens. Got it? :-)

    Just a thought.

    Reply
  32. Annoyed

    I’m really getting annoyed by all these people who are implying that the author of this essay is unintelligent just because he said that God lied by saying that Adam and Eve would die if they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Why do you think that you have the monolopy of opinion on a religious subject? Since countless scholars who are older, wiser and indubitably more intelligent than most of the people commenting here have attempted and failed to come up with one definitive theory of what any one example of symbolism presented in the Bible actually means, what on Earth makes you think that you can? Honestly, that’s just a little bit arrogant isn’t it? Can’t we all just except that nobody really knows, because the fact of the matter is that NONE OF YOU WERE THERE!!!!

    P.S JK if you are going to be so pedantic about people getting their quotes wrong, well then you might want to check your own, because I think you will find that Proverb 16:18 actually reads “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”.

    Reply
    1. marc

      Adam and Eve. It’s “ha Adam” actually, which means something different folks! The bible itself says not to take these thing Literally… Yet we’ve been lead down that very path. A good resource for all this are the authors who use the bible itself, to shred it. It’s easily done and I’m still amazed at myself for missing all that while a born again at bible study. Details aside, any truths in the book were lifted from earlier pagan sources. Similar to how they built over pagan sacred sites etc.
      Also consider this curious similarity; born into sin…born into debt. Seriously ponder that as these crafters of old knew very well what they were doing – and where they were taking thing$! They were adept at creating fake secular histories as well. There are more and more sources with alternate views on the Dark Ages. They were “dark” because someone didn’t want the truth out (as to all the machinations via vested interests).

      Reply
    2. Saxtus

      I WOULD SAY WHAT I WOULD SAY BUT THEN I’D COPY YOU!

      Reply
    3. Just Me

      I really luv it that I am not the only one that say, “NONE OF YOU WERE THERE.”

      Reply
  33. Mark

    I was hoping to read more about detecting BS for people who inflate their own accomplishments, or ego or who think they know everything, or clearly exaggerate if not lie about their own accoplishments.
    For example, I know a person who clamined an accomplishment I know to be clearly false because I have very good knowledge of worlds records of certain things and am a a very good mathematician who eaisly identified that what this person did physcially would have completely shattered the world record and yet this person was never known in any way by any media, nor mentioned in any sports records books, or trivia anywhere. In fact, this feat he clamis he did based on my math, based on a history pattern won’t even be achived for even 50 or 60 years from now, and this feat would have been recorded about 30-40 years ago. so we are talking a world record that would have not been reached for 80-100 years. But this person always seems to have an answer for everything, yet he believes in what amounts to be nothing more than complete nonsense, and seems to blame everyone else for every wrong instead of looking at himself.

    Reply
  34. Shenaaz

    About Adam and Eve in the Quraan

    This is in the Quraan regarding Adam and Eve:

    No mention in Quran, (Muslims holy book), on what Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat. Actually, they were commanded not to approach a tree in the Garden of Eden.
    Quran says (English meaning translation):
    “O Adam! dwell you and your wife in the Garden, and enjoy (its good things) as you wish: but don’t approach this tree, or you run into harm and transgression.” Then began Satan to whisper suggestions to them, bringing openly before their minds all their shame that was hidden from them (before): Satan said: “Your Lord only forbade you this tree, for not becoming angels or being alive for ever.” And he swore to them both, that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit he brought about their fall: when they tasted of the tree, their shame became manifest to them, and they began to sew together the leaves of the garden over their bodies. And their Lord called them: “Did I not forbid you that tree, and tell you that Satan was an avowed enemy to you?” They said: “Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls: If you (God) don’t forgive us and don’t bestow upon us your Mercy, we shall certainly be lost. God said: “Get both down with enmity between yourselves (mankind). On earth will be your dwelling-place and your means of livelihood,- for a time.” He said: “Therein shall you live, and therein shall you die; but from it shall you be taken out (at last).”
    [Quran, chapter7 (Surat Al-A’raf), verse 19 to 25]

    Reply
  35. Edmund Samph

    Great stuff! Periodically I do a dogpile.com search for stuff off the top of my head, sometimes just to see how good the search engine really is. This time my search was for “meaningless bullshit and speculation”. Which resulted in my finding your site and this page. ” #53 How to detect bullshit” I like the tricorder it’s always impressive when you can back it up with technology.

    Reply
  36. chan

    sounds like a whole lot of b.s if you ask me :)

    Reply
  37. Anaerobic Digestion

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s true, A BS alarm needs to be never far from your thoughts these days whe told something is “groundbreaking” the very word is made for BS! Also, “Studies show”. Yep! Big warning bells on this one too, as you say who’s “studies”? Anaerobic Digestion Community

    Reply
  38. Bea Esse

    I clicked the link to ‘On Bullshit’ and there’s a good, brief explanation in a review of the book (paraphrased) – lying is in opposition to the truth, bullshit doesn’t care about either truth or lies.

    Reply
  39. marie soul

    I think bullshit is a way to make people think you know more about a certain topic then you really do.So I am not so sure it is a lie,..To me a lie would be something someone knows that is the truth but tells the opposite. That is my view,and when I read a story,fictional that is has a lil bullshit I kind of look forward too. But maybe thats just me :)

    Reply
    1. Mel B.

      G-d did not lie. If you study the Torah in Hebrew atleast (and it should be studied in hebrew or else you’re getting a less than accurate translation) you will see that God tells Adam not to eat from the tree. Adam tells Eve that God said not to eat and not to touch the tree, thereby confusing her. God told Adam that if you eat from the tree you’ll die, not if you touch the tree, you’ll die. Eve was confused and she thought that since she touched the tree and lived, she could eat from it as well. She ate from it and then was punished. Adam confused her. God did not lie. Read it in Hebrew. Also the Torah starts from Bet, not Aleph. The first word is “Breishit” showing that this world was not the first world created and hints to a possibility of other worlds. Jews have contributed a lot to science. IF you study it with a rabbi, you’ll see that in the beginning there is light before there is day. Many Jewish scholars attribute this to a “Big Bang” type theory where light exists even without illuminaries like the sun.

      Reply
  40. david

    god didn’t lie..adam and eve were created by god to live forever..are they still alive? no they died just as the lord said they would if they disobeyed. as a result of this original sin we must also all eventually die

    Reply
  41. Arianne

    I love being a BS detector, it’s got to the point now where my dad will make something up and I’ll immediately say “your lying” so far I’ve been right every time. My dad’s lies are never serious, just stupid ones to wind me up, but to be honest if anyone else said them, I’d have to go through the process you mentioned to make a plausible decision. I found this article so true and funny :P thanks

    Reply
  42. Bill Riedel

    There is now an impressive list of books by academics on bullshit. I have developed a bit of a reading list as a primer on the subject:

    1. Gilgun, Jane, 2008 – ON BEING A SHIT, Unkind Deeds and Cover-ups in Everyday Life, Lulu Enterprises, Morrisville, NC, USA.
    2. McGinn, Colin, 2008 – Mindfucking, A Critique of Mental Manipulation, Acumen Publishing Ltd., http://www.acumenpublishing.co.uk.
    3. Law, Stephen, 2011 – Believing Bullshit, How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, USA.
    4. Frankfurt, Harry G., 2005 – On Bullshit, Princeton University Pres, Princeton, NJ, USA.
    5. Hardcastle, Gary L. and George A. Reisch (Editors), 2006 – Bullshit and Philosophy, Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time, Open Court, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
    6. Culbert, Samuel A. 2008 – Beyond Bullsh*t – Straight-Talk at Work, Stanford U. Press – page 104 point is made that we may think we are through with the past; but it may not/never through with us……

    Reply
  43. Raquel Romero

    Unquestionably believe that which you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the internet the easiest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get annoyed while people consider worries that they plainly don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

    Reply
  44. Nicholas

    Your distaste for dipping into religious texts apparently continues unabated as you completely mangled the interpretation of the Torah . One wonders if you actually read the text itself since you repeatedly call the fruit from the Tree “apples’ . The Torah never says it was an “apple tree”. I call Bullshit on your facile interpretation of a text you have never seriously considered within any theologically valid framework. This sort of sophomore atheism is hard to take seriously.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for your comment.

      I knew about the various interpretations of ‘fruit’ but didn’t see the significance of calling out a trivial detail. Apples are a fruit, as are figs, grapes and many other tasty things. Which specific fruit it actually wasn’t isn’t relevant, and as apples are the most commonly referred to fruit in the West, I followed suit.

      And as this essay was written in 2006, I have since lost my distaste, and often read religious texts.

      I did add an additional link to the post to clarify the point.

      Now that this indignity to apples has been corrected, I look forward to a deeper critique.

      Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] Unfortunately, this conversation wasn’t as exaggerated as you might think. Moral of the story – marketing is about having a clear message, and speaking to your target audience in a language that is engaging and relevant. Do that, and leave the BS at home. For a good article on BS-detection, check out: Scott Berkun’s humorous, “How to detect bulls***”. […]

  2. […] Unfortunately, this conversation wasn’t  as exaggerated as you might think.  Moral of the story – marketing is about having a clear message, and speaking to your target audience in a language that is engaging and relevant. Do that, and leave the BS at home. For a good article on BS-detection, check out:  Scott Berkun’s humorous, “How to detect bulls***”). […]

  3. […] One of the most often referenced speeches in the history in public speaking, is the famous Dr. Fox lecture. In short, researchers hired an actor to pose as an expert, and he gave a meaningless, but complex sounding, lecture. They studied how easily the audience  of experts was fooled. It’s a canonical reference on how vulnerable to B.S. we all can be. […]

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