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The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit

I\’ve always loved reading New Scientist so it breaks my heart to have to say this, but recent issues have been dire. Dull, poorly thought out, worst of all, dogmatic. And it particularly annoys me to see them using lame rhetorical tricks and bad logic against the people they see as their Heathen enemy – the New Agers. For Pete\’s sake, if you\’re going to act like the 17th century Papacy, do it properly. Science is worthy of better defenders.
What\’s brought on this particular rant is their Opinion Interview this week [11 June] \”The plain person\’s guide to bullshit.\” It features \’philosopher\’ Stephen Law of Heythrop College, University of London, who has a tough but soulful look that will probably get him a TV career so long as he hasn\’t got a squeaky voice.
Just for fun, I\’m going to go through this piece and identify the old dodges and missed opportunities.
\”Q; you describe your new book \’Believing Bullshit\’ as a guide to avoid getting sucked into \”intellectual black holes\”. What are they?
A: Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. Belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, alien abductions… As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again.\”
Ooh. Scary. This is a rhetorical trick known as Give A Dog A Bad Name. You identify your enemy as something Evil. Then you warn the faithful against investigating on the grounds that they might be sucked in by the Demon/Black Hole and never escape its clutches.
What you haven\’t done is shown any reason for people not to believe in homeopathy etc. You\’ve just shouted Bad! Keep away! What you should do if you\’re a scientist is cite the double blind trials and animal experiments (to exclude placebo effects) which show how little effect the treatment has.
If there haven\’t been any properly conducted experiments, then you organise some. That\’s what science does. It\’s not a bloody belief system, it\’s a marvellously effective mental tool for exploring reality which always starts with an anomaly, something that doesn\’t fit. Maybe homeopathy is that anomaly. More likely it\’s a brilliant way of mobilising the immune system of believers through the placebo effect. You don\’t know until you test it properly.
Only dogmas need to use the Give A Dog A Bad Name ploy.


  1. Stephen law says:

    Hi patricia. I did not say science is a belief system. Its better thought of as a method, as you say. a belief system, as i use the expression, is just a system of beliefs. They could be scientific beliefs. Read the book and youll find i say exactly what you say above about homeopathy.

    Ps do you not like philosophers?

    1. Patricia says:

      Thank you for commenting. Yes, I do like philosophers even tho I was forced to read Freddy Ayers’ ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ at a young and easily frightened age.
      I will indeed read your book as soon as I can lay hands on it – it’s a subject I’m very interested in. If I’ve been unfair, I’ll say so. Perhaps the article was too short to give a proper picture. However it always annoys me to see these unnecessary rhetorical tricks being used against something that science – as an institution – seems to see as a threat. Personally I’m a hardline empiricist – I say, investigate everything.

  2. Stephen Law says:

    OK Patricia. Let me know what you think. I am guessing you’ll approve of most of it but we’ll see….

    1. Patricia says:

      Lawks, you don’t think it will have made it all the way to Truro in Cornwall, do you? Will check to see if our wonderful local Waterstones has managed to get it in.

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