Sunday, April 11, 2010

My very own bullshit

There is a problem in news media, a problem that this blog made clear, quite by accident, over the last few months. The problem is with producing credibility where none is deserved.

Back in March I wrote this piece, a serious list of suggestions for readers to avoid being mislead by writers with an agenda to push.

Of all the blog posts on The Harvest, this is the one that provoked the most interest and support. Previous posts had attracted comments from friends, this one expanded beyond that group – I was beginning to convince strangers.

This was the result I’d hoped for, and set out to achieve by deliberately using authoritative language. I avoided the first person and made each point with straight-faced confidence, as though each claim was objective fact and not just an opinion of my own. Previous blog posts where I had written in the first person seemed to attract less interest and, to me, lacked authority.

Hmm. My very first warning on how to spot bullshit urges readers to be wary of ‘claims made with confidence but without evidence’, yet here I was phrasing opinion in the third person, implying utter confidence, as a way to sway readers.

Still, at least these opinions on how to spot bullshit are a bit obvious and self-evident. Two days ago I pushed things forward quite a bit with a dismissive rant about the decline of ‘high art’. I gave examples of beautiful early 20th century art, followed by horrible mid-late 20th century art that seemed designed merely to shock and annoy. I concluded that modern artists had lost their way, and that ‘low’ artists had compensated for this decline by producing powerful and ambitious pieces.

Check rule number two on how to spot bullshit: ‘Anecdotal evidence can disprove a generalisation, but cannot prove it’. Right, yet here I was, using a tiny number of examples of art belonging to different eras to imply massive-scale shifts in how art is produced. I was breaking my own rules, flagrantly.

In part, this was again a deliberate choice. The post on modern art was inspired by a trip to the Irish Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago. I entered, looked around for ten baffled and bored minutes, and left. For years I have been going to modern art galleries, hoping to be surprised and inspired, and again and again walking away in disgust. I’d always assumed that there was something there that I was simply too ignorant to grasp – something that would reveal itself to me with time. This assumption was beginning to slide, though, and I increasingly wondered if modern art was just the Emperor’s New Clothes: vacuous, but supported by people pretending to be intelligent enough to enjoy it.

I thought of writing this in my blog, but realised again that the first person opinion piece would lack authority. The internet is full of people writing about their feelings and opinions. The first person would (correctly) render my piece no more authoritative than any other blog on the net.

So, partly as an experiment, I decided to write with absolute confidence, write as though I had decades of art history behind me, as though the few examples I showed were just a few out of thousands more I could reference.

It was bullshit: tidy, compelling bullshit.

Yet there was nothing unique about my approach. On the contrary, a great many commentators use this confident third person approach to writing what are in fact their own opinions; great, well-respected journalists and editors use it all the time.

To use an example of a commentator I respect and enjoy, let’s look at British reviewer Charlie Brooker’s show Screenwipe. Brooker’s look at how television functions is witty (I think) and insightful, but the absolute confidence he applies when interpreting television make his opinions appear fact. In this episode he explores the purpose of television advertising, and how it strives to manipulate the viewers.

The language of advertising is an art in itself, it has to walk a fine line between exaggeration and fact, implying here, suggesting there, and leaving you with a sense that more has been said than has actually been said.

Brooker then goes on to suggest a few ‘key phrases’ which advertisers use to exaggerate or mislead viewers, like ‘help’, e.g. a particular product helps to reduce wrinkles. This is useful, he says, because it is non-specific. It might not help very much, but it will help… a bit.

What Brooker does here, in providing viewers with ways that advertisers may try to mislead them, is close to what I was trying to do with my detecting bullshit post. It is fascinating and everything he says sounds immensely convincing to me.

None of it is backed up by statistical evidence, though. I think Screenwipe is wonderful, entertaining and useful. But I think one should be careful even in watching this great show; Brooker is giving his opinion, which rocks, I reckon, but it is still mere opinion, delivered in the third person as fact.

All this leaves journalists in a bit of a fix. The most honest thing is to be constantly open about what is opinion and what is fact. This might mean using ‘probably’, ‘maybe,’ and, worse, ‘I think’.

Yet even comparing this blog post with previous ones written in the third person, I find this one irritating and weak. This constant use of ‘I’, the repeated caveat of ‘I think’ and ‘maybe’, throws my arguments into doubt and irrelevance. I have become another complaining blogger… instead of an authoritative writer! Imagine how the great quotes of history would be written today if the authors were careful to indicate the difference between opinion and fact, and checked every claim with disclaimers:

‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’
- Karl Marx

This becomes:

‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a possible Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing except recent advances in technology and medicine, growth in income, the end of slavery and increased individual freedom to lose. Oh, and their metaphorical chains. They have a world to win, assuming it all works out and doesn’t backfire in some way I don’t yet foresee.’

‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’
- Ben Franklin

‘Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, possibly deserve neither liberty nor safety. I mean, I suppose there is a reasonable middle ground here. I’m not saying we should leave the front door unlocked just because we like the freedom to wander out without a key. But you get me.’

‘You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.’
- Winston Churchill

‘Some of you might be asking, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air – if necessary – with all our might and with all the strength that God (assuming there is one) can give us (assuming God is on our side, which is anyone’s guess); to wage war against a monstrous tyranny (one of many, but we’ll ignore the others for now), never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime – except maybe by the Mongols, Aztecs, the present Soviet Union, quite possibly some of our own colonial states in the recent past, and so on. But we’ll fight them anyway. Are you with me?’

It’s horrible stuff. Yet this method is the more honest of the two (I think), and the more accurate.

For me, I think I’ll try to be clearer when I use fact and opinion, reserve this authoritative voice for statements of fact and lapse back to the first person when I can’t. This is the better path. (Maybe. I think.)


  1. Cheers, I fell for it, probably because I agree with the post :) It's easy to fall for bombastic statements when they "sound right" and you agree with them...

  2. Yeah man, I really do suspect a lot of modern art is nonsense too! But I'm no expert, my post was based on a hunch, a notion I'd picked up listening to Pink Floyd or something :P

    Funny thing is, as I mention here, journalists talk like this all the time, especially reviewers.


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