Asymmetry and Anti-Scientific Junk

Asymmetry and Anti-Scientific Junk September 28, 2016

Okay, I said “junk” in this post’s title when I actually meant “bullshit,” but let’s get down to it: not everything that’s passed off as scientific actually is, and this is problematic for a couple different reasons.

Photo by NASA. In public domain.
Photo by NASA. In public domain.

First, go read this fantastic essay, The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit. Then ponder whether you’ve run into apparently convincing news stories or arguments that might, in fact, be bullshit.

The point of the essay is to point out that there are many ways to produce bullshit that might come off as scientific-seeming. The author defines “bullshit” as:

arguments, data, publications, or even the official policies of scientific organizations that give every impression of being perfectly reasonable — of being well-supported by the highest quality of evidence, and so forth — but which don’t hold up when you scrutinize the details. Bullshit has the veneer of truth-like plausibility. It looks good. It sounds right. But when you get right down to it, it stinks.

The main problem is that it’s easier to generate bullshit that passes as good science than it is to generate good science, or solidly science-based arguments that refute the bullshit. It’s time-consuming, for one thing. It puts the legit science researcher, or decently-informed science fan, in a quandry when they interact with a bullshitter: “It’s a lose-lose situation. Ignore you, and you win by default. Engage you, and you win like the pig in the proverb who enjoys hanging out in the mud.”

See also: Porn Is Not a Public Health Crisis (Says Science)

We see this in the worlds of sex education and sex therapy, where the folks who are invested in the sex addiction metaphor can get pretty, well, bullshitty. In my sex education work and activism, I’ve had to decide whether it’s worth it to engage with people who might look like they’re presenting legitmate complaints, but are more likely spinning up bullshit based on nonsense like gender essentialism, misogyny, transphobia or biphobia, and so on.

Similarly, I think one of the reasons academics are reluctant to do more public outreach is that when we engage with the public, they have the chance to talk back to us. This may or may not include spewing difficult-to-refute-bullshit at us, but when it does, we’re too busy with teaching, researching, and publishing obligations to be able to combat the time-consuming facets of bullshit. Not that our work is automatically more lofty or important than the work of non-academics, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, our jobs are often precarious enough as it is, and we’re already pretty damn overworked. Shifting the burden of disproving bullshit onto us can put us in a difficult position.

Dare I label this as a form of emotional labor? Should I mentioned anecdotes of (women) researchers in fields where members of the public (who are men) give them really severe backlash, sometimes in the form of bullshit to disprove when it’s disproportionately more work for the female academic in question? Maybe I’ll wrap up this particular post before I fall down that rabbit hole, but trust me: this is a thing that happens.

Regardless of your science background, I believe it’s important to note that shifting the burden of proof onto scientists while the bullshitters can spin as much hype as they want is problematic.

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