True Bullshit

English is a wonderfully expressive language; far more than, for example, French, which for all its pretensions of sophistication is actually quite limited in its depth and precision. Much of this has to do with the anarchic evolution of English – nobody has ever really been in charge of creating or curating it. By contrast, the Academie Francaise has existed for centuries now as official arbiters of what constitutes proper French, and, as many such august bodies of credentialed academics have done in their respective fields, have progressively made their language worse by the formulation of rules that are eminently logical and completely wrongheaded. Perhaps the most important of their ongoing quests has been to streamline the French language by ridding it of redundancies – taking words that they deem to be essentially identical in meaning, choosing one to keep, and then banishing the rest from the canon of acceptable vocabulary. While this has made French a very efficient language (official logic is good at creating efficiency), it has also robbed it of much of its richness. In contrast, English contains many, many words that, while very close in definition, impart a very slightly differing shade of meaning or context from each other. Thus, in English, very fine gradations of meaning can be achieved with proper word choice, while in French, these distinctions either have to be explained in depth or left ambiguous. This is what makes English an excellent language for both science and literature, while French, for all its attempts at centrally-planned logical efficiency, is clunky and unwieldy at both. It has even been suggested that this is why French has produced many good authors, but really no great ones – nobody on the level of Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Poe, or Tolkien. Whatever their natural talents may be, the limits of their language simply don’t grant them the tools necessary to achieve such greatness.

A good example of the rich vocabulary that gives English its remarkable descriptiveness is the word “bullshit”. I am hardly the first to write about the depth and versatility of this remarkable word, which, so far as I know, has no real equivalent in any other language. The Academie would have banished it for being too close in meaning to “false” or “incorrect”, but that’s not quite really what it means. In fact it is entirely possible for a statement to be 100% factually correct, and still be complete bullshit. This happens when that factually correct idea is exaggerated, taken out of context, or otherwise distorted in order to be used in bad faith as a pretext for some action that would otherwise be rightly seen as immoral, unwise, oppressive, or absolute lunacy.

There has never been a better moment to contemplate this truth, as this juncture in our civic life is positively swimming in factually-correct bullshit.

Examples abound, both minor and major. Take, for example, the “gluten-free” craze that has almost certainly overtaken your favorite grocery store in recent years. It is absolutely factually true that there is a small percentage of people whose health can benefit from eating gluten-free foods. But unless you’ve been diagnosed as having a very specific and rare food allergy by your doctor, you’re not one of them. And neither are 99% of the people who’ve been buying gluten-free foods during this fad, either. They’ve simply accepted on faith an implied (though carefully never stated outright) claim that it’s better for them somehow, and certainly better enough that it’s worth paying a dollar or two more for. None of the people producing or marketing gluten-free foods to the general public have ever made any false statements about what they are or what they do. There’s no lie involved. But it’s also indisputable that gluten-free foods are bullshit, and the whole fad around them is no more than a pretext to squeeze gullible soccer moms into paying extra money for something that (unless they really are one of the tiny percentage diagnosed with a gluten allergy) is of no benefit to them whatsoever.

But this is merely a minor league example. Big league bullshit invariably involves much more powerful players.

For many years, my go-to example of factually-correct bullshit has been the Big Tobacco settlements of the late 90s and early 00s. Is it true that smoking is insanely unhealthy, and leads to horrendous health problems? Certainly. I was my mother’s caretaker as she died of lung cancer brought on by 50 years of smoking. It is not an easy way to go, and was not a pleasant experience for either her or me. I personally have never smoked, nor do I recommend smoking to anybody. That the factual claim used as the core of the push for the settlement is true and valid is beyond any reasonable doubt. But the reality of the settlement has been this: The public was promised that all the money it generated would go into the health care system, pouring billions into it in order to pull it back from the brink of a looming insolvency caused in no small part by the enormous costs of having to treat diseases brought on by smoking. Instead, a huge cut went to the politically-connected lawyers who negotiated the settlement, and the rest was poured into the General Fund so that politicians could waste it on all of the usual bullshit that politicians waste money on (most especially the thinly-veiled vote-buying schemes that masquerade as public charity in our democracy). So little of it went to actual health care, that within a decade we were all being told that we needed to pass Obamacare to save the health care system from the same onrushing insolvency that the tobacco settlement money was supposed to fix. The whole thing was a scam – the science behind it was all solid, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t bullshit.

Of course, they then moved on to Global Warming, which was rebranded as Climate Change when exceptionally shaky data made the “warming” claims into a weak leg to stand on. Despite this, I will be the first to admit that I don’t personally know for sure whether any unusual climate change is, in fact, happening, or what might be causing it if it is. Maybe all of their claims are true, and maybe they aren’t. But even if it is all based in solid fact and science, I do have one question about the matter for which I will require an answer before I regard it as bullshit: Has the left ever encountered a crisis which had a solution that involved the public handing less money and power over to them and their allies in the Public/Private Woke Coalition? Surely, logic would dictate that there would have to be just one out there somewhere, wouldn’t it?

Yes, it is obvious that George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis Police involved some serious misconduct on their part (though, frankly, there was probably no lack of it on his part, either). Yes, this indicates that there are serious problems with policing in this country. Yes, police training – both initial and recurrent – is uniformly awful, which has led to one appalling incident after another. But the idea that our cities burned for two weeks straight because of any of that is bullshit. It was simply a pretext for a communist (and yes, I used that word, because that’s precisely who they are, whether they call themselves that or not) uprising for which the ground work was carefully planned long beforehand, the goal of which is to help evict Donald J. Trump from the White House by any means necessary.

And then there is the coronavirus pandemic. My position on the scientific facts surrounding the disease and the proper response to them hasn’t changed one bit. I am still a moderate on them. Yes, coronavirus is a serious matter. Yes, it was worth shutting down the economy for a few weeks until we had a better understanding of it as a health threat and could get a proper handle on the situation. Yes, therefore, I think that the Trump approach was a reasonable one. But it has also become obvious that the power-hungry and dishonest in the Establishment have been using it as a pretext to take actions that help them achieve their goals. It does so in multiple ways. One, of course, has been to turn the economy into a kamikaze plane aimed squarely at the deck of the USS Trump, hoping to sink any chance that he has to retain power after the upcoming election. But a more important goal is to get the people used to taking immoral, unconstitutional, and tyrannical orders from the government after it has declared some manner of “emergency” (and you can count on the fact that once they are in power, they will ensure that a perpetual state of emergency exists so that your obedience will always be required). Everyone who has been following recent events has undoubtedly seen stories like this: gatherings of ten at a church are prohibited, and the police will be sent to break them up by force; meanwhile gatherings of 10,000 at a George Floyd protest are encouraged, and the police will even be instructed to allow the “peaceful protesters” to sack and burn their own station houses if that’s what they feel like doing. The reasons for this are obvious, and so is the conclusion to be drawn from them. It’s not that coronavirus is a hoax, that it’s “just the flu, bro”, or that it wasn’t worth taking seriously – it wasn’t any of those things. It’s not that we were wrong to take carefully-considered, appropriate steps to keep it from becoming a disastrous health crisis – we weren’t. It’s that coronavirus is bullshit.

From all of this, we can take a look at the bigger picture: “The Experts”, with all of their credentials worn prominently on their sleeves, are incessantly paraded in front of you in order to deliver condescending lectures on “the facts”, and especially on how “the science is settled”. And maybe it is. Maybe everything that they are telling you is absolutely, unquestionably, beyond any shadow of doubt, factually correct. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t bullshit.

Make sure you know (and can articulate) the difference.

Godless “Scientific” Morals: Demonstrable Nonsense

Atheism has always faced a certain question of morals. Specifically, the question it has faced is this: Absent a revealed moral code handed down from a higher intelligence, how can any one moral system be proven objectively correct? How can any one man’s idea of what is right and wrong be shown to be objectively better than any other man’s? And if one can not be so established, then by what right can any man impose his idea of it upon another man who does not agree with it? How can we have any laws, or any social norms? (Do not, by the way, be so weak-minded as to buy the old argument that “You can’t legislate morality.” That’s what laws are – impositions of a codified morality onto others. There is no law that does not “legislate morality”.)

Recently there have been a spate of books, including prominent ones by Sam Harris, Stefan Molyneux, and Tara Smith, which attempt to answer that question by proving that a set of objective, scientifically-knowable moral laws can and do exist outside of any deity. These are all, of course, demonstrable nonsense. I shall make that demonstration now.

Let us take something that we understand is in fact objective and scientifically-knowable, such as basic arithmetic. It is an objective, scientifically-knowable fact that 2+2=4. This is the only correct answer; any other answer is wrong. Thus, if you ask 100 reasonably-intelligent, reasonably-informed people what 2+2 might equal, you should get the answer 4 every single time, because reasonably-intelligent, reasonably-informed people who all use the same objective, scientifically-knowable method to come up with an answer to the same question should all arrive at the same answer. If, however, you asked that 100 reasonably-intelligent, reasonably-informed people what 2+2 equals, and you find that twenty-five of them said that it equaled 11, twenty-five of them said that it equaled 46, twenty-five of them said that it equaled 3, and twenty-five of them said that it equaled -57, something would obviously be wrong with that picture.

Similarly, let us take basic physics as an example. If, while standing on the surface of the Earth, you release an object with any mass to it, it will fall in only one direction – down. If you ask 100 reasonably-intelligent, reasonably-informed people which direction such an object will fall, you should get the answer “down” every single time. If, however, twenty-five of them say “up”, twenty-five of them say “sideways”, twenty-five of them say “forward”, and twenty-five of them say “backward”, something would, again, obviously be wrong with that picture.

And so we come to morality. If indeed there is an objective, scientifically-knowable method of determining a quantifiable morality absent a deity, then why do atheists disagree on what it might be? Why are there some atheists who are secular humanist liberals, others who are convinced Marxists, others who are libertarians, others who are “Dark Enlightenment” conservatives, and others who are Randian Objectivists? It isn’t even as though there are an overwhelming majority who are of one position, and the rest are statistically insignificant outliers – very large numbers of atheists fall all over this spectrum. And it isn’t as if these are essentially similar moral codes with a few minor points of disagreement, either – they are as fundamentally different in their moral and ethical approach as it is possible to be. How could a large number of ostensibly reasonably-intelligent, reasonably-informed people have applied what we are assured is an objective, scientifically-knowable answer to the same problem and have come up with such a huge variety of drastically different answers?

Something, obviously, is wrong with this picture.

There are really only two possible explanations for this. One is that the allegedly reasonably-intelligent, reasonably-informed people are in fact not as reasonably-intelligent or reasonably-informed as they make themselves out to be – in which case, why listen to anything they have to say at all? The other is that the objective, scientifically-knowable method they advocate is not as objective or scientifically-knowable as they claim.

Either way, demonstrable nonsense.

The Greatest Value Of Education

What is the greatest value of being educated, especially in rhetoric and other humanities, in this day and age? Of knowing firsthand how academia works? Of being used to the ways in which highly intelligent and educated people conduct discourse with each other?

It is in being able to tell when highly intelligent and educated people are bullshitting you.

This, in turn, leads to an understanding of the degree to which the things that such people say are often bullshit, and in turn, a much decreased willingness to take what they say at face value and to follow their prescriptions blindly.

A Further Note On Technology

In which I remain cynically skeptical of the science fetishists, Star Trek daydreamers, and other sciento-triumphalists who claim that Techno-Utopia is coming our way, any old time now.

I call bullshit.

In fact, let us take what could broadly be called digitalization – the entirety of computers, the internet, cell phones, consumer electronics; basically, anything you could reasonably expect to find inside a Best Buy – and for a moment call it an outlier and set it aside.

So other than that, just how much technological progress have we really made in the past 50 years? I’m talking mainly about things that directly affect people’s lives, not abstract “We have a much better understanding of subatomic particles” sorts of things.

For example: A modern 787 is a fine aircraft indeed, and much more refined than the 707 one might have flown in in 1962. But the advances are mostly just that – refinements. The 787 is more efficient, more aerodynamic, quieter, and easier to maintain. But it doesn’t fly significantly higher than the 707, or significantly faster. It’s not significantly more comfortable or really significantly safer, and, at that, most of the safety improvements come from better crew training. Most passengers even today flying from, say, New York to Paris, really wouldn’t notice at all if you swapped out a 707 for their 787, except for wondering where the in-flight entertainment system went.

The 707 went into airline service in 1957. Think of the difference between it and airplanes 50 years before, in 1907. And then 50 years hence, in 2007.

Drones make big news, but have been practical since the late 50s. The new ones are a lot better, but much of the improvement has been made possibly by Digital Revolution tech.

Automobiles are a similar story. The last very major interface change was automatic transmission, which appeared around the same time the 707 did. Yes, I know – Google’s self-driving car. But that’s the fruits of digitalization – thus why it’s Google, an internet company, that’s at the forefront of it. Other than that? Refinements, yes – modern cars are safer, more efficient, more reliable, and last longer than those of 1962. But they perform their core functions basically no better, and don’t do a lot more than the cars of 50 years ago did. A friend still owns the Ford Falcon he bought in 1961, which still runs, and sometimes when we go off on a day’s adventuring we take the Falcon. Our day doesn’t go any differently – better or worse either way – than if we took his 2007 Corolla.

Trains? High-speed rail has been around quite a while now. The first Shinkansen opened up just in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Navigation? GPS, but the basic idea was developed with LORAN – GPS satellites are basically just LORAN stations in orbit – which was operational in the 60s (an old acquaintance recalls dropping bombs on North Vietnam through an overcast layer based on LORAN signals).

Non-digital household stuff? I think the last major advance was probably the microwave oven, which appeared around 40 years ago, or maybe the air conditioner, that would have appeared just a bit earlier. Other than that, think: If you cleared all the Digital Revolution stuff out of your house, how would it really look much significantly different from one you might see in 1962?

Medicine? We have better treatments, sure, and the likes of MRI machines are wonders (though arguably also digital) – but when was the last time we cured a really major disease? I mean a big one, and totally cured it? Maybe smallpox, around 40 years ago? Cancer recovery rates have held more or less steady since the early 70s. Again, a little more progress on some forms. I’m not arguing that there haven’t been advancements, but as with the other stuff, it’s been slow, steady refinements instead of huge leaps.

Materials science? Again, I’m not saying there haven’t been advancements. But the last big one was carbon fiber, which has been around for maybe 30 years, and the last civilization-transforming one was plastics, around 50 years ago.

Architecture? No mile-high skyscrapers yet. Burj Khalifa is largely a publicity stunt – the top floors of the spire count in its height, but are too small to inhabit. Other than that, buildings are not much taller than the generation of skyscrapers we built 40 years ago – the likes of the WTC and the Sears Tower.

Energy? Fusion still doesn’t work. Solar and high-tech alternatives still aren’t efficient enough. Wind is as old as mankind, as is hydroelectric. Nuclear is more refined, but the basic idea is late-40s tech. Other than that, we’re still taking flammable stuff we dig out of the ground and shoving it into furnaces to generate power.

Weapons? No laser guns yet. Still slugthrowers and grenades, mostly. The RPG is 50 year old tech. Air and armor have been around since WWI. Smart bombs date to the tail end of Vietnam, after the Air Force demanded better bombs in the wake of the losses they took trying to drop the Dragon’s Jaw Bridge. An “IED” is just an old school boobytrap hooked up to a cell phone. Other than that, refinements.

Spaceflight? We’ve arguably gone backwards. The new Mars rovers are nice, but we’ve been sending robots to Mars since 1976. Yes, the new one is better – it will last longer, gather more data, send back better pictures, etc. But the last man to walk on another planet – which was just our own moon – came back 40 years ago. We don’t even have our Shuttle anymore.

If you looked at the difference between the years 1900 and 1960, there was a huge amount of change in how people lived their daily lives that was due to technological advancement in areas like the ones I talked about above. But if you set aside what has admittedly been a huge amount of advancement in one single area – digitalization – the difference due to technology between how we live our daily lives now and how people 40 or 50 years ago lived their daily lives is fairly minimal. In other areas there have been advancements, yes, but again, mostly just refinements of things that worked, and actually already worked pretty well, back then.

The point of all this is, a lot of people think that there will be just as much technological advancement in the next 100 years as there was in the last 100 years. I disagree. I think that if we look at the tremendous spurt of technological advancement in the 100 years, that that pace of change can’t and won’t continue. It’s going to plateau out at some point. And, in fact, if you put aside advancement in one single area as an outlier, it basically already has.