The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit | John V. Petrocelli

Summary of: The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit
By: John V. Petrocelli


Welcome to a world where believing in misinformation and ignoring evidence can impact our lives in profound ways. ‘The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit’ by John V. Petrocelli sheds light on the different facets of bullshitting and its implications on our memory, beliefs, and decision-making. Through eye-opening examples and actionable advice, this book summary outlines the distinction between bullshitting and lying, why bullshitting is harmful, and how we can train ourselves to become more discerning, critical thinkers in a world that often thrives on misinformation.

Bullshit vs. Truth

NBA star Kyrie Irving sparked a controversy when he claimed the earth was flat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. While it may seem incredulous, 1 in 50 US adults shares this belief. The problem lies not in a lack of concrete information but in the fact that these individuals actively choose to disregard the truth and substitute it with their version of reality. In other words, they bullshit. However, bullshitting is not the same as lying. Whereas a liar is concerned with hiding the truth, the bullshitter does not care whether what they are saying is true or not. In some cases, bullshitting can be harmless, but in others, it can be dangerous, as shown by former US President Donald Trump’s suggestion of injecting disinfectant as a cure for COVID-19, which led to fatalities. In this book, the author explores the problem of bullshitting in our society, including everyday examples of it and how it benefits the bullshitter to the detriment of everyone else.

The Impact of Bullshit

When we buy something, we pay a reasonable markup for the retailer’s risks. However, some markups, such as the ones on restaurant wine and soda, go beyond reasonable, known as bullshit markups. These markups can affect our memory, beliefs, attitudes, and decisions. Research shows that we prefer bullshit when it aligns with our worldview, and we tend to accept it as the truth when we hear it for the first time. Moreover, we often rely on intuition instead of facts. Bullshit can have long-term effects, and undoing it takes time. An example of a bullshit decision is the extermination of sparrows in China, which led to famine and the death of millions.

Beware of Bullibility

Bullibility is the susceptibility to accepting bullshit as fact without realizing it. This affects everyone to varying degrees and can lead to poor decision-making. People with the psychological trait of agreeability are more susceptible to being bullible. The context, our thinking, and our mood also contribute to bullibility. Holding even just one belief based on bullshit increases our vulnerability to being bullible. Ponzi schemes are a great example of how bullibility can lead to financial loss. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of our own bullibility and to develop critical thinking skills to avoid being misled by bullshit.

The Art of Bullshitting

The human tendency to bullshit is exacerbated when we feel obligated or expected to contribute our opinions. According to the author, this phenomenon is more prevalent when conversing with people who know less about a particular subject. However, when we feel accountable for our words or lack knowledge on a topic, bullshitting can decrease. Some individuals are more prone to bullshit than others, especially those who seek approval from others and possess a false sense of knowledge. The desire to fit in often prompts us to contribute to conversations even if we have no expertise on the topic at hand, resulting in a heaping pile of bullshit.

Bullshitters Tactics

The book reveals how bullshitters use storytelling, pseudo-profundity, and personal connections to manipulate people. It highlights the case of facilitated communication, a debunked technique that still enjoys widespread use in schools worldwide. While evidence refutes these tactics, bullshitters ignore scientific data and twist the facts to fit their point of view. Former US President Donald Trump’s changing opinion on National Security Advisor John Bolton is a prime example of such behavior. By shedding light on these maneuvers, one can become a better bullshit detector and avoid being misled by false claims.

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