The title of this comes from an old joke that’s been played out in several cartoons. The grain of truth in that joke is that because the Internet gives a certain anonymity, it’s difficult to determine who or what someone is in reality – you must judge them on what you “see.” There are good sides to this – many of them, in fact. But, there’s also a bad side. While the Internet can – and is – a source of good information, of reliable facts, it’s also a source of rumors, innuendo, and misinformation. Experts in a field use the Internet, but so too do people who are posing as experts. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff can be an exhausting process at times. In no place is that more evident than when an issue has become the subject of legislation, with advocacy groups weighing in.
Back when I was in the military, we had a colloquial term we used: the “bullshit meter.” Anyone who has ever been in the military knows the truth of the old saying “if you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” When advocacy groups make their case, there’s an attempt to do both. The odor of bovine fecal material will always be present. That’s where your personal “bullshit meter” comes in. There’s going to be some, but does what you’re reading make the meter go to the 100% mark? If you don’t have one, you have a problem. If you do, you should learn to calibrate it. How would you do that?
The first thing is to learn who the real experts are. There are always people who are acknowledged as experts in a field. They usually have a great deal posted on the Internet. It may not be in the popular media, and it’s often hard to read them. Anyone who has ever read a technical paper has had the experience of trying to wade through a lot of jargon that means something to people in the field, but is confusing to those who aren’t. But knowing who the experts are, even if you can’t wade through their work, gives you something important – the ability to determine just how much your personal bullshit meter is going to move when reading an advocate’s work. Do they use the experts work? Are they quoting it correctly? Do they use the experts conclusions correctly? The second thing to learn is how to fact check. Are they quoting people out of context to make their case? Are their “facts” true? You may not have the time to do this yourself, but you’ll often see someone else call them out on it. Everyone makes mistakes, or in the course of advocating something will let their enthusiasm get away from them now and then. If it’s a constant thing, it should start setting off alarm bells – and your bullshit meter for that person should start moving significantly. The third thing is a certain pragmatism. Does the advocate propose a realistic or even practical method of implementing their program? Do they acknowledge difficulties, and have aplan for handling them? Finally, there’s how the advocate defends their proposal. Do they answer with additional facts, rebut the critics with countering arguments from experts? Do they acknowledge and correct mistakes? Or do they take any criticism as a personal attack, and react accordingly?
All of those things together help you create your own bullshit meter. Why would I bother stating this? In the most recent healthcare reform debates, I’ve had some advocates making my personal bullshit meter peg the needle. I’m not an expert on it, but the problem I had with the advocates was I actually know experts in the field. Personally – as in having met them, listened to them speak, and having had discussions with them. People I can e-mail and get an answer from. What the advocates were posting made my meter start moving – the needle was definitely swinging around. Then others chimed in, pointing out mistakes in facts, bad quotes, and so on. My meter steadily crept up. Watching them defend their arguments made it move even higher. Finally, watching them do a song-and-dance around the pragmatic realities of getting legislation passed, suggesting bad tactics, and lack of a future strategy made the needle peg all the way.
You know what? If you’re going to shovel manure, it had better be to clean a barn or fertilize a field. If you’re trying to persuade me to agree with your position, it’s the wrong tactic. FDL, slinkerwink, Turkana, and the others… you lost me. Truth be told, you never had me. You people pegged my meter almost from day one. I don’t like putting on hip waders, and my nose is pretty sensitive.