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Monday, October 01, 2007

Build Your Own BS Detector

When someone asked Ernest Hemingway what he thought was essential for any writer, he answered "a built-in, shockproof shit detector." He was speaking of self-editing, but crap comes in a lot of different colors.

It's not only the writer who could use a shit detector, it'd be helpful to pretty much anyone. This post will be about a very specific type of detector, designed for a very specific type of crap. This post is about a bullshit detector; specifically, how to build your own.

What brought the BS detector to mind was a column in the Washington Post about body language at last week's Democratic debate in New Hampshire. In every presidential election, this sort of column is rewritten. We know, for example, that Bill Clinton avoided pointing when he spoke, doing some weird thing with his thumb sticking up out of his fist as he pounded the podium instead -- see, pointing is accusatory and Clinton was punctuating, not accusing.

Normally, these pieces come much later in the campaign -- toward the end -- when there's pretty much nothing left to write about the candidates. Usually, these are about the party's nominees, who've already pretty much staked out who they are and what they stand for and reporters, having run out of stuff to write about these guys, start looking at trivia.

In this case, WaPo got together three PR gurus, had them watch the debate, and got their input.

Washington Post:

It's the "nonverbals" that the threesome, partners in a small, Washington-based consulting firm, KNP Communications, believe play a crucial role in how swing voters pick a candidate. They cite academic research in which average-Joe subjects predicted, with a startling level of accuracy, which candidate won a race after viewing only a brief, soundless clip of the pols in action. It's the soft science of first impressions and gut reactions -- not just what candidates say, but how they say it. Which ones convey warmth and strength with expansive gestures or a firm gaze; which ones undercut their messages with weakling posture or an untimely scowl.

In other words: Why Reagan beat Carter. Why Bill Clinton beat Dole.

Never mind that both Carter and Dole went into their campaigns with low approvals, they lost because of their body language -- at least, according to these guys. For me, this has always been bad news. Let's try picking our candidates by thinking about it for a change, OK?

Of course, body language is one reason that people vote for a candidate. But there's no reason to believe it's not the only one. It's like the Olympic swimmer who shaves his body. Does it make a difference? Probably. Is it why he got the Gold or would that be all the damned training he did every day? No one ever become an Olympian by just shaving their legs.

So it is with candidates -- no one ever won because they nailed body language. You have to actually say something. Yet, these PR geniuses watched the debate and came back with pretty much useless observations -- at least, worthless to you as a voter. Hillary Clinton has strong eye contact and her movements are "deliberate but not wooden." John Edwards blinks too much and, when "he talks about torture, his eyebrows stay raised just a little too long." Barack Obama does "the furrowed-brow thing." On Joe Biden, the "experts" think he grins too much -- "Let's see if he can keep the smile off his face." Bill Richardson "talks about Iraq in an earnest, plodding cadence, one word after the other." Chris Dodd is tall and "people like that." Mike Gravel's problem is that "he's yelling already." Watching Kucinich, one of the marketing geniuses says, "This guy is Mr. Cool tonight!"

OK, maybe it's interesting. But, as I said earlier, this sort of piece normally comes later in the campaign, when candidates have already said everything they wanted to and are just repeating earlier positions. While candidates may repeat themselves, reporters really don't want to. So they're stuck reporting stuff like this.

Except in this case. We're not even into the very first primary vote and the candidates still have plenty to say. It'd be nice if we got such a in-depth analysis of what they said, instead of the way they said it. Let's hope this isn't an indication of the way this election will be covered.

Because it's stupid.

Rather than watch how often a candidate blinks or whether their movements are deliberate or wooden, it might be a good idea to look at whether the things they say make any damned sense at all. So here, without any further ado, are a few things you should look for to make your own built-in, shockproof bullshit detector. Being such a rich source of BS, I'll use President Bush as an example.


The catch-phrase
This came to my mind first, since it was the first example of BS I thought of thinking back. In his first campaign, then candidate Bush brought out his shiny new catch-phrase, "compassionate conservatism." Question #1; what the hell does this even mean? Question #2: why does "conservatism" need the qualifier "compassionate?" Is conservatism inherently lacking in compassion and, if so, what are you actually going to do to add it?

Bush never answered those questions. He never showed how his brand of conservatism was any more compassionate than anyone else's. Coming from the governor of the state with the highest rate of executions in the US, it rang pretty hollow. It didn't actually mean anything, but it sounded good. Bush said it and we were supposed to just swallow it without thinking about it too much.

Which brings us to:

The declaration
Detecting this one works in just about any situation. When someone tells you something true, they generally explain why it's true or how they know it's true -- at least, if it's important. Someone slinging crap won't. A great example of a declaration is "terrorists hate our freedom." Did any terrorist ever actually say that? No. If it were true, if that were why we had terrorism, Bush would be able to explain why this was so. He hasn't -- because he can't. He's just making up an argument that allows him to give the counter-argument he wants to give.

Which brings us to:

The straw man
AKA "FOX News' 'some people say'." Pretty much everyone knows this one, but we'll go into it anyway. A straw man argument is an argument that assumes a position the opponent doesn't hold. It's basically arguing with the opponent you wish you had, rather than the one you do.

Here's a great example, from a 2004 press conference by President Bush:

Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don't believe Iraq can be free, that if you're Muslim or perhaps brown skinned, you can't be self-governing and free. I strongly disagree with that. I reject that because I believe freedom is the deepest need of every human soul. And if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.

Who the hell ever said that "if you're Muslim or perhaps brown skinned, you can't be self-governing and free?" He just pulled that out of his butt because it's such an easy argument to win. You aren't supposed to notice that he's arguing with someone he just made up. Using the straw man is debating your imaginary friend. You'll always win because you always know what the straw man will say.

The straw man is so common that right wing pundits actually applaud its use. The next time you hear a commentator say that a candidate "got out in front of the message" and "defined their opponent" before said opponent defined themselves, you know you're dealing with a straw man argument. It's so prevelant on the right that it's congratulated as a legit debate strategy -- despite the fact that it's as dishonest as it is illogical.

Which brings us to:

The distraction
The distraction is almost always a smear. Why this works is beyond me -- it doesn't make a damned bit of sense. In practice, it's usually something that wouldn't matter even if it were true.

The example here is the rumor that Kerry had botox injections. Problem #1: John Kerry's face looks like an old shoe -- it was obviously not true. Problem #2: Why the hell should anyone give a damn?

The distraction is similar to the straw man, in that it allows you to choose the argument you want, rather than the one you know you'd lose. Is getting botox injections admirable? Probably not. Is that issue more important than, say, death on a massive scale in Iraq? Definitely not.

So why were we wasting time talking about botox? So we wouldn't talk about Iraq.


OK, so it's not exhaustive. But it's a good start and will give you a rudimentary built-in, shockproof bullshit detector. Other ways to get this thing to work are to always question what the "experts" say -- is it logical or is it just reinforcing the BS a candidate is slinging? -- and to look for pandering. Is the candidate talking about issues you care about or issues people you think are probably crazy care about?

Some candidates have their own brand of BS, exclusive to themselves and their "narratives." Rudy Giuliani puts every issue in the context of 9/11 -- whether or not it has any damned thing to do with 9/11. Others spend a lot of time not saying anything at all (Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson).

Finally, don't give a damn what anyone looks like on stage. If a candidate's a cigar store indian, immobile and stiff, but speaks intelligently about the issues you care about, go with them. You're hiring someone for a job, not casting an actor in a movie. Use your ears and your mind, not your eyes. There are plenty of self-assured asses out there and most of them are morons. Looking like you know what the hell you're talking about isn't the same as knowing what the hell you're talking about.

Detect and disregard the bullshit. There are candidates out there who have nothing but -- and that's because those candidates have nothing.


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