Key Reading – “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection”

This article is about dispensing with useless information and finding what you need, or what is worth reading. Neil Postman begins by talking about the different varieties of “bullshit” that he has come across in articles and other literary extracts. He talks about how sometime long words and phrases are used to fill space, or to end a sentence in a convenient way, without actually providing any assistance to the rest of the article. For example, he writes:

“Now, that last sentence is a perfectly good example of bullshit, since I have no idea what the words “transcendent significance” might mean and neither do you”

This seems to be a good technique to make your writing style seem more intelligent, but is actually completely irrelevant. Postman then continues to talk about the different varieties of “bullshit” that some people write, which includes Pomposity, which is using fancy titles and works to make the reader feel less informed that the writer, Fanaticism which is the use of certain phrases, that provide a non-sensical and sometimes pointless answer to certain questions, Inanity which is “ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity” and Superstition which is the way people feel superior in an unnecessary way, for example being born into a religion and thinking that religion is better than all others.

Postman writes in a very aggressive style, that makes it seem like he’s getting revenge almost, and is attempting to put himself above other writers and critics by making exaggerated claims about writing styles that he himself does not condone. Postman is famous for having a very negative view on new technology, and is quoted as saying “new technology can never substitute for human values”, which while I agree to some extent with his philosophical view on technology, there are certain aspects of the digital world that human values may cause a negative effect. For example if one person decided to control the entire internet (a similar scenario to the situation in korea and china), then access to information and more importantly, the truth, may be limited or influenced by an outside party.

“An idealist usually cannot acknowledge his own bullshit, because it is in the nature of his “ism” that he must pretend it does not exist. In fact, I should say that anyone who is devoted to an “ism”–Fascism, Communism, Capitalism–probably has a seriously defective crap detector.”

It’s comments such as these that make me uncertain about the integrity behind Postman’s writing, as he seems to be unable to consider opinions other than his own, and sometimes fitting right into his own hypothesis and assumptions. However I do agree with the overall message he’s trying to communicate across. In terms of the internet and digital media, it is very difficult to confirm sources and trust information in the modern age. For example, I would trust an article written in The Time over an article written in The Daily Mail, due to the writing style, history and target audience of these particular newspapers. It’s the same with the internet. I would more likely trust news from the BBC’s website over an outside source or on social media. The power of social media has the ability to ‘accumulate bullshit’ through the form of trends and hastags (in case of twitter), and simple word of mouth. A good example of this is celebrity death hoaxs. There are plenty of them around, and often take a while to be confirmed as a hoax. Here is an interesting list of hoaxes that people have made up, either out of pure pleasure of creating a viral rumour, or by accident after mis-interpreting an image:

http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/internet/a/current_netlore.htm

The ‘art of crap detection’ is most relevant today when in use on the internet. With anyone being able to write anything they like and share it with anyone and everyone, is there even a way of detecting what’s true or false?

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