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Your Bullshit Is No More Sacred Than Any Other Bullshit

When I get a friend request on Facebook and the profile is 90% breasts, the first thing that pops into my mind is “bot.”

Well, maybe not the first thing.

But shortly after that first thing, I figure it’s a bot, and delete the request. Otherwise, so long as the person isn’t a raging Trumpanzee, I accept friend requests from anybody.

And these people sometimes regret sending me those friend requests.

You know that meme that has Good Kermit talking to Evil Kermit? In one of them, Good Kermit says you don’t have to debunk everything because people get annoyed, and Evil Kermit replies, “Debunk it.”

I listen to Evil Kermit quite often.

When your friend list is maxed out, you don’t know who most of those people are. So, when somebody asked about the trustworthiness of an “NLP Practitioner” for helping someone quit smoking if said practitioner had not quit themselves, I replied with a statement about NLP being pseudoscience and linked to a meta-analysis to back it up.

What’s NLP? It stands for “neuro-linguistic programming” and is a fake title designed to create an image of scientific veracity even though it’s not been shown to have empirical validity. It’s what Tony Robbins bases his bullshit on. I ripped it apart pretty thoroughly in this recent piece about Robbins.

Like I said, I don’t know who most of these “friends” are. Perhaps I should have glanced at her profile first and saw all the “NLP Trainer / Mindset Coach” stuff on her profile and just passed on by. My Evil Kermit is only so strong.

Of course, there was defensiveness and discussion of use of NLP to “cure” phobias, bipolar, depression, and anxiety. And then there were the anecdotes about how psychology and psychiatry don’t work but NLP does.

She’s spent a lot of time, money, and effort on NLP. It pays her bills. It’s virtually impossible for someone to walk away from that. Just like pastor Joel Osteen isn’t going to become an atheist any time soon, cuz Jesus wants him to live in a mansion. As another example, imagine someone dedicates their life to acupuncture. They go to school, train, save money to open a clinic, and make their living playing pin the tail on the chakra with their clients. Will a thorough, science-based evisceration revealing the lack of efficacy of acupuncture cause them to see the light and throw it all away? Not bloody likely.

The NLP practitioner may believe acupuncture is bullshit. The acupuncturist may believe reiki is bullshit. The reiki practitioner may be an atheist. They can all point to something else they don’t believe and say, “That’s bullshit.”

But their own pet bullshit they will defend with vehemence.

Author and University of London philosophy professor Stephen Law referred to this as being “sucked into an intellectual black hole” in his 2011 book Believing Bullshit.  They become “willing slaves of claptrap.” In their minds, they are the rational ones. It’s everyone else who is deluded.

Can you say Trump voter?

Which isn’t meant to say people who have a pet bullshit are stupid. They’re just good at compartmentalizing things. Plenty of scientific geniuses voted for Trump, because while they may be able to engineer a bridge that won’t fall down, they can’t see through his lies because they resonate with a certain bias his base is loath to relinquish. Believing pays off for them in some way. And so, anything that goes against Dear Orange Leader is written off as “fake news.”

As a result of the Tony Robbins piece, some of his acolytes who have either spent a lot of money on Tony’s teachings, or make money selling his programs, or both, were rather vexed with me about my article, and they let me know. And the misplacing of excrement by the Jordan Peterson fans was explosive when I wrote this piece about their great white savior against claims of white privilege and the alleged danger of compelled speech.

People love it when you tell them what they want to hear, and will often ignore all criticism, no matter how valid, when you attempt to interfere with that pleasant buzz they get from believing.

We all have our cognitive biases. I notice mine while driving, summed up by comedian George Carlin: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

That is exactly how I feel. I feel I’m allowed to be pissed at the guy in the fast lane who isn’t going fast enough for me, but when someone comes up on my ass when I’m in the fast lane, well, he can just fucking wait. That’s one of my pet bullshits: I have more right to choose my speed in the fast lane than anyone else does. This road was made to serve me. Because fuck you, other drivers.

A lot of these beliefs people hold are harmless, but some are harmful, like the belief in bullshit cancer cures, vaccine fear mongering, appeal to nature bullshit, and on and on. In the case of NLP, the claim it can cure serious mental illnesses can entice people to quit legitimate therapy and go off medications, which can have disastrous consequences.

Someone makes a living off NLP … shouldn’t I let them be? When the stakes are this high, I often let Evil Kermit reign. Because while it may fall mostly on deaf ears, hopefully someone is listening.

There are times when religious practices are benign or even helpful to the practitioner and to those they are inspired to assist. Conversely, it can create a clusterfuck of literally biblical proportions. I’m not one to do battle with all religion. If a billion people are happy having faith in an unscientific thing, that’s cool with me, so long as they’re not using that faith to be a dick. Then I have a problem.

Recently, NPR did a story showing it’s extremely unlikely that anyone ever needs a gun for self-defense. Will that change the minds of the diehard ammosexuals? Unlikely. They’ll purport needing those guns for self-defense, or to secure the free state, or whatever, making bogus arguments and sharing bad research to uphold such claims because it’s paying off for them.

They like guns. The arguments used, however faulty, nevertheless “justify” their ownership. (Note: I like guns too, but am rational about what I “need,” and sold my 9mm pistol almost 30 years ago.)

If something is paying off for you, you can still battle that cognitive bias. One of my favorite examples of doing so is the story of Britt Marie Hermes. She was a naturopathic “doctor” who saw the corruption in her field of study. After spending a lot of money and time to become an ND, she left it behind and became a staunch critic. She also returned to school to get a real degree in a legitimate scientific discipline.

That must have hurt.

Most of us seek to avoid pain, which is why so many fail to confront the hard, painful truths about what we believe. I know I’m holding onto little lies beyond that of my right to hog the road; I’m unwilling to listen to much from Trump supporters, as an example. I have difficulty conceding they might have some good points. I can often see the faults in others, but not always in myself. Such it is with most of us.

It took me twenty years to convince my mother all those fad diets were bullshit, and the only way to lose weight and keep it off was via rational caloric restriction.

Does buttered coffee guy Dave Assplay actually believe the bullshit he spews? He certainly profits from it.

When we know we’ve made a mistake, and there are negative consequences associated with that mistake, it’s still hard to admit. In their 2008 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the authors assert that whether mistakes are “trivial or tragic … most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, ‘I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.’” This is because there are cognitive benefits to self-justification: it allows us to sleep at night. If we had to own up to every little mistake we ever made, it would overwhelm us. Constant regret would be agonizing; self-deception is adaptive.

Tavris and Aronson explain why the Tony Robbins acolytes didn’t like my article about him much. They explain that if someone spends $50,000 on a particular therapy, they’re going to be highly motivated to justify that expense to themselves. They will be reluctant to admit it was a waste of time and money. The authors looked at brain scans that reveal the reasoning centers of the brain practically shut down when we’re confronted with dissonant information, and we get a rush in the pleasure centers when exposed to information that confirms our biases. The desire to stick with a decision, no matter how faulty it may prove, is seeded in our neurology.

How to battle it? Start small, and with a moment of reflection. Pretend you are observing someone else rather than examining your own actions and beliefs. Surround yourself with people who will call you on your bullshit. Whenever possible, utilize self-awareness to make conscious choices rather than engaging in automatic behavior. Simply being aware that we are prone to self-justification and protection of bullshit beliefs can make us better at battling them. Like with most everything, it’s one of those things we get better at with practice.

I remember a big turning point for me was in 1996, back when the “Arts and Entertainment” channel wasn’t a wasteland of garbage reality TV, but actually had good shows on it. One such show, narrated by Michael Dorn (“Worf” from Star Trek: The Next Generation) was called Where Are All the UFOs? Until that point, I liked believing in alien visitation. It was comforting to think there was evidence of interstellar travel, and that one day these aliens would say hello and share their advanced technology with us. But the show was thorough in debunking all the conspiracies. After two hours, I was convinced there was no reasonable evidence aliens had ever visited. It hadn’t been a closely held belief—I wasn’t a member of any alien visitation communities and I wasn’t going to lose friends over altering my views—so there weren’t significant consequences to letting it go. But that simple act of changing my mind based on being open to such a critical analysis was a turning point. It started me down the path to questioning.

Be on the lookout for bullshit beliefs in your own life, because bit by bit, our personal sacred cows can be sent off to slaughter if we’re willing to try questioning and being open to information that doesn’t merely confirm what we already wish to be true.

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James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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