Tread Cleanly!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Over at Scott Berkun's business blog, and listed as a "popular post" is an essay, "How to Detect Bullshit", that raises lots of valuable points. I disagree with Berkun's opinion that we have an "irrational nature", but found his practical advice, which comes in the form of four "tools" worth passing along. The tools are:

  • Asking someone how he knows what he is claiming to be true,
  • Asking someone for a counterargument for his position,
  • Not allowing oneself to be intimidated or distracted by technical details or jargon one does not actually understand, and
  • Being careful about whom one trusts.
I see the first of these -- directed at oneself -- as the linchpin. All the rest follows from any interaction as long as one is scrupulous about it.

Nevertheless, it can be helpful to see examples of how such a policy might be applied in practice. Here is part of what Berkun says about the third of these, in the form of an example and his commentary:
Our dynamic flow capacity matrix has unprecedented downtime resistance protocols.

If you don't understand what the hell this means, err on your own side. Don't assume you're missing something: assume they are. They're either hiding something, communicating poorly, or don't themselves understand what they're talking about. BS deflating responses include:
  • I refuse to accept this proposal until I, or someone I trust, fully understands it.
  • Explain this in simpler terms I can understand (repeat if necessary).
  • Break this into pieces you can verify, prove, compare, or demonstrate for me.
  • Are you trying to say "our network server has a backup power supply?" If so, can you speak plainly next time?
Berkun's broad point is correct: There will always be "bulls" in the fields of human knowledge and endeavor. It is up to ourselves to keep our shoes clean.

-- CAV


: Changed "technological" to "technical".


Steve D said...

'Asking someone for a counterargument for his position'

This is the point I like the best since it can (and should) also be applied to your own thought process (introspection). At its most basic level it’s an argument against yourself. Can you prove yourself wrong or at least sow some doubt? It’s often illuminating to debate against something you believe to see how far you can take it. In this case you will either overturn your belief or come to a better understanding of the arguments against your position and therefore greater certainty.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed. On top of that, this process can also be helpful for illuminating new avenues of inquiry when thinking about possible answers to problems that haven't necessarily completely been solved.