The United States was once a dynamic land, full of new ideas which were widely emulated around the world, but now it has become stagnant and mired in conservatism and internal contradiction, unable to discard faulty ideas or to embrace new ones, while other countries race ahead. National dialogue in the US has become not so much about ideas as about a mysterious substance called bunk: a deliberate sort of nonsense produced for the sake of public posturing. This profusion of bunk in turn attracts much effort to the cause of debunking it. However, unlike the bunk (or, more accurately bunkum) of yesteryear, which could be made to disappear when debunked, this new variety of American bunk only grows stronger and more rampant.
To better understand this magical ability of our contemporary bunk to withstand debunking, I decided to do an experiment. I deliberately chose what should be a very hard target: the little chidren's book by Tarō Gomi Everyone Poops. It tries to set the minds of the little anal retentive prats at ease by showing them that everybody but everybody poops: elephants make gigantic poops, mice little ones, little boys slightly smaller than grown men. Debunking such a powerful conjecture is a tall order, you might think. Not so! It turns out that, like beauty, bunk is in the eye of the beholder, and that it is possible to debunk anything (or fail trying; it doesn't matter which it is because the results are all but indistinguishable).
So what is this mysterious mental substance, bunk? It seems to me that bunk can be defined as pretense of knowledge. In turn, knowledge, for purposes of defining bunk, is a set of ideas (facts, theories, views) held in common. This is not to say that they are common knowledge. In fact, they might be virtually unknown outside of a select group of specialists, but in theory anyone who is sufficiently well-schooled, talented, diligent and has a library card could gain that same understanding given unlimited time and effort.
Human progress has to a large extent been mental progress. We have progressed from widespread reliance on mystification, where we ascribed great magic powers to ethereal, unobservable entities, and postulated a great many “facts” about the world which could be neither proved nor disproved. Now we require that our facts have a basis in observable, measurable reality, that our hypotheses be testable by experiment, and that our conclusions about causality be based on evidence (even if it is the iffy statistical evidence that is considered acceptable in medicine, economics and the social sciences). Say what you will about progress in politics or economics (or lack thereof) but humanity's progress in acquiring ever more powerful and detailed knowledge has been nothing short of astounding. This is especially apparent in the sciences, but even in the humanities it is possible to point to profound new insights. Many things are still unknown to us—we still don't know why aspirin works, and are continually astonished by the behavior of melting glaciers—but overall the realm of what is rationally understood expands continually.
Let us try to be slightly more rigorous in defining common knowledge. In terms of epistemic logic, given some piece of knowledge S, one could have private knowledge: KAS expresses that A knows S. (K is called the knowledge operator.) Now A walks up to B, and asks him whether he knows S. There are just two possibilities: either B knows S (KBS) or he doesn't (~KBS). If he doesn't, then A imparts S to B, and the realm of common knowledge expands: KAS and KBS. Not only that, but A knows that B knows S (KAKBS) and vice versa (KBKAS). Plus, each knows that the other knows that he knows, giving us KAKBKAS and KBKAKBS. There are situations in life when knowing whether someone knows that you know is strategically important, and it is even possible to think of a situation in which your knowledge of whether someone knows whether you know that he knows is somehow pregnant with the possibility of hilarious shenanigans, but under less contrived circumstances it all short-circuits to common knowledge: KA,BS.
In order for the above scenario to lead to common knowledge, at the outset our B must know that he doesn't know S: KB~KBS. There are just two valid states of B's mind: either he knows that he knows S (KBKBS), or he knows that he doesn't (KB~KBS). If B doesn't know what he knows (~KBKBx) or if he doesn't know that he doesn't know (~KB~KBx) then B must be a mentally challenged individual who is incapable of participating in common knowledge. But B can still remain socially acceptable provided he humbly accepts his ignorance and agrees to defer to A's superior knowledge of S: KBKAS. Thus the realm of common knowledge may have many adjuncts: people who are aware of the existence of a certain domain without actually knowing it, or even pretending to. This is typically how we relate to all kinds of specialists, from brain surgeons to auto mechanics to financial advisors.
I italicized the word “imparts” two paragraphs ago because it is important: common knowledge presupposes that the piece of knowledge is communicated accurately and entirely. But suppose that a mentally defective B receives, through some accident, a damaged copy of S (which we will call S'). Perhaps a word got substituted, such as “flat” for “round” in the statement “The Earth is round.” Or perhaps S' came to include a string of gibberish: “...because the Bible says that blah blah blah etc.” Now B thinks that he knows S, but in fact he knows S' (KBS'). Epistemically speaking, B now inhabits an alternate universe in which S=S'. Our epistemically savvy and knowledgeable friend A realizes this (KA~KBS, KAKBS') but, being tactful, all he can do is cough politely and look for somebody else to talk to, while B goes off and tells other mental defectives all about S', blithely calling it S, which, by the way, he just discussed with an expert. You see what a travesty this is?
This is the general mechanism by which a piece of knowledge S generates its faulty, incomplete, mangled copy S' within the public imagination. If S is the statement “Humans and other primates share a common genetic ancestor” then S' might be a piece of bunk such as “You are descended from a monkey!” Often the very next move is to generate a piece of counter-bunk ~S' —something like “No, we were pooped out by a Giant Pixie near the end of a seven-day Poopathon!” And now we have two pieces of bunk—S' and ~S', both of which require debunking.
The very first thing that you should do when debunking something is to state matter-of-factly that something is bunk; i.e., “Everybody Poops is bunk.” This is to indicate that you are not looking for a debate on the issue. You are not going to engage in a Socratic dialogue to discover the truth, or to create a new synthesis from a thesis and an antithesis through the application of Hegelian dialectic. Instead, you are looking for a hostile co-dependent relationship with somebody who wants to perpetually uphold the diametrically opposed piece of bunk: “Of course everybody poops, don't be ridiculous!” Such co-dependent relationships are to be found everywhere in the US, but perhaps the prime example is the Republicans and the Democrats, who are always looking for a new piece of bunk about which they could profitably disagree. Somehow we have managed to generate the expectation that where there is bunk there must be anti-bunk, and that they should be served up as “alternative viewpoints” rather than as diametrically opposed ways to exclude a common truth. And so, whenever a climate scientist appears on television and tries to explain global warming to the masses (being forced to dumb down the science, to make it fit for television, until it becomes bunk) there must also appear a climate anti-scientist and serve up some climate anti-bunk: “It's been a cold, snowy winter; therefore, the climate science is wrong.”
The next phase of a debunking onslaught is to declare your targeted piece of bunk “completely wrong” based on a bona fide counterexample. It turns out that evidence can be gathered to contradict any theory. Such evidence may accumulate over time, and eventually give rise to a new theory which either replaces or extends the previous theory, but mostly it's just a minor annoyance. Now, “everybody poops” is a conjecture based on the rather shallow theory that everybody eats, and since what goes in must come out, everybody poops. So, what about the male of the moth detailed in Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson? This moth lays its eggs in the ears of bats. When the eggs hatch, there is one male and several females. The male incestuously mates with his sisters, who then fly away to find bats of their own, while the male stays behind and dies. Most interestingly, the male is born without mouth parts, and therefore cannot eat. To paraphrase St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If a moth will not eat, he shall not poop.” So much for the brave conjecture.
The next phase of a debunking onslaught is an ad hominem attack. What sort of an expert would be qualified to discuss this subject? A “poopologist,” perhaps? One immediately wonders whether the Poopology Department, where this supposed luminary learned his art, was the recipient of any public funding, funding that should perhaps have been better spent on a few widows and orphans or a teeny-tiny counterterrorism campaign. And one cannot help but wonder what his fraternity brothers called him; “the poopmeister,” perhaps? Our poopmeister must have known about the bat moth; why did he withhold such crucial anti-everybody-pooping evidence? Why should we listen to such a person? And so on and so forth.
You might think that my choice of debunking target is frivolous and without merit, but I believe that it fits right in with both the substance and the level of contemporary American public discourse. You may be blissfully unaware of this, but I regret to inform you that there is in certain dimly lit corners of the US a war going on: a war on masturbation. During the last congressional elections one Christine O'Donnell won the Republican nomination for Senator from Delaware. O'Donnell is notorious for her anti-masturbation campaign. Declaring masturbation to be a sin is a good way to warp the minds of the post-pubescent, so that they might grow into the sorts of sexually repressed adults who are fit to serve at the head of the Department of Defense or on the US Supreme Court; but what about the pre-pubescent? Why not go after other bodily functions? Gluttony is already a sin (a mortal one); let us declare defecation a sin as well and go after the anally retentive pre-pubescents? Are you pro-poop or anti-poop? Let's open up the phone lines! Or not.
With the nation's public discourse dominated by dueling bits of bunk, I suggest that you limit your public pronouncements to nonsensical utterances such as “Herp-derp-derp!” And if you feel like picking a side, then order a side of bacon, because it is tasty. It might clog your arteries, but at least it won't clog your mind with bunk.
Fantastic post. Sometimes it takes an absurd example to bring an issue into focus.
I posted a link on my Facebook. It only offered one thumbnail. The photo at the bottom of the two red-teeshirt wearing youths.
I'm going to go out and order some bacon right away.
Just plain brilliant.
Since I can't use the subscript tag for a comment, I'm using italics in place of it below:
I got the two kids too. So be it.
I think the prestige and prevalence of science is endangered even in the secular west, and of course all the more so in the faith-befuddled United States. Most people don't believe in science because it's rational or because its propositions are susceptible to analysis by the rules of evidence. They believe in it because of the many tangible benefits which flow from it into our lives, and from the technology which is associated with it. Once those benefits begin to diminish or disappear with civilizational and technological decline, trust in science may diminish accordingly. The ground will be prepared for the spread of all kinds of irrational belief systems, both old and new. One can't be sure, I but I suspect that's the way things may play out. It seems to me it would be a good idea to systematically conserve the scientific method against this phenomenon.
I love your selection of the anti-masturbation hysteria as a prime example of bunk. It reminds me that a high-ranking adviser to the Clinton administration was fired for publicly suggesting that masturbation is normal. I think it was the Secretary of Health and Human Services, a sensible black lady whose name escapes me at the moment. It's ironic that she was dropped like a hot brick by Blow Job Clinton.
I think it's worth noting that the anti-masturbation mythology which is still with us was initiated by a French physician the during the late 18th century, and was quickly taken up by the intellectuals of the time. I guess even those Enlightenment types could have some loopy beliefs. His mad teachings have surely done a great deal of harm.
Poop? Politics? Deeply connected.
A shitty post indeed :)
The reigning principle behind is the viscous old "divide and conquer"...
I was surprised that Mr. Orlov missed the opportunity to utilize A's knowledge of his knowledge of B's knowledge _ KaKabS - which certainly fits the poop analogy quite well, in two languages. Hilarious and apt, just the same.
I laughed out loud with this one, Dmitry. After years of standing on street corners trying to communicate anti-war and social justice messages to the regular folk that drive by and through listening to comments by those same folk I have come to realize that there are "none so blind as he who will not see". Also, satire and parody go over the head of the ignorant. Those communications techniques have their value in relieving the stress of us Cassandras who are screaming "watch out for the tsunami that is right behind you" yet being ignored.
The phenomenon of how people cling even harder to their false beliefs when you try to refute them was discussed in an article I read last year.
Stubbornness is a basic human trait. So is the desire to think that one is being correct. So if you've already decided you're right, and somebody tries to shake you from your righteousness, you dig in your heels.
Merely mentioning the thing that's wrong, in the context of debunking it, serves to reinforce the wrong belief in the minds of the people who favour that position. They hear it, so they think it even more strongly. What they tune out is your debunking.
Remember the title of a book that came out in 2006: "On Bullshit"? The author wrote it half-humourously, in the vein of "The Peter Principle" and "Parkinson's Law." But it was also a serious dissertation on how falsehood and sophistry are playing a bigger part in modern life. It dissected the varieties of bullshit, from true believers to the sort that's spun by people who KNOW they're lying. In the latter category I put "sciostitutes," the scientists who know they're prostituting themselves to oil/coal companies when they write articles denying climate change.
Sorry to slag the United States, something I do a lot, but it seems that Americans are more likely to hunker in their bunkers than many other societies. Part of it is because of the rise of conservatism, because it is the nature of a conservative to resist the new. OTOH, I've got left-wing friends who are also ossified in some beliefs.
It might be hubris, the idea that "We're the biggest, baddest and best country, so whatever we think is RIGHT. We will not waver." I think it's the arrogance of empire. I've found that when I argued politics with people in Australia and Canada, they were not so hidebound in their ideology. Which made the debates less hostile.
I'd be curious if people in the Soviet Union and England, at the height of their imperial power, were also as big on bunk as the United States of Bunkum.
Thank you for this wonderfully insightful and hilarious post.
Excellent post on a too-obvious subject, but to hook and skin Idiot America you're gonna need a bigger boat. Friggin' huge, in fact.
The origins of "bunk"
bunk comes from Buncombe County North Carolina.
The story per Wikopedia on how bunk came from Buncombe County.
In 1820, a U.S. Congressman, whose district included Buncombe County, unintentionally contributed a word to the English language. In the Sixteenth Congress, after lengthy debate on the Missouri Compromise, members of the House called for an immediate vote on that important question. Instead, Felix Walker rose to address his colleagues, insisting that his constituents expected him to make a speech "for Buncombe." It was later remarked that Walker's untimely and irrelevant oration was not just for Buncombe—it "was Buncombe." Thus, buncombe, afterwards spelled bunkum and then shortened to bunk, became a term for empty, nonsensical talk.
It is my understanding that this congressman was often giving long windbag type speeches, and that the above example was not the only instance.
For what it is worth, Asheville, NC is the main city of Buncombe County. It is also somewhat ironic that the Book "One Second After" took place in the County of Bunk.
Brilliant as usual!
Grant George Buffett
Speaking of debunking pooping, have you seen Nuclear Reactor Boy's Tummy Ache? ("Nuclear Reactor Boy's poop is very stinky. If it comes out, everyone will be in trouble.") Also features cameos by Three Mile Island ("[he] let out a big fart, but he still managed not to poop") and "Little Chernobyl" ("He pooped all over — and it was diarrhea! — and he was running around when it happened!")
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