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.