Field Guide to Bullshit

From New Scientist - interview by Alison George with me on my new book Believing Bullshit.

How do people defend their beliefs in bizarre conspiracy theories or the power of crystals? Philosopher Stephen Law has tips for spotting their strategies

You describe your new book, Believing Bullshit, as a guide to avoid getting sucked into "intellectual black holes". What are they?

Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. Belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, alien abductions - these are examples of intellectual black holes. As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again.

But isn't one person's claptrap another's truth?

There's a belief system about water to which we all sign up: it freezes at 0 °C and boils at 100 °C. We are powerfully wedded to this but that doesn't make it an intellectual black hole. That's because these beliefs are genuinely reasonable. Beliefs at the core of intellectual black holes, however, aren't reasonable. They merely appear so to those trapped inside.

You identify some strategies people use to defend black hole beliefs. Tell me about one of them - "playing the mystery card"?

This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water when someone is, say, propounding paranormal beliefs. They might say something like: "Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide. You, Mr Clever Dick Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question." This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". When you hear that, alarm bells should go off.

Continues here.


jeremy said…
Oo, I see that the homeopath's review of your book has been taken down from's site. Any idea why? Did Amazon remove it?

(I think they should have, for what it's worth, since the "reviewer" openly stated that they hadn't read the book!)
curious cuber said…
But doesn't quoting Shakespeare entail some form of intelligence.....
Stephen Law said…
Hi Jeremy. The homeopath's review disappeared - not sure why - then reappeared in slightly modified form prefaced with claim that he'd actually read the book now.... weird.
Martin said…
Shouldn't the new book either be called something like 'Disbelieving Bullshit', or else have as the subtitle 'How to get sucked into an intellectual black hole'?
Frances said…
Hi Stephen. I listened to your interview on Radio NZ this morning, and have now read your article above. In the interview you included non-official theories about 9/11 in your list of bogus beliefs. Have you considered what happened that day from a scientific point of view? For example have read what many architects and engineers and fireighters have said about the freefall of wtc 7 and high temperatures in the basement? Do you consider laws of physics and expert scientific opinion about these obserations and measurements to be bogus and bullshit? As you do not mention 9/11 in your article, maybe it is a topic you have recently considered, and I would be interested in what thoughts led to you including it today.
Ross Templeman said…
I have just finished reading the book. Very well done. It now has pride of place on my book shelves next to 'Bad Science' and 'How To Lie With Statistics'.

Anyone that enjoyed Dr. Law's book might also be interested in some (and I stress the word some)of the essays of the late Australian philosopher David Stove. In particular his essay 'What is wrong with our thoughts: a neo-positivist credo', which is available for free download online.