When Thierry Baudt recently came up with a misleading infographic, British journalist Gordon Darroch described it as Bullshit. This is an acronym for the words nonsense (translation seems unnecessary to me) and statistician (statistician). Then Darroch needed lots of words and pictures to explain the error in Bodet’s graph and the 5,500 additional deaths the politician had pointed out. The usual tricks were: tampering with axes, using old numbers, incorrect combination of data from different sources.
I wondered for the umpteenth time if Baudet himself believed what he said. Was this analysis conducted in a very clumsy way, as it happens to so many people who are bad at dealing with numbers and convinced of their right? Or did he know very well that what he was doing was wrong and that he was deliberately distorting the numbers? Which of the two scenarios would I find worse?
I read this week We urge cohesion – the psychology of understanding Van Rolf Zwaan and I realized that my view of the world was once again too naive. Zwaan writes: “According to the father of nonsense research, philosopher Harry Frankfurt, we understand when we don’t know whether what we’re saying is true, and we don’t care.”
Zwan then explains that nonsense is much easier than lying and that the goal is not to convince people of certain facts. No, the point of nonsense is to show what you stand for, how much you know, how involved you are, and what your vision is. So that’s what a satirist does: he sprinkles with numbers he doesn’t know if they are true or not and that doesn’t interest him at all. He just wants to show what he stands for.
Rolf Zwaan also gives examples of smaller forms of nonsense in his book. For example, if in a meeting you were asked to respond to something, while you were not at all attentive. You just realized that the speaker in front of you sounded anxious. Then laughing something like “I share your concern” and “I wonder how other people feel about it” sound sympathetic and engaged, while still unaware what the conversation was about in the first place. (I very much hope that office rider Japke-d. Bouma will one day dedicate an entire column to examples of this kind of nonsense meeting scam.)
Now I wonder how useful it is to correct nonsense like Gordon Darroch did, because it is not about numbers and facts at all. In any case, I am still glad that Darroch made the effort to correct what Baudette claimed – and that he used the great word Bullshit introduced.