© Roger M Tagg 2010
Welcome to FROLIO – a new attempt to merge philosophy and the "semantic web". This website is under continuing development.
On the rationale page for FROLIO, I quoted the goal of John Locke, which was "to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge". So I see FROLIO as a framework for "reading between the lines". It could help you recognize when what you are being told is bullshit.
Everyone (?) likes a good story - maybe because we were told bedtime stories when we were children. In the Sunday School I attended as a child, we used to sing "God has given us a book full of stories". For many centuries, myths about gods, immortals, fairies and magical situations were at the centre of cultural knowledge. From the current popularity of Harry Potter, the Hobbit and the like, it seems that we still yearn for stories. Even movies about historical events seem to require fictional stories to be worked into them. Even documentaries do not escape this curse - we have to have "docudrama" - ugh!!
Of course in English, a "story" can also mean a lie (meaning a deliberate untruth, something the author or speaker knows is fiction). I don't have any objection to fiction - or even myth - as long as it is seen as such and not confused with reality. Both fiction and myth may give us insight about reality, or provide us with a model that helps us understand things.
What I am more against is "factoids" - which I define as fictions masquerading as assertions about reality. These often appear in advertisements, or are uttered by "spokespersons" prefaced by throwaways like "the fact is ...", "the statistics clearly show ..." or just "Look ..." (see the section below on Detection).
A good symptom of this is those quiz-type TV game shows where the answer is one of A, B or C. Some of my students (and even some of my former academic colleagues) used to encourage me to use more of these in my teaching. Learning by thinking it out for oneself seemed to have been thrown out of the window. My cynical suspicion was that the management thought that this might lead to less need for lecturers! My point here is that too much multiple choice gives the wrong impression - things usually are more complex than this, and do need thinking about. Otherwise knowledge gets to be seen as guesswork.
There is also today a noticeable undercurrent of anti-science, even anti-enlightenment. This may be encouraged by gang mentality and the "tall poppy" syndrome. Gangs, sects - maybe even societies - are not held together by everyone thinking for themselves. Simple models are needed to keep everyone (both intelligent and otherwise) "singing from the same hymn book". Preference is given to folk wisdom - examples are astrology and some forms of untested alternative medicine. Fundamentalist religion may partly qualify for inclusion here.
However fundamentalism can also be detected in some supporters of science and reason. If something can't be proved beyond all doubt, then some people reject it. We should recognize that, with the scientific method, all knowledge is provisional - until someone comes up with evidence against it, or a better theory is found that explains more of what can be observed. Even alternative medicine can grade into evidenced knowledge if enough good tests are done - medicine probably evolved in this fashion in the first place. In FROLIO terms, science and reason do not address all the categories of relationships; in particular they are weak on Motivation, Utility and Volition.
We have a tendency to go for "instant solutions" to problems; we do not always want to hear what the side effects may be. In Australia "cane toads" are a famous historical example.
We also like to make simple comparisons and contrasts, without bothering too much whether we are comparing "like with like" or not.
For most of us, life is a mix of exciting moments and less-exciting periods. A majority in westernized societies are led to believe they need more excitement. Those who spend a lot of time at home, usually in front of a TV set or a computer, can experience second-hand excitement from soap operas and video games.
Advertisers make much mileage out of this tendency. The keyword is "hustle" - typified in the phrase "hurry, hurry, while stocks last". Announcers speak with manic, excited voices. In many shops there is a continuing background of beat music. Maybe this is all meant to discourage us from asking ourselves "do we really need this?".
A recent advert in Australia extolled the merits of "life without the boring bits". It strikes me that if life only consisted of non-boring things, we might struggle to appreciate what was exciting.
We have a natural wish to gain or keep the approval of those other people we spend a lot of our time with. A problem with this is that it leads to a tendency to sink to the lowest common denominator, i.e. the standards of the meanest, dumbest, most prejudiced member of the group, so as not to show him or her up. "Not dobbing in one's mates" and "staunchness" (i.e. defending your group regardless of the rights and wrongs) become the hard and fast cultural laws of "mateship". One of the worst results is the "tall poppy syndrome" - exclusion of anyone who appears a bit better than the mediocre majority.
In contrast to the tendency above, we also have a tendency to compete with those around us. One result is the emergence of "Ramps" (see also a separate essay). A few of my favourite everyday ramps are listed in the table below.
|Holier than thou||Appearing more religious, more proper, more meritorious - like the Pharisees in the bible|
|Keeping up with the Joneses||Having more gadgets in the home, or cars, boats etc|
|Brilliant children||Competing through one's children's achievements|
|Artiness||Attendance at operas, concerts, plays, art exhibitions|
|Academic one-upmanship||Further degrees, fellowships, publications, research grants, PhD students supervised|
|Career||Title, number of underlings, size of one's budget|
|Travel||Countries and continents visited, souvenirs displayed, photos; also frequency of expenses-paid business travel|
|Fashion||Up with latest trends, distinct from the common herd|
|Taste||Wine (label, vintage, price), food (gourmet, exotic), coffee|
|Laddishness||Drunkenness, boorishness, hardness (e.g. criminals), sex exploits, sledging (popular with Australian sportsmen)|
|Schoolkids crazes||Mobile phones, iPods, gadgets generally, games of "chicken"|
|Bargain-hunting||Smallest amount paid for item X, % knockdown of seller's original price|
|Money to burn||You can't get a good "X" for under $"Y" - "3 Castles cost a little more"|
Advertisers have long taken advantage of this. One of the most competitive groups of people are children, where to be "out" or fall behind can be felt as a disaster. No surprise, therefore, that many adverts are directed at children, rather than their parents who have to fork out the money.
Ramps can even happen in government policies, e.g. "tough on crime" - and can lead to the "nanny state" that many of us complain about. However we as citizens play our own part in the ramp.
The last point above illustrates our desire to pin the blame on someone else. Governments are an easy target, especially when individuals try to hide behind the anonymity of "cabinet decisions". But we very often mis-attribute responsibility; oppositions usually blame the current government, even if the error was made before they came to power. At the time of writing, everyone is looking for someone to blame for the Global Financial crisis (of 2008-2010). The banking fraternity seems faceless enough to earn the blame, but it was not so long ago when this sort of behaviour was actively encouraged in the "greed is good" era of the 1980s (see Francis Wheen's book on Mumbo Jumbo).
Another common tendency is what I call "baseless imputation of motives" - or BIM. This involves an assertion that the speaker knows the motives that have driven the person they want to blame. Clearly the speaker can't be sure - he/she is only guessing.
Most humans have it in them to become educated, thoughtful, considerate and enlightened. But many don't make it. What stops them? I suggest 4 main reasons:
We each need to build a stronger model of the "real world as we see it", and this is where FROLIO comes in. We also need to recognize what drives us - our own agendas, motivations, biases, prejudices and cultural indoctrination. Much of this is covered in FROLIO's Motivation section. As well as this, we need to recognize the limitations of the language we use; and we need to practice putting ourselves in the other person's place.
A lot of people want:
In order to persuade us, they subtly use words, tone of voice, tempo, gestures, images and accompanying music or noise. These are orchestrated to appeal to our emotions, fashion, traditional beliefs, folk wisdom and prejudices. The idea is to by-pass clear thought by the person(s) the bullshit is addressed to.
Looking at things from the FROLIO angle, the ploys that I recognize most often are the following (need to complete this table).
|Ploy||FROLIO section||Explanation, examples|
|Ignoring some of the roles in the relationships||All relationship categories|
|Comparison against nothing, or something very vague||Distinguishing||Advertisements for things, only giving the discount, not the actual price|
|Confusing parts and subclasses||Partitioning|
|Ignoring some possibilities||Utility||Leaving out options or opportunities the speaker doesn't want considered|
|Confusing multiple mereologies||Partitioning||There are often multiple ways of dividing a whole into parts|
|Glossing over motivation||Motivation||Not seeing other peoples' limitations|
|Compounding relationships and not separating their meaning||All relationship categories|
|Dimension reduction||All relationship categories||Side effects, other parties affected|
|Over-generalization||Classification||Because something is true for a limited sample, it must be true in all cases|
|Vagueness of, or inconsistent context||All relationship categories|
|Partisan interpretation||Representation||Dressing up events to favour the speaker's own bias or vested interests|
|Misattributing, or alleging certainty of cause||Logic|
|Inconsistent granularity||All relationship categories|
|Masquerading||Interaction||Confusion of type of speech act|
Masquerading ( the last entry above) often occurs when people deliberately confuse "modality". By modality we mean the level of qualification about some fact or state of affairs. Are we claiming that something is factually and certainly true, or should we just be saying that it's probable, possible, needed or just wished? Presenting a wish as an assertion is what we call "wishful thinking". A speaker may also represent the fact that a person has a certain disposition towards, or is capable of, doing something as a certain forecast that he or she will actually do it.
Speakers can also deliberately disguise assertions - and especially requests - as questions, e.g. "who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" (TS Eliot).
One often hears or reads fiction masquerading as fact - an example was the "Nurse Nayirah" affair at the start of the 1990-1 Gulf War.
I believe we should also include "myth masquerading as a scientific model", e.g. (in my personal view) Six Day Creation masquerading as Scientific Theory. This is not to say that Six Day Creation doesn't have some value as a "story" for many people.
Several authors I have read talk about "utterances", which includes not only all types of speech act, but the "tone-colour" of how a speaker delivers the utterance - and, if one can see the speaker, the body language. Even if one doesn't know a word of German, one can pick up lots of meaning from, say, a Hitler speech at a Nürnberg rally.
A classic about the ploys of bullshitters (although when he wrote it he couldn't call them that) is Robert Thouless's book "Straight and Crooked Thinking". The table below shows 38 ploys he identified in the book, with his suggestions for how to counter each ploy.
|T1||Use emotionally toned words||Make a neutral un-toned translation|
|T2||Say "all" when only "some" is true||Insert "all" explicitly and show that this is false|
|T3||Only quote selected instances that support the argument||Point out opposing instances; reduce it to a matter of statistics, which the other person hasn't got|
|T4||Extend opposing view beyond what opponent actually thinks (misrepresent opponent's view)||Re-iterate one's more moderate position|
|T5||Evade refutation of one's argument, e.g. saying "the exception proves the rule"||Demonstrate the unsoundness of such a tactic|
|T6||Divert to a side issue that is less relevant, easier to defend, or just a joke||Re-state the original issue|
|T7||Claim a proof of one's position by a flanking but inconsequent argument which other persons are more likely to accept||Ask what the connection is|
|T8||Dismiss this issue (X) as being of less consequence than issue Y - so we should direct our energies to Y instead||Agree that we should address Y, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't address X|
|T9||Claim that one's position is a good one because it is a mean between two extremes||Point out that this doesn't by itself justify the position, and that opposing views could equally be represented in this way|
|T10||Say that something follows logically, when the premisses are doubtful or even untrue||Say that it's not the logic that is wrong, it's the facts that are being assumed|
|T11||Use unsound logic||Paraphrase the logical argument, or apply it to another case, where its incorrectness can be more clearly seen|
|T13||Begging the question, i.e. assuming what you are trying to prove||Ditto, but may have to point out what is being improperly assumed|
|T14||Claiming something as an issue of fact, when it's really more an issue of words||Point out in what way the issue is a matter of words|
|T15||Represent a tautology (i.e. something that is true by definition) as a factual judgement||Point out how it is true by definition|
|T16||Use speculative argument, e.g. rely on something that is by no means factual or generally accepted||Point out what part of the argument is speculative|
|T17||Change the meaning of a term in the course of an argument||Pick up on the drifting definition, suggest a paraphrase and see if the point is still valid|
|T18||Presenting an issue as a simple either/or, when there is a continuous series of possibilities in between||Refuse to accept either alternative, and say why there is a continuum of possibilities; or give an example with another situation|
|T19||Using continuity to throw doubt on the fact that there is still a big difference between two extremes||Say why the extremes still have a real difference; or that on this line of argument, one would say that one can't distinguish white from black|
|T20||Use biased definitions, or badger opponents about their definitions||Show that there could be many shades of definition, and one really needs to use those definitions widely accepted|
|T21||Repeated affirmation of the same point, either in exactly the same words (slogans) or minor paraphrasings||Point out that this is just a tactic, not an argument|
|T22||Use a confident manner||As above, or try ridicule|
|T23||Pull rank, claim prestige or better knowledge||Challenge the speaker, test if he/she can back up the claims, or just gets tetchy|
|T24||Falsely claim credentials||If practical, point out the false claims; if not, reserve judgement|
|T25||Imply prestige by using (pseudo-) technical jargon||Ask modestly for explanation of the jargon terms|
|T26||Ridicule anyone challenging or asking questions||Be ready to explain why the challenge is fair|
|T27||Asking questions like "surely you accept that ….?", or drawing out damaging admissions||Refuse to be drawn|
|T28||Appeal to mere authority||Consider whether the authority claimed is valid and relevant|
|T29||Overcoming resistance to a doubtful proposition by starting off with a few easily accepted ones||Be prepared for such a tactic, don't give way too soon|
|T30||Present a doubtful proposition in a way that appeals to the thought habits and prejudices of the addressees||Paraphrase the proposition in a new context|
|T31||Use generally accepted folk theorems, pre-digested thought patterns, oversimplifications etc as premisses in argument||Good-humouredly point out why it isn't as simple as that|
|T32||Claim that no decision can be made, as there are arguments on both sides ("academic detachment")||Point out that "no action" is just as much a decision, and may have no less serious consequences than following either of the 2 alternatives|
|T33||Argument by mere (i.e. casual) analogy||Examine where the analogy breaks down, or things are different|
|T34||Argument by forced analogy (i.e. not really suitable, but deliberately chosen)||Propose other analogies that might support different conclusions|
|T35||Angering an individual opponent hoping that he/she will then lose control and make points that can be shot down easily||Keep one's cool, however much the provocation|
|T36||Special pleading, i.e. applying arguments to one situation which one would not use in other situations||Apply the same arguments to the other situations which would lead to consequences the other person would not go along with|
|T37||Commend or condemn a proposal to someone "because it has the best consequence for you personally"||Recognize one's own prejudices and interests, and separate them from the issues that are really at stake|
|T38||Attribute motives or prejudices to one's opponent(s), brand their arguments as "rationalizations"||Point out that such things do not affect whether the real issue is true or false, right or wrong, better or worse etc|
One additional ploy - or maybe it is a eclectic application of many of these ploys - is what I call "excuse engineering" - the dark art of finding justifications for not taking any responsibility when things in life don't go smoothly.
We often need to ask - what is the author's agenda? Can we recognize any standard ploys, like: "Look, ...", "The fact is ...", "Hurry, while stocks last", "X% off " (off what?), resorting to long words (see T25 above), not looking at you face to face?
Thouless (see above) says that we need to resist the urge to bristle. If we are not sure, a good tactic is to ask a holding question. Another tactic is to separate what the speaker/author has confused together, e.g. by saying "there seem to be 2 issues here".
Counter tactics depend on whether or not you can answer back. If you can't (as in adverts, lectures, sermons and TV sound bites), a good approach is to rephrase in your own mind, or to someone else nearby, what the real thoughts of the speaker/author were. Older UK readers might remember the book "Down With Skool", where the supposed schoolboy author Molesworth offers a list of phrases used by the headmaster of "St Custards", with a translation into "Reel Thorts".
|FROLIO home page (this one)||A simpler introduction to FROLIO||The elements of FROLIO||The major relationship categories|
|Multiple roles in relationships||Example category 1 - Arrangement||Example category 2 - Volition||Author's rationale for doing all this|
|Abstract concepts||Activities||What we can say about things and concepts||What we mean by Context|
|Why simple hierarchies aren't enough||Different types of Ideas||Things, concepts, objects and classes||Scenarios and "states of affairs"|
|Different sorts of Structures|
|How FROLIO helps fight Bullshit||Index to related essays and diatribes||Highlights from related books I've read||A reading list|
Some of these links may be under construction – or re-construction.
This version updated on 20
If you have constructive suggestions or comments, please contact the author firstname.lastname@example.org .