Horseshit Detection

Skepticism, Intuition and Horseshit Detection

Intuition:  “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

I awoke at 4am, conscious of a sound.  Listening intently, I heard a plane flying low, circling toward the airport.  No, it must be one of the night trains we hear now and then rumbling up the river.  But no, it could just have been my stomach grumbling from the fish we ate at dinner.  I turned over to listen more closely.  The sound was growing louder again, moving closer.  Then it hit the window.  A strong winter wind swirling up the valley, singing in the trees, pelting the pane with drops of freezing rain.

This night mystery, solved by more intense focus and awakened reasoning, blew my thoughts back to an earlier conversation with friends discussing the meaning of intuition, knowledge, truth and mystery. 

As a naturally curious freethinker, who values relationships with all kinds of believers, I also carry along a good dose of fearless skepticism.  I think I’m fairly well vaccinated against credulity.  I feel quite certain I can be open, listening, discerning of both common sense or senselessness.  All of which calls for wakefulness and alertness (it really was the wind).

My liberal-minded friends offered opinions on Chinese medicine, astrology, visions and the like.  They both said they “don’t necessarily believe in the narrative” (the story or explanation given for the efficacy of the belief), but they felt that if “it worked” or it seemed to work for them or another person, they would keep open minds.  

They emphasized intuition while expressing what I read as a certain distrust of reason, a hesitation to be too skeptical, giving another person the benefit of the doubt.  Yet, who does the doubt benefit?  And is that really doubt, true skepticism?  When the response to hearing a remarkable—even an incredible—story (narrative) is “Fine by me, if that works for you,” or, “Ok, it seems true since I know you and like you; I trust your report of your experience,” then we come close to a relativistic, subjective understanding of knowledge and truth.  If there is nothing to verify the person’s story and they can’t present any actual evidence, nothing requires that we accept what they say, even if we like them or trust them.  The nicest and even the most brilliant person we know might be wrong about some things—can we accept that? 

As I asked my friends: Where would you draw the line here?  When would a story be so outlandish, silly, crazy or such that you would call it those things?  If reserving judgment is the default, when would you ever make a decision as to whether something is true or false? 

One friend asked:  “Who can decide?”  My response:  “I hope someone can!”  

{He clarified his question later:  “Who gets to decide?” … “meaning that it has historically been the white, privileged patriarchy.”  He’s probably right about that}

Here’s the thing about relying primarily on intuition.  Note the definition above.  Understanding something immediately; no need for conscious reasoning.  Let’s say you set aside reason and skepticism in favor of a feeling of intuitive understanding.  “I know this is true and I don’t need to think too hard about it.”  Another person questions that or asks for evidence and the response is the same:  “I just know it intuitively.”  I find that totally inadequate and unacceptable, that is if we’re trying to have a reasonable conversation, if there is really any knowledge to communicate.

In The Varieties of Scientific Experience, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote:

“If we want badly to believe, and if it’s important to know the truth, then nothing other than a committed, skeptical scrutiny is required.”  Sagan compares this to buying a car when you kick the tires, test the odometer, check under the hood, ask expert advice.  “But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, of the origin of the world, of the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny?”

Some ideas or claims virtually beg to have their tires kicked, to look under the hood, to see who’s driving.  

Nevertheless, some folks seem quite skeptical of practicing a consistent skepticism.  Why be fearful of seating skepticism behind the wheel of the car from time to time?  It’s steering us straight into the questions, the unknown, the mysteries of our world.  Why fear to go Face-to-Faith in these matters?  If the belief has merit, it should stand a challenge, in fact, welcome a challenge.

One friend emphasized his love of mystery.  Scientists love mystery too (don’t we all?) and that evokes a sense of curiosity to discover the inner workings of the mysterious.  This doesn’t take away the love of mystery.  We don’t need to fear “If you explain it, then I lose it,“ unless we’re attached to some whoo-whoo (or Whoa-Wow!) aspect that attracted us to the strange and mysterious in the first place.

One principle of the skeptical mind is:  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  

The burden of proof is on the one making the claim.  Take for example: fairies, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, alien abductions, psychic healing, disembodied spirits, Trump is the messiah, etc.  It’s not up to the skeptic to prove these Do Not exist (commonly, atheists are told:  “You can’t prove there Is No God!”—right, you can’t prove or disprove God, any more than you can prove or disprove any other “spiritual” belief).  These extraordinary claims have never produced extraordinary evidence, in fact, little factual evidence at all—simply not convincing.  

Now we have anti-vaxxers, Christian nationalists and a whole basketful of deplorable conspiracy theories.  Seems to me this calls for a whole lot more skepticism and extraordinary effort at critical thinking, not less.  Reason, Science, philosophical inquiry are more in demand now, more required than ever.

Carl Sagan offered a very useful “Baloney Detection Kit” that Maria Popova calls his “Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking.”  Sagan describes the approach: 

“The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.”  

As Popova explains:  “[The kit] contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life.”

Critical thinking doesn’t mean we completely dismiss the intuitive sense.  It means we keep our reason intact while we explore, ask questions and keep that “healthy skepticism.”  The intent is not to attack, shrug off or disrespect another person’s belief, but to take that belief seriously enough to probe it, question it.  In other words, Intuition and Reason don’t have to be held apart as conflicting opposites.  Yet, making a claim solely based on intuitive feeling needs to be open to serious, reasonable investigation (in my opinion, every claim to “mystical” experience should be held to this test).

Concerning astrology, Popova quotes Sagan again from an interview in Rolling Stone in 1980:

“[Astrology is] like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group, as long as someone is an Aquarius, Virgo or Scorpio, you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.”

By the way (and hold your horses, or horseshit), an array of personality typologies could be seen in this light.

I’ve had a few close friends who were deep into astrology.  One did my zodiac chart.  I learned nothing, zero, zilch.  Maybe I needed to believe?  Living in the Bay Area, at the epicenter of the New Age smorgasbord, I was very familiar with the assortment of just about any “spiritual innovation” that would appear from out of the babble or blue.  A popular free magazine was Common Ground, with articles and ads for things like psychic readings, tarot, sexual surrogates, a shitload of colonic cleansing and “spiritual counseling”—sometimes with real spirits included.  I wondered why no one advertised psychic colonics!  (I’m taking orders if you leave your card number)

Another friend of ours, a minister in her forties, was dying of cancer.  Desperate for a cure, she tried many “alternative” medicines, treatments, prayers, foods, spending large sums to travel half-way around the world to faith healers and psychic surgeons.  Nothing worked.  She died.  Does this disprove any of those things?  Of course not.  But we could see that her faith, the prayers of others (including a wide circle of clergy), “miracle” cures and all of it didn’t work in her case (and, in countless other cases).  Do they “work” for others?  Are others healed by any of these things?  Maybe.  Yet much of the time the evidence is sketchy and we’re left with second-hand or hearsay testimony.     

Some people who are dear to me believe wholeheartedly in homeopathic remedies though there is no scientific evidence they work any more than placeboes.  We can talk about the dangers of pseudoscience (not to mention the wasted money) but once a person chooses to believe, it’s hard to convince them otherwise.

How about ghosts, holy or otherwise?  Spiritualism has been around for many moons (and stars).  Some have felt them, seen them, communicated with them.  So they say.  After initially believing in seances, Harry Houdini became a famous debunker of the crude or sometimes sophisticated deceptions that duped people who desperately wanted to speak with departed relatives. 

The need to believe is powerful.

Speaking of appearing from nowhere, you may remember the old test of perception:  GODISNOWHERE.  The way you read that makes all the difference.  God is now here, or, God is nowhere.  This might be good to keep in mind when considering how folks piece the puzzle of their world together, the words they string together, connect and give meaning to.

A personal story.  I once believed there was a God in heaven, that Jesus was in my heart, that I was filled with the Holy Spirit, and I heard God’s voice in “His Word.”  I knew it was all true.  I knew it intuitively.  Yet, over a period of years, I realized through a process of baloney/horseshit/bullshit detection, that my intuition was incorrect, in error, it was wrong.

As mentioned earlier, pressing my point about confronting falsehoods and wild claims, one friend responded: “Who can judge?”  I said: “I hope someone can judge!”  This is where I bring out my own Shit-kit, kick the tires and challenge the argument that some wild claim “could be true.”  Well, it could be true that we are all imaginary beings in the mind of one great universal imaginary Being that may or may not resemble a Horse (disprove it, if you can!).  Some delusions are true, that is, they are truly delusional. 

Who can judge?  We all should. 

What is the purpose of wisdom, discernment, and that old pesky critical reasoning if we choose not to use them?  If nothing can be deemed “false” then is everything “true”?  We should never fear to ask the most challenging questions, calling out horseshit, or any other kind of excrement, when we detect it.  If we are not able or willing to detect the crap (scat if you prefer), we’ll probably step in it every time—and it’s not pretty to track through the house.

Finally, for now, if it looks like horseshit, smells like horseshit, piled right in the path in front of you, we can be fairly sure of what it is, and should say so.  We have to call nonsense nonsense.  Maybe we’ll change our minds someday, maybe it will make more sense … but come on!  There are too many things that are just plain crazy, nuts, wacko, dreamy (with no disrespect toward those with mental illness).

“I don’t know” is necessary, but isn’t sufficient.

An agnostic has the right to say “I don’t know, so I’m suspending judgment,” but that doesn’t let them off the hook for decision-making.  Otherwise “I don’t know” becomes the only “knowledge” we have left; intuition is all the understanding we fall back on.  Consider asking:  Which religion is true?  Are all religions true, or none?  Is there a God or Goddess?  Whose God is the real God?  “Gee, I don’t know” isn’t really an honest response; it’s certainly not a sufficient answer.

If someone is not willing or able to present cogent evidence, there is no reason to believe what they say.  “I had a wonderful feeling—a spiritual experience—watching the sunset,” is a nice statement, but there’s no way to express that beyond those words, which have zero meaning for anyone hearing that.  “Oh, I’ve felt that too,” isn’t a meaningful response, other than to exchange words about possibly similar feelings from possibly similar experiences.  

There are times we have to shake off the sleepiness, listen more intently, and ask ourselves:  Is that a plane, a train, the wind, or my breath?  

Let’s be honest, horseshit is horseshit.  When some things just don’t smell right, maybe they’re not.  

p.s.: Does imaginary shit smell?  Even an agnostic can answer that.

p.s. + p.s.:  If something doesn’t smell quite right to you here, let me know.  Just don’t tell me I’m full of it!

Chris Highland



Categories: AtheismTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. My spam filter recently has been full of offers for an herbal treatment for deafness. That’s like putting crystals in your car, when it runs out of gas. 😯
    I also received a glowing, first-person user review of Dr. X’s absolutely, positively guaranteed herbal cure for genital herpes. Surprisingly, it didn’t mention the Medical Nobel Prize that must have been awarded. 😳

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