On bullshit and the search for wisdom

(Reading time: 12 minutes / 2360 words)

Busting bullshit is a moral imperative. One cannot always bust every instance. For lack of time, or courage. Still, bullshit should be called out, because it pollutes discussion and opinion-forming, regardless of the tone adopted in its delivery.

This is an attempt, or, rather, an exercise, in that direction. A drop in the sea. And yes, I am also not immune from bullshit. It’s some time that on my bedside table there is this small (literally small!) book (Frankfurt, 2005). I don’t recall how I heard of it. But throughout the years I have been following Taleb, the theme has come up, multiple times. In fact, I realise there is a not so unextensive literature busting bullshit.

On the other hand, wisdom is spread everywhere, but can be hard to find - because it may be: classics, with the elderly (which I mention below), or sometimes also on the internet, just often hidden by or mixed within bullshit. Even if sometimes someone wants you to subscribe to their substack, for the promise of it.

And again, it is a path, trying to stay away from the one and closer to the other. Many things I could not become aware of without certain serendipitous chats, or meetings, or readings. It may seem obvious but so it becomes only a posteriori, in most cases. After all, in one of T. Terzani’s last books, he describes the path in a very similar way (search engines are useful, it’s from La fine è il mio inizio and it seems it is not yet translated into English). The path does not make sense on the way, but looking back it does, when there is enough road behind us.

This little, superficially insignificant anecdote, pushed me to at least try to distill and isolate some of the bullshit I have encountered out of its environment for a clearer view.


The anecdote Link to heading

Friends somewhere in northern Europe wrote to me a couple of days ago. They had one of those social media message exchanges related to a school field trip, being a specific instance of the general phenomenon of interaction over mobile phones.

I find these interactions interesting, and this one warrants a little attempt at understanding the context of it and what is at play, based on my recollection. I may not remember everything correctly. If I hear I’ve made any mistakes I’ll fix them. Please bear with me. I have more of a writing Verstopfung than anything else, anyway, therefore it won’t be too long.

So, they apparently asked something on the line of the bits below:

i) The request Link to heading

It would be nice for those who want to test [for SARS] kids before the school trip

In the country in question - like in most other Western ones - there is no formal process anymore in place, to test, trace, nor isolate. Thus, anything would be on a purely voluntary basis. This is also the case where I live, in fact. With all the limitations, they meant to have at least one layer of mitigation, confident that such a request would not cost much (if anything) to other parents. Particularly while with essentially no testing, SARS wastewater monitoring in the country was signaling a steep weekly increase.

ii) The replies Link to heading

Some of the parents, who were in the medical profession, responded to the request along these lines:

This is total bullshit and unrealistic. Covid has become an endemic virus. I don’t understand why honestly people still test and test themselves. It has zero consequences.

We presume the consequences above are meant as legal consequences of some sort, and “it” (has no consequences), is meant as the testing itself. This is in fact correct, as testing has in that country no legal effect anymore, i.e. people infected with SARS are welcome to go anywhere they wish to, maskless.

Here, the only thing that appears to have value is regulation. One does not test to have more awareness, or to spare someone else an infection with SARS, but rather because there is a regulation compelling us to test. This reasoning is along the lines of: If there is no law against drunk driving, I’ll rather cruise through a pedestrian zone while wasted. Asking to refrain from drinking before driving is just… “bullshit”.

Perhaps the health practitioner was referring to reduced efficacy of antigen tests in detecting SARS? Possibly. This would be the most benevolent interpretation, in fact.

If on the other hand they referred to health consequences, the statement is to say the least bizarre, particularly looking at e.g.;

They apparetly continued along those lines:

Keep your worries and thoughts to yourself and don’t share them in the chats. I have perfomed thousands of tests. Therefore I think I can judge that. And unfortunately such things must be addressed sometime. Who would like further explanations in addition, is cordially invited to write me also times personally.

iii) Dissecting the answers Link to heading

Below a small attempt to dissect the statements:

  1. This is total bullshit and unrealistic

The opening statement already tries to put off the question as - again, the term of the day - bullshit.

  1. Covid has become an endemic virus

The health practitioner seemed to mean endemic = why do anything about it?

This statement misses totally the point that something can be endemic and severe. This is key, as the initial question/proposal was motivated by having at least a single layer of mitigation.

  1. I don’t understand why honestly people still test and test themselves

This is an attempt to expose the request to test as worthless. This is also interesting as they show a utter lack of empathy which could be the reasons for my friends to actually ask in the first place.

  1. It has zero consequences

This statement is problematic, as it might refer (possibly related to the later derogatory statements), as said to:

  • Lack of relevant legal framework
  • Low sensitivity of antigen tests, thus of low value/impact
  • Worthlessness of testing, due to the perceived lack of severity whatsoever of SARS

It might in fact touch all three.

It does ignore - and this might well in good or bad faith - why actually the question was asked, i.e. to have at least a layer, yet imperfect, of mitigation.

  1. Keep your worries and thoughts to yourself and don’t share them in the chats.

This can be qualified as rude and not strictly factual.

  1. I have performed thousands of tests. Therefore I think I can judge that.

This is to justify the statements above, and add credentials (see fallacies below). No details are provided on why and how and in which context tests are supposed to be worthless.

  1. And unfortunately such things must be addressed sometime.

This is adding some paternalistic and derogatory aspects to the statement.

  1. Who would like further explanations in addition, is cordially invited to write me also personally**

This seems to be a late captatio benevolentiae of the rest of the group, and a statement to stress the qualifications of the author, that are supposed to validate any of the statements above. In fact, stating that one has performed thousands of test is a validation of the statement that the person has experience performing tests.

What about fallacies?

Some of those which might be applicable here (description linked):

And biases?


There is an additional aspect to it. The bullying. The person was writing rudely from a likely self-perceived position of - cultural, social class, income or whatever - superiority (see possible embedded biases and fallacies above).

Last but not least. The hostility and disprezzo for (some) others: That goes beyond the delusion of being not affected, as it “happens to others”, or - perhaps - “it does not cause any harm”. It was mentioned I think some months ago by A. J. Leonardi, and he did and does suffer abuse on a greatly larger scale: That resisting the “we all need to get SARS indefinitely” argument is punished with ostracism, to say the least.

(Almost) Finally, I mentioned earlier the elderly and the wisdom they often carry with them. In the West, we have sacrificed our elderly to this disease for the better part of the last four years. But that is a much longer discussion. The word count and reading time for this article are implemented, though, therefore I might well save this for sometime later.

Summary Link to heading

To close, we can identify in a small, compact package:

  • Bullying
  • Gaslighting
  • Disinformation
  • Lack of empathy
  • Mild sociopathy1?

This is a small-scale communication loop, most likely in a limited group, of - say - few tens of adults, presumably. Several of which might well be - within the already vast majority of the it’s-just-a-cold crew, positively impressed by the statements here briefly discussed.

As for my friends, I guess they did not make as big a fuss as I am making here, but they were not very amused.

Finally, the ironic thing is that they were called bullshitters by someone who was… bullshitting. And, as it is often the case, mixing reasonably true statements (“one is experienced in testing”, or presumably and benevolently interpreted as “tests are not so sensitive”) with ungrounded - but key - ones, such as “something is endemic, therefore OK”, this time more clearly meant as “you have to live with it. Come to grips with it and don’t bug us”.

The (current) context Link to heading

      “Don’t bug us”

Now, it might be obvious to quote the opening of one essay of H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. What is becoming meanwhile the strongest psychological process is denial, though. And denial not quite of the unknown but the very well known (see links below). Or - better said - very well documented.

Why did I write this? Why this exercise? Why does this matter?

I do not mean to be pedantic, and I might well also have included mistakes in my poor-man analysis of the anecdote. But the point is more general:

People are confronted with this sort of bullshit and abusive verbal or written expressions regularly. The fact that such things are said in good faith (ignorance, and/or denial), or bad faith is irrelevant. The message goes through and with many being fed or feeding themselves with denial, it is ubiquitous.

Social organization at other scales (groups, media, corporate, institutions) is subject to similar messaging, gaslighting, bullying of various types and intensity every day. I am not saying that one should not answer to rude attacks with robust wording. This might well be justified, when there is an attack (also, go look for Taleb’s favourite animal).

But bullshit handling is unpleasant and time consuming and its busting needs exercise. And although this might not be enough, it is my practice.

Thus, please, if you spot any inconsistency or inaccuracy, or have any feedback or critic, please do write me an email. I will consider to fix my writing and acknowledge your input.

Finally, it took few seconds, and some bloated ego to generate the anecdote that brought us here. It took more time for me to finally decide to set up this blog, to reorder the thoughts, to document and reference a minimum. Argumentation takes time and effort. This is a basic example of how difficult fighting any kind of disinformation is. People reading a dismissive statement from a medical professional (without knowing actual credentials of those involved) might be convinced, intimidated, or just reassured. Reassured that all is fine. That it is mild. AI-generated bullshit and AI-aided misinformation will play out to make things just worse, I bet.

I would like to quote a friend though, to close this piece, which loops again on wisdom, and a bit of hope:

“There is always another way”

Acknowledgements Link to heading

I am very grateful for the kind review of my ramblings, and the suggestions by ARM, VB, XR.

References Link to heading

(Most are not cited in the text, but this is not a paper, anyway)

Campos, C.; Prokopich, S.; Loewen, H.; Sanchez-Ramirez, D. C. Long-Term Effect of COVID-19 on Lung Imaging and Function, Cardiorespiratory Symptoms, Fatigue, Exercise Capacity, and Functional Capacity in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Healthcare 2022, 10 (12), 2492. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10122492.

Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Lopez-Leon, S.; Wegman-Ostrosky, T.; Ayuzo del Valle, N. C.; Perelman, C.; Sepulveda, R.; Rebolledo, P. A.; Cuapio, A.; Villapol, S. Long-COVID in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses. Sci Rep 2022, 12 (1), 9950. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-13495-5.

Lovecraft, H. P. (1927) Supernatural Horror in Literature, available online: 1, or 2

Pellegrino, R.; Chiappini, E.; Licari, A.; Galli, L.; Marseglia, G. L. Prevalence and Clinical Presentation of Long COVID in Children: A Systematic Review. Eur J Pediatr 2022, 181 (12), 3995–4009. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00431-022-04600-x.

Zheng, Y.-B.; Zeng, N.; Yuan, K.; Tian, S.-S.; Yang, Y.-B.; Gao, N.; Chen, X.; Zhang, A.-Y.; Kondratiuk, A. L.; Shi, P.-P.; Zhang, F.; Sun, J.; Yue, J.-L.; Lin, X.; Shi, L.; Lalvani, A.; Shi, J.; Bao, Y.-P.; Lu, L. Prevalence and Risk Factor for Long COVID in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review. Journal of Infection and Public Health 2023, 16 (5), 660–672. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jiph.2023.03.005.

A lot of reason, common sense, and wisdom are, in my view, and well before the pandemic on handles such as:

And for the topics touched above, e.g.:

  1. One might wonder: If the very vast majority of people share the carelessness, bordering in some cases open hostility, can it still qualify as sociopathy? ↩︎